Life After Levels: LOL

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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What does ‘life after levels’ look like?

There used to be a time when ‘assess’ meant something but the look, smell, taste and feel of assessment has immeasurably changed. Now it’s a virtual free for all. Life after levels has been one magnificent mess.

The recently published report Primary assessment by The House of Commons Education Committee notes:

National curriculum levels were removed without enough support in place for schools to implement their own assessment systems successfully. Many schools have now adopted ineffective assessment systems.

This is true. Children don’t know whether they are emerging, submerging, working towards, working within, shifting sideways, falling down, spinning on the spot or swimming with the fishes. Add on to these achieved +, achieved XL and achieved +XXL plus a rainbow of colours and suddenly a Level 4a looks attractive again.

Schools have had the choice to decide how they assess pupils’ progress for a while now and as such many different styles have emerged. What happens in one school isn’t necessarily what the school next door does. Commercial providers soon jumped into the void and promised all manner of ‘solutions’ and some schools were a little too hasty buying into a package.

Things got worse. Children were now described as:

There (T)

Almost There (AT)

There Or Thereabouts (TOT)

There, There (TT)

Not Quite There (NQT)

Over There (OT)

Somewhere Over There But Not Sure Where But Probably Okay (SOTBNSWBPO)

Nowhere Near There (NNT)

There Has To Be A Better Way (THTBABW)

Parents have no chance understanding the changes. The LKMco interim report ‘Testing the Water: Exploring the future of assessment in teaching

Teachers and parents have significant concerns about the accuracy and consistency of assessments, resulting primarily from the development and use of different assessment systems across the country in response to the removal of levels.

 Do It Yourself

The Government’s policy of removing level descriptors from the National Curriculum was based on the notion that levels confused parents and restricted teachers.

Many teachers argued that the levels system wasn’t perfect but was widely understood so why scrap it. Others were delighted to see the back of levels as it provided a system-wide opportunity to reboot and rebalance teaching, enliven the curriculum and focus on learning without limits.

Hearing children describe themselves as a ‘3b’ or a ‘2a’ was always a deeply unpleasant playground duty experience for lots of teachers.

Whilst assessment without levels has been controversial and messy it has provided schools with an unusual and rather unique opportunity to do their own thing and plan for amazing learning outcomes for all. And they have – schools have worked out their responses and created home-grown approaches to assessment that put children and curriculum at its heart.

Scrapping levels has encouraged a more professional and intelligent approach to open the door up to deeper and more creative learning allowing schools to focus on providing genuine support to improve educational quality and equity…or has it?

The LKMCo report makes it very clear,

There is a lack of consistency between schools. Participants in our workshops and online consultation emphasised the difficulty in drawing comparisons between pupils’ achievements and progress in different schools, because of a lack of commensurability between their assessment systems. One challenge here, an online respondent suggested, is that there is “no common system; all schools can use their own.

The opportunity to take a step back and consider afresh how we might use assessment has given schools the opportunity to innovate. Assessment is whatever you want it to be as you can develop your own assessment system and that includes what to assess, when to assess it, how to assess it and who to share all this with.

But when schools were told that they could go ahead and innovate by developing their own assessment systems no one really expected 20,000 different models. Fragmentation has led to wide variations in how schools operate. Do it yourself and you have only got yourself to blame.

All Systems Go

Canny schools didn’t rush into an assessment overhaul frenzy when the old levels were dumped into landfill, because they saw that the off the peg systems solutions being offered were recording systems rather than assessment approaches. They rejected commercial tracking systems and instead, developed a system that served the school not what someone wanted to deliver.

They saw there were no quick-fixes, tricks or short-cuts. Canny schools took a step back and looked at what was right for them by looking at their curriculum first and thought carefully about what system met their needs. They took their time to get the right system for their needs by deciding what they valued most. Their philosophy is that curriculum drives assessment and not the other way round.

The common language might be ‘mastery’ but other systems are thriving and the right assessment model is one that is tailored to the individual needs of teachers, pupils and parents.

Some will say, that there should be one assessment system for all pupils so long as this is meaningful and appropriate but does it matter if teachers in the same school all adopt different ways of working?

The key issue is how well a teacher knows each pupil and that they help each child progress.

Try Your Level Best

Assessment is at the heart of teaching and learning and must be underpinned by the utmost confidence that every pupil can improve. It has to be inclusive of all abilities and set high expectations for everyone, it has to be appropriate and consistent and assessment outcomes must provide meaningful and understandable information. A coherent approach to assessment is at the centre of strong outcomes and how a school challenges itself to improve.

Assessment shouldn’t be about reinventing the wheel but thinking about what you cover the wheel with in order for it to move smoothly and more effectively. The bottom line is that every child should be able to demonstrate his or her attainment or progress.

Assessment: can’t live with it and can’t live without it. It’s a good servant but a terrible master. It’s a messy and complex art form and fundamental to teaching but profoundly difficult to get right.

Ask parents what they think about assessment and whether they understand it and many are now more confused than ever before. So are the teachers. All we can do is try our level best.

Let’s leave the last words to the Primary assessment report which recommends:

The availability of more high quality advice and guidance would mitigate the risk of schools purchasing low-quality assessment systems from commercial providers. The Government must make that advice and guidance available. This could include a more developed ‘item bank’ of case studies, professional development training, guidance on good assessment and links to research into effective assessment.

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