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.



25 thoughts on “My message for Lucy Powell

  1. BekBlayton 7 October 2015 at 7:24 pm Reply

    Agree completely, I’m amazed at how many people suddenly desire levels again and are so quick to give up the opportunity to create something that works for them.

    It is a work in progress, sure, in many schools (mine included) but we need to start with what we are teaching, why we are teaching and how effective it is.

  2. Jacqueline D 7 October 2015 at 8:09 pm Reply

    Agreed! We had a staff meeting tonight about this very thing. Yes, levels were nonsense and we should embrace the change, but the implementation of this great change – the short time frame given to schools to really think about a purposeful system and lack of clear guidance – has been farcical. Some extra INSET time was given back when they changed the old numeracy and literacy strategies but a whole new curriculum and the responsibility of designing a bespoke assessment system was just thrust upon schools with no time to think and, understandably, panic has set in. What should be an exciting prospect is, in this current climate of fear, seen as another possible stick for schools to be beaten with by Ofsted. It’s no surprise that Heads and senior leaders are fearful of being unable to produce tables and graphs of progress, given how data driven the national accountability systems are.

  3. mmiweb 7 October 2015 at 10:24 pm Reply

    Agree with the panic – and the need for the politician to talk to people who know – wouldn’t it be good if they would do that. I think that the other thing about levels to remember is they were never really meant to be an assessment tool in the numerical way they were (it’s a pity they were number as this allowed people to think they could manipulate them in this way!).

  4. fish64 8 October 2015 at 7:30 pm Reply

    What is really worrying is that so many schools are trying to recreate them! I’ve just written a post about this

    • Michael Tidd 8 October 2015 at 7:32 pm Reply

      So try. And many more are buying in products based on the mythical steps of progress! Do share the link to your blog

  5. cazzypot2013 8 October 2015 at 9:44 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  6. fish64 9 October 2015 at 6:54 pm Reply
  7. Kate Cameron 11 October 2015 at 12:17 pm Reply

    I agree that there were lots of problems with levels. However, I really don’t understand how the new end of KS tests are going to be any different. The argument that you could achieve a level 4 by getting all the level 3 and some of the level 5 bits and none of the level 4 bits will still be true as far as I can see, with scores standardised at 100 based on a raw score. My other worry, as a senior leader, currently crunching spreadsheets full of point scores and proportions of pupils making expected and more than expected progress in order to prove we’ve spent our pupil premium money effectively/ targeted teaching well/ any other measure of our impact of a school, is WHAT ON EARTH AM I GOING TO DO NEXT YEAR? Or even this year for that matter, as the year rolls on. We are using FLiC (after picking up the link on this blog) and I love the way it is focused on purposeful assessment withing the classroom, using the judgments to shape future teaching. I love the way I can bring up a loads of different graphs tracking the percentages of pupils achieving objectives with different levels of security. But I have no way of measuring against the national picture whether what’s going on in my school is any good. And at least levels gave us that… (You might pick up from the slight tone of panic that we are an RI school due for re-inspection this term!!!)

    • Michael Tidd 11 October 2015 at 6:37 pm Reply

      Hello Kate,
      I understand indeed the challenge here, but I would say a few things:
      Firstly, the difference between the old test system and the new is minimal, but the point should be that the test process is now completely separate from the classroom assessment practices – hence the wonderful use of FLiC to track what matters, rather than giving numbers.
      There is indeed a challenge to compare things against national averages, but actually that’s a matter of practice. We all presumed that we knew what a typical Y3 child, say, looked like, but in reality, it was just a guess on the basis of roughly what we expected at other stages. I still recommend the use of some summary tests alongside the FLiC type approach, but only using them as a summary, not as the routine of assessment practices.
      In time, lots of these things will be ironed out. The same challenges would have been around if levels were new today. You only have to look at how hard NQTs find it to make accurate judgements against levels. The reality is that we all developed our understanding of expected outcomes based on our experience as teachers; the same was true before levels, and the same will become true after a year or two of the new systems.

    • Alex (B Squared) (@AlexanderHurle) 28 October 2015 at 3:50 pm Reply

      Well said Kate!

      Let’s get this straight: “What’s in a name? That which we call a level, by any other name would…”

      When people talk about levels they mean level descriptors. A paragraph of text which summarises a few of the concepts that a child should be capable of carrying out upon reaching a certain [tries to think of another word for level… fails] level of understanding within a subject/strand of subject e.g.
      “Mathematics, Number and algebra – Level 3:
      Pupils show understanding of place value in numbers up to 1000 and use this to make approximations. They begin to use decimal notation, in the context of measures and money, and to recognise negative numbers in practical contexts such as temperature. Pupils use mental recall of addition and subtraction facts to 20 in solving problems involving larger numbers. They add and subtract numbers with two digits mentally and numbers with three digits using written methods. They use mental recall of the 2, 3, 4, 5 and 10 multiplication tables and derive the associated division facts. They solve whole-number problems involving multiplication or division including those that give rise to remainders. They use simple fractions that are several parts of a whole and recognise when two simple fractions are equivalent.” (QCA, National Curriculum Level descriptions for subjects, Feb 2010)

      It is JUST a grouping of similarly challenging skills and understanding, so is this:
      “Mathematics, number and place value – Year 4:
      Pupils should be taught to: count in multiples of 6, 7, 9, 25 and 1000; find 1000 more or less than a given number; count backwards through zero to include negative numbers; recognise the place value of each digit in a four-digit number (thousands, hundreds, tens, and ones); order and compare numbers beyond 1000; identify, represent and estimate numbers using different representations; round any number to the nearest 10, 100 or 1000; solve number and practical problems that involve all of the above and with increasingly large positive numbers; and read Roman numerals to 100 (I to C) and know that over time, the numeral system changed to include the concept of zero and place value.” (DfE, national curriculum in England Framework document, Dec 2014)

      The concept of ‘levelled’ achievement is not related to any of the reasons that have been provide by the DfE; here by Mr. Tidd; or elsewhere by other parties. I think we would all agree that the learner who is being taught to “represent and use number bonds and related subtraction facts within 20” is likely to be at a different stage in their development than a learner who is understanding how to “select and use appropriate calculation strategies to solve increasingly complex problems, including exact calculations involving multiples of π {and surds}, use of standard form and application and interpretation of limits of accuracy”.

      The difference is that one of these explicitly provides an age related “verdict” on a child’s capabilities.

      The Government’s use of compensation-based tests, along with the best fit model made it more difficult to identify exactly which aspects of knowledge a child had achieved. This allowed for confusion and a breakdown in the common language of assessment which, as you’ve pointed out, WILL still happen in the new tests. But schools knew then what they still know now: their teaching and learning would be judged at the end of (let’s say) Key Stage 2 based on the percentage of pupil’s who had achieved ≤ Level 3, ≥ Level 4, ≥ Level 4b, ≥ Level 5, and at least 2 levels of progress. The words may now change (number of pupils achieving ≤90, ≥100, ≥120 – not to mention the fact that now progress can only be measure after the horse has bolted!!!) but schools will still need to track progress towards these end of key stage outcomes. Which is why they used the same language for on-going and end of year assessment as they did at the end of the key stage – it’s not rocket science!

      For many pupils, detailed teacher assessment is the only reliable source of evidence relating to their achievements but that can only act as a useful, comparative/transferrable piece of information if it comes from a common language. How do you describe the attainment and progress of a pupil who has surpassed P8 but has not reached the ‘appropriate’ end of year outcome?

      It pains me to agree with a politician but Lucy Powell is right. There is very little for parents to go on between key stages and it is even worse if the child moves school. I can’t begin to imagine how local authorities are keeping track of the performance of their schools but then why would the Government care about that whilst the academisation programme roles on?

      Levels of achievement/learning STILL exist on a national scale. What has been removed are the OLD level descriptors.

      • Michael Tidd 28 October 2015 at 4:48 pm Reply

        It won’t surprise you to know that I disagree.
        Yes, we can all agree that child working on basic number bonds is at a different level of development than one working on standard form and surds.
        What is less clear is that children working on basic number bonds are working “at a different stage in their development” than a child working on recognising quarter of a quantity, yet these are in different year groups. The reality is that we know that the learning is not linear.
        Of course, for a company that wants to sell a service, it makes sense for you to claim that nothing much has changed and that you can still stick numbers into a spreadsheet and draw some conclusions, but the problem remains that approaches like yours lead to questions like yours, such as “How do you describe the attainment and progress of a pupil who has surpassed P8 but has not reached the ‘appropriate’ end of year outcome?”
        The fact is, you need to describe what they can and can’t do. Knowing that a child has reached Level 1 tells too little. Similarly, saying that they are working at “Year 1 level” tells you nothing about the fact that they have an excellent grasp of spatial work, including visual fractions, but struggle with recalling number bonds. Or for the older child, nothing helps you to understand that it’s their lack of tables knowledge that’s a problem, despite their being able to find areas of a range of shapes.
        The temptation to simplify everything to a number is too tempting for software companies, and it’s tempting for parents too. It’s reassuring to know that your child is working at the age-related level. And any teacher can tell you that broad brush message without any levelling or national system. What really matters is making sure that teachers have the knowledge about the detail to support the child and the parent in making further progress, and knowing exactly where the gaps are. A system of levels conceals that, and a software tracking system that focuses on tracking imaginary steps of progress positively discourages focussing on it.
        But I suspect that’s a harder message to sell a tracking system 🙂

        • Alex (B Squared) (@AlexanderHurle) 29 October 2015 at 2:26 pm

          Hello Michael,

          Firstly, I’d like to thank you for your response but I would like to be clear: I am not actually here to talk about what B Squared have to offer. My opinions are my own and are not necessarily representative of B Squared. I worked as a classroom assistant, an SEN teacher and a mainstream primary school teacher before I joined them and so I have plenty of practical experience when it comes to assessing the knowledge, understanding and capabilities of pupils across a range of abilities.

          I have a passion for accurate and useful assessment which benefits all children.

          What I am here to do, is to discuss the inaccuracies in the discussion on assessment without levels. I am not claiming that “nothing much has changed”. In my opinion, the discussions that are going on at the moment do not reflect the problems with level descriptors but rather the concept of chasing generic targets!

          You confuse me when you state that “any teacher can tell you that broad brush message” and then follow it with “What really matters is making sure that teachers have the knowledge about the detail”. Newly qualified teachers do not have the knowledge of the detail; retrained teachers may not and teachers who have just moved to the country could also lack some understanding of the specifics. This is how level descriptors helped. They broke down the content of the NC into “stages” of difficulty (much the same as end of year outcomes) but if you stick rigidly to one stage then you will find the information misleading.

          However, the purpose of assessment is to record the achievements of the child. This enables teachers to plan appropriate next steps and it acts as evidence of ‘learning’ (performance). Achievements should therefore be recorded regardless of whether they are at the same level of difficulty as ones they have previously been working on (assessing across levels/year groups/key stages) e.g. a pupil with ASD may progress quickly through the word recognition aspect of reading but more slowly through the comprehension element. Despite protestations to the counter, this should also be regardless of the amount of the course content a child has covered; many children have a variety stimuli influencing their learning, not just classroom teaching.

          It can be reassuring to know that your child is working at the age-related expectation however it is often difficult to accept the message when your child is working below this. How horrific must it be for the hard-working Y5 pupil who is being told that they are only just achieving the end of Year 3 outcomes! The whole problem with the curriculum and the assessment review is that they have singularly focussed average child to the exclusion of those working below or above average.

          Has anyone met the average child?

          I have read many of your posts and find myself in agreement with a lot of what you say. Of course you are right when you say that teachers need to describe what a child can do. However, there is simply too much information in the world to describe at length what a child can’t do and it only paints a negative picture for the recipient of the information, e.g. reports to parents are more useful when they reflect on the achievements of the child whilst touching on their next steps (re next steps: I have often found that these aren’t followed up by the parents or even seen by the subsequent teacher – so I question their worth).

          It is also fair to say that simply labelling a child with a levelled number is not particularly helpful either especially when the assessor “happily clicked away at boxes” to chase targets. This is something I was often berated for NOT doing – stick to your principles otherwise you are letting the children down and lying to the parents. If “little Jimmy” has made limited progress; say that!

          Let’s not get carried away with ourselves, the DfE, OfSTED and Local Authorities will still want to compare the performance of schools and will want to know whether they are on track to meet targets. Governors, senior leaders and parents will still want to be able to compare the performance of staff and pupils (as Kate has mentioned). They will struggle to do this if each individual member of staff is creating their own vague target descriptor per child. Reporting specific achievements is crucial but doing so is more effective when using a common language.

          I will say one thing in retort to the ‘company’ comments: no teacher “stick[s] numbers into” our system. They acknowledge the degree of engagement/comprehension of specific skills and mark assessments accordingly – numbers don’t come into it.

          And finally you are right there is NO benefit to simplifying assessment; the devil is in the detail!

        • Michael Tidd 29 October 2015 at 2:39 pm

          This conversation could get long…
          “Newly qualified teachers do not have the knowledge of the detail; retrained teachers may not and teachers who have just moved to the country could also lack some understanding of the specifics. This is how level descriptors helped.”
          This is exactly my point – level descriptors didn’t help: they were too vague, and new teachers found it very difficult to level work at first. The problem was that asked them to assess too much and then reach a best-fit judgment. We need to move away from that and focus on what children can and can’t do in smaller terms. That’s still hard to manage as a new teacher but is at least useful to them, whereas finding that a child is a secure 3 helped no-one.

          I agree that it’s unhelpful and undesirable simply to know that your child is working at year 3 level. What parents need to know is what their child has learned to do, and what they should be learning next. Levels didn’t help this; they obscured it.

          The DfE and others still have a way of comparing schools through KS tests; that doesn’t mean need to simplify children’s learning to fit into those same boxes. The purposes are very different, and so the means ought to be.

          Governors and senior leaders may well want to compare the attainment of various groups, and simple overviews through testing can help this; there is no advantage to devising a common language that all schools are compelled to use for this. It means that too much time is spent is trying to explain results based on context and such things; much better to build the assessment model for the context.

          Levels didn’t help any of these things, and we need to stop claiming that they did. People feel that they’ll miss them because they were simple. And they were: too simple.

        • Alex (B Squared) (@AlexanderHurle) 29 October 2015 at 4:34 pm

          Maybe I’m not making my point clearly enough: I am not defending or endorsing level “descriptors” (the things that have been removed). I am stating that there are still groupings of similarly challenging skills that are being taught and assessed.

          If a school is being judged by end of KS tests then they will need to monitor progress towards those goals. Subsequently, I am sure that they will be judged on their progress towards these goals. There is no benefit it teaching ‘X’, tracking ‘Y’, and being judged by ‘Z’. It’s like the concept of a “basket of assessment materials” it creates too much work for the teachers to train themselves, apply the principles, complete and evidence the proformas and train support staff to do the same.

          Not to mention that you are still only discussing the pupils who reach the standard required to take national curriculum tests!

          I totally disagree with “there is no advantage to devising a common language” and I will explain why:
          A group of cars start at different points in the South of England.
          They are told to take all their passengers to Edinburgh.
          They will all take different routes but the destination is the same.
          At different points along their journey they will want to stop and check the map.
          Although they have different starting points they will still use the same map to check their progress towards the same end destination.

          This is the same in education. We have lots of children with different skills and abilities but they will all be judged by the same criteria at the end of year 6. Every teacher needs to know how they are progressing on that journey to the destination.

        • Michael Tidd 29 October 2015 at 4:45 pm

          I think you are explaining yourself. My point is that the systems you say we still inevitably have are those I think we need to avoid.
          Your simple analogy of cars is too simple. Progress is more like three people choosing to travel to Edinburgh. One might be driving, one flying and on by train. Is there any use in knowing that after the first hour, one is still at Southampton airport, while one is on the M25? It tells us nothing. What we need to know is what have they done, and what do they need to do next.
          Importantly, although there is one threshold to measure at Y6, all pupils don’t simply pass or fail. Credit is given through the new progress measure for those who have made more progress than others, based on the same starting point.

          More importantly, what a classroom teachers needs to focus on – and what parents need to know – is the small-scale stuff. The levels are no good for this , and that’s why Lucy Powell was wrong, and why in agreeing with her I’d argue you are too.

        • Alex (B Squared) (@AlexanderHurle) 30 October 2015 at 1:16 pm

          Frequently monitoring progress toward goals increases chance of success

          “Your chances of success are even more likely if you report your progress publicly or physically record it.”

        • Michael Tidd 30 October 2015 at 4:00 pm

          Did you even read that abstract?
          Read about the difference between monitoring your weight and monitoring what you eat. That’s the difference between assessing your sub-level and assessing your achievement of a specific objective. We’ve spent years focusing on the superficial numbers, like the you dieters who focus on their weight. We need to focus on assessing the learning, like those who focus on what they eat.
          It’s the thing Tim Oates says: we don’t need less assessment, we need *more* assessment of the right things.

        • Alex (B Squared) (@AlexanderHurle) 30 October 2015 at 4:42 pm

          Why do you assume that I only want to attach numbers to learning?

          I am talking about using standardised LANGUAGE to track achievements. That means all singing from the same hymn sheet.

          What a monumental waste of time, money and effort it would be to get staff from every one of the +24K schools in England to invent their own incomparable system.

          Don’t you think that some of them may come up with similar systems? There are only so many ways to skin a cat.

          Some of them may put in a huge number of hours designing systems which seem good in theory but in practice don’t work?

          And out of interest how many teachers are being paid extra to put in all these additional hours?

        • joiningthedebate 30 October 2015 at 7:51 pm

          There was a system, one system, across the whole of England and Wales. It didn’t work. They were called levels. Only now is it safe to say this kind of thing.

        • joiningthedebate 31 October 2015 at 6:06 pm

          Monumental waste of money – yes all those glossy ringbinders containing NC levels. Think of the number of these produced since the nineties. If only the !money had been ploughed onto a state recommended text book

  8. Fiachra O'Brien 13 October 2015 at 4:05 pm Reply

    Levels were a tool designed to support a discussion about progress and standards. APP defined a process for how this may be done.

    Tick box IT systems were never part of the plan.

    The political pressure to show added value wasn’t/ couldn’t be resisted by School Senior Leaders and the whole system went nuts.

    A leadership deficit more than a tool problem.

    Parents do need a summative analysis on how their child is doing which will of-course have to be best fit – whether the thresholds have been formally stated – outside school, within school – or within the judgement of an individual teacher.

  9. Brian 13 October 2015 at 4:26 pm Reply

    I always thought that most of the level descriptors used in KS3, years 7-9, were ok.

    As others have said, the use of the data was more the issue than the descriptors for me.

    Is there somewhere I can go for a 30 minute read that will give me the crux of peoples dislike for levels.


    • Kate Cameron 13 October 2015 at 6:51 pm Reply

      Google Tim Oates -there’s a 13 minute explanation which I’ve shown our teachers and governors.

  10. joiningthedebate 24 October 2015 at 11:08 pm Reply

    We had 20 yrs of a system that didn’t work – not in my subject anyway. Emporers clothes – most people didn’t like to admit they couldn’t tell the difference between a 5 and a 6 let alone sublevels. A lot of pretending went on and quiet nodding but most teachers knew deep down that it didn’t work. Only now is it professionally safe to say so. The original creators of levels meant them to measure a cohort not to measure and track an individual student. It all got out of hand. Many teachers now feel vindicated for their scepticism – not that they will ever get an apology for all of that wasted time. PS I’m lucky in that my subject (maths) is more measurable than certain other subjects. Levels didn’t work for maths so how much more so for other subjects.

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