Monthly Archives: June 2013

Is the new Primary Curriculum about to be derailed?

A couple of weeks ago, I published a blog following an email discussion with the DfE which outlined the nonsensical situation that the cohort completing Key Stage 2 in 2015 will – according to current plans – be taught under the new National Curriculum for the year 2014-15, and then assessed against the old on in May 2015. That blog has been viewed over 2000 times, and was today reported in the Guardian Education Education in Brief column.

I had, in fact, tried to get clarity on this matter from the department several times. One of my emails, originally via the TES DfE page, has only now received a response, stating:

“Really sorry this isn’t answered yet. Legal team are involved!”

And that’s it.

And I got to wondering: would such a situation even be legal? Is that perhaps what is holding up the response? Has somebody at the DfE realised that directing schools to teach one Programme of Study, but then assessing another might not actually be legally permissible?

I’ve tried to plough through the detail of the Education Act 2002 (which as far as I can tell would be the relevant legislation) to find out more, and at first read section 87 of Part 6 which states:

In respect of the first, second and third key stages and (subject to section 86) the fourth key stage, the Secretary of State may by order specify in relation to each of the foundation subjects—

(a)such attainment targets,

(b)such programmes of study, and

(c)such assessment arrangements,

as he considers appropriate for that subject.

It seemed that maybe as Secretary of State, Mr Gove might have free rein over what to include in the curriculum and the tests regardless. However, on further investigation I noted that the opening paragraph of Part 6 defines assessment arrangements in the main key stages as:

the arrangements for assessing pupils in respect of that stage for the purpose of ascertaining what they have achieved in relation to the attainment targets for that stage;
(my emphasis)

So it would appear – to this untrained eye – that actually it may not be possible for the old assessment arrangements (based on the old attainment targets) to remain in place if a new statutory National Curriculum were to come into force, since they would no longer be ascertaining achievements in relation to the attainment targets (even with the new almost non-existent attainment targets!)

I wonder if maybe that’s why the DfE’s legal team are involved. It’ll be interesting to see if there’s a way around this: I don’t think disapplication for another year would quite cut it.

Sorry… I’m a Primary School teacher… and I don’t mind levels.

I happen to think that National Curriculum levels are okay. There, I said it.

Not perfect, but not quite the work of the devil, either. It’s true that their use has too often become corrupted, that in too many schools they are too often a driver rather than a measure, and that they have their failings. But in among all the cheering and shouting about their demise, it strikes me that too little attention has been paid to the reasons for that.

The Attainment Target levels are broad and relatively vague. That was probably deliberate. When you’re only using them to judge progress over periods of two to four years, a best fit approach with broad bands makes perfect sense. The problem comes when you try to use them once a term, or worse, once a week or once a lesson!

But nobody required that. The National Curriculum did not specify it. The data collection wonks at the DfE did not demand it. That came about because of the need to demontrate progress. The need to show Ofsted that regular tracking took place. Rather than being at risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, we’re at risk of scooping up the baby, launching it out the window, and finding ourselves trying to use the dirty bathwater again.

The problems with levels are nothing to do with the levels. They are to do with the demands of Ofsted, the pressure of high-stakes testing, the nature of the assessment and tracking beast! A primary school in my authority has an Ofsted report which notes that currently pupils’ progress is checked only termly, and that it ought to be more often. The implication here is very clear: not that teachers are not regularly assessing children’s achievements and adapting their planning accordingly, but rather that data about such assessments isn’t produced frequently enough.

So, you can scrap the levels all you like, but if Ofsted still demand a six-weekly score, then what of it?

And to bang on an old drum of mine: it’s different in primary schools. I well understand that a secondary specialist of Art probably has a far greater range of tools and understanding at his or her fingertips to offer advice and guidance to his or her students about improving their work. I’m certain that with the existing framework of GCSE examination grades and whatever later replaces it, there is plenty of scope for building an assessment framework that builds towards that end goal without a separate structure of levels. That, frankly, is a matter that could much better have been resolved in 1994 with Dearing’s review.

But what of primary schools? What of the primary teacher with an Fine Art degree and one year’s on-the-job training who suddenly gets moved from teaching Writing in Year 3 to teaching it in Year 6? Or changes school or authority? Now, with apparently no common framework to even begin to discuss progress and outcomes, what structures to support them? Surely the solution to the current challenges of consistency cannot be simply to remove any attempt at achieving it?

Of course levels have their problems, but to say that they are problematic, that they need to be replaced, but to offer no structure within which to achieve that is frankly reckless. What’s more, with the doubtless on-going demands of floor standards and attainment league tables at the end of Key Stage 2, and the evident desire of Ofsted to have excessively frequent sets of numbers and letters to fill spreadsheets, what hope for a real and meaningful change in primary school assessment?

Of course, many of those who are celebrating the demise of the level are also those who repeatedly kick the quivering body of APP. I don’t blame them – it could be an unwieldy tool at best. But look again at the new National Curriculum and ask how long it will be before the old APP highlighter finds itself in full use across the 160 pages of primary content.

I sometimes wonder if there were onlookers at 1649, watching the execution of Charles I and wondering if all might not be quite as rosy as it seemed. Certainly this is one primary teacher who thinks that maybe our commonwealth of assessment might soon present as many problems of its own. Perhaps we’ll find that our experimental interregnum doesn’t turn out to be all that we hoped!


Also worth a read on this topic: Chris Hildrew’s blog: Assessment without Levels.

The current curriculum nonsense!

Imagine, if you will, the teacher of a mixed-age class in a rural primary school. As with many rural schools, she might have children in Years Four, Five and Six all in one class. There are always challenges across such a range, particularly with Y6 students facing NC testing each year, but as with many rural schools, this teacher works her magic every year.

Now imagine the educational landscape for this practitioner in the years to come.

At present, she teaches from a broad spread of the KS2 National Curriculum (1999) on rotation to meet the needs of her students – although the ICT curriculum has been disapplied. Perhaps she is meant to be doing something substantially different about that, but it isn’t clear what yet.

From September, the whole national curriculum detail will be disapplied for her new Year 4 children. However, the Year 5 and 6 children will still need to be taught the core subjects based on the old curriculum because the new KS2 assessments won’t come into play until after they’ve left primary school. Except the bit about calculators. We’ll ignore that apparently.

So, half a statutory curriculum for 2/3 of the class… and hope for the best with the rest.

Now skip forward to September 2014. All three year groups of children must be taught the content from the new National Curriculum (which we don’t know the detail of yet). But, strangely, the Year 6 children will still be assessed as if they were taught the old curriculum (minus the calculators) when it comes to May 2015.

Are you with me?

Of course, in this year she’s got to teach the Y4 children about Vikings, Saxons & Normans – and hope that they’ve met the Romans while they were in Y3. But the Y5 children need to be learning about the later medieval period and the Tudors so that they’re ready to do the Stuarts in Year 6. Presuming that they somehow picked up the Celts somewhere along the way. And if they’ve done the Victorians already, well they’re just going to do them again in Y9. And let’s hope that Year 4’s don’t overhear the stuff about Tudors because if they do then they won’t absorb the chronology properly. Meanwhile, of course, the Year 6 children will already be racing on through the Stuarts, alongside cramming in the whole of the new maths curriculum to meet whatever yet-to-be-decided assessment arrangements they come up with.

Oh, and let’s not forget that that teacher needs to make sure that all of her curriculum information is available on the school website.

And this is the DfE’s sense of manageable reform?

DfE’s pace of change is too fast for… the DfE!

You know that the pace of change from a department is too rapid, when it cannot keep up with itself.

Ironically, it is of course the long-drawn out process of National Curriculum drafting that has left us in a position where the finalised documents won’t actually be available until less than a year before they are due to be taught. Now, a year may seem a long time in politics, but it is no time at all when it comes to overhauling, planning and preparing an entire school curriculum. And it seems it is also insufficient time for the DfE’s testing arm – the Standards & Testing Agency – to put in place new assessments.

So, we’re left in the odd situation where a new National Curriculum is due to be in place from September 2014, but new assessment arrangements for KS2 will not be ready for nearly 2 years after that. One might presume that this would imply a staggered start was required for the curriculum – a point I queried directly with the DfE. Today I received an email containing the following clarification:

“Thank you for contacting us about what will be assessed in the National Curriculum tests from 2014. The tests must reflect the current statutory curriculum only, I can confirm that we cannot use anything from the draft curriculum as a basis for test content until 2016 at the earliest. As you mention in your message to us, this will mean that students in the ending Key Stage 2 in 2015 will be taught under the new curriculum for the academic year 2014-15, but assessed under the old curriculum in 2015.”

Several things strike me from this:

  1. If the tests must reflect the ‘current’ National Curriculum, why are we left in a situation where the current Year 4 cohort will, on reaching Year 6, be taught (at least according to statute) a different curriculum from that on which they will be tested?
  2. This email says “2016 at the earliest”. Does that mean potentially another cohort or two might face a similar ‘anomaly’?
  3. The DfE’s consultation in February said that a new consultaton on primary assessment would be issued shortly. It’s not been 4 months. Will further delay to that mean even more years of this nonsense?
  4. Does the fact that the election date is fixed for 2015 have any bearing on the Departments determination to force through a curriculum for which neither schools nor the STA have time to prepare, I wonder?
The full content of the email exchange is here: NCemail