Right now, primary teachers are feeling like one of those cartoon characters, running frantically in the air when there is nothing beneath them. There we were, comfortable with levels, knowing what they meant, when suddenly, bosh! The ground falls away. Some schools have bravely embraced the new opportunities offered by life without levels, indeed folk like Dame Alison Peacock will claim that, at Wroxham School, they never used them anyway. However, it’s unfamiliar territory and even Dame Alison will agree that, while there were levels, Wroxham had ‘a metric’ running in the background for statutory reporting purposes.
Quite a lot of schools are taking the understandable view that it is better to be second in rather than a pioneer, while they stagger on with levels and wait, Micawber-like, for something to turn up. In the meantime a disturbing proportion of schools are clinging to levels because they are a safety blanket – you know where you are with levels! However – and this is a conversation I have quite frequently with headteachers – how do you work with levels, when there are no levels? The answer is that levels simply do not fit. Where will these levels come from?
You can’t, seriously, simply carry on using the old national curriculum levels – this is a new national curriculum; it’s different. The levels don’t work. And you can’t, honestly, re-jig the levels, or massage the curriculum, into some kind of levelled wonderland; where lies the consistency? Is your Level 3 the same as the old one? Is your Level 3 the same as my Level 3? We need to renew our thinking.
Renewing our thinking means understanding the principles that underlie this sea-change that we are experiencing. While there may have been some legitimate sneering that the Expert Panel arrived at a curriculum before they arrived at its aims, the important message is that assessing by a system of levels has never really been a true measure of a child’s achievement. As Tim Oates, Chair of the Expert Panel, has made clear, a level was a variable measure. It could be that a child was Level 4 because he happened to score highly on some low-value test items, picked up a few correct high-value items and emerged with a level 4 score. Or, it might be that Level 4 meant that, on a particular day, a piece of work sort of fitted into a set of criteria. It might not have hit them all, but it was a best fit. And best fits don’t work – ask any craftsman cabinet-maker. Finally, Level 4 might mean that the child was ‘just-in’ to the band. It didn’t mean that this was a secure measure but a claim could be made that the criteria for Level 3 were no longer adequate and that there were signs that Level 4 might possibly be a better judgement; it certainly suited our purpose for it to be, even though, once the results were in, the child might slip back. But we could always blame it on summer learning loss.
So, get used to it; levels don’t work. The message of the new approach is twofold: fewer things at greater depth and consolidation before progression. This should mean that we free up space to make sure that pupils, in Tim Oates’ words, ‘nail the concepts’. We have to get used to changing our thinking from progress at any price to progress through deep learning. As we drift towards the last national tests to be ‘levelled’ we have the chance to consign what is really a flawed concept (however much we love it) to history. I, for one will not be sorry to banish that dreadful term ‘uplevelling’ from the vocabulary of education. This, of course calls for a different, and maybe radical, approach to recording progress. But that’s for another day.
John Viner has enjoyed over two decades of successful leadership and is now an additional Ofsted inspector and educational consultant. He provides the inside knowledge that headteachers and school leaders need to self-evaluate their school efficiently.