December 2013


  • Education's five key aims
    Every parent wants their child to go to a good school and politicians and policy makers share a s similar ambition to ensure that all schools are good. So how do we make it happen? More
  • Expanding horizons
    Bill Lucas explores the concept of expansive education and what it means for teaching and learning. More
  • Life after levels?
    The government’s decision to abandon levels and leave individual schools to decide how to measure progress is understandably causing concern. However, says Andrew Thraves, many schools are already planning for a life without levels and some schools have already adopted a new system of day-to-day assessment. More
  • Clubbing together
    Youth workers who help with mentoring, PSHE and after-school clubs can also be a powerful tool in keeping students motivated and on track with learning. Dorothy Lepkowska reports. More
  • Revision time
    The introduction of performance-related pay, although controversial, offers an ideal opportunity for fresh thinking on how leaders manage change, says Edward Gildea. More
Bookmark and Share

The government’s decision to abandon levels and leave individual schools to decide how to measure progress is understandably causing concern. However, says Andrew Thraves, many schools are already planning for a life without levels and some schools have already adopted a new system of day-to-day assessment.

Life after levels?

The government’s policy of removing level descriptors from the National Curriculum (NC) is set out in terms of freeing schools from an imposed measure of pupil progress. The Department for Education (DfE) has said that levels are not very good with respect to helping parents to understand how far their child is improving. In their place, from September 2014, “it will be for schools to decide how they assess pupils’ progress”.

With levels removed and the focus now on raising the achievement of every pupil, schools will have to choose whatever measure of pupil attainment and progress they feel is most appropriate.

However, schools will still be required to have some form of monitoring system in place in order to report progress to Ofsted and to parents, even if they have greater freedom in the assessment framework they use (and, of course, those receiving Pupil Premium will also have to show that they are successfully closing the gap). Some schools may decide to map the current levels system to the new National Curriculum or adopt a new points or grading system – but how will they know where their pupils and cohorts sit against the national picture?

Whatever day-to-day assessment system schools opt for, the need for students to be tested against some form of benchmark during the course of each year is clear. Schools need to be able to demonstrate how well their students have learned and what progress they are making, ensuring that they are on track to meet expectations and taking action if individual pupils are falling behind.

To help support schools, the DfE will soon provide on its website examples of model assessment systems. It has pledged to provide sample assessment material and case studies of schools that are using other ways to assess pupils, for example, schools that are using tools from external suppliers that the DfE believes are effective. In the midst of all this, one other government announcement will have caught the eye of many secondary heads. In the future, declared Schools Minister David Laws, pupils’ Key Stage 2 results will be used to set ‘reasonable’ expectations of what they should achieve at GCSE with schools given credit where pupils outperform such expectations. This is quite an onus to place on KS2 SATs.

Grading system

At St Peter’s Collegiate School in Wolverhampton, Vice-principal Steve Walters is well aware of the challenges of dealing with assessment without levels, having taken the decision to move away from them in 2009.

“We just found that levels weren’t really working for us,” Steve says. “That was partly because levels lacked any real currency with parents with many reporting they had little or no understanding about what the various levels represented.”

St Peter’s decided to monitor pupils’ progress using a grading system that would build up to the grades awarded at GCSE. At first, that meant the school had to spend some time explaining the new system to parents and pupils, particularly so they knew that some work could be set where the highest mark would be a ‘D’ or an ‘E’. However, parents and pupils were all on side; they could understand grades and could see the journey ahead.

“If you’re going to get rid of levels, you have to replace them with something that everyone can easily understand. That’s why we went down the road of grades,” Steve says.

Effective planning was vital. Subject leaders were tasked with mapping levels to the new grading structure and for some subjects, such as the sciences and maths; the task of mapping pupils’ capabilities to the grades was straightforward. However, for other subjects, such as English and languages, the process proved more time-consuming.

St Peter’s was able to move away from levels relatively easily because it already had a comprehensive assessment process in place. Rather than relying purely on SATs, St Peter’s uses other formative assessment with national benchmarking, along with teacher observations, to provide a fuller picture of pupil ability from the start.

Before children enter Year 7, they’re invited on a three-day induction course at the end of Year 6. Because the school takes pupils from up to 40 different feeder primaries, it’s not possible to work too closely with individual schools over the Year 7 intake. Instead, the induction days give St Peter’s the chance to show the incoming pupils what life at the school is like. But they also get them to sit the cognitive abilities test (CAT).

Reasoning ability

Used by more than 50 per cent of UK secondary schools, CAT measures the four main types of reasoning a ability that are known to make a difference to learning and achievement. The resulting data is then used to identify a pupil’s strengths, weaknesses and learning preferences, providing accurate and reliable information for teaching and learning, all benchmarked against the national average.

CAT results also include statistically reliable indicators for a student’s future results at the end of GCSE or A level, helping teachers to set achievable but challenging targets and identify quickly if progress has halted.

We don’t just have one data point for a child, we use as many as we can to give us as complete a picture as possible,” says Steve.

For some schools, the idea that they will be judged on whether their Year 7 cohort ultimately achieves the expected GCSE results may encourage them to form stronger partnerships with feeder primaries.

Academies and academy chains may also embrace the benefits of expanding to include primary schools, creating a system where pupils get a consistent approach throughout their entire school career.

At Ormiston Forge Academy in Cradley Heath in the West Midlands, there are about 16 feeder primary schools, so it’s not possible to focus just on a single one, says Principal Andrew Burns. Nonetheless, he and his team work closely with five of the major feeder schools, so the passage from primary to secondary is as smooth as possible.

Given the huge focus on involving parents in their child’s education, it is inconceivable that parents will be left without some way of understanding how primary schools are performing, Andrew says.

“There’s a need to have common currency, so parents can compare how schools are performing,” he says.

No doubt, the government will carefully watch the effect of removing levels. Ofsted will challenge schools to show the effectiveness of the choices they make. There may be some fresh attempt to coordinate progress measures nationally for comparability purposes.

However the change ultimately pans out, Andrew Burns believes that the decision to replace levels can represent an opportunity for school leaders to replace them with something that really works well for them and the young people who attend their schools.

“If the Department for Education will make a commitment that schools have the opportunity to prepare for the changes and that the new system will be in place for the long term, I think schools will welcome it with open arms.”

Below is ASCL’s position on the government’s plans to dispense with assessment levels. ASCL is also participating in the National Association of Head Teachers (UK) (NAHT) commission on a replacement for levels that is both suitable and coherent for all schools to use.

ASCL position statement:
Assessment levels 
Assessing progress accurately is a vital tool for schools. The current levels make clear what needs to be taught and learned at each key stage and they have become widely understood by the profession, learners and parents. Removing these levels without any attempt to put a coherent national system in its place would significantly affect schools’ ability to measure progress meaningfully, adversely affecting students’ progress and achievement. We strongly recommend a review of assessment that takes into account the revised expectations at Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 4. For all students to make maximum progress, schools need to work within a nationally benchmarked system of assessment that spans through the key stages and allows for data to follow students coherently through their time in education.