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How did schools measure progress before levels?

This may be of interest to younger teachers in England and Wales who have only known national curriculum levels and who may be curious about the era before.

Wikipedia reminds me that following the Education reform Act of 1988, national curriculum tests were introduced for 7-year-olds for the academic year ending July 1991, and for 11-year-olds in the academic year ending July 1995. Attainment levels had to be recorded for tests and levels awarded by teachers in both core (maths, English, science) and non-core subjects. Sometime after 2000 schools began to refine level measurement by using sub-levels, which were never defined.

So how did schools measure progress from 1944 to around 1990?

GCSE O-level, A-level and CSE were the main indicators of performance for a whole school, even though these results were never advertised to the public. In addition schools would set internal examinations at least once a year. These would produce data in the form of percentages. At my first school I recall an attempt was made to standardise these percentages so that parents would be able to compare them fairly in school reports.

Day to day assessment and tracking occurred in the usual way, with the by means of the teacher's informal assessment, homework marks and regular tests. Marks were recorded in mark books with pen and paper.

At least once a year, and sometimes more often, a brief summary report was written for the benefit of parents and students. This would usually consist of an A4 sheet with an attainment and effort grade (usually in the form of letters and numbers) for each subject, an exam mark and quite possibly an indication of the pupil's position in the class relative to others. Rank ordering was common, though lost popularity during the 1980s as schools realsied how demotivating this might be to lower performing pupils. Teacher comments on reports would be very brief and would rarely indicate any targets for improvement.

Senior staff would generally keep a record of internal and external exam results and could therefore informally monitor the performance of teachers and departments. There was no reference to national standards. No levelling. I don't think it crossed many people's mind. What maintained the standard was the content of external examinations which dictated to a large extent the content of the course book which in turn dominated teaching. This remains true today and is why a national curriculum seems superfluous to some, including Michael Gove.

Did it work? Well, I think it is fair to say that modern leadership teams and heads of department have, with the aid of detailed tracking of levels as well as performance management, a much firmer handle on pupil progress. In the past poor performance was much more easily tolerated or brushed under the carpet. Weak, lazy or incompetent teachers were left relatively unchallenged. Then, as now, teachers took pride in getting good results from their classes and there was certainly a sense of competition between staff and departments, but measurement was far less objective, there was no benchmarking and no concept of value-added. There was far less pressure on teachers to perform. There was also less time spent on detailed measuring, recording and target-setting.

When you bear all these things in mind, it would be surprising if standards had not improved in the last two decades or so.

It is possible that, at the margins, a clear focus on levels and target-setting, along with more focused management and CPD, has raised attainment. This remains hard to measure for certain. Explicit programmes of study and level descriptors no doubt clarified to some extent what was expected of pupils nationally. But levels could also distort classroom practice. In MFL classrooms a more distinct focus was placed on tense usage in Y9, since that was the key aspect required to achieve level 6. Did this mean that we over-focused on this at the expense of other areas? Possibly.

The problem with levels is that they became a monster. With the invention of sub-levels and finely tuned tracking processes  teachers sometimes felt they were spending too much time weighing the pig rather than feeding it. In some subjects levels were hard to define, for example when progress in a subject was not linear. Levels may have made more sense in maths and science, than history, MFL or English. A good deal of creativity was used by teachers to concoct levels from other data such as test percentages, giving one the feeling that exam data was primary, levels secondary. If levels were so important, why were they not used beyond KS3? It seems we could manage without them.

Although I get why levels were invented and how a reference to a national standard may be useful, ultimately I doubt very much whether their demise will lower standards. It will be interesting to see where we are in 10 years from now.


  1. This was an interesting post to read, I'm training to be a primary teacher and this has come up in many of our lectures recently, so this was intriguing to read - thank you. I think it's going to go one of three ways for schools really. 1. They will adapt rapidly, come up with a brilliant way of assessing for the child. 2. They will try to keep to the same assessment level we have now but under another name. Or 3. They could panic and flitter between numbers 1 and 2 for a couple of years before settling for one or the other. I'm fascinated to be a apart of this process and know which option I would like to be a part of!

  2. Thank you for commenting. Sorry I did not pick it up sooner! Interesting that the NAHT are looking to give advice for a common approach to avoid fragmentation. I though Gove was happy with fragmentation in this regard.

    Maybe the old levels wopuld have been OK if we had not turned them into a religion! Unintended consequences.

    It's probably too soon to say which way this will all go. We did cope before though.


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