Since the Education Reform Act of 1988, we have had in the UK a National Curriculum, comprised of a core set of knowledge and skills that all schools are expected to teach. Along with this curriculum, came the political desire for school accountability: a system of final summative assessments at the end of each Key Stage so that pupils’ learning could be assessed in a consistent manner and schools could be ranked in national league tables.
Thus were born ‘levels’. Each level in each curriculum subject was defined in terms of the skills and knowledge that pupils should acquire, organised into a hierarchy i.e. the skills ascribed as being in ‘level 3’ build upon those that are labelled as ‘level 2’, which in turn built upon level 1. Expectations were set. The standard expected at the end of Key Stage 1 (7-year olds) was Level 2; the standard at KS2 (11-year-olds) was Level 4.
And that’s pretty much been the system for the last 2 decades. The curriculum has been tinkered with from time to time, but the basic concept has remained the same.
The system has certainly had its critics – but criticism is mostly around the nature of league tables and the negative effects of high-stakes assessment, such as narrowing down the curriculum to focus only on those areas that are tested, and ‘teaching to the test’ rather than providing quality learning opportunities. These are very good arguments, but they are not the focus of this blog post. I’m just setting the scene here to give a bit of background to the situation we find ourselves in currently. As I say, high stakes assessment (‘SATs tests’ as they are often referred to) and league tables of results have attracted their critics. But what about the levels themselves? Are they the problem? This Government seems to think so. As they state here on their website, “this system is complicated and difficult to understand, especially for parents”. Really? Level 4 is more difficult than Level 3. Confusing? “It also encourages teachers to focus on a pupil’s current level, rather than consider more broadly what the pupil can actually do.” Well no, I would argue that is the high-stakes assessment and league table culture, which is based entirely upon pupils’ results in English and maths tests, that causes (in some cases) teachers to focus only on the level (in those subjects) and not on pupils’ broader achievements. Not the levels – the system.
It is worth knowing a little bit more background behind the steps that led up to this stance that the DfE has taken (especially as it makes a mockery of what they are suggesting instead). Many professional and academic bodies and individuals were consulted by the DfE shortly after taking office in 2010, regarding changing the curriculum and the system of assessment. I would recommend this response in particular from the Cambridge Primary Review. It highlights the tension between formative assessment (the everyday judgements that teachers make about how pupils are learning, which determine the feedback that they give to pupils and inform their planning of future learning experiences) and summative assessment (evaluating what has been learnt – usually at the end of a particular unit of teaching). These two sides to assessment can get in the way of each other. Formative assessment (often called ‘AfL’ – Assessment for Learning) is all about pupils understanding what is next for them in their learning journey and how they are going to get there. It does not depend upon pupils knowing what level they are working at – rather, it is about them understanding their next steps e.g. ‘I need to use more adjectives in my writing to set the scene effectively’ or ‘I need to check that my answer to a mathematical problem makes sense in the context of the problem’ etc. In other words, specific bits of learning. Not, ‘I am at this level and my target is to get to the next level’. However, the summative assessment agenda – SATs and league tables – have caused many teachers (and Ofsted inspectors) to become confused, such that it is not uncommon to find primary school teachers regularly marking children’s work and putting a level on it, as well as writing about what was done well and where the pupil could improve. This is contradictory to a wealth of research (from Butler, 1988, to Black & Wiliam, 1998, and so on) that demonstrates that when a pupil is given a numerical or ranked judgement of their work (mark out of ten, grade, level) and some constructive comments about how to improve, they do not take the comments on board. All they see is the mark, grade or level. This is therefore not good practice for day-to-day learning experiences, where the main objective of feedback is to help the learner move on in their learning.
So we have seen over recent years a culture of level obsession – pupils and their parents regularly being told what their level is, which is often detrimental to their learning and encourages a sense of ranking and comparison, as pupils (and their parents) quickly realise that other children in the class are on a higher level than they are. Apart from those at the top of the class of course, who can also be adversely affected if they start to develop the ‘fixed mindset’ of ‘I’m doing well because I’m clever’, which can lead to feelings of anxiety – ‘What if the next piece of work I do isn’t levelled as highly as this one? I wouldn’t be clever anymore…’ (See the fantastic work of Carol Dweck to explore this more.) So despite the fact that regularly assessing and telling children their levels undermines good formative assessment – and it is good formative assessment that helps pupils learn best – this is going on anyway, often because teachers think it is expected of them.
I suspect that it was this unfortunate situation, which bodies such as Cambridge Primary Review managed to explain to the DfE, that then led to the DfE’s knee-jerk response ‘We’re abolishing the levels”. Not a response of “Oh, I see now why the high stakes SATs tests and league tables might actually be a bad thing”, or even a response of “I see that some people are using levels in a way that they weren’t originally intended – we must put out a statement explaining how they should and should not be used” – no, just abolish them. With no idea at all how to replace them. A complete vacuum. The politicians still want accountability measures. They still want to be able to publish league tables. They just don’t know to measure what pupils have learnt, if not by using levels.
Until now. The Primary Assessment & Accountability proposals have now been published, open to consultation until October 11th 2013. What is the suggested approach to informing pupils and parents whether they have reached a good standard or not, to replace ‘Level 4’ or ‘Level 5’ etc? Telling them which decile they are in, based upon a national distribution. Is saying to a child “Well done, you’re in the top 10%” any better than saying “Well done you got Level 6”? Is saying to a child “You are in the bottom 10% of all pupils” better than saying “You have reached Level 3”?
I would argue that there is a fundamental difference, and that is this. As I stated earlier, the level descriptors mean something in absolute terms. They relate to a given set of knowledge and skills. Anyone can find out what these are, by either talking to teachers or using a search engine. It is theoretically possible for every child in the land to reach Level 4 at the end of primary school, if they all acquire the necessary learning. But of course (fundamentally obvious point coming up, but one often forgotten by politicians and the media) it is never going to be possible for all children to achieve in the top 10% or top 20% or any other measure that is defined relative to the distribution. (We all remember the classic line about how shocking it is that we still have almost 50% of pupils achieving below average – although I can’t actually remember who said it…)
So the proposed new system is one in which it is not possible for every child to be judged to have achieved at a predetermined acceptable level.
And, by implication, it will never be possible for all schools to be judged by Ofsted as having ‘good levels of achievement’, so Mr Wilshaw’s vision of ‘a good school for ever pupil’ will remain a mathematical impossibility.
It’s a desperate situation. There are many losers here. Ultimately pupils, but also teachers and headteachers. Who would want to be a leader of a school in difficult circumstances, in the knowledge that the odds are stacked against you – the chances are that, however hard you work, however hard your teachers and pupils work, you are unlikely to ever move from the bottom half of the national distribution to the top half, because everyone else is raising their game too. (See this blog post from Mike Treadaway of FFT for an eloquent exposition of this. Furthermore, this from the Headteacher at King Edward VI Grammar School, Chelmsford.) And who would want to be the pupil, told at age 11 that, however hard they tried, there are still 70% or 80% or 90% of pupils doing better?
So this is where the Unintended Consequences come in. The argument to get rid of levels may have arisen out of a very sensible and noble desire – a desire to get back to classrooms that are focused on learning – pupils acquiring life skills, developing as social human beings, collaborating with peers rather than competing against them. But it has led to this. One of the most divisive ideas this current Education Department has come up with yet (and there’s some stiff competition).
This is a call to arms. Whether you work in education or not, whether you have school-age children or not, I would urge you to respond to this DfE consultation. In my opinion, of the many consultations the DfE has launched during this term in office, this is the most important. We need to overwhelm them with the sheer volume of opposition. There is a lot at stake for our children. Even more than when they sit their SATs tests.