The Gillette problem in Education

When Dave Gorman launched his second series of “Modern Life is Goodish”, he did so with a trailer mocking the increasing number of blades attached to our razors.

The Dave Gorman Razor trailer

The Dave Gorman Razor trailer

The whole thing’s very amusing when it’s dealing with the humdrum of shaving life. But this same inflation appears to be infiltrating our education system as increasingly complex systems of assessment become available. And the DfE are at least in part to blame.

Its recommendations for an end-of-key-stage assessment system are to replace the simple system of 4 main levels of outcome (cunningly named level 3, level 4, level 5 and level 6) with 5 descriptors which seem to cover a narrower range of ability. But to what end? Why do we need to differentiate between children in this way at the age of 11?

The government’s preferred “mastery approach” to teaching suggests that we should be focussing on ensuring that almost all children meet the expected standard – so why the need for a further four categories of attainment (not to mention those that fall below those categories).

The only explanation I can find, is for league tables. Just as I suspect that 5-bladed razors are not significantly more efficient than the old Mach 3, so I rather suspect that 5 descriptors will be no more useful to schools to students than the 3 we used to have just 3 years ago!

Of course, to create league tables you need measures that can produce a whole host of differentiation. And so, up and down the country, schools are losing interest once more in assessment, and returning their focus to tracking – how will we show progress? how will we show when children are making expected progress, and more than expected progress? Because for all their talk of freeing up teachers to focus on what matters, the reality is that the department is only interested in measurable outcomes that can produce graphs to blame predecessors and more to claim improvements.

It’s simple to split children into 5 groups when you have a scaled score system. So what if the chances of scoring 100 or 110 on a test are more to do with the luck of the questions than the underlying ability of the student? It’s easy all the same to say that the child scoring 105 is doing better than the child scoring 100. To heck with the reality.

Can we really honestly say that we can split 11-year-olds into more than 5 measurable groups of writers? Groups which are significantly narrower than our current L3/4/5 bands. The level descriptors manage it through the use of weasel words. We are asked to differentiate between children who “make appropriate choices of grammar and vocabulary to clarify and enhance meaning” and those who “make deliberate choices of grammar and vocabulary to change and enhance meaning“, not to mention the separation of those who make “judicious choices“.

And if we do make such judgements… to what end?

The only possible reason for having so many descriptors, so many imagined levels, is to provide numerical data for league tables. It has nothing to do with teaching and learning (which after all needs a focus on assessment, rather than tracking).  It is only to do with trying to judge schools, and providing room for children to “exceed expected progress”.

And all the time DfE demands it at the end of Key Stages, so tracking software companies will recreate the nonsense for all the intervening years. And so, all the benefits of removing levels are quickly replaced with an increasingly complex, increasingly unreliable and uninformed, set of spreadsheets. No longer is the judgement about one level every 2 years, or even 2 sub-levels each year. No, now we can choose from one of 5 categories every year – or in some cases 6, to ensure that one can be measured each half term.

And if that isn’t enough to persuade you that the Performance Descriptors are no good for anything, then there’s no hope!


If you’re reading this before 5pm on Thursday 18th December, you’ve still got time to log on to the DfE consultation on the descriptors and tell them how awful they are. Please do.

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6 thoughts on “The Gillette problem in Education

  1. cazzypot2013 17 December 2014 at 9:07 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  2. suecowley 18 December 2014 at 8:58 am Reply

    Totally agreed, what an absolute mess they are creating. Many parents are going to be pretty upset too when they get reports using these awful descriptors. This is going to be about as accurate as the equally awful baseline test. The one that the DfE state themselves is being used to measure schools, with apparently no interest in its usefulness to teachers.

  3. kitandrew 18 December 2014 at 10:22 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on KitAndrew.

  4. Bill 15 January 2015 at 10:44 am Reply

    I am probably reading this wrong, so advice appreciated… I understood the new performance descriptors had 4 levels:
    working below national standard
    working towards national standard
    working at national standard
    working at mastery level
    Not sure where your 5 levels come from…am I looking at the wrong thing?

    • Michael Tidd 15 January 2015 at 6:05 pm Reply

      There are only 4 descriptors at KS1, but for KS2 Writing there is the additional “working *above* the national standard” – which is not as high as mastery, apparently!
      The fact that they couldn’t even get a consistent number across key stages is pretty surprising!

  5. Bill 15 January 2015 at 8:03 pm Reply

    Thank you.

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