Monthly Archives: July 2014

The Level 4b myth

The current government has made no secret of its intention to “raise standards” in the curriculum, and to expect higher attainment at the end of Key Stage 2. We have been told that the old Level 4 threshold was simply not demanding enough, and that from 2016 the new floor thresholds will be for 85% of children to reach the new higher standard.

Importantly, we were also told that the new higher standard would be broadly similar to a 4b under the current system. Now, setting aside the fact that 4b doesn’t really exist, this already meant – as Warwick Mansell pointed out in his excellent NAHT blog – that around 1/5th of schools would then fall below that threshold.

However, what has never been fully explained is how this new ‘level 4b equivalent’ will be arrived at. The floor standards will be based on the percentage of children attaining a scaled score of 100 or greater on the new tests. In theory this ought to represent attainment in line with expectations; that is, meeting the attainment targets set out in the curriculum. Only, of course, with the new attainment targets that simply means knowing/doing everything that’s set out in the Programme of Study.

In that case, it ought to be clear from the new Programmes of Study that the expectations are broadly in line with the old Level 4 attainment targets, with occasional increases to reflect the raising of the bar from ‘scraping a Level 4’ to achieving a secure Level 4.

Is it quite clear from a comparison of the old attainment targets and the new Programmes of Study that this is simply not the case. Below are three documents in which I’ve compared the three core subjects Programmes of Study against the old attainment targets in detail. In each case it is clear that the new Programmes of Study are significantly more demanding.

The Level 4b Myth – English

The Level 4b Myth – Maths

The Level 4b Myth – Science

When I started to write these documents, I broke the old Level 4 attainment targets down into separate statements, and then drew comparisons. In fact, on reflection, I’d have been as well to take the level 5 statements, since the new Programmes of Study for Y6 are far more akin to the old Level 5 content. Take this highlighted example for Level 5 Number & Algebra:


I have highlighted those statements which match the new expected outcomes for Y6. In fact, the only statement which isn’t highlighted is about calculator use. Likewise, this Level 5 statement for Writing:


In fact, the Level 6 matches up to much of the new Y6 content:

It certainly seems unfair to argue that the new expectations are in line with Level 4b. There is clear evidence of a substantial rise in expectations at KS2 (for which, no doubt, the DfE would make no apology), but it certainly isn’t reasonable to state that it is a rise to the middle of the previously-expected band.

Of course, there is every possibility that the department will ensure that the thresholds for the new tests will be sufficiently low for them to be able to indicate equivalence to 4b by percentage terms – but that will do nothing to help schools with assessment and tracking towards end-of-key-stage outcomes. Yet another concern of the scoring system being completely unknown until after the tests are taken.

How many schools could reasonably expect 85% of their students to reach this new higher standard? If – as I suspect – the new standard is something closer to the current level 5, then how many schools are achieving anything close to this amount? Warwick Mansell found that around 1/5th of schools were failing to attaing the 85% L4b+ standard. By my estimates from the most recent performance tables exactly 6 schools had 85% or more of pupils achieving L5+ in all three subjects. Even by reducing the requirements to 75% achieving L5+ only 13 schools meet the grade.

Something here has got to give. Either the floor standard, or the way in which attainment is judged will need to be lowered if the floor threshold of 85% achieving 100+ is mean anything.

There are still many unanswered questions!

The best of intentions…

I’m worried.

I’m worried that people have got so used to rubbishing decisions made by the DfE, and so used to each decision being accompanied by propaganda rather than explanation or evidence, that the decision to scrap levels has been seen by too many schools as a problem rather than an opportunity.

I have gone on record saying that I didn’t think levels were such a bad thing, but I also stated quite clearly that the flaw of the system was in their use. What worries me now is that it is the misuse of levels that school leaders seem so desperate to cling to. I am speaking largely of primary schools here, although doubtless there are some secondary schools doing the same.

What was wrong with the levels was the way they were used to attempt to record progress too frequently; that they were subdivided in meaningless ways; that there was no link between what had been learned, and the scores that were produced. They had become a system for tracking, rather than for assessment. [See also: Tracking ≠ Assessment]

What seems to be happening now in too many places is that schools are looking for systems to replace the tracking systems, without paying attention to the reason the experts suggested scrapping levels in the first place. I’m not talking about the nonsense spouted by the department, but rather the words of the Expert Panel which first suggested scrapping levels.

The Expert Panel’s report described,

“an essential weakness in our system, namely, that current ‘generalised’ reporting using levels obscures the fact that too great a proportion of pupils fail to attain elements of the curriculum that are vital for the next phase of their education.” [para 8.26]

Their explanation for the suggestion of scrapping levels is clear;

“We thus emphasise the importance of establishing a very direct and clear relationship between ‘that which is to be learned’ and all assessment (both formative and ongoing, through to periodic and summative). Imprecise Attainment Targets and the current abstracted, descriptive ‘levels’ are of concern, since they reduce the clarity of this relationship. [para 7.4]

“We are therefore of the opinion that Attainment Targets in the presently established level descriptor form should not be retained.” [7.5]

As is their suggestion for how assessment could be improved:

Attainment Targets should then be statements of specific learning outcomes related to essential knowledge. [7.6]

This seems to me a sensible approach. If everything we know about the value of assessment and feedback is true, then we need to shift away from measuring progress in a form that suits Excel, and towards one which establishes “a very direct and clear relationship between ‘that which is to be learned’ and all assessment

It is for that reason that I derived the Key Objectives from the broad curriculum content in KS1 and KS2. It’s not a perfect solution, but it allows assessment to be directly linked to some of the key elements of the programme of study.

What I fear is the number of schools who are moving towards systems which focus on the counting of points, or the increasing addition of vaguely-described steps or stages to move through. The value of data has become so ingrained in our professional culture that we have begun to value the data more than the information that it is intended to represent.

This has led to an increasing number of schools looking for systems which will produce 3, or 6 measurable steps in a tracking system each year so that ‘progress’ can be judged each half term. This need for trackable data, rather than meaningful information has become so routine that nobody bats an eyelid at the mention of it. The measure has become key, rather than the learning.

Of course, if the DfE had listened to its experts properly, then we might have had a clearly set-out curriculum which presented the programme of study as a descriptive text, with clear and measurable outcomes set as the attainment targets. Unfortunately, it seems that that would have taken too long to be rushed through in a single parliament and so was abandoned.

The removal of levels was one of the few recommendations made by the Expert Panel that was actually acted upon by the DfE. What worries me is that its benefits have been lost in among the general dislike of the curriculum changes and all we’ll end up with is the very worst problems of level amplified.


If you haven’t previously read the Expert Panel’s report, it is well worth reading. It offered some excellent advice to the government on creating a truly world-class curriculum. Sadly too few of its recommendations were heeded.

Primary Curriculum Resource Pack

Over the past year I have tried to create and collate resources which might be useful for primary schools rolling out the new curriculum. Many of these have been shared on this blog, and also on my website.

To try to make it easier for schools and teachers to get the key resources, I have now compiled the 12 main documents into a single download. The zip-file pack contains:


  • Curriculum overview for Years 1 to 6 for all subjects
  • Blank Word Document template for schools to create their own jigsaws (perhaps to share with parents on their websites)

Changes Document

  • A detailed booklet breaking down the changes in each of the core subjects by year group, comparing learning objectives against the primary frameworks for English and Maths, and the QCA plans for Science.

Progression documents

  • One document each for Reading, Writing and Maths showing all the National Curriculum objectives organised into strands and across year groups so teachers can see a clear progression in each area.

Key Objective booklets

  • One booklet each for Reading, Writing and Maths showing key objectives for each year group (ranging from 15 to 30 objectives per year group). These are intended to help make assessment and tracking more manageable.

Assessment tracking grids

  • One spreadsheet each for Reading, Writing and Maths allowing teachers to track progress against the key objectives for each year group, and presenting clear colour-coded indications of attainment across the cohort.

The full pack of resources can be downloaded from here:

New Primary Curriculum Resource Pack (approximately 5MB)


Key Objectives Assessment Grids

Just as term ended, Tim Clarke (@tim_jumpclarke) sent me an excel spreadsheet he had created to record assessment against the key objectives for Maths and Writing and Reading.

mathskosheetAfter a few emails and a bit of tweaking, we’re releasing what will hopefully be a useful tool for schools choosing to use the Key Objectives approach. For each subject there is a spreadsheet covering all year groups (although it would, of course, be possible to combine sheets from different files to put, say all the Y5 pages into one document).

For each subject and year group, there is a list of objectives and a grid into which the numbers 1, 2 or 3 can be entered (representing, say ‘Working Towards’, ‘Achieved’ and ‘Exceeded’, or whatever such terminology as you choose to use). The cells change colour, and importantly the summary at the foot of the column does too, to represent the number of points scored. The percentage values for these can be set for your school. (The default is that 50% of points awarded turns orange; 75% turns green)

The files can be downloaded from here:

NC 2014 Mathematics key objectives markbook

NC 2014 Writing key objectives markbook

NC 2014 Reading Key objectives markbook

(The booklets of key objectives are available on this page)

For those schools considering a mastery approach to mathematics, I have also created an adapted version into which the value 2 is deemed to be “mastered”. The totals at the bottom of each column in this case calculate the number of objectives which have been deemed to be mastered, changing the colour according to the percentage of objectives mastered (rather than just by an average of point scores). This version can also be downloaded:

NC 2014 Maths Mastery objectives markbook

Primary Assessment: Assessment Innovation Fund winner reviews

When the DfE first announced its Assessment Innovation Fund, I began to wonder whether any schools would yet be in a position to share an assessment scheme for a new curriculum that had only been in the public domain for a few months. Fortunately enough schools were able to start the process, leading to 9 being chosen to disseminate their work.
Only three of those schemes are intended for use in primary schools, although of course some of the secondary and special schemes are likely to be adaptable.

At this stage, only some elements of each of the schemes have been released, but as Ofsted release their views on how assessment without levels will be tackled in inspection, I thought it timely to offer some sort of review of what is on offer.

Learning Ladders (Hiltingbury Junior)

NB: Since the time of Writing, Hiltingbury have withdrawn from the funded AIF scheme, although the materials are still available via the link below.

This scheme focuses on the core subjects of Reading, Writing and Maths, offering booklets of objectives linked to the new National Curriculum, organised into categories, and then graded by year group. The Reading and Writing booklets are already available, designed to be printed on A4 and covering the whole of KS1 and KS2. I understand that adapted separate booklets for younger and older pupils will be available later.

Writing Ladder exampleAgainst each objective (or “rung”) are three boxes to be signed/dated by the teacher when a child has shown that they have met the objective. The school suggests that once the objective has been signed three times then it can be considered to be ‘achieved’.

The booklets have been professionally produced with robot characters in both colour and black & white versions, allowing schools to conceal the year-group labels (not to mention saving on colour copying costs!)

The school has also entered into the partnership with SchoolExplained to produce an online system both for adapting the booklets, and for recording assessment online. This will be sold to schools from around £700

When considered against the ‘7 questions‘ test it fares very well, particularly in its usefulness for sharing with children. It also does a good job of keeping objectives to a manageable number, although it remains to be seen if they’ve done the same for maths. Perhaps my only concern is the stipulation of seeing things three times. This is a common approach in primary schools with APP and I’ve always found it a touch too formulaic. Sometimes 3 times is not enough, sometimes it’s an excessive demand. I’d prefer to see objectives simply left as un-highlighted until the teacher decides they’re achieved, or perhaps just a two-stage process of working on/achieved?

More information and the free booklets can be found at

Skills Passport (Hillyfield Primary)

The Hillyfield scheme appears to focus on the foundation subjects, which is likely to be a lesser concern for primary schools in the immediate future, although the information released suggests that maths may also be covered.

Skills Passport exampleAs with the Learning ladders, the intention is to provide a single booklet for all students throughout the compulsory primary years to record progress across subjects. In this case, rather than rungs on ladders the skills are set out in a passport style to be stamped by the children once they have been achieved.

The initial drafts of the passports have been made available and are not as attractive as the Hiltingbury Learning ladders. However, they are in editable Word format, and so could be adapted to each school. They include some useful features such as a glossary of vocabulary for subjects. Perhaps because these are intended for foundation subjects, the objectives are only organised by Key Stage rather than year group, although if it has been adapted for core subjects then this may be different. It isn’t clear from the fund information provided whether core passports will be created.

As with Hiltingbury, the school has said that it intends to make an online version available in due course. However, as Sam Hunter of Hiltingbury Junior has stated: that’s an expensive operation not easily funded by the £10,000 AIF grant.

When considered against the ‘7 questions‘ test it fares very well, particularly in its usefulness for sharing with children. It also does a good job of keeping objectives to a manageable number. I did notice that the objectives in the current passports are not as clearly linked to the new National Curriculum content, although again in the case of the foundation subjects this is much harder to do.

It would be interesting to see how this model could be adapted using the key objectives documents I have set out for Writing and Maths.

The first sample booklet is available to download from:

Learning Ladders (West Exe College)

Another ladder offer, this time from a secondary school. According to the DfE release the school has collaborated with primary schools to create a cross-phase system. However, at this stage it seems that only Secondary materials have been released.

West Exe Ladder modelThe model is very different from the Hiltingbury ladders, focussing more on a link to Bloom’s taxonomy. It appears that the intention is to provide a common format for ladders for each subject and key stage. This suggests that subjects will each be broken into 6 levels across the key stage, ranging from ‘Remembering’ to ‘Creating’. Criteria for each level are based on existing materials and grade criteria.

The model also shows individual assessment grids, although again these are clearly aimed at KS3/4 at present. It’s not clear how easily this model could be adapted to suit work at primary level, nor how the criteria could link clearly enough to the National Curriculum, particularly for content-heavy subjects such as mathematics.

The documents clearly avoid the meaningless subdivision of content to an extent, although there is a risk that the reliance on Bloom’s taxonomy could lead to a focus on “creating” at the expense of the important skills of “remembering” and “understanding”. It’s also not entirely clear how well this model could work at primary level. These grids have clearly been designed for able readers as would be reasonable to expect of most secondary students – it remains to be seen whether the partnership managing this model manage to produce a useful and effective approach that would work in primary schools.

First release information from the West Exe model is available at

Information about assessment systems is being collated in various places, including the useful website