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Au revoir to levels

The DfE announced this week that national curriculum levels are to disappear and it will be for schools to decide how to track the progress of students. There will still be KS2 test scores, GCSE results and A-levels to allow for school accountability and comparison.

I was never a believer when it came to levels. I disliked that they brought out the sceptic in me. In general, the older staff at my last school who had learned their trade without national curriculum levels were non-believers, whilst younger teachers tended to be believers or agnostics. My experience was that science teachers were greater fans than teachers of arts and social science subjects, most likely because scientific subjects lend themselves to clearer definitions of attainment at any point. My colleagues in the history department regularly complained how hard it was define levels in their subject.

If levels had remained, as intended, descriptors of attainment to be used at the end of a key stage, that might have been acceptable, but in recent years schools became too obsessed with using them for grading individual pieces of work and the advent of sub-levels (who invented them?) led to some very creative data production from teachers. What's more, as the DfE point out in their statement, parents did not understand them.

Improvement in most subjects is not linear so it was not always easy to say at what level a child was working. In MFL at least we had the notion of verb tense to latch on to, so we did not have to get too wound up by definitions of what "longer utterances" might have meant, for example. I have no doubt that the use of levels sharpened up the child's ability to know what they had to do to improve and I confess that I would, just occasionally, point out to students what it said on the pupil-friendly level posters we were forced to put on our classroom walls. Overall, however, I really felt that I was paying lip-service and that levels had led to no improvement in standards over the years.

Schools are now very well rehearsed at tracking progress, so will either continue using levels or come up with their own tracking systems. I have read it suggested that there will now be an opportunity for commercial providers to step in and provide assessment packages for schools. I wonder whether schools will need these. As a Head of Department I found that the most useful information was end of year exam percentages and end of unit test scores which we shared as a department. Comparability across departments and schools was largely provided by external exam results and Yellis/FFT data

But what about the role levels played in helping children to assess their own progress? Well, there are other ways of getting children to think about what they have to do to improve. Levels were too crude. Sub-levels were an invention. I would argue that more finely tuned "can-do" statements are preferable, the kind we often see in course books: "I can order a meal at a restaurant"; "I can talk about what I did last weekend" etc. Schools can also do what they used to: use percentages, letters or numbers to help motivate children.

So maybe the history of education in England will view the national system of levels as an aberration as we, hopefully, move away from a highly centralised system, to something more local.


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