In August, I wrote a piece entitled ‘Are Rumours of the Death of NC Levels Exaggerated?’ This was largely in response to a conversation that had taken place between my manager and I on the last day of the summer term, during the course of which she had told me that we would still be using National Curriculum Levels next (now this) year.
Following the publication of that piece, I realised that I had perhaps jumped the gun slightly. So euphoric was I on reading the following from the DfE that I assumed levels would cease to exist with close to immediate effect:
‘As part of our reforms to the national curriculum, the current system of ‘levels’ used to report children’s attainment and progress will be removed. It will not be replaced. We believe this system is complicated and difficult to understand, especially for parents. It also encourages teachers to focus on a pupil’s current level, rather than consider more broadly what the pupil can actually do. Prescribing a single detailed approach to assessment does not fit with the curriculum freedoms we are giving schools.’ (DfE, 13th June 2013)
I do realise now that I was being a bit hasty. It turned out that we had, in fact, been given until Sept 2014 to develop our own assessment systems.That would give schools over a year to make the most of their autonomy, to seriously think about developing their own systems. Systems that would be personal to them, showing the kind of evidence that would inform their own school staff, pupils and parents. Systems that would be both simple and accurate. In short: a real opportunity.
Meanwhile, at my own school, in a staff meeting a few weeks ago, our area manager came in to advise us that we would be using levels “for the foreseeable future” as all our “paperwork is geared towards them” and “all our spreadsheets operate using levels” and it is, after all, “what we know.”
“But the new National Curriculum isn’t set up with levels in mind? How are we going to make them fit?” I ventured. The response: “I don’t know”
Even worse, it was decreed by our highest tier of management that we would continue to use the APP method of recording and reporting: A system so copious in its paperwork it has seriously threatened the existence of many a rain forest.
Ever hopeful of making sense of all this, last week I broached the same subject with the Head Teacher at my daughter’s school. This was her response: “We’re sticking with levels, we are staying with the system we know. Most schools are, I think”
So, just two examples, of which there are (undoubtedly) many more, nationwide, who are completely ignoring what they have been told to do by the government. Can this be right? Am I misunderstanding something here? As I have previously surmised, it seems that agitation about what we should be replacing levels with is seriously stunting and stifling the whole process. I have seen and read many comments, discussions and blogs about what should replace levels. I’m not sure what the answer to this is, but I do know that the whole point of being told you can develop your own, unique, bespoke system is that you do just that, surely? The last thing that any school should be doing is getting embroiled in another huge, unwieldy nationally agreed system of assessing progress. Or we may just as well retain the NC Levels system. As I said before: let’s not give educational resource companies and training providers a new reason to be rubbing their hands in anticipation.
I truly believe the world is divided. There are teachers who wistfully recall life without levels. The days when we had in-class, in-subject tests to ascertain how much pupils had grasped in that term/year. The days when we simply had school reports and exams to measure progress. Then there are the teachers who have only taught since levels existed. They often feel slightly differently. I chatted to one (younger) male teacher at our school who said (re Levels), “I know they’re not perfect, I know some of it is pure fiction; but how will we show progress without them?”
When I remarked that, actually, a list of letters and numbers on a spreadsheet – supported by statements that often make no sense – is not necessarily the best way of proving progress: he looked at me blankly and shrugged. In a world where all our kids are routinely baseline assessed for learning styles, I think blind acceptance is routine.
Still, I naively thought, at least OFSTED would catch them out. Surely when OFSTED visit they will want to see what we’ve designed? There is no way that an organisation in such obvious cahoots with Michael Gove and his coterie would accept the ”we haven’t been given anything else” routine as an excuse for not grasping the golden opportunity to design our own assessment system.
Wrong. Very wrong. It seems I am so far wrong that it is now almost inconceivable to believe how I ever thought I was right.
A few days ago I came across the following contribution to #SLTChat on Twitter.
“…Anyone who enters Y7 with L5s needs to make 5Ls progress.”
Given the above information, it could be considered questionable that any contributor to #SLTChat should be making such a statement. This comment was actually made by a leading OFSTED inspector. I stared at this tweet for some time. I looked at the follow-up conversation strands, noted that no one was mentioning the imminent demise of Levels, and wondered if it was just me.
Me: ‘But NC Levels don’t exist anymore..?’
The response to this was, I thought, quite surprising:
‘That’s the issue. Progress still measured by Ofsted using levels. No joined up thinking at all – as ever’
Me: ‘Why not?’
‘who knows? Policy made on the hoof. No regard for the consequences?’
Now, I know this is a personal opinion, but it is still being expressed in a public forum regarding an issue of professional consequence. Could this view be widely held among OFSTED inspectors?
I decided to raise the question of the reliability of levels:
Me: ‘NC Levels notoriously unreliable? I’m surprised OFSTED place any value on them’
I thought the response to this particularly alarming:
‘they are still the national benchmark, reliable or not’
Reliable or not? Is it really possible to have an unreliable national benchmark? Surely the two are mutually exclusive?
So that’s that. Levels are still the national benchmark for OFSTED. While this is the case, what possible incentive is there for schools to develop their own assessment methods? OFSTED, as is so often acknowledged, are the driving force behind most of the policy and practice that goes on in our schools. If schools know that OFSTED are looking for something, however unreasonable it may seem to be, then that’s what they do. We have it from at least one horse’s mouth that OFSTED want to see X amount of levels of progress between this point and that point. This is not just applicable to KS2 and 3 data, either. It is expected for the whole of a child’s school career. Levels are still king, their data still rules above all other. There is, therefore, absolutely no reason for schools to change.
Faced with this information, it’s hardly any wonder that many schools aren’t rushing to change their assessment methods. Not for the first time, we are faced with discord between government advice and OFSTED practice. As OFSTED are holding all of the most powerful cards, we must try to please them first.
Levels are a huge, national system. It has been proven over and over again that they are easy to fake. Even if no deceit is intended, levels have been shown, at best, to be highly subjective. Yet still they continue to be used, despite these many glaring flaws. I am now convinced, more than ever before, that such systems exist, primarily, to make recording and reporting easy for OFSTED. OFSTED are providing the oxygen for levels. Here they have a system they understand and can apply national comparisons to; their accuracy (or lack of) being almost immaterial.
However, this sets them firmly at odds with what the DfE have told schools to do. According to the government, levels have been removed. I’d be very interested to see what Sir Michael Wilshaw has said on this matter, if anything at all. I have looked, but so far have found no statement.
So, until I am persuaded otherwise, it seems to me that rumours of the death of levels are not only exaggerated: unless a school is feeling particularly brave; they may even be lies.
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