Life after Levels: Stepping Stones

Written by: Jo Dormer and Joe Piatczanyn | Published:
Progress: Examples from Cranfield Academy's 'Stepping Stones'

Schools have had to come up with their own solutions to life after levels. Continuing our case study articles, Jo Dormer and Joe Piatczanyn describe the Stepping Stones method that their school has devised

At Cranfield CE Academy, children, all leaders of learning and parents are continually talking about "Stepping Stones".

In response to the government's assessment without levels initiative, and taking advantage of the "curriculum freedoms" given to academy schools, Stepping Stones are our pro-active response to a potentially confusing situation.

In reaching a workable, effective solution to assessment without levels (AWOL) the academy has been on a long and, at times, challenging journey, beginning with the creation of a whole-school objective: "How can we use new assessment guidance to improve teaching and learning?"

By committing to it as a whole-school focus, the development of a successful assessment system has had high priority among all staff throughout the academic year. The whole-school objective, split into the three core subjects, each had its own steps to success, timelines of development and suggestions for governor monitoring. The whole-school objective planned to find the "answers" to a great deal of the AWOL questions which have been discussed in schools across the country:

  • How does my school show progress in a world without levels?
  • What criteria will I use to assess learning?
  • How will I monitor progress in my own class?

The groundwork prior to the establishment of the whole-school objective was, however, plentiful – and significant to success in answering the questions detailed above. First and foremost was the development of Cranfield's "own principles of assessment", to which it was decided any AWOL system adopted must adhere to entirely.

The principles were developed in consultation with staff following attendance at professional study groups and using materials provided by the Department for Education and the National Association of Head Teachers. At the academy, these now include the following principles:

  • The system must show mastery of the subject.
  • The system must be a model of assessment of key objectives.
  • The system must monitor the progress of all groups of learners and provide information used by all leaders of learning to create next steps for pupils' learning.
  • Pupils need to know what they can already do, what they need to do next, and how they will achieve this.
  • Teachers must be able to effectively track each child's progress and attainment.
  • Teachers must have the ability to quickly identify where pupils are not progressing as quickly as their peers, and also identify those who are exceeding expectations.
  • Parents need to know their child's attainment related to age-expected "norms".
  • Senior leaders need to be reassured that the system of assessment allows comparison with national standards and national benchmarks.

Other efforts included the research of national exemplars and published assessment packages as well as comparisons to other "home-grown" systems in surrounding schools. Having explored the available options, the senior leadership team felt strongly that any system adopted should entirely marry with the taught curriculum and that therefore a home-grown system which achieves the aims outlined in their policy for assessment would be better for them. These are, to:

  • Ensure every child reaches their full potential as a result of a highly effective assessment policy, practices and procedures, and maintain the academy's high standards of pupil achievement and progress.
  • Enable teachers to plan effectively the next steps in learning for their class, for groups of pupils and for individuals and enable children to collaboratively plan their next steps in learning.
  • Provide parents with information about their child's attainment and progress so they can effectively support their child's learning journey at home.
  • Enable all stakeholders to make informed judgements about the quality of teaching and pupil attainment and progress.
  • Have an assessment system which places attainment and progress in context against nationally standardised criteria and expected standards.
  • Ensure the assessment system is inclusive and reflects the values-based ethos of the school.

The academy, an early years to year 4 lower school in Cranfield, Bedfordshire, is delighted by the success and response from all involved in their approach to the assessment without levels process.

Linking directly to the new Cranfield Curriculum, Stepping Stones are our "one-size-fits-all" response to ensuring accurate assessment of the Cranfield Curriculum to aid and enhance teaching and learning and ensure consistent, ambitious judgements on attainment and progress.

Fully justified alongside the Department for Education's Principles of Assessment, the new Stepping Stones approach to assessment and monitoring of attainment and progress is really rather simple.

Children's current levels of attainment and future expected progress takes place within routes of learning known as "pathways" for all core subjects. Each pathway derives directly from the year group's curriculum. Within each pathway, there are a series of non-sequential stepping stones – "I can" targets. Children "jump" from one to the other, achieving their Stepping Stones as they learn.
Instant advantages of the new approach were clear in September. A change of language has given all involved in the school a positive "break away" from the terminology associated with levels.

Furthermore, the direct link to the school's curriculum means they are teaching what they assess and assessing what they teach, ensuring an increased rate of progress and clarity in expectations for all stakeholders.

To form judgements on a child's attainment, Stepping Stones achieved (where mastery is evident) are counted and their total related to a given percentage of the subject's age-related expectations.

Staff use conversion grids to ensure that percentages are accurate, based upon the number of Stepping Stones in each subject's Pathway. This allows the forming of a judgement of "emerging", "expected", "exceeding" or "exceeding plus" – where a child is achieving 20 per cent or more of the Pathway above which is age expected.

Through "counting" a child's Stepping Stones, progress can now be numerically tracked, allowing thorough data analysis for all stakeholders. Expectations of progress within Stepping Stones Pathways are explicit to ensure rapid progress of pupils.

Now seven months into the new approach, the Stepping Stones are firmly embedded in the practice of teachers and teaching assistants, as well as for parents and of course the children. The pathways offer personalised learning journeys for each individual pupil, in addition to enhancing individualised target-setting.

With each pupil on the pathway that is right for them, every pupil's progress is celebrated and next steps easy to identify. Teachers also use them to plan for effective and targeted differentiation and to shape lesson intentions and criteria for success.

Parents are given copies at consultation evenings so that they understand where their children are and the next steps in their learning journey. To ensure parents are better able to understand assessment without levels, the academy has run workshops, allowing parents to reap the benefits of Stepping Stones. Consistency of approach in the local cluster is being encouraged, with training for trainee teachers and other schools taking place.

Visits from other schools are welcome, and we have enjoyed sharing the benefits of the system with colleagues. A wealth of resources has also been established on the back of the assessment system and Stepping Stones are visible within the school's daily life. In approaching the process of life after levels, we would recommend a great deal of professional interrogation, creativity and training in your journey to develop a system that is right for your school, that can justify itself against the DfE's Principles for Assessment, and that – most importantly – will enhance the teaching and learning in your school.

The future for assessment without levels at Cranfield is bright. Having challenged quick-fix and expensive packages, the school has driven itself through a challenging professional dilemma, striving to ensure the assessment without levels system established is right for Cranfield's high expectations.

  • Jo Dormer is deputy headteacher and Joe Piatczanyn assistant headteacher at Cranfield CE Academy in Bedford. Email them at

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