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.