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“Life after levels” – the door is open come on in!

Posted on: March 24th, 2015


Dr Nicholas Capstick

CEO, The White Horse Federation


“Life after levels” – the door is open come on in!


I am going to say this in hushed tones, eyes darting suspiciously from left to right, right to left and again left to right hoping that there isn’t anybody close enough to be offended by my fervent belief that I do not lament the passing of national curriculum levels. Assessment systems need to record meaningful information, not just data which informs us how students are progressing through required learning. It must enable us to celebrate and challenge those who are succeeding while being able to highlight those students who are at risk of faltering and inform us about how we can remediate any such frailties. Do levels do this, especially how they are most commonly used? I think not! National Curriculum levels were often too broad to be able to identify students who were not making progress and sub levels rarely linked to the curriculum which was taught. It was possible, for example, for a Year 6 student to achieve level 4 or even level 5 in mathematics, without knowing their multiplication tables thoroughly. Madness! Let’s look at Mastery, (more of this later), but undue pace and maximum progress through the levels meant there was no focus on whether key content had been deeply understood and embedded. Could students or pupils transfer learning to a different context? Were they discerning and discriminating users of the learning they had mastered to bring about transference to other contexts and settings? Rarely in my experience.

Of course their scrapping has brought together a heady mixture of uncertainty tinged with a feeling of loss of a well-used crutch but were they that good? Did they really tell us about how a particular child learns, how they got to the destination that was a 2C, 5B or a 4A? No! They represented the very worst of bingo card education in which if you were able to line up any four level descriptors from a smorgasbord of six you could achieve a level. Happy Days! They were a crude dyspraxic calibration not of a path well-trod of understanding but focussed more on educational lily pad hopping in which we picked up tokens along the journey towards the next level. There’s a problem in that the crudeness of the system meant that levels meant different things to different teachers or between schools and helped us to avoid talking about our pupils as learners. Let’s take a few practical examples of why levels, in my opinion did not work for real children;

  1. Sophie’s Level 4 was based on her SATs test score. She played the percentages game in which she managed to answer every lower level question correctly in quick succession, this left her just enough time to judiciously answer the odd higher order questions. She, by the law of averages, manages to scrape a level 4 but, and it’s a big BUT, can we safely say that Sophie has a secure grasp and knowledge of Level 4 and is entirely comfortable with the entirety of the Level 4 curriculum?
  2. Imran, if we were to use the best fit criteria of level 4 when using the old APP criteria scores over 50% even let’s say he got up to 75%. Does this mean we can move Imran onto Level 5? If so, at what point can we say that Imran has a secure knowledge of Level 4 content and has secured the ability to use this knowledge in a meaningful way?
  3. Jamal just tips into Level 4 by the skin of his teeth, his twin sister Grace is clearly working at a more sophisticated level at the top end of Level 4, both are level 4’s. Of course the gradation of C,B,A helped but was it really that helpful in understanding what a Level 4 is? The breadth of a level was always slightly meaningless when using it as a currency of measurement.

Could it be though that we have grown overly fond of a system which has been with us for less than 30 years? They were first introduced in the earliest iterations of the statutory National Curriculum in 1988. Conceived and gestated by TGAT, the Task Group on Testing and Assessment, they offered a novel level‑related structure as a national assessment framework. From this report the then Department of Education and Science and the Welsh Office solemnly announced that

“…We shall use the word level to define one of a sequence of points on a scale to be used in describing the progress of attainment…”

And lo so it was to be, levels were born, subdivided into sub levels and then further refined by gradation into level descriptors, blessed be the divine deity of measuring how children could perform in the classroom and how schools could be judged in league tables. It certainly gave us a pathway which stretched from children aged 5 up to and through the secondary transition point taking us into Key Stage 3. They supposedly, when used well, were the basis of formative and summative assessment but they were unpolished, unsophisticated and inept in promoting a conversation about individual children regarding not just what they had experienced but how they had reacted to and befitted from their learning to ensure that cumulative habits of learning brought forth educated individuals. They didn’t engage us in pedagogical debate about improving teaching and learning they merely took a momentary Polaroid picture of a pupil’s performance at any given time.

The problem for me, I guess, was the myth of pupil progress in that by using levels, at their most basic, meant a “snipers bullet” approach to pupil development in which it assumed that progress was defined in a linear line with an upward trajectory. We took aim, we knew where we going because we as teachers were the experts, lined up the journey from us to them, aimed at the middle-the bull’s-eye and pulled the trigger.

the myth of progress

The truth is, that we find from the National Pupil Database that only 9% of students follow this line of development through KS1-KS3 so what about the other 91% who don’t?

They, the majority, are the liminal learners, those whose trajectory is higgledy-piggledy, sometimes here, sometimes there, always going in the right direction towards an agreed goal but maybe not in such a straight line. For these learners we should not think of the bullet approach but, in keeping with the projectile imagery, it should be more of a guided missile journey of learning in which as the pupil progresses we adjust their trajectory according to prevailing conditions, through our holistic understanding of each individual and what makes them tick. Think of it more like a journey of learning guided by the Sat-Nav of pedagogy, the teacher.

I love Sat-Nav! I get in my car understanding the final destination point along roads that I will travel but I have no idea of the actual route. I don’t need to because something very sophisticated will guide me to where I need to be but will create detours where the lanes are too narrow for me to navigate, re-route me when I need to avoid blockages and always ensure I travel at the correct speed to get me to where I need to be safely. Fellow nomads, all of whom need to be where I am going, will take a different route to mine because we are leaving from different starting points. Our paths may cross or coalesce as we get closer to the end point but our journeys while sometimes similar will always be individual to each traveller. The single truth of Sat-Nav is that we get to where we need to be safely!


So how do we better understand the learner, rid ourselves on the reliance of statistical data and move towards a much better universal language without levels which helps us to navigate the learning journey for our pupils and students?

We do what good educators have done for centuries we understand the learner. Let’s look for a moment at the popular phenomena that is “Strictly come Dancing”. The professional dancers who tend to win are not necessarily the best teachers of dance but they are brilliantly able to be the best learners of what makes their amateur partners tick. They are perfectionists in understanding the nuances and abilities of their celebrity buddies, they pick up cues and observe and then create the route to perfection which ensures confidence in their charges, the willingness to take risks and to explore boundaries to create perfect outcomes with them not for them, and it’s a shared learning experience. They are creative and innovative and while following a core curriculum of dance moves they ensure a bespoke route to flawless routines.

Teaching is complex as we all know and we should see ourselves as artisans as well as scientists, that rare breed who know intimately about the qualities and trace elements of our raw materials, our student and pupils. We shape and mould, understand that what we are working with has its own being, its own uniqueness which can be shaped into something beautiful but which will need a different touch each time we attempt to shape it. We are looking for something very special so we need to be very critical of what we do and not act like water looking for the point of least resistance. Good teachers have always done this, they didn’t rely on the common language of levels to assess a child’s performance.

So what are the stages, the stepping stones which might enable us to better understand how to take learning forward for our pupils? The truth is I don’t know but I am thinking! I am trying to engage in a single voiced dialogue in my head which tries to make better sense of how we create more meaningful and individual conversations about each and every pupil. It is these conversations about children when articulately delivered backed by empirical evidence which will move learning forward and ensure that transitional points between year groups and phases are more eloquently understood and are smoother than ever before. I am certain in my head however that the dialogue regarding pupil progress and assessment is far more sophisticated than ever before. It’s no longer painting by numbers creating an image of a child which is vaguely reflective of what they have done rather than what they are capable of achieving. Great artists engage in understanding the palette of light and shade, the shadow and depth, tone and pantone combined with the alchemy of perception which helps them to create their masterpieces. Our light and shade, shadow and depth etc. when trying to understand and assess a student’s ability and capacity to move on, is likely to have a range of component parts which combine to create a subtle but complex picture of ability and the next steps required to move teaching on.

For me our understanding of the child is now based not solely on statistical data but on a better understanding by gathering evidence or better still intelligence about the whole child. As I have said I don’t presume to have any answers but part of this blog is to provoke debate, engage in a shared responsibility to better understand the child and the optimum amount they are capable of achieving.

There is a lot of talk at the moment about “Mastery”. I’ll be honest, I am not sure I know or we in the teaching profession have sufficiently defined what mastery is and as such I am not sure how we assess what mastery might be. One thing I am sure of is that we will not recognise mastery until we look more deeply at the learner as a whole not just the outcomes we crudely quantify with levels. For me, and it’s just my opinion, there are component parts which we must explore to investigate how we teach and more important enable learning and we begin by understanding the starting points and capabilities of the learner.

Understanding and assessing a child/pupil/student/learner is multifaceted but probably focusses on a few key elements which creates a sense of “known intelligence about the child”, an intelligence toolkit if you like;

  • It’s about observing and understanding learning behaviours of a learner- how do they engage with learning and how can we best enable this.
  • It’s about understanding what work scrutiny is telling us with regard to pace, precision, thought and developmental processes over time. It’s how we start to measure progress between point A and B
  • It’s about statistical data the benchmarking against national norms which tell us if a child is working within age related expectations. This for me is the weakest measurement tool in the toolkit but only due to the wide breadth of the age related bands.
  • It’s about understanding the emotional intelligence of the learner, the personal attributes which help us to focus the learning experiences to gain maximum output. The resilience and tenacity of the learner.
  • It’s about mapping curriculum coverage, understanding if the learning deficit is because of an inability to understand or an act of omission in the curriculum previously taught.
  • It’s about the agility of transference, how well is a student/pupil able to transfer prior learning by being a discerning and discriminating user of that which they know. Discerning in knowing what to do and when, i.e. do I make a short shopping list on the back of an envelope or crank up my word processor and make a beautifully scripted list which takes four times as long. Discriminating in knowing what prior knowledge, skills and understanding I can bring to a situation to resolve a new curiosity or problem.

I don’t think for a moment this is an exhaustive list but what it does is to take a different look at understanding assessment and how we better realise the dream that every child should learn in an optimum way.

The model below is my starter for ten, a visual representation which is crude at best and probably wrong on so many levels at its worst but it’s a start, a way of engaging with colleagues in looking at what we need to know to improve what we do to create better life chances and opportunities for our charges.

Life after levels chart

Here’s to the debate, the discusions and the great conversations which hopefully will flow!






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