Now that levels have gone...

Written by: John Viner | Published:
Photo: iStock

Former headteacher John Viner is working with schools to help them get to grips with life after the removal of levels.

I am currently delivering training on the future of testing and assessment for a national provider and get to meet teachers around the country. And, each time, the story is the same: we kind of get it but we are struggling. The truth of the matter is that most of us are currently struggling with the new expectations of assessment.

Since the Task Group on Assessment and Testing report of 1988, we have lived with this idea of a level, "to define one of a sequence of points on a scale to be used in describing the progress of attainment". To those of us who were puzzling out how to implement the first national curriculum, with its nine folders and multiplicity of attainment targets, the idea of a level seemed an alien construct. Years later the arguments still raged over whether levels should be age-related or age-independent, with some suggesting that they were "crude criterion-referencing", to quote Robert Skidelsky from his address to the Centre for Policy Studies conference in 1993.

As Professor Dylan Wiliam's paper, Level Best? (2001), made clear, more than a dozen years after their introduction, national curriculum levels sat uneasily with academics who were concerned that they were simply a best-fit that, were often inaccurate and did not really represent a child's true attainment – precisely the reasons that they have now been discarded.

However, for teachers – who have always just had to get on with implementing government policy – implementing levels became gradually easier until, a quarter of a century after their introduction, we feel the ground has fallen away. Levels may not have been perfect – but at least we knew where we were.

Switching to life without levels requires us to change our thinking. We have to understand that we have moved away from a criterion-referenced approach to a norm-referenced one. This is fundamentally different. We have moved away from pushing pupils into a framework that seemed to somehow indicate their attainment to the idea of consolidation before progression. And that will take some getting used to, especially when combined with the pressure of an inspection framework predicated on pupils making progress.

Why levels won't work

This is a logical and sensible argument. Because levels were an artificial construct that simply provided a set of criteria that described a pupil's approximate performance, they meant different things at different times. A pupil's writing level in one piece of work could differ from another simply because different criteria were present.

Then there was the trip-hazard of being "just in" a level – thank goodness the pupil was just in Level 4.
This led us to push pupils into the next steps of learning before they were ready, which is why progress for these pupils was often fragile. And finally, there was the test level versus the teacher's assessment. As Tim Oates, who chaired the Expert Panel, points out, just because a pupil got a lot of low value items right in a test and managed to pick up some high-value answers, doesn't make him Level 3.

It is this thinking that we are moving away from. The UK is the only nation where attainment is expressed in this best-fit way. For this reason, it simply will not do to try to apply the old levels to the new curriculum – they won't work – neither can we honestly devise our own levels to fit it. It misses the whole point. But, because it is sort of familiar, many of us will do our level best to set up the criteria we have lost.

Fewer things at greater depth

If there is one key message that emerges from the review of the national curriculum it is that we need to focus on less but do it better. Yes to broad and balanced, but no to an overcrowded curriculum.

This places the focus firmly on the second key message, which is that we need to adopt the approach of consolidation before progression. This is all about nailing the concepts – it is not about progress at any price where we force pupils to move on, so that we can show some notional degree of progress from a notional starting point.

The problem that this presents, immediately, of course, is that schools and teachers are automatically suspicious of a system that says that children should only move on when they are ready, when they know that they will be judged on the effectiveness with which those children can demonstrate progress. And this is precisely why we have to find ways to demonstrate progress but to do so in a way that links with the way that we use that assessment to help pupils to grasp the concepts they need to use.

Nailing the concepts

We have probably become so used to the trio of "knowledge, skills and understanding" that we have failed to discern the difference between them. Instead, we tend to conflate them and miss the crucial point that, while we can teach knowledge and skills, we cannot teach understanding. Understanding is what happens when the child is able to use the knowledge or skill they have learnt.

Dr Jo Saxton who, as a director of the Curriculum Centre, has been part of the debate around assessment, puts it this way: "Cognitively we can confirm understanding if something we know we have taught pupils and we know they can recall can be used by them in a different context from one they've been explicitly taught." That is pretty clear. But it's not levels.

This is why progress is inexorably linked with teaching and underlines the importance of knowing what knowledge or skills we want pupils to learn during a lesson, rather than what we want them to do. If we focus on the task and not the learning then how can we possibly assess the learning?

Towards a common language

One of the problems with the end of levels is that we find ourselves without a common language by which to explain the point a child has reached in their learning. The draft end-of-key stage descriptors, designed to help teacher assessment, offer us a useful framework. This is linked to the way in which the national curriculum, at least for key stages 1 and 2, is laid out in age-appropriate expectations.

If we take as our median line, the idea of working at national expectations then we can think about those who are more skilled as working above national expectations, with those who are moving into the next stage as working at mastery level. Then we can also apply the thinking to those working below age-appropriate expectations – often the target group – as working towards national expectations and those who are the least confident as working below national expectations.

This will enable us to have detailed conversations around a child's progress such as Billy is working at national expectations in his understanding of number, place value and calculation but is working towards that standard in his knowledge of fractions and measurement. He struggles with ratio, proportion and algebra and is working below national expectations whereas in geometry and shape, he is at mastery level. Who can argue that this is not as good as saying "he's Level 4 in maths"?

Recording progress

The end of levels remove our comfort blanket of tracking systems with their red, amber and green flags. For this reason some schools are being seduced by commercial packages that simply offer levels by another name. This may tick a box, but it misses the mark.

We need to invest in systems that will enable us to track the development of pupils' concepts. Some schools are designing their own systems but this is inevitably time-consuming and variable. The Department for Education (DfE) Innovations Fund winners offer some effective solutions. There is a developing preference among primary schools for "Learning Ladders". These seem to work well by showing the build-up of concepts.

While Innovation Fund winner, West Exe's Learning Ladders are attracting some interest and Sue Hickman's Climbing Frames are gathering traction, the current front runner seems to be Hiltingbury School's Learning Ladders (Hiltingbury actually declined the DfE fund money, preferring to go with a development partner). Learning Ladders enable pupils to take ownership of their learning by understanding their next steps while the online package allows parents to see how well their child is making progress.

Whatever recording solution schools adopt, now that we are shaking down with the new curriculum, it is important that we renew our thinking, appreciate the new focus on pupils' cognitive development and consign levels to the dustbin of history.

  • John Viner is a writer, trainer and consultant. He has a background of 28 years of successful primary headship.

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