The End of Levels: An opportunity or another fine mess?

The DfE has published a 44 page document listing the proposed Performance Descriptors for KS 1&2. Please take a look if you haven’t seen it yet. It is potentially the most explosive hand-grenade thrown into primary education for twenty years.

I’ve read it twice now and I’m still struggling to understand how it is supposed to work. The notes below represent my current thinking, I’d be very interested in hearing what others think.

While reading the report it’s also worth considering the answers Tim Oates, the principle architect of the National Curriculum, gives about assessment in this recent interview. There seems to be considerable ambiguity, even contradictions, between what he says are the intentions of the National Curriculum and the draft Performance Descriptors.

As far as I’m concerned there is not much to disagree with in the Oates interview and we should welcome his recommendations to deepen learning experiences in Primary education. However, the Performance Descriptors are unwieldy and cumbersome. Far from ensuring greater depth and understanding they represent yet another surge of paperwork and more opportunities for the data-trackers and number crunchers to make money counting beans.

The experts who helped draft the performance descriptors

After a Freedom of Information request the DfE have published the list of experts who drafted the proposed Performance Descriptors – you can read their reply here: The names of the experts who worked on drafting the Performance Descriptors

This is the list. It consists of seven consultants, a director, an adviser, and a moderation manager. However, despite the DfE saying the experts included teachers, none of these people work in schools, either as teachers or as school leaders.

What does this tell us?
– The DfE were ‘economical’ with the truth when they said who drafted the PDs
– None of these people will ever have to use the descriptors with children
– None will have to tell parents their child is ‘below standard’
– None will be held accountable for assessing their students’ progress using PDs
– None will have to do the extra admin that goes with the PDs
– None will have to cope with the stress and increased workload

This is not a criticism of the experts themselves, who all might be excellent in their field, it is an observation about how the DfE creates policy and extra workload without involving, even at a cursory level, the very people who will have to implement it. Is it any wonder that the PDs have been greeted with such universal alarm and derision by the teaching profession?

The list of experts:

Andy Taylor: National Strategies, Independent consultant, Training and Development Manager at Fischer Family Trust
Jo Shackleton is a Education Consultant, Effective Practice Consultancy doing whole school programmes on Guided Learning 
Mavis Humphreys is a Literacy Consultant, Staffordshire and literacy consultant
Margaret Fennell is the Moderation Manager at Herefordshire Council
Heather Rushton Schools, Education, Children’s Services Adviser at Exploring Choices
David Shakespeare is an Education Consultant at Square 2 Learning Ltd
Alastair West is a freelance Education Consultant
Caroline Cooke is an educational consultant in Nottinghamshire who worked on APP
Jane Turner is Director: Primary Science Quality Mark at University of Hertfordshire
Pamela Wyllie is a maths consultant ex QCA

Some links:

Please respond to the DfE’s consultation, the deadline is 18 December 2014.

Michael Tidd has written several excellent blogs on this subject and others to do with the National Curriculum and Assessment and another one here calling on more teachers to respond to the consultation.

Ian Lynch has written a detailed description of why the Performance Descriptors are wrong and how they can be improved and an excellent guide on answering the consultation.

Jack Marwood has written about using data properly and assessment without levels

The Cambridge Primary Review’s response to the consultation

An excellent summary of performance descriptors by Warwick Mansell writing for the Cambridge Primary Review

Some thoughts:

  • The Performance Descriptors are long and potentially confusing for parents (and teachers)
  • They are in many cases ambiguous, even contradictory
  • For example, Reading at the end of KS2 is assessed using a test and then marked externally. How can the test make a judgment on PDs such as: “Demonstrates a positive attitude to reading by frequently reading for pleasure, both fiction and non-fiction”?
  • Are the descriptors listed in any particular order? What if enjoyment of reading is damaged by the over prescription of phonics? Should teachers make a decision which one is more important?
  • How are schools going to assess progress towards these end of KS? AND how are ofsted going to judge the school’s methods? They will want to see data tracking students year by year, but the PDs are only meant for the end of KSs.
  • Will data tracking software use ‘levels’ measured by numbers? Highlighting students who are not making sufficient progress? If so, we’re back to square one.
  • Seems inevitable schools will use ‘best fit’ models, which is one of the criticisms of levels
    And will use the year-by-year curriculum objectives to ‘level’ students and track their progress. Especially if this is what Ofsted expect.
  • Do we know who the ‘experts’ were who wrote this? Will the DfE tell us?
  • Are the experts available to explain their thinking and the rationale behind the draft?
  • The draft poses many unanswered questions that really need to be answered if this isn’t going to be (another) complete muddle. Like levels.

Notes on the Tim Oates interview:

– In the new national curriculum, children study fewer things in great depth
– securing deep learning in central ideas
– understanding key concepts rather than moving quickly through levels
– Children have learnt to label themselves using levels
– levels result in undue pace and a focus on maximum progress through the levels
– deep secure understanding is not the same as levels
– The problems with levels: 1. they don’t really capture learning; 2. teachers make a ‘best match’ even though children haven’t grasped key ideas; 3. Idea of ‘just in’, passed the threshold, distorts assessment of learning
– so, levels are incoherent
– other nations don’t use levels (Wroxham School has never used levels)
– totally different conception of ability, levels get in the way of ability
– new curriculum emphasis key concepts
– “the new curriculum is chock full of skills”
– year sequence doesn’t have to be followed slavishly
– assessment focused on enabling teachers to select questions to see if they have grasped a key concept
– not enough assessment of the right kind, rich probing of ideas and supportive of learning
– don’t want children to move with undue pace thru NC
– “clear progressive statements” children are ready to move on
– children produce a lot in high performing schools – children producing stuff means teachers can get an insight into their learning
– children are producing a lot, writing a lot, talking a lot
– teachers will need to be experts in assessment – think hard in terms of the questions they ask children
– assessment “kleptomaniacs”

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