Monthly Archives: September 2014

Levels as a common language? It seems not.

One of the arguments that often comes up for maintaining levels is that everyone understands them (even parents) and so we have a “common language”. To test this theory I took four statements from the old Writing attainment targets and asked people to say what level they thought they came from. I chose writing because all writing is now teacher-assessed at KS2, and so it seems that it would be the area that teachers could reasonably be expected to know best. So, how did people do in my fairly unscientific survey?

Statement 1: Handwriting style is fluent, joined and legible.
question1Actual level: Level 4

Around 60% of people got this right. Perhaps it’s reasonable that the figure wasn’t too high, given that handwriting tends to be less of a factor in most people’s assessments.

Most underestimated it, suggesting that we perhaps have slightly higher expectations for our students than the National Curriculum does! Or at least, that teachers are aiming high for their students.

Statement 2: Simple and complex sentences are organised into paragraphs.
Actual level: Level 5

Again, 60% of responses thought it was a level 4 criteria. Only 1/5th correctly identified that paragraphs are actually only required for national curriculum level 5.

This is probably a confusion caused by the widespread use of APP and other criteria which don’t quite match up to the original attainment targets, it seems.

Statement 3:  Full stops, capital letters and question marks are used correctly, and pupils are beginning to use punctuation within the sentence.
question3Actual level: Level 4

Given that Level 4 is the core business of upper Key Stage 2, and punctuation is a key element of writing, it would seem that this should score very highly.

In fact, 3/4 of respondents thought it was a level 3 criteria, presumably because they’re used to using a wider range of punctuation in writing with their students.

Statement 4: Paragraphs are well constructed and linked in order to clarify the organisation of the writing as a whole.
question4Actual level: Exceptional Performance (beyond Level 8)

It’s fair to presume that most primary teachers wouldn’t be too familiar with statements of this high level. That said, it seems rather surprising that a large majority thought that this statement that is intended to describe exceptional performance was considered to be the norm for around 1/3 of 11-year-olds each year. Perhaps this system isn’t as clear as people like to think.

So, far from a common language, it appears that we’ve actually got a vague and unhelpful set of guidance that few people have fully grasped.

It’s time to move on!


Five myths about the old National Curriculum levels

So here we are, four weeks into the new National Curriculum and what’s everyone doing with assessment? In primary schools, it seems that the ostrich approach is the most popular. The temptation to stick with what we know is understandable, but I want to clear up some of these common myths about the old levelling system.

Myth 1: The government set out the assessment programme for schools

Plenty of teachers are concerned that the DfE is no longer going to tell schools how it should assess progress during the Key Stage. In fact, it never did. There was never any statutory requirement for schools to use levels, much less sub-levels, to track progress during the academic year. In fact, the only statutory requirement was to assess using whole levels at the end of Key Stage 2 (and admittedly later using 2c/2b/2a at KS1). Everything else schools did using optional tests and APP and the like was not legally required. Of course, Ofsted expected schools to be tracking progress, and levels worked as a way of doing it, but it would have been perfectly legal to create another system. So in fact, the legal situation hasn’t changed; all that has is the clarity that schools are now free to choose their own approaches to suit their own curriculums.

Myth 2. Parents understand them

I think this is a common misunderstanding of what it means to understand the levels. It’s probably true to say that parents had come to understand the progression of sub-levels (i.e. that 4c comes above 3a, but below 4b) and perhaps even the expected ranges (i.e. that a Y4 child should be around L3), but there were very few parents who had any idea about what that meant in terms of attainment. Even fewer could take anything from the information to support their child’s learning.

Myth 3. They aid transition

I can see how this one came about. In the absence of any other information, I’d be grateful to receive sub-levelled information if a new child joined my class. But receiving a child who had been graded as a 4b writer told me relatively little. It doesn’t explain whether their use of in-sentence punctuation is secure; it doesn’t explain if they can paragraph appropriately; it doesn’t give me any clue about the strength of their spelling. In essence, it just tells me that they’re broadly average in my Y6 class. Perhaps we could all save time by just passing on below/above or around average as indicators.

Equally, for the transfer between schools we know only too well how little agreement there was about levels. It’s beyond a myth to suggest that receiving schools took anything more than cursory note of levels provided at transfer.

Myth 4. They helped measure progress

It’s true that levels, and their evil sub-level counterparts, gave us a nice comfortable system for implying progress. However, we’ve already noted the discrepancies between key stages. And the suggestion that the levels provided some sort of smooth indication of equally-sized steps is laughable. Certainly on tests we were able to divide level thresholds by 3, but consider the relationships between them at KS2: in maths the difference between the 3a and 4c thresholds could be around 10 or 11 marks; in reading the same thresholds were often as little as 2 marks apart! How could these possibly demonstrate equal steps of progress? Even within Reading itself, the gap from 3a to 4c could be 2 marks, yet the gap from 4c to 4b would be 6!

Certainly the steps could give an indication of tracking towards outcomes at KS2, but that’s not the same as being a reliable measure of progress!

Myth 5. They can be adapted for the new curriculum

This is perhaps the most dangerous of the myths. Because of the widespread mis-information from the DfE that the new expectations would be broadly in-line with the current level 4b requirements, many schools have presumed that the levels could be retained and ‘tweaked’ to provide an adequate assessment system.

One look at the fractions requirements of the new Y6 curriculum makes the flaws in this argument clear. This section shows the new requirements, with an indication of the approximate level from the old curriculum, based on APP statements:

  • use common factors to simplify fractions; use common multiples to express fractions in the same denomination (L5/6)
  • compare and order fractions, including fractions >1 (L5)
  • add and subtract fractions with different denominators and mixed numbers, using the concept of equivalent fractions (L6)
  • multiply simple pairs of proper fractions, writing the answer in its simplest form (L7)
  • divide proper fractions by whole numbers (L7)
  • associate a fraction with division and calculate decimal fraction equivalents for a simple fraction (L6)
  • recall and use equivalences between simple fractions, decimals and percentages, including in different contexts. (Level 5/6)

The same approach could be applied to comparing the new grammar requirements, or looking at expectations in arithmetic strategies. The reality is, the new curriculum is not only substantially different in its organisation and content, but also in its expectations. And while it may be true that a similar number of children are expected to “pass” the new tests, as currently score enough points to achieve 4b or higher, it is clearly not the case that knowing the content that would currently attain 4b would be enough to “pass” the KS2 tests in 2016.

Answers from the department (that raise more questions)

By complete chance (one presumes), today I received two responses from the Department for Education on entirely unrelated matters.

Firstly, to the matter of the Curriculum Cock-Ups I mentioned last month.

It turns out, the inclusion of the 900-1300 dates in the Benin listing in the new National Curriculum wasn’t so much a cock-up as a bodge job! The department passed on a comment from “the chair of an expert group” set up to examine the first draft, and suggest improvements. This stated that the reason for the inclusion of Benin at all was “to show schools that already study Benin that they can continue to do so”. The reason, though, for the selection of the (frankly quite dull and hard-to-teach) early 900-1300 period was an attempt “to preserve the chronological structure of the programmes of study”

In essence, it wasn’t a mistake… it was just a bad compromise. Just what we need for a statutory curriculum for our nation’s schools.

The response also points out that schools are free to teach beyond 1300, which rather emphasises the nonsense of specifying the period in the first place.

So now we know.

In another matter, it seems that further evidence of ill-thought-through legislation has left a bit of an unclear area in expectations for school websites. From this month schools have been required to publish the curriculum for every year group online. It has never been clear what form or what level of detail is required, but also the documentation was unclear whether this related only to National Curriculum year groups, or whether it would need to include the Reception/Early Years phase.

My second response from the DfE indicates that they hadn’t really thought it through themselves. The response from the DfE lawyers states that “there is nothing in the drafting to indicate that this is restricted by age or year group” and that therefore they “think the requirement under Regulation 10 would also apply to that Reception year” (my emphasis)

Of course, this fails to take into account that the regulations actually specify that what should be published is “the content of the curriculum followed by the school for each subject” (my emphasis again). Now, aside from the fact that the Early Years curriculum is much harder to pin down than the content of the National Curriculum, it seems to overlook the fact that there aren’t officially “subjects” in the EYFS, so quite what is meant to be published isn’t clear.

What’s more, if the requirement probably extends to Reception, then should it also apply to maintained nurseries? Does it also extend to sixth forms?

Or had the department not really thought it through before announcing that it would happen?

Doing Less, But Better: KS2 Writing

Rob Smith (@redgierob) of Literacy Shed fame today posted a simple enough question on Twitter:

As is so often the way with such simple questions, a can of worms was soon sprung open. This is not the first time that Rob and I have had to agree to disagree, and the pattern is fairly similar. I’m generally of the view that less is more. Less movement, less change, less jumping about, and much more time spent on a single focus.

For that reason, when talking about the teaching of Writing, I am a fan of looking at longer blocks on a common theme. I’ve written before about a mastery approach, and here I want to expand on how that might look for a single unit.

The norm for the past few years in primary schools has been to teach a new text type each week. Rob even suggests getting 3 ‘longer’ pieces of writing a week from Y4+ children. (To be fair, he defines these as being an A4 side, not necessarily a full ‘extended’ write). Now, I’ve no particular aversion to extended writing, but I do worry that we can begin to value quantity over quality, and our need for quantity can lead to a race through the text types again.

I’ve taken a typical weekly plan from a TES download (no names, to protect the innocent!) and it follows broadly the following structure:

  1. Identify features/layout of a newspaper
  2. Review and write headlines
  3. Difference between fact and opinion
  4. Brief intro on connectives before starting draft
  5. Complete writing (focus on openers?)

Now, none of these are particularly problematic features of the sequence, but look at what’s missing: were is the discussion of punctuating speech? Where is the examination of how to write an effective closing (surely one of the most challenging parts of article writing?) How much do children understand about how to embed quotations in a text?

I would much rather complete a unit like this over a couple of weeks, focussing on various elements in the build-up before completing a single extended piece at the end of the unit. It would seem reasonable to start with the unpicking of the various elements of a news article first (Alan Peat has some good resources on this). Then we might examine in close detail how the 5Ws are included in the lead of the article, and practise this skill with some familiar contexts. Developing the main body is often a challenge for students, since they feel they’ve covered everything in the lead, so focussing on what content makes it interesting, and how it might be included comes next. This would seem a sensible time to practise using a variety of subordinate clauses, including embedded clauses, to ‘cram’ as much detail as possible into the article, since this is a journalistic norm. By now we’d already be approaching the end of the first week, and I’d be tempted to try another shorter piece of writing – perhaps a couple of paragraphs – to practise these skills.

The following week might begin with some sort of activity that provides the content for newspaper writing. In one example I’ve taught, we had a hot-seating type affair where the students interviewed an ‘astronaut’ recently returned from space. Thus, a lesson was spent on looking at open and closed questioning, and note-taking to capture responses, and a later lesson on the task of the press conference itself. Now we felt ready to begin to prepare the articles. We had our content ready, quotations on hand, and a good background of the structure and features of newspapers. A lesson mid-week spent on drafting the articles gives an opportunity for self-, peer- and/or teacher assessment, before building on feedback to make improvements. Often this is the stage at which children realise that their newspapers articles simply ‘end’, and so it’s a good opportunity to focus on how we can build cohesion across the text by linking the beginning and end, or by reflecting/considering the future. Or it might become clear that the cohesion throughout the text is lacking in many children’s work, because of a lack of understanding of, or use of, cohesive ties/discursive markers, thus providing an opportunity to re-teach this and for it to be used instantly in a context.

Of course, the exact content you’d need throughout the unit would vary by the group and its previous experience. You might need a focus on the use of consistent/relevant tense (a tricky one in newspapers, actually), or on selecting appropriate vocabulary, or specific punctuation elements, or organising paragraphs, or all manner of other skills that are required to produce an even half-decent attempt at a complex piece of writing. None of those can be taught simply through practising the main writing. They require active teaching, and meaningful practice before they can reliably be used. The reality is that no piece of writing is easy to produce at any standard of quality without a close examination and practice of its constituent parts.

Thus, my approach might – on a very generic level – look something more like:

  1. Unpick features of the text
  2. Teach an aspect of structure then draft an opening
  3. Teach an aspect of grammar and practise out of context
  4. Use the grammar aspect in a context not related to the final piece
  5. Practise a brief version of the text type, to use as a feedback opportunity
  6. Use a reading/S&L activity to prepare for writing (e.g. Talk for Writing)
  7. Gather the necessary information for the content of the text
  8. Draft the text
  9. Teach an aspect picked up from the first drafts
  10. Use the first draft to mark and then edit/improve

It’s obviously not fixed like that, and would vary depending on the type of writing you’re doing and the context, but it allows a good deal more consolidation of the key skills that build into writing the main text, without requiring many long pieces of writing. It breaks down the skills into more manageable chunks so that they can begin to be mastered before being applied. Of course, mastery may well be a long way off, but by spending a little more time on core aspects, hopefully the chance that they might be retained is increased!

I fear that all the time we focus on quantity and production of writing, we run the risk of repeating the problems we already face in maths, where children march through content and somehow reach secondary school without securing the basics of things like number bonds.

As usual, I find myself repeating my mantra: Do less, but better.

Key Instant Recall Facts for mathematics

I am a massive fan of drilling and practice for children who need to learn number facts. And the reality is that that’s all children. Whether it’s the earliest number bonds, or the prime numbers, the new curriculum is very clear that fluency in these areas underpins much of what else is done in mathematics – and it’s right to do so, in my opinion.

Key Instant Recall Facts (Y2 example)

Key Instant Recall Facts (Y2 example)

I was, consequently, thrilled when the documents below were sent to me by Jo Harbour (@joharbour) of Mayfield Primary School. As a maths subject leader she has taken the time to set out a programme of teaching and learning to secure those essential number facts that runs from Year 1 through to Year 6. Beginning with the basic number bonds to 6, and developing to the knowledge of equivalent fractions and decimals by the end of KS2 they set out a useful progression for schools, and an excellent support for parents wishing to help at home.

Jo has kindly said that I can share these here, and so I am delighted to do so. They are created in Powerpoint format, which means that most schools can edit them. Note that some of the core elements are saved in the master slide, so to change the logo, for example, you’ll need to edit the slide master (accessed via the View menu on recent editions of Publisher). I have also uploaded a PDF version for those schools who cannot access the originals, but might want to follow the model.

Thanks must go to Jo Harbour for both creating and sharing these excellent resources (here contact details are contained within the files).

Key Instant Recall Facts (editable PowerPoint)

Key Instant Recall Facts (PDF)

Tracking Grids for Key Objectives

After much discussion in the last week, particularly with experts in the data field, I have tried to adapt the Key Objective spreadsheets put together by Tim Clarke to allow:

  • one document to contain all the tracking for a single class for the core subjects
  • a quick summary of the numbers/percentage of students meeting the expected standard

So far I have put together documents for Years 1 to 6. Each spreadsheet contains a page for each of Reading, Writing, Maths and Science, with the objectives listed. By entering the names along the top row, teachers can then enter 1, 2 or 3 against each objective to indicate that students are working towards / meeting / exceeding that specific objective. These cells automatically change colour for quick visual representation.


In addition, at the foot of the page, a simple summary indicates whether students are working towards, meeting or exceeding the expected level for their age. It also provides a quick count/percentage summary of the whole class.

On the final page of the spreadsheet, a whole curriculum overview is also available, which also shows the percentages of students on track to meet or exceed the expected level for their age.


The challenge at this stage is in setting the appropriate thresholds to determine the categories of attainment (as well as the names of those categories) as different schools are likely to want to try different approaches, at least initially. Consequently, I have also included a settings page which allows schools to adjust the specific percentages of objectives that need to be met/exceeded to be awarded the overall grade. It also allow for those categories to be renamed to suit a school’s model:


Finally, the spreadsheet also allows for the values to be adjusted for each term. This means that schools can select the standard 85% threshold for ‘meeting the expected standard’, but have this automatically adjusted by thirds to allow for the fact that fewer objectives will have been taught in the Autumn and Spring Term. Thus, by selected the Autumn Term and requiring 85%, the spreadsheet will automatically adjust to 28% to assess progress up to that point.

I don’t imagine that this will become a staple in hundreds of schools nationally – there are far better-equipped companies to introduce such schemes. However, hopefully it does give an indication of how the Key Objective model (supported by the NAHT) could work in practice.

There is still an issue of tracking progress across year groups, which isn’t accommodated by this spreadsheet. One solution would be to record a simple percentage score for a student each year (e.g. George Gershwin has achieved 88% of Y1 objectives). Progress over time could then be measured by comparing the annual achieved percentage. However it would be important to separate this from the assessment process. After all: Tracking ≠ Assessment


The full package of spreadsheets and accompanying documents can be downloaded from here. Please do have a play around with them, and highlight any errors you spot or improvements you’d recommend. And maybe have them to hand next time a supplier tries to get you to buy their product, and make sure that their offer is significantly better!

Download full Assessment and Tracking Resource Pack by clicking here

Sample documents:

Year 5 Tracking Document

Year 6 Tracking Document