DfE launches Commission on life after levels – a year after levels were axed...

Written by: Dorothy Lepkowska | Published:
Photo: iStock

More than a year since levels were axed, the government has raised eyebrows by setting up a Commission to help schools. Is it too little, too late? Dorothy Lepkowska reports.

The convening in February of the Department for Education's (DfE) Commission on Assessment Without Levels raised a few eyebrows.

Setting aside the fact that the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) had already undertaken a similar exercise more than a year ago, levels were scrapped last September. Was this not a case of shutting the barn door after the horse had bolted?

Some heads believe the Commission is needed. Dame Alison Peacock, executive head at The Wroxham School in Hertfordshire, said many schools felt "cut adrift and yet are still to be held accountable" by the government reform.

Dame Alison was a member of the NAHT's Commission and sits on the DfE's incarnation too. In her own school, levels have not been used for some years. This, perhaps, also makes her well-placed to advise on how it can be done.

She said: "After ministers announced levels were to be scrapped, schools weren't really sure how to react because nothing was put in their place, and there was a feeling that we should wait to see what happens. What we all need to do now is to recalibrate what assessment actually means in the classroom."

Dame Alison said schools should take heart from the engagement of Ofsted in the dialogue: "Ofsted is looking at its whole role in terms of the wider accountability agenda," she explained. "The optimism needs to be in close alignment between what Ofsted is looking for and what is expected from schools.

"Assessment should not be about getting teachers to justify their own existence. We need to ensure that assessment is serving the process of teaching, and building on what teachers are doing in the classroom. It should always be about enhancing the quality of the learning process.

"The Commission has only had two meetings so far, but we are united in our belief that we must reduce workload and anxiety by improving the quality of assessment. We plan to produce the best advice possible without being prescriptive. The new Commission needs to build on the NAHT (work) last year."

Announcing the decision in March, school reform minister Nick Gibb said Level descriptors had been intended to be used to sum up a pupil's attainment at the end of two key stages, but some schools had ended up using them as a form of on-going assessment.

He said the government wanted to reduce central prescription and believed teachers should have the freedom to develop formative assessment systems that best fit the needs of their pupils. Pupil assessment, therefore, should provide an accurate picture of a pupil's attainment and progress without placing a bureaucratic burden on teachers.

Mr Gibb added: "Levels have been a distracting, over-generalised label, giving misleading signals about the genuine attainment of pupils ... (which) resulted in a lack of trust between primary and secondary schools – clogging up the education system with undependable data on pupil attainment."

He added that the Commission would "help schools develop their own, more accurate assessment systems that truly show how a child is performing in the classroom".

Russell Hobby, NAHT general secretary, agreed that the DfE Commission needed to build on their work: "Because there are two members of the DfE's Commission who also sat on ours (the other is Sam Friedman from Teach First), we hope there will be some continuity."

Among the recommendations in the NAHT's report was that schools should adopt a consistent approach to assessment across the country, and that levels should be retained while new systems were being designed.
It also said that pupils should be judged against objective criteria, rather than ranked against each other, and that the curriculum should drive how assessment is carried out.

"What we would like to see the DfE's Commission do is to be more radical about reducing assessment for accountability and to use it formatively, to inform teaching," Mr Hobby said. "We are increasingly seeing a lot of dysfunctional use of assessment, with some schools using it to generate data to protect themselves from Ofsted and as a means of predicting performance.

"There remains a problem between accountability and assessment. We hope the latest Commission will push the government into doing something about the conflict it has created, with inspection and league tables on one hand and measuring progress and the desire for children to master the skills they need on the other.

"There remains a fear that we will get a fragmented system and no one will know what the assessment data means. Many schools are still waiting to see if levels will return, though there is no indication that a change of government would result in such a move." The DfE commission is due to publish its findings in July.

  • Dorothy Lepkowska is an education journalist.

Further information
DfE Commission on Assessment Without Levels:
http://bit.ly/1K8yW7B


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