First there is a level, then there is no level, then there is
The caterpillar sheds his skin to find a butterfly within
Caterpillar sheds his skin to find a butterfly within
Adapted from Donovan, The Essential Donovan
Money was given to some schools, in 2013, to develop and refine their systems, the current state of which was summarised within this document.
In October 2014 the Government published Performance descriptors for use in key stage 1 and 2 statutory teacher assessment for 2015 / 2016
This latter document appeared to revise the gradation of children at 7 and 11 into groups, depending on the outcomes of national testing, with such terms as mastery, at national standard, working towards national standard and not at national standard. Now, these words, to me hold more than a passing insight into the thinking of the people who are making decisions, in that they describe children in very specific ways, especially the idea of mastery and not at standard. If there was a future call for Grammar schools to be revived, the test regime could supply the data. Equally, the data might support someone who wished to suggest holding children back a year, as they were not at the standard.
Stopping levels was deemed to be necessary because parents couldn’t understand them. I’m not sure they’ll understand, or like the new suggestions any more than before, especially if they have a child not at standard. I would agree with the premise that levels may have held back some learners, but this, in my opinion was largely due to inappropriate understanding and application, rather than the level descriptors being useless. I make a distinction between the words of the descriptors and the use of numeric scales.
There is the potential, within schools, who are charged with tracking a child’s progress against criteria, to establish “staging criteria” en route to the year 2 and year 6 statements, to see if children are “on track” to achieve, with the possibility of a parent in year one being told their child was not “on track”, again in year 2 and so on, repeatedly, despite support and help along the way. These children, formerly, may have moved more slowly than peers through levels and possibly achieved a level 3 by age 11. Not “at national standard”, but, described as level 3, allowed the view that progress could be made towards 5, 6 etc at some stage, each being criteria based.
Ex-level scales might have produced a model like this:-
Let me explain. I was a classteacher and deputy head of a First School in 1987, when the original National Curriculum arrived, by courier, with multiple coloured folders that required a whole shelf on their own. I would describe the school as having a growth mindset, in the way it sought to develop the children, across all aspects of learning; we offered a broad, balanced, relevant and rich curriculum that caught the children’s attention, gave them challenges, and ensured that they move to the Middle School with an excellent starter framework and enjoyment of learning. Embedding the level descriptors into that scenario was not too difficult, even accounting for the age profile of the staff. They gave a clarity of words to the already existing expectations.
Taking up headship in 1990, and working with a school in need of raising standards, the level descriptors became the words against which we sought exemplars to share and challenge staff and learners to improve. The level descriptors, in themselves, supported improvement, as long as it was based on evidence from outcomes. Within a rich, topic based curriculum, with appropriate challenge and targeted support, this did mean that we enjoyed good success in national testing, across all subjects and reports from the Secondaries suggested that we sent children excited to learn.
As levels became firmly embedded, then adapted through sub-levels, then into APP grids, beloved of data experts, the clarity of level expectations were diminished, as some teachers strove to create ever tighter activities to accommodate the children’s sub levels. Some got to be experts at spotting the small details that seemed to make a difference, while most struggled, often relying on a “gut instinct”, which would ultimately skew their in-class expectations and their support to learners. In one case, this became a capability issue.
The refining of levelness to fit with ever tighter data needs did, in my opinion, potentially import barriers to progress, except for the very able, as some children were expected to evidence their progress several times, in order to “prove” to the teacher that they could do a specific activity.
In part, I think that a teacher view on levels was always likely to depend on when they entered the profession, which in turn may have contributed to the views of professional studies tutors in ITT. The clarity of the early, whole level descriptors to describe, in outline, the learning journey, across the multiple subjects of the Primary Curriculum, may have been lost, to a point where students didn’t actually know “what they were looking for”.
The development ladder of levelness did support developmental conversations, based on achievement and next steps. Yes, there was an embedded deficit model, until a learner had achieved at the highest level, but, I’d argue that this approach was progressive. It is still, to my mind, evident in many of the alternative schemes being articulated, especially at Secondary, where GCSE grades provide the scale for many.
The current Primary National Curriculum, from the draft process onward, had only one assessment criterion, “to know and understand the contents of the relevant PoS”. This was an overt indication of a pass/fail mentality in the minds of the developers, which has now been amplified into a clearer pass/fail model. Children who struggle to learn will be classed as either working towards or not at national standard, both of which imply below standard. The negative connotations embedded in both statements will create additional tensions in the learner and parents, who may then put additional, inappropriate pressure on the learner.
In other words, the children who find learning hardest will be hardest hit, with no obvious gain.
Butterflies from caterpillars? No, just a dog’s dinner.