Published on: 04 Apr 2014

The removal of National Curriculum levels is a hot topic in education

A vision of life without levels

As 250 school leaders crowded into a presentation theatre at the ASCL Annual Conference last month, it was proof indeed that the removal of National Curriculum levels is one of the hottest topics in education today.

They were there for our panel debate on ‘Life without Levels’ and it was a golden opportunity to hear a group of thought-leaders explore their vision of the new assessment landscape.

I thought it would be good to share some of the key views from the event.

1. Take your time

A recurring theme of the debate was that schools should avoid rushing headlong into an unsatisfactory alternative to National Curriculum levels. 

Brian Cartwright, HMI inspector and National Lead for Science, said that schools should take their time. He suggested that, over the coming months, schools might want to decide what their pupils should be learning year by year as that builds towards each end of key stage. This sort of approach will help organise schemes of work, inform subsequent teachers, and give parents and pupils an idea of how they are doing on the journey towards mastery of the whole lot by the end of stage.

This was a view that Steve Walters, vice principal of St Peter’s Collegiate School, agreed with. His school is already living without levels, having adopted GCSE grades right from when they start in Year 7.

Steve has found that this approach engages students with their progress because grades matter to them as stepping stones towards an ultimate goal. Parents have also bought into the new system as they know what the grades mean, but not the levels.

2. Engage your stakeholders

If a school does decide on a new system of assessment, panel members agreed that to ensure a successful roll out, these changes must be clearly communicated to parents, pupils and all other school stakeholders.

Andrew Day, executive director of Northumberland Church of England Academy, highlighted that some parents could have low literacy levels, so any system needs to be easy for all to understand.

And, most importantly, pupils should understand the way they are assessed. After all, every child needs to know what their target is and what they are working for.

Andrew also spoke about the need to ensure governors are confident with data, suggesting that the removal of levels could open the way to a simpler, more accessible system.

3. Equip your teachers

Ensure your teachers can work easily with any assessment framework you choose, was director of policy at ASCL, Leora Cruddas’, advice.

However, it is not enough to rely on one or two capable professionals within your school, as Patsy Kane, chair of ASCL’s education committee, pointed out. If you lose one of your key people, it could be much harder to get a new system up and running.

They recommended networking; encouraging clusters of schools to pool expertise and share best practice.

4. Back to the future

It is important to remember not just what we are assessing but who we are assessing.

Patsy Kane talked about the need for secondary schools to have reliable information about new intakes to plan their learning pathway. Assessment at Key Stage 2 is all the more critical if SAT results are to be used to set GCSE expectations – and maintain national benchmarking.

And what about the next learning pathway and the one after that? Patsy asked if we are equipping children to succeed at GCSE, A Levels and beyond.  Assessment is more than simply getting children ready for the next exam.

5. The big picture

A good assessment regime should take a holistic view of a pupil in a four dimensional model in my view, and this view was cemented during the debate. You need to consider a pupil on the basis of teacher’s professional judgement, ability, attainment and attitude to learning.

These four elements show us where a learner is now, where they are going and how to get them there, and this is the sound basis for future assessment - with or without levels.

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