It’s in the books stupid!

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All this life ‘beyond levels’ stuff is very interesting. (I say that as someone who counts the number of sleeps before the RaiseOnline release date so you’ve been warned.) But I mean isn’t it though? Having to completely revolutionise the way you assess pupils whilst simultaneously getting to grips with a new national curriculum? If not interesting, it is, at the very least, a new challenge in education.

It is not just the practicalities that are interesting (watching each teacher’s brain melt inside their skull as they try not to peek at their APP statements whilst assessing a piece of writing); the discussions it has brought about are equally riveting.

There are the online conversations: fierce battles between those that loved levels, those that hated levels, those that have dreamt for the day when a 2B became as meaningless as it was interpretable, those that vowed to leave education if levels became defunct (as if it was in some way similar to a 95 pence supertax law), those that cynically denounced any other assessment system as ‘well it’s just levels in sheep’s clothing isn’t it’, and those that relished the thought of a convolutedly simplistic system that would come to define their appraisal prospects.

Then there are the fake real-life conversations – mainly conducted by sales reps offering a simple ‘Like levels but definitely not levels’ sales pitch, promising that all these systems will guarantee smoother progress trajectory patterns in each and every year group and, as long as you book out all five of your insets for their training, won’t cause your teachers any grief at all.

There are then the ‘real’ real-life conversations between schools:

Outstanding school not due to be inspected for another ten years: So what are you doing?

RI school about to be inspected: Well, we’ve had to get the ball rolling in case the big O rock up and want to talk life beyond levels, so we’ve launched a new system starting in every year group based on awarding pupils points according to a set of predetermined threshold criteria in every subject. Eight times a year these points are collected, averaged out and spread over an evaluation matrix that shows you exactly where the child was three months ago. However, we are still using levels as a back-up in Years 2 and 6 (obviously) but also in Year 1, 3 and 5. What are you doing?

Outstanding school not due to be inspected for another ten years: Oh we’re just sticking with levels. But do let me know how that system works out won’t you.

And don’t get me started about the conversations between staff members. Young teachers who only know levels and haven’t got the experience or confidence to look at a piece of work and go ‘Yeah, that looks about right for a seven year old’. Old teachers who have only ever used levels and can be seen wandering the school corridors clutching a crumpled and faded A3 APP spreadsheet like a security blanket. Ancient teachers who have only just got used to using levels since the days of educational freedom (which also happened to be the days of low standards, no planning, caning, and the occasional employment of non CRB’d paedophiles). Get a load of those teachers talking and the panic sets in faster than the reversal of achievement after the summer holidays.

As far as I can see the panic is caused for mainly two reasons:

  1. How will we know any new system works?
  2. What if I’m the only one it doesn’t work for?

To answer these questions we have to seriously ask ourselves what exactly are we looking for? Now, before you accuse me of coming over all Zen, let me explain. A large part of the conversations I have had with lots of people about life beyond levels is about children making progress. ‘I mean’, I hear the odd teacher cry, ‘If I don’t understand this crazy new system or use the system correctly, my children won’t make progress.’ WRONG. If you use the system incorrectly it will appear on paper that they have not made progress. In reality, they will have made exactly how much or how little progress your teaching has allowed. Progress is not determined by data – data does not even reflect actual progress. All data does is present a pattern of apparent progress, based on one individual’s interpretation of the progress measures being applied.

That is what is so gloriously silly about life beyond levels. It’s a sham. It’s not even the emperor’s new clothes. In the tale of ‘life beyond levels’ the emperor was butt naked from day one. Nobody really knew what a 2B was in writing – not to the extent that their judgement would chime exactly with every other practising teacher in the land. Nobody agreed with every single level judgement that came back from the SATS marker. No child ever graduated from one level to the next because of the inclusion of a single level descriptor. It’s all a nonsense.

Children make confusing, conflicting, incremental steps of progress all the time because, well, because they’re children: complicated little sods whose gradual rates of achievement occur like stages of evolution. You often can’t pin down exactly when it happens but, over time, it just does…providing?

That’s just it isn’t it? Progress happens providing the teaching is good and I don’t gauge that from data. I get it from monitoring the work of teachers: the planning, the teaching, the marking, the next steps. In short: It’s in the books stupid. Don’t worry about the system – that will sort itself out and settle itself down and be as accurate and frustrating as all ‘one size fits all’ systems have ever been. Yes, I’ll always check to see if the data patterns match up with what I see in the books and, when they don’t, I will investigate and support. The data may trigger an increased interest in your practice, but it won’t be the damning evidence that turns me into judge, jury and executioner. So, don’t panic, keep meeting the needs of your pupils, and the representation of your hard work through the ones and zeros of your data will look after itself.

Now get to bed – only 325 sleeps until the last ever RaiseOnline.

2 thoughts on “It’s in the books stupid!

  1. Cheis November 17, 2014 / 7:32 am

    very well said. There are so many out there that think the levels system or its replacement is the be all and end all.. In fact it is just a common language that we can use to talk about the progress and attainment of our students. Sadly that is just one of the new difficulties of having schools use their own systems., it will just take more time to share and understand our data.

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