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A word about national curriculum levels

The previous National Curriculum for England and Wales in Modern Foreign Languages is now"disapplied", as the DfE puts it. Academies and Free Schools may now do their own thing and maintained schools have a new, slimmed down curriculum with no level descriptors. My impression from forums and Twitter is that most schools are continuing to use their well established systems for tracking students which employ the existing levels. They have good reasons for doing this. The elaborate systems which schools have set up required an enormous amount of time and energy and they do, for all their unintended consequences, allow for adequate and quite detailed tracking.

But how accurate is the allocation of levels? When levels were first introduced departments were asked to keep marked portfolios of student work and exemplar materials were provided by the DfE to help schools get their levelling right. My departmnt did this carefully and we established a pretty good grasp of what levels meant. The assumption may have been made that this process led to comparable levelling from school to school and that in recent years the same attention was given to the process.

What subsequently occurred was this: as teachers became more familiar with levels (and later sub-levels) they would concoct tasks which enabled pupils to show they could produce work which corresponded to a certain level. "This is a Level 6 piece of work", you would hear. It thus became tempting to allocate a level to a student based on the production of a particular piece of work which may not have been characteristic of that student's typical performance. This process could even be used to motivate pupils. "If you do this, this and this, you will get a Level 6." (In the early days of levels my own department designed exam papers to fit level descriptors.)

The same process occurs later on when preparing pupils for GCSE controlled assessments. "If you include X, Y and Z, then you will get a grade A."

Sad to note that teachers have to resort to this strategy to motivate students. But teachers and students will always play the system they are given.

Here are the level descriptors for MFL Speaking:

Level 3

Pupils ask and answer simple questions and talk about their interests. They take part in brief prepared tasks, using visual or other clues to help them initiate and respond. They use short phrases to express personal responses. Although they use mainly memorised language, they occasionally substitute items of vocabulary to vary questions or statements.

Level 4

Pupils take part in simple conversations, supported by visual or other cues, and express their opinions. They begin to use their knowledge of grammar to adapt and substitute single words and phrases. Their pronunciation is generally accurate and they show some consistency in their intonation.

Level 5

Pupils give a short prepared talk that includes expressing their opinions. They take part
in short conversations, seeking and conveying information, opinions and reasons in simple terms. They refer to recent experiences or future plans, as well as everyday activities and interests. They vary their language and sometimes produce more extended responses. Although there may be some mistakes, pupils make themselves understood with little or no difficulty.

The descriptors in the other three skills reflect a similar level of complexity.

On this basis I would argue that it would be rare for a Y7 beginner pupil to get beyond Level 4 by the end of Y7. You could always teach a few examples of past or near future/future tense, but would these be characteristic of everyday classroom performance? We can get pupils to memorise a short talk to show extended response, but would this be typical of their conversational performance? Level 4 looks a better fit for even quite able pupils than Level 5. I wonder how many teachers give Level 5 to Y7 pupils.

One can easily see how "level inflation" might occur. As the SLT demand the highest standards and encourage competition between departments, so the pressure mounts to inflate levels and future targets.

The idea behind levels may have been commendable: an attempt to measure pupil performance objectively within and across schools. An attempt at criterion referencing, if you will. An attempt to allow parents to see how their children are doing with reference to national standards.

In reality, levels cannot be trusted, parents do not understand them and I doubt they have raised standards. I believe, on balance, Michael Gove was right to get rid of them.


  1. I agree Steve - my levels range from 2C for very low ability pupils to a 3a - 4b aspirational target for higher ability pupils - and they have to achieve this across all four skills before getting the level...

    We baseline pupils when they come in & the majority are still working towards level 2 - many don't even have basic vocab so struggle with level 1.

    Expecting 5 levels of progress at KS3 is therefore challenging before you start .. we are used to it but I'm not sure how much SLT are often aware of the accelerated learning our pupils make over this period of time!


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