Levels are dead…long live the Levels.

ImageIn a recent local authority meeting for ‘locally maintained Head Teachers’ we were asked by our local leaders to partake in what was essentially a massive brain storm session. Like an excruciating episode of the Apprentice, where a team has got to the end of day one and still hasn’t got a new revolutionary design for a toilet, our leaders were equipping us with post-its and marker pens and putting us into small groups to try and work out, please dear god have an answer for the question: what is good about being a locally maintained school?

As we desperately begun searching for the unique selling point that would prevent them from being told ‘you’re fired’ by central government it became clear that apart from moral, social, philosophical, personal and political reasons (and what good are they in the boardroom?) there aren’t any. In reality this is a quite a good thing because it signifies that local schools have been working together quite happily to improve the quality and consistency for all pupils within the area. The matter of whether you’re a free school, academy, federation, faith school, LA maintained school doesn’t really come into it: when you get professionals trying to improve things for their schools they often recognise the need to collaborate and often don’t let technicalities get in the way. But the more this was discussed and liked by everyone in the room the less it looked like there was a clear ‘model’ for LA schools.

But then the DfE confirmed that they are getting rid of the current system of ‘levels’ used to report children’s attainment and progress and (as Gove wants us all to be free thinking and innovative)…it will not be replaced. This has caused a huge level of debate on twitter and there are some very interesting and contrary thoughts about it. One thought that has not been explored but surely has been considered by Local Authority Leaders and Directors of services is that this could be a chance to save the local authority’s bacon: Over-hauling levels could be the pig’s ear that the LA could spin into its very own silk purse.

Ultimately, what really matters is the progress and the achievement within a particular discipline to a particular expected standard. That is never going to go away. The biggest issue with this is consistency in terms of accuracy of judgement. Anyone who has ever taken part in a staff meeting or inset on ‘benchmarking’ writing levels knows how difficult it is to attain consistency across a single table of teachers let alone a school’s worth. No matter what you agree on by the end of the day, in a year’s time some teachers will still be led by their own personal judgements on what constitutes a true level. Monitoring helps iron out the inconsistencies but it still occurs-especially during transition periods (you know that bit in Term 2 where you see that no one has made progress and some pupils have gone backwards?). And that’s just in a single school: imagine the variation across the country.

Whatever system you choose, you are still going to have this issue. Standardised testing is meant to put a big sticky plaster over this as it levels out the playing field. Now we can clearly measure progress from KS1 to KS2. Not really…we can measure how one adult judged a pupil’s writing against how a different adult judged the same pupil’s writing  (well, two pieces of writing completed within 45 minutes) four years later.

We could have more standardised testing. Yearly SATS that do not rely on personal interpretations of level descriptors but instead, give scores within each element of reading, writing and maths; which in turn track the levels of achievement for each child. This has already been introduced in the Y1 phonics screening and the Y6 SPAG tests so why not stretch across the entire school. Easy. No margin of error and with a pass score everyone can understand.

I don’t really fancy this idea but then I do quite like curriculum level descriptors. They provide a structure of progression that allows us (teachers, pupils and parents) to see what areas of reading, writing and maths need to be developed through quality teaching and learning.

The problem is not with how we assess but when. This is where local authorities could really challenge the status quo and perhaps develop a more robust way of measuring pupil progress and achievement and therefore the performance of its schools.

What about, doing away with end of Key Stage tests? Pasi Sahlberg, an educationalist from Finland (one of the world’s top performing countries in terms of standards of education) said that too often standardised tests were seen as ‘end points’ used to judge the final score at the end of a particular phase in a child’s educational career. Instead they should be seen as a ‘check point’ throughout a longer journey.

So why not assess pupils at certain times in their life as opposed to certain times during the school calendar. Age appropriate assessment could allow us to see if the pupil is achieving as well as their peers of a similar age. This would either mean testing pupils on their birthdays (oh alright the day after, honestly, you Liberals!) or ensuring that we accurately match level descriptors and developments with age expectations rather than end of year expectations. This would allow us to track progress fairly and in relation to every pupil in any school-it would be a far better form of standardisation than getting a cohort of pupils to sit the same test at the same hour on the same date. So don’t throw away your level descriptors just yet but get ready for a new assessment timetable and tell the unions we may need to boycott SATs for the next two years.

It would need a bit of careful thinking, a lot of professional trust and a significant amount of communication between schools. These are all things that a local authority could organise and provide and if applied across a whole city could support consistency as well. It would also move us away from the obsession of reinventing the wheel in terms of finding the next approach to assessment and chasing fads to prove tiny bits of short lasting impact. Responsible assessment followed by appropriate and effective input all sewn up by the language of ‘age’ that everyone understands. By giving schools the ‘freedom of choice’ Michael Gove may have unwittingly provided local authorities with a unique opportunity to start an educational revolution and in doing so, cement their place on the educational landscape.

4 thoughts on “Levels are dead…long live the Levels.

  1. chrishildrew June 16, 2013 / 3:36 pm

    “So why not assess pupils at certain times in their life as opposed to certain times during the school calendar.” Why not indeed – an excellent idea. This would work equally well in secondary. Like this!

  2. philiprolt June 24, 2013 / 6:56 pm

    Levels have served their purpose. Schools are now accountable and we are avoiding that cyclical rebadging of strategies with no thought of accountability. We are aware of the need for data and analysing pupil progress and this has come from the levels. I hope what we get now is something that allows us to deliver the content rich curriculum Mr. Gove wants but without a loss of focus on breadth and balance. If the replacement for levels delivers in this way then I won’t be too disappointed. (I did feel a little uneasy though preparing pupils for the new SPAG test with no knowledge of where level thresholds may be placed this year.)

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