Saying goodbye to levels

Written by: HTU | Published:

Will Millard explores some of the new approaches schools are devising to replace curriculum levels

The Department for Education sent shockwaves through the schools sector in June 2013 when it announced that levels would be removed and not replaced.

The Key conducted a survey in November indicating that a majority of respondents felt the removal of levels would have a negative effect on schools’ ability to assess pupils’ progress. However, in speaking to school leaders recently, I have discovered a growing sense of excitement about the opportunities afforded by the removal of levels. Here, I share some of the new approaches that have been described to me.

Sam Hunter, headteacher of Hiltingbury Junior School in Hampshire, asked each of her subject co-ordinators in English and maths to break down the programmes of study in the new national curriculum into key skills and knowledge areas. Because these areas are based on the content of the new curriculum, the number in each subject varies. For example, mathematics contains 16, including “addition”, “subtraction” and “fractions”, while reading and writing each contain six.

The subject co-ordinators then designed “ladders” within the key skills and knowledge areas. The ladders identify year or key stage-specific expectations that the school calls “milestones”. Ms Hunter says the milestones are intended to be practical, and describe what a pupil will be able to do if, for example, he or she is meeting year-specific expectations within the “decoder” ladder, part of the school’s reading curriculum. The ladders are printed in booklets and class teachers sign each milestone when a pupil demonstrates the skills or knowledge it describes.

The school started using ladders in reading, writing and mathematics during the 2014 Spring term. Teachers have had to get to grips with a large amount of new subject content in order to use the ladders effectively, but it has been worth it. 

The single biggest benefit has been that the ladders provide feedback in real-time, describing what a pupil has achieved while simultaneously outlining his or her next-steps.

Consequently, every child in the school knows exactly what he or she has to do, in any given key skill or knowledge area, in order to make progress. Furthermore, the pupils love having milestones signed-off, which generates a real energy and excitement for learning.

The school has started using the ladders to report pupils’ progress to a pilot group of parents. The parents receive a copy of their child’s ladders, with a summative comment from the class teacher indicating whether the pupil is “working towards”, “working within”, “achieving” or “exceeding” the year or key stage-specific expectations in each skill and knowledge area. 

While parents understood the common language of levels, Ms Hunter says the pilot group has responded positively to the ladders. They find them more informative because they outline, in clear and precise terms, exactly what a pupil has achieved, and what he or she must work on in order to progress further.

Hiltingbury Junior also recognises progress and achievement in every aspect of a pupil’s school life. Pupils work to develop skills in WE CARE (working together, enthusiasm, creativity, ambition, reflection, and enquiry) during all curricular and extra-curricular learning. Each week, teachers submit examples of pupils demonstrating WE CARE to the headteacher so the school can celebrate these successes during assembly.

Pupils in the school’s Learning Council conduct lesson observations to give teachers feedback on how successfully their teaching is developing the WE CARE skills. This has been hugely popular: pupils love the sense of ownership it gives them and teachers use the council’s feedback to hone their planning. 

This term, Ms Hunter told me, pupils from the Learning Council are attending a governors’ meeting to explain how effectively the WE CARE skills are being promoted throughout the school. Assessment at Hiltingbury is therefore about far more than simply monitoring and reporting academic achievement, it is a process that helps pupils and teachers develop in all aspects of school life.

Meanwhile, Lisa Low, head of lower school at Notting Hill Prep in London, agrees that it is vital for teachers to support pupils’ holistic development. Pupils at her school know whether they are “developing”, “meeting” or “exceeding” age-related expectations in each subject. 

However, as part of both curricular and extra-curricular activities, teachers also help pupils develop “habits of mind”, attributes that enable learners to become resilient and independent problem-solvers.

Ms Low says that pupils receive formative feedback from their teachers as part of each lesson and this shows them how to continue making academic progress. But they also receive feedback that helps them develop their mindset and approach to learning. “We want our children to be thinkers and doers,” Ms Low said, “and the sooner you get them thinking about the attributes of high-quality learning, the sooner they’ll start doing it.”

Stephen McKernan, head at St Edward’s Junior School in Gloucestershire, believes assessment must help teachers, parents and the pupils themselves to see the progress being made over time. The school does not rely on levels to do this. Teachers provide detailed qualitative feedback on pupils’ classwork and homework, outlining the child’s next steps in learning.

Pupils’ progress in each subject is reported to parents using a four-point scale, with a “4” indicating a learner is making excellent progress, and a “2” activating an action plan for improvement. Mr McKernan believes the system works well because it enables teachers, pupils and parents to assess whether the progress being made over time is appropriate. 

He said national curriculum levels can be reductive; a child may make excellent progress in a subject without necessarily moving up a level. Equally, a child who has made several sub-levels or levels of progress in a subject may nonetheless not have achieved what he or she ought. 

The four-point system enables teachers at St Edward’s to provide a judgement on a child’s achievements, relative to what they and the parents know that child is capable of achieving.

• Will Millard is a senior researcher at The Key, a national service supporting school leaders and school governors.

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