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.
Tagged: Lucy Powell