Are Rumours of the Death of NC Levels Exaggerated?

It has been over six weeks since I first saw this:

“God. DAMN. Levels are toast. They ‘will not be replaced.”’

Late one night in June, Tom Bennett was broadcasting this news all over Twitter as loudly as he possibly could. National Curriculum Levels were, it seemed, finally on death row.

However, like a hardy bacteria using metamorphosis to defy antibiotics, a fly you just can’t swat or a particularly virulent case of athletes foot: somehow, and for reasons I’ll move on to shortly, the damn things refuse to die quietly. They just will not go away.

Teacher in classroom

Let’s look briefly at the history of levels:

Back in the 1990′s school league tables had been introduced in an attempt to provide transparency and reassure all that educational standards were acceptable, or highlight when they weren’t. Data was gathered to help compile these league tables, including exam results and National Curriculum Level information. League tables would enable parents to make an informed choice about their child’s education. That was the plan, at least.

Unfortunately, this competition element also brought with it the possibility of cheating, or the ‘manipulation’ or ‘massaging’ of the figures. I have written previously about the grade-inflation of GCSE exams and also the truly unwieldy, untrustworthy, unfathomable and, ultimately , unworkable ‘National Curriculum Levels’ system. Here, a pupil begins school at (or works towards) Level 1, and could achieve level 8 by the end of their school career.

Levels had originally been designed to provide an accurate snapshot of a child’s ability without necessarily referencing their year group. For example: a child may be working at level 4 in year 6 (average) or they could be working at level 6 (top 1%).

The drawback is that the systems used to assess these levels soon became so varied and complex that it was almost impossible to judge if they were accurate or not. When 3 ‘sub-levels’ (a, b, and c) were also introduced to each level, things became so ridiculously subjective that a teacher could, more or less, score a child whatever they wanted: ‘Ryan is now working at a level 4a’. They could make a spreadsheet and show a couple of sub-levels improvement and thus ‘prove’ what a good teacher they were. Who’s going to argue? Probably no-one. Furthermore, if teachers couldn’t spot the deception then parents stood no chance, whatsoever.


Thus, when the DfE made the following announcement on the 13th June, many breathed a sigh of relief:
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.’

That seems pretty final. What, then, are the issues and why are we even discussing them? From what I’ve read, heard, seen, and deduced, the problem appears to be this:

We haven’t got anything to replace them with.

Like a Heroin addict sitting in a side-room of Lloyds Chemist’s, awaiting their Methadone dose, some school leaders and possibly a proportion of teachers, seem to be struggling to imagine the horrible cold-turkey-effect of a life without levels.

Except, EXCEPT, in this case it’s even worse because there is no apparent quick-fix substitute available. To quote the DfE again:
Schools will be able to introduce their own approaches to formative assessment, to support pupil attainment and progression…Schools will continue to benchmark their performance through statutory end of key stage assessments, including national curriculum tests.

So what can we do now?

As a teacher, I have always taken issue with the crutch of dependence upon ‘off the peg’ resources, ideologies, textbooks and so on that we are made to believe we require . I truly feel that this culture is both costly (literally) to schools and also dangerous to our profession. If we ever reach the point that we are unable to go into a classroom with a ream of lined paper and a whiteboard marker and do what we do best -teach – then what?

All this stuff: stickers, interactive whiteboards, motivational ink-stamps, card sorts, copious worksheets, textbooks, visual stimuli, YouTube clips…and so forth, is just that: stuff, sold to schools by glossy magazines, motivational speakers, or suited-and-booted reps. This Billy Graham-style, seductive selling is designed to convince both schools and individual teachers that these little miracles will transform their lessons. It is no different from any other aggressive sales technique that exists that shouts: ‘Buy this!…it will change your life!’ While technology certainly has its place and must be embraced, the day that we are unable to teach without it will be a sad day indeed.

So, returning to the issue of levels, this salesmanship could well prove to be a major concern. En Garde, teachers! Educational resource companies are, in all likelihood, devising ingenious replacements to levels, as we speak. Beware, then, the assessment rep when he or she comes knocking: ‘Here: look what we’ve created! You don’t need to devise your own assessment method now, use this new, off the peg package!’


Without a doubt, assessment data has its place and it can be a useful informative tool. But not if it’s inaccurate. Then it’s unreliable, at best, and downright deceptive, at worst. For many, many years, pupils have received a report, written by the class teacher and distributed at the end of each academic year. This report should inform parents of what their children are good at and also detail what they need to improve on. For example: ‘Joe can do (this) but he needs to improve on (that)’, then, at key points along the way, children are formally examined on their progress.

Surely, what replaces levels must be similarly simple and truthful? Is such a system possible? If not, maybe we should just let the reports, end of Key Stage tests and formal exams do the talking.

Here, verbatim, is a conversation that took place between my manager and I on the last day of term and is the conversation that inspired me to write this. The boss had been looking over my spreadsheets of annual data for the English Department, which includes levels:

Me: Of course, levels no longer exist so a lot of that data is now irrelevant.

Boss: We’re still using the levels next year: we must have some way of assessing the kids…

Me: Even the sub-levels?! But they’ve all been scrapped!

Boss: Yes. (slightly irked) We haven’t been given anything else…

If, as I strongly suspect, that conversation is being repeated, in some form or another, in schools the length and breadth of the country, then this could prove to be a very long, drawn-out death indeed.

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7 Responses to Are Rumours of the Death of NC Levels Exaggerated?

  1. Steve says:

    We’ve continued with NC levels next year too. Made the decision to do so while we calmly reflected on what we want too do moving forward rather than making a (potentially wrong) decision in haste.


    • cazzypot2013 says:

      Of course, that’s every school’s prerogative. I do question the wisdom of continuing using something that’s been completely scrapped, though? I think I make that point quite loudly in my blog! Thank you very much for reading and commenting. It’s great to hear/see different perspectives.


  2. adamcreen says:

    To be precise, “Here, a pupil begins school at (or works towards) Level 1, and could achieve level 8 by the end of their school career.” should say they could achieve Level 8 in Maths or 7 in other subjects by the age of 14, as they could go up to Level 10 (aka grade A*) by the age of 16.

    I’m a Head of Maths and we will be using levels for ever, because if there is one subject that levels actually work in (NOT the accursed sub-levels which I refuse to be held to) it’s Maths.


    • cazzypot2013 says:

      I wasn’t aware of that (re level 10). The NC level descriptors document only goes up to level 8 in all subjects, I think? Yes, you’re quite right, in theory an exceptional pupil could be at level 8 in Y9. I was making a general statement about what the majority may hope to achieve. I’m pleased to see you disagree with sub-levels! Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment. Much appreciated.


  3. bab says:

    I am a primary teacher who agrees that with maths a pupils year group has no link to their levels, maths is a skill that can be advanced quicker than literacy because it does not rely on maturity of the pupil only the mental agility to understand and apply. So setting expected levels by set years can restrict a gifted pupil – last year my head did not want 3 of my year 6 pupils to sit the foundation GCSE because ‘where would that be recorded to’ how could he show this on the league tables – so why bother? Levels for the pupils or the school?


  4. theback71 says:

    As a teacher I fairly rejoiced at this news. Then I realised I was about to be a new head! I had a conversation with the LA who want progress and attainment shown at regular points… be fair as head I did too; as did most of the teachers. I agree with the poss lack of wisdom in using something that’s been scrapped BUT, as a new head being expected to show LA, Govs etc progress & attainment against NE (which again are poss irrelevant) what do I use? Esp when LA advice is to keep using levels, and last thing I want is to change something so staff have yet another system to implement to add to there workload esp when we all know it’s just a matter if time before magic mike enforces use of his brand new sparkly numbers system! It’s a difficult one…..but as each school can now use whichever system they think best, we will use it at least this year (besides we have 2 yrs left on our pupil tracker contract!!!) Were levels that bad?? Yes they got overly complicated with sub levels and now +/- on sub levels(!) but at least gave a certain idea of where a child ‘is at’! The problem, as u suggest, was the misuse, inaccuracy and subjectiveness of teacher assessment. So what then…..just use tests?? Maybe….I guess that’s end game for secondary so perhaps should be for all. Then we reach point of schools continuously over testing, so we start TA more and so on and so on! With the unfortunate shadow if ofsted continuously looming, I don’t think this will be long drawn out death as you say…..I think majority of schools will keep them alive until given something else (which will prob be system magpied off first successful school through ofsted under own system!)….better devil you know so to speak….we shall see! Good post


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