Monthly Archives: October 2015

Life after levels… although not quite yet.

Back in May I carried out a straw poll via Twitter asking people about their use of tracking software in primary schools, and was disappointed to find that nearly half of responses showed that schools were still using a tracking system that required 3 or 6 steps of progress each year. Despite all the efforts to move away from levels, to avoid the race for progress, to stop the labelling and grouping of pupils, it seemed that many schools had simply replicated the old system.

Since then, we’ve had further guidance from the DfE in the form of the Assessment Commission report, and widespread sharing of videos from Tim Oates and Sean Harford. Many more schools, who in May had not made a decision on software, will now have gone ahead with something new, so I repeated the survey to see if things had changed.

Things are not looking good. Back in May around 45% of schools had opted for a 3-step or 6-step model (replicating the old sub-levels and points-based systems). In the latest survey, that proportion has risen to 49%, with another 15% using another number of steps.


It seems we’re a long way off “assessment without levels”.

As last time, I also polled people to find out which tracking systems were in use. The following graph shows those software programs which had 10% of more of the responses:


As before, Target Tracker makes up nearly a quarter of responses, with its system that allows a choice between 3 or 6 point measurement!

Interestingly, although some software options do not themselves impose (or even include) a step-tracking model, some schools have clearly adopted their own in addition to their main tracking approach. Evidence – as if more were needed – that the fear in schools about proving measureable progress remains as clear as ever.

What’s the alternative?

I’ve made quite clear before my preference for a Key Objective approach to tracking. As Dylan Wiliam says, when it comes to assessment & tracking, we need to focus on the ‘big ideas’ -the things that really matter.

My worry at this stage is for the ‘formative’ elements of these tracking systems – even those that don’t use a steps model. Many offer a combination of formative and summative tracking, which includes breaking down the whole national curriculum into clickable steps. By my estimation, that could leave a typical teacher in KS2 with over 100 statements to be clicking for each pupil. 3000 statements a year to be ticked off.

For schools still struggling with this idea, I’d urge them (as I have before) to take a look at the NAHT’s approach to Key Performance Indicators. It makes much more sense to focus on high quality assessment of fewer things; otherwise teachers will just be run ragged trying to tick all the boxes.

As Tim Oates has said: it’s not that we need less assessment; rather we need more assessment of the right things. It seems we haven’t quite got there yet.


Have we forgotten the rationale for scrapping levels?

It’s been a long time under discussion, and yet for all the talk in school and out, it seems that many have forgotten the original rationale for the scrapping of levels.
Tim Oates set the explanations out very clearly in the video presented on the DfE YouTube channel (which if you haven’t seen, is worth looking out). The main thrusts of the argument fell into three categories:

  1. Children were self-labelling
  2. Undue pace was forced into the curriculum
  3. The comparability of test scores, best-fit judgements and ‘just in’ measures

But when we look at the majority of systems that have replaced levels, have we really moved on?

My poll of systems being used in primary schools suggests not. The most popular tracking packages appear to make up the majority of school systems, although it’s interesting to see a large proportion of bespoke systems as well as many schools with none. However, despite this variety, one message stands out: from the entirely non-scientific poll I’ve run, it seems that half of schools are still depending on systems that require 3 or 6 points of progress to be measured each year. How does this tackle those initial problems with levels?

Have we simply replaced the self-labelling of “I’m a Level 3”, with “I’m Emerging”? Indeed, in some such systems, might we not run the risk that a child remains permanently as “Emerging”, labelled not only in comparison to his peers, but indeed as a permanent characteristic. Whether the language is “developing”, or “beginning” or “below”, might not the effect be the same or worse than with levels?

As for undue pace, surely by demanding steps of progress again, we’ve simply replicated the same old problems? In fact, I’d argue that we’ve worsened them. Having got so used to the APP model, many schools have now adopted a system that requires the recording of endless theoretically-formative judgements in order to reach a summative point score or category. Once again the risk is that pupils near to thresholds will become the focus, rather than those who most need additional support, and that moving more quickly through the steps will be seen as positive, neglecting the need to secure understanding and skills.

So have we solved the problem of the different meanings of levels? Sadly, the same symptoms are evident: schools and tracking companies have tried to replicate old systems. Rather than focussing on what children can and can’t do, too much time and energy is focussed on predicting the resulting summative judgement. It’s true that the new interim assessment frameworks remove the ‘best-fit’ judgement issue (although I’m not convinced that’s a good thing!), but we still have many systems that focus on using a best-fit approach to summarise judgements using a category label. If you need to get a certain number of ticks to be placed in a particular category, then surely we might as well have stuck with APP?

So what’s the solution?

I’m increasingly coming to the view that our first task should be to separate formative and summative assessment entirely. The current systems just aren’t working.

Primary Tracking poll

I’d be grateful for any responses from primary colleagues to my poll on the tracking systems being used in schools now:

Free mastery maths resources from White Rose Maths Hub

Carlsberg don’t make teaching schools, but if they did, I’m beginning to suspect that Trinity Academy in Halifax is what they’d come up with. Back in May at a conference I heard vice principal, Tony Staneff, explaining their mastery-led assessment system and I was impressed. Today I have received from the Maths Hub at the school, their excellent resources for organising and planning a primary maths curriculum based on the mastery principles.

I wrote back in April 2014 about how I was using a blocked approach to teaching mathematics, and plenty of people have asked me since then for my resources, or for long-term overviews. I’ve offered what I can, but the White Rose Maths Hub at Trinity have offered far more: a complete long-term scheme of learning for KS1 & 2, supported by excellent additional resources. And what’s more, it’s all free!

Firstly, let me say – as I’ve said before – that mastery has become something of a controversial and confused term. However, in this case they’ve got it spot on: mastery is for everyone, ensuring that all secure the key concepts and skills to allow them to explore things in greater depth.

So what’s available?

For each year group, they have put together an overview document setting out the suggested teaching blocks. This is broadly similar to the approach I took in my previous blog, but with much greater clarity, including the National Curriculum objectives to be covered in each phase. So far, useful indeed, but what really sets this resource apart is the supporting exemplification, which provide examples of the sorts of questions that support fluency, reasoning and problem-solving.

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The resources are provided for every unit in every year group in a manner that helps teachers who feel confident with maths – and maths mastery – but will be a real boon to teachers new to the idea who will value the guidance on pitch and direction.

Opening each resource is a really useful guide to the key ideas behind mastery maths, including the all important use of the concrete-pictorial-abstract model, and some frequently-asked questions. It should help to explain the key messages for teachers new to mastery or who have heard mixed explanations about what it involves. It also pinpoints other useful resources from the NCETM.

And as if that weren’t enough… (I know, I’m beginning to sound like a cheesy advert), the maths hub is also working on assessment resources to accompany the scheme. These are due over the remainder of the term and should be a real bonus in supporting teachers to make accurate assessments that will really support teaching and learning.

***Update – October 2016***
The work has continued. The hub has now produced schemes and assessment resources for every term in every KS1-2 year group, and even schemes for mixed-age classes in primary!

But enough… request the resources for yourself and get started on that journey!

Free Learning Schemes


The appraisal elephant in the assessment room

One of the most useful things in the recent Assessment Commission report was the clarity with which it set out the three main purposes of assessment:


It’s quite clear that the purposes of day-to-day assessment (which I like to call ‘feedback’) and summative assessment are separate. The formative stuff is about what happens in the classroom: the information the teacher needs, the impact on the pupils. The summative stuff is simply that: a single data point that gives us an indication of outcomes.

When it comes to appraisal, many schools are struggling to work out how to replace the sorts of targets that used to be based on levels and sub-levels. Personally, given the choice, I’d scrap them altogether, but I realise that’s a long way off in most schools. So what in the interim?

Historically, teachers used their on-going assessments in the classroom to fill in things like the APP grids. Then the judgements they made fed into an overall level for each child, and summary data was thus produced, collated, and turned into an outcome on which teachers were judged. And in many cases, teachers would tick or untick as many boxes as it took to make the official judgement match the level they had already decided upon. I know it happened: I’ve seen it done, and I’ve done it plenty.

If we try to use our formative assessments to create a summative judgement against which we can judge teachers, then we have no hope of maintaining that separation of formative from summative. I don’t think that teachers are out to cheat the system in the slightest. Nor do I think that teachers will do anything for a pay rise. But I do think that the judgements made in appraisal meetings weigh heavy on teachers’ minds, and that consciously or otherwise these are likely to affect the accuracy and integrity of teacher assessment data. Not because they want the pay rise, but because they want to be thought of as good teachers.

If we insist on setting data-based targets, then surely it is much clearer and fairer to separate that judgement of the teacher from the teachers’ judgements of pupils. All the time we use teachers’ own assessments as a tool to judge them, we can only expect one to influence the other. If we just have data targets, then lets use a simple baseline and end-of-year test, where teachers know that the expectation is to improve attainment in a key area, but aren’t then expected also to produce the data that proves the impact they’ve had.

Otherwise, no matter how good your assessment system’s design, it’s destined to fail.

My message for Lucy Powell

This week, Lucy Powell – the new education spokesperson for the Labour party – has made comments about the demise of levels. I suspect that the medium of the published media and the inevitable brevity of twitter may have clouded matters, but the following conversation raised alarm bells for me:


Now, I understand that as a parent Ms Powell may have concerns about the loss of levels. However, her comment that parents understood them I think is mistaken, and the suggestion that “now there’s nothing” can only be an extrapolation from a limited number of schools; that isn’t a fair reflection of the system as a whole.

Of course, what I suspect is the real problem here is one with which I am sure we are almost all in agreement with Ms Powell. For while not everyone is clear about the benefits of scrapping levels, even the most ardent of fans of the move would agree that the way in which it has been handed by the current government has been woeful. It has been symptomatic of the rush with which measures were forced forwards, changes made, and implications sorely underestimated.

Nevertheless, I want to be as clear as I can, both for Ms Powell and others, about my support for the removal of levels. I have written before in brief about the 5 myths surrounding levels, but let me add further argument to make clear my concerns:

Levels were a farce. I speak about this often. At conferences I often witness the laughter of recognition as I describe my former approach to  assessment via a tracking tool. I happily clicked away at boxes as instructed until the software flashed up the level it decreed; and then I’d quickly go back a click a few more, or unclick a few, until the judgement of the machine matched my measure. Of course, what I was doing was not assessment; rather it was ticking boxes to categorise the children in my class.

The problem was, we imagined that we had a common language with levels, yet my own slapdash research showed that this was not the case. And if teachers didn’t really agree on what the criteria were at each level, what hope the students or their parents. And reality was that the best fit model made a nonsense of it anyway. That was half the battle with transition. As a Y7 maths teacher, I could receive children at all levels from 3 to 6, but none of that told me whether they knew their tables. Given that that was a core element of the Level 4 descriptor, it’s clearly a nonsense that the Level 4 grade still gave no such indication – let alone the Level 6s!

Of course, as a parent, knowing that your child is a certain grade gives you an indication of whether you need be concerned, or not. It is probably this clarity that Lucy Powell is referring to. It makes me suspect that her children may well be of primary age; there are plenty of parents who can tell the tale of having the inaccuracy of levels lain bare on the transition to secondary school. It turns out that all that neat ordering of numbers and letters counts for nothing when it comes to moving on.

That said, we shouldn’t be leaving parents floundering. Schools have a duty to share useful information with parents, and I’d argue that removing levels gives us a lot more scope – and encouragement – to do that. Discussions and reports should be focussed on what a child can and can’t do, and where further support or challenge can be focussed. Combined with the publication of each year’s curriculum, parents should have access to more information than ever before about the success of their child’s journey through school. And that information should be meaningful and useful to both parent and child.

I argue for a cohesive system that supports parents and pupils. At my own school we make use of a system of Key Objectives. We share the Key Objectives for each year group with parents at the start of the academic year, we will reflect on the progress made against them each term in parents evening, and report on them at the end of the year. There can be no doubt that this information is significantly more useful and constructive than indicating that a child has moved from 3b to 3a.

Importantly, that system can’t effectively be centrally deigned. It has to relate to the curriculum as it is taught in my school, and although the National Curriculum sets that out in part, it doesn’t reflect the fact that we have mixed-age classes, or that we have chosen to teach a local study topic linked to Victorian England, or that we choose to use a blocked approach for teaching Writing. Only we can design assessment to match that curriculum, and so we must take the responsibility for explaining that to parents.

So I hope that Ms Powell will talk to colleagues and experts in schools about how we can build on the good work going on in so many schools to spread those messages more widely. I hope, too, that she’ll continue to hold the Secretary of State to account for the shambolic way in which the whole transition has been handled so far (and the on-going lack of clarity for teachers and schools which causes so much consternation), and that in doing so the focus can move onto supporting schools with developing better models, not mourning the loss of the bad old one, and providing the best information we can to parents.

And I hope too that she’ll forgive me for getting my high horse this morning in response to that initial twitter conversation! What can I say? It’s a matter close to my heart. I’ll also extend, again, my offer to discuss any aspect of curriculum and assessment further with her: I’ve plenty to say.

I love you secondary teachers, honest!

You know you haven’t made your point clear enough when Laura McInerney – Queen of Nuance – starts rebutting an argument you haven’t made!

Late last night I posted a tweet asking how many secondary schools (note: not teachers) had contacted feeder primary schools over the past few weeks. Inevitably it became a bit of a them-and-us squabble which was never my intention.
Rather, my intention was to raise the possibility in teachers’ minds – especially those with pastoral responsibility. This wasn’t because I think secondary school teachers are negligent; it was because I genuinely think it doesn’t always cross the minds of busy staff.

However, the responses I got, including from the always-very-reasonable Laura, all centred around the same few points:

× “we did it all before the summer”
× “teachers are too busy teaching”
× “we talk to parents and students”
× “we’ve got 300 students…”

The latter of these was the most frustrating, because it struck me as a way of saying that individuals weren’t important enough. It’s something I hear primary teachers imply too often about secondary schools and I don’t think it’s true at all. But using the argument of numbers implies it just as much. What quickly became clear was that people really meant that they couldn’t ring about every one of 300 students… And I never suggested that they would.

I’ve written before about the importance of conversations, but the focus on pre-transition work worries me. We know that some kids will find the transition hard. Sometimes we can predict who might find it tricky, but other children surprise us – and they are often the hardest to crack. All I want to suggest is that when a child crops up who seems not to have any prior note of difficulties, it would make sense to get in touch with the relevant primary teacher. Not because we can fix things, but because we might just shed some light. Maybe we know something because of a younger sibling; maybe we know something from years past that we thought was dealt with; maybe we just screwed up and forgot to mention something in our previous conversations. We’re not perfect.

Of course, in most cases kids settle well and thrive. I like to presume that no news is good news. The trouble is, I know sometimes that’s not true. I know of the child who was put on a part-time timetable in their first year of secondary because of attendance issues (!), yet no-one ever asked what we’d done to improve their attendance from around 40% to 88% in their time with us. I know, too, of the girl who was suspended in the Spring term having never had any bother in primary school. Only when I heard on the grapevine did I get in touch and point out what I knew had happened with the family over the summer months. The cases are few, but the consequences can be enormous for those few – and the effort to contact one or two primary teachers each year is surely negligible by comparison?

I don’t blame secondary teachers for being busy. I don’t blame them for asking students and parents first. I don’t blame them for focusing on pre-transition arrangements. I dint expect every subject teacher to be in touch. But I also don’t think it’s acceptable to spend so much time and money on promotional events for new students each autumn, while ignoring the individuals among the 300 who have just arrived. Sometime must surely have overall responsibility for the care and well-being of these children – I’m just offering them an extra tool. And for free. With a smile!

I don’t want to hear about every child. I don’t need to hear about every problem. I just want secondary colleagues to know that if one of those few cases crops up, any primary teacher in the land would be only too happy to help if we can. And sometimes we can’t, but it might be worth making that one call just in case. It could transform a child’s life chances, and save you a while lot of bother in the long run. And even if it didn’t… Wouldn’t it be great if we all just chatted from time to time anyway?

(It’s worth noting that primary teachers are not exempt from this call: as Starlight McKenzie pointed out on Twitter, primaries are not that always great at calling other primaries when kids transfer between them either)