Gove or Wilshaw: Who should we believe?

Party Faithful Attend The Annual Conservative Party Conference
Ofsted Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw-1459138

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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19 Responses to Gove or Wilshaw: Who should we believe?

  1. Michael Tidd says:

    To be fair, the measurement by levels is inevitable for the next year or two because the KS2 results will be in levels until 2015. Only then can whole school data be judged by anything else. Of course, that doesn’t stop innovative schools getting started on what replaces them internally.
    Nevertheless, when KS2 levels go, they will be replaced by another national system of some sort. The only thing that schools control is the bit up to Y6 or the bit from Y7 to Y11.


    • cazzypot2013 says:

      I think you’re correct. It does seem that the timings are somewhat out with this business. As you say, no reason why schools shouldn’t be developing a new system at the same time. I do hope you’re wrong about there being a new national system in the pipeline. As I said in my blog: we may just as well retain levels. Teacher assessed national schemes proven to be unworkable, I think? Thank you so much for your comment, Michael.


  2. Timothy Rose says:

    There are 2 issues with the current system. One is inherent in almost any system of assessment, and that is accuracy. By the nature of assessing learning, can we be sure that our own assessments are fair, and this is without the pressure to ensure progress. Secondly the levels are not fit for the purpose for which they are now used. Can you imagine what chaos there would be if units of measure were inconsistent, if one mile was longer than another mile. The NC levels are not even. Level 3 in maths is a far longer journey than level 2, yet we insist upon comparing progress through these levels as if it was the same.

    That said, teachers and other professionals are familiar with these levels, and are therefore reluctant to change. I find it difficult to believe any local assessment system can overcome these issues, unless it becomes grossly over simplistic. It appears clear that there will be no new national system, other than end of year and key stage expectations.

    This probably leaves the profession with the existing system, one which does a job, but not one that the profession should use without considerable caveat.


    • Michael Tidd says:

      “I find it difficult to believe any local assessment system can overcome these issues, unless it becomes grossly over simplistic. ”
      I disagree. But we need to separate the purposes of assessment. If we are only interested in tracking towards the end of the key stage, then using a new version of whatever the end of KS tests looks like is inevitable.
      However, if we really want to be able to measure the erratic and wandering journey that is progress, then assessment within a key stage will necessarily be localised, linked directly to the taught curriculum, and will measure different steps and jumps differently. After all, who cares whether mastering column addition is a more complex step than being able to use varied sentence lengths? All we need to know is whether a given child can or cannot do these things, so that we might adjust our teaching accordingly.


    • cazzypot2013 says:

      Timothy, you’re absolutely correct. The sheer inaccuracy of levels is the whole problem. It is difficult to see how we could envisage retaining them at all. I can’t imagine how they could be made more accurate? I think there are some inconsistencies between the levels, yes. But reality is that the whole system is badly flawed.Thank you for your comment, I much appreciate it.


  3. Alison says:

    As has been mentioned, it is essential to look at the varied purposes of assessment. Assessment for Learning needs to inform planning and teaching. The concern is that local/school based developments will make transition between schools and communication about children’s progress across schools impossible. We have the opportunity to plan an assessment strategy that can meet the needs of the class teacher and meet the requirements of accountability (which will and should continue to exist).
    We have the chance to create a system that fits with how schools use assessment. It has never made sense that children make one level progress in year 1 and again in year 2, with one level’s progress over two years in KS2. Making two APS progress over three terms/6 half terms didn’t fit easily either when trying to measure progress. My concern is that publishers will rush in to convert the levels to something else, without considering what has worked and what hasn’t worked with translating class based observations and teacher assessments into data that can be effectively used for the variety of purposes eg: identifying the need for interventions, measuring impact of new curriculum developments, dare I say – Performance Management.
    We still need the ability to measure progress in year and within and across each Key Stage to ensure the small steps of progress children make add up to good progress over time. Ofsted and the DfE will continue to use data to compare schools. They will use test data at the end of each Key Stage (at most probably at the age of 5!). School Leaders need to keep ownership of their own school’s data so they can know and explain the journey their children and school are on.
    I have a plan……..


  4. Alison Clarke says:

    Still in development and looking for a route out! If the new NC PoS can be partitioned into manageable statements to use in class for observation assessment, that will support AfL. I have tried with maths year 1&2. Using the EYFS emerging, expected, exceeding worries me as a child could be emerging in yr1 again in yr2 ad infinitum…. How do we show progress that is less/greater than expected? Any assessment system will need to link well to the data needed for accountability if it is to be useful in the wider arena. I am suggesting a point score system eg: if a child is currently achieving <20% of the yr 1 PoS they would be scored as 0.2 and fit the statement of 'just emerging'. A child achieving between 20-40% is emerging and would have a point score of 0.4 etc etc so the child achieving 80-100% would be at expected. (The steps in between can be called 'strongly emerging' and 'developing' or something similar.) I think this system links well to how often you might assess eg: Oct, Dec, Feb, April, June, is able to show achievement at/above/below expected and is able to show progress at /above/below expected. And can be used for data analysis to identify groups, underachievement, relevant interventions, etc.
    So a child achieving at expected for year 3 would have a point score of 3.0 regardless of their age. If anyone thinks this has legs and would like to employ me to develop it further or join their work, please contact me on!!


  5. Ian Lynch says:

    Some of us are old enough to remember the world pre-levels. I was head of science in a large comprehensive school and then responsible for Science and Technology at the first CTC al before levels and you know, we managed to assess children reasonably successfully. What was less certain was contextualising their attainment and progress nationally until they got to 16 and national exams.

    To be clear, Michael Gove removed the requirement for levels, he did not say you couldn’t use them. The difficulty is in subjects like Computing which are new and there are no levels and not likely to be, at least not official DfE ones for all schools.

    Alison’s solution is pretty close to what I describe at We have supported this method for several years with Special Schools using the Pscales and in vocational qualifications and across Europe in Transfer of Innovation projects in both schools and adult education so it is tried and tested, it’s not just something dreamt up in reaction to the NC reform. One of the interesting things is why these different methods are so alien in different education “silos”.


    • cazzypot2013 says:

      I believe the DfE described them as being ‘removed’ and ‘not replaced’. That suggests a certain finality to me. Thanks for commenting, Ian, but I do believe the intention is that they should no longer be used.


  6. cazzypot2013 says:

    Splitting hairs slightly, Ian. Yes, but it think the idea is that they are gone and not to be used, even by choice, as the new NC no longer fits.


  7. Ian Lynch says:

    Well its all down to interpretation. Personally, I’d take the opportunity to get rid of a lot of hassle to teachers and not worry too much about what is in the past. Instead of waiting for change to force you to do things I’m of the school of thought to anticipate it and start early because in the end it’s usually less hassle. This change has been known for at least a couple of years now and there are solutions that will actually save teachers time. Alison demonstrates that above. So fight battles that are winnable eg the KS1 and KS2 consultation, but for things that are done, work out the best solution within the constraints. My view is that both key stages and many fine levels have been damaging since their inception. We can largely get rid of KS3 now and we can rationalise assessment in secondary so that is a decent goal. That will be more difficult in primary if the consultation goes through unchanged so while there is an opportunity, teachers and parents need to stop it otherwise there is no good moaning about it over the next year if it goes throughwith only a weak challenge.


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