Over the weekend I read some excellent blog entries, some thoughtful arguments and counter arguments surrounding the Department for Education’s decision to remove National Curriculum Levels. I imagine some of these discussions will be heavily hyperlinked in the coming days, and to continue with the trend it is worth reading Tom Bennett’s ‘The Death of Levels…’, a proponent of level demise. Tom includes a key nod to the fact that the DfE are giving us the ‘gift’ of freedom to devise our own system for assessment and reporting, but have (not so) subtly gone on to add:
“Although schools will be free to devise their own curriculum and assessment system, we will provide examples of good practice which schools may wish to follow”
I am known for my ‘geeky’ interests but I can’t help but feel the DfE like to build up suspense with their announcements, somewhat like Sony’s infamous ‘Everything but the console’ launch of the PlayStation 4 earlier this year or the reveal-nothing- teaser-posters which precede a Game of Thrones season opener by some months. It will be incredibly interesting un-wrapping this second ‘gift’, though I hope the freedom afforded to schools will not turn out to foster a feeling of ‘you can do what you want so long as you do what we say’ or ‘pay for what we offer you’ (Tom Bennett puts it slightly differently which I recommend reading!).
Countering Tom’s discussion is @chrishildrew‘s excellent ‘Assessment without Levels’, a post I immediately identified with on reading, which eloquently shares some of the concerns I have touched on above. I also recommend reading Debra Kidd’s contribution that covers some brilliant points for consideration. If you want to keep up to date with some of the discussion it is worth a search on Twitter for #trojanassessment coined by Debra; a hast tag already attracting useful cogs from Twitter’s teacher engine room!
The data is not the Devil
It only takes a glance at my I ❤ Spreadsheets mug to get an insight in to my opinion of data in schools. Most staff concerns surrounding the use of data I find, stems from data collection and collation that has no action attached to it. Data will only be as useful as the interventions and strategies it informs (ahem Mr Gove!). This is where I come to a personal disagreement with the announcement that NC Levels are being removed with no replacement, and with the options for schools to devise their own plan. At the moment I am concered there is an absence of responsibility from the DfE for providing the consistency nationally (unless their delayed release reveals otherwise and it is just an opportunistic means for them to humour teachers and make schools feel involved!). I have shared coversations with colleagues about subjects where national frameworks and guidance is lacking at KS3 (notably Drama and Dance), and the difficulty this causes in consistent reporting and communication between colleagues, to parents, and even students.
I wholeheartedly encourage the detachment of level gradings from marking isolated pieces of work. In this instance I have found them to be as lacking in guidance as a mark out of 10 or a GCSE letter grade (oops, I mean 1-8 number scale!). I expect most school policy documents on marking discourage their use in this way. As a Head of Year having an overiew of whole year group data, I value the ‘common language’ that the level number provides across the curriculum. It matters not that the content behind those level descriptors varies widely from French to Food Tech, or from Music to Maths, it simply matters that there is a consistent means of reporting. There seems to be a criticism that Levels are just an arbitrary number that do not hold great value in the context of students’ learning. But isn’t this true of grades at KS4 and KS5, a degree banding at University, or even a Pass in a driving test? None inform the learner of progress far beyond “you have made it to here“. The data (and indeed the levels) is not the Devil here, it is what informed that data and what that data will go on to inform that can be the door ajar to a room full of problems.
To put this into a context; we are currently working on an exciting intervention initiative for Year 7 students in school. It is taking the form of a Summer Project to help support some of our wonderful students progress from a Level 4 to a Level 5 in core subjects as they enter Year 8. We are not doing this primarily because we wish the students to be a Level 5, we do this because we want them to be proficient in the skills associated with Level 5 (just like a driving instructor wants a learner to be proficient in the skills of passing a driving test!).
The important questions that strike me; are we always clear about what the skills attached to Level 5 are? and what informed the Level 4 judgement to begin with? I don’t think either of these key issues are exclusive to NC Levels, and they will remain problematic no matter what grade, symbol or hieroglyph we decide to use. I suppose there is also the argument for doing away with these indicators altogether and measure against progress for attaining skill sets in every school in the country. However, for tracking purposes a summary or quick overview would be beneficial and we may come back to assinging some form of ‘flag’ regardless. Furthermore, the issue of consistency will continue to rear its ugly head as I mention next.
On the issue of what informed the Level 4 judgement; using my subject of Science as an example, I have reported a teacher assessed grade (TAG) twice this year so far in the subject (that gets communicated with parents). This TAG was informed by my scrutiny of students’ work during the course of the year, my professional judgement of their progress, and my marking of a total of six end of topic tests. All of this could have been done without levels I acknowledge, but providing we tether an increasing NC level to skills requiring increasing competency appropriately, it is actually a very useful indicator. There is an immediate limitation, and I have attempted to exaggerate it in my wording of my last statement (see the italicised phrases). There is no external moderation, there is no standardisation beyond departmental discussion, and there is inevitably room for subjective opinion, however the DfE announcement and (lack of) strategy does not remedy these issues at all.
One thing is clear, and the DfE quote above emphasises this, there will have to be a means of reporting and schools will still be held accountable, but to me the focus must be on consistency and clarity both at local school level and nationally (I dread to think how much more awkward the communication of progress could become between Key Stages and for mid-Key Stage school movers). It remains to be seen how such freedoms will be condusive to this outcome and whether schools will be allowed to fall on their own swords, with Ofsted waving the flag of condemnation.
Consistency is king
There are some fantastic pathway models being devised by masterful ‘educational-engineers’ around the country, an immensely interesting piece of work is being carried out by the Headteacher’s Rountable and their HTRT Qualifications Framework. The proposed framework is a very well informed and a thoughtfully constructed pathway, it is highly inclusive and enabling for learners. There are 5 key points that it aims to address, and it is point 5 that draws my attention at the moment:
[The HTRT Qualifications Framework] should facilitate the construction of a universal transcript enabling all learners to record all of their achievements over time, informing transition and progress mapping at all stages.
I do really like this model, and this is not intended to be a critique of its conception, on the contrary I think it is very positive. Though to make a point, even this excellent suggestion returns to a grading attached to a points system, which is tethered to subject content. There is also the idea of the ‘universal’; much like a hot air balloon tethered to a basket, learning criteria correctly tethered to a level descriptor as an overview of achievement and a universal language can function perfectly well. Focus on the learning and the levels will take care of themselves, focus on the levels alone and watch the learning suffer, but does this really mean we cannot assign them?
If educational progress was at all governed by the laws of Evolution by Natural Selection then it is a shame the DfE tend to erase to improve. I hope by starting fresh we all arrive at a very similar (if not the same) destination, and we are not wandering in to the error of rejecting the essential to deal with the inessential.