Tim Oates, who led the ‘expert panel’ that initiated the government’s review of England’s national curriculum, was very clear as to why the old levels system had to go.
Speaking in a video which was uploaded by the Department for Education to YouTube in May, he offered a set of reasons explaining why the 25-year-old levels structure was being ditched.
Top of the list was what seemed a powerful thought: that summing up children’s performance numerically ran the risk of labelling them, and that this could end up harming their education.
Oates said: “Kids are labelling themselves as being a particular level: ‘I’m a level 3 and all my friends are level 4’. That’s very dysfunctional in terms of learning. That’s the first compelling reason [for scrapping levels]: this idea of kids labelling themselves and that being inappropriate in learning. It can actually hold back their learning rather than encourage it.”
This chimed with a finding in the Cambridge Primary Review’s final report, which concluded (on page 316) that reducing children’s learning to a single level “serves to label children rather than to enlighten parents and other children about the range of their achievements”.
Yet labelling children is exactly what the new national curriculum and its associated assessment, the final details of which now have emerged from the DfE, still seems likely to encourage.
If anything, the new version stands to be worse than the old. And this is just one of several of Oates’s reasons for removing levels which seems not to have been addressed in the DfE’s new curriculum, assessment and accountability regime for primary schools.
With the details so fundamental to school life, and therefore vital to get right, I am left marvelling again at the ability of our ultra-politicised, short-termist policy-making structure to produce something so incoherent: so demonstrably at odds even with its own stated aims.
So, to expand on the point about labelling, last month the DfE set out its plans for a new system of “performance descriptors” for primary pupils.
At the end of key stages 1 and 2 in reading, writing, mathematics and science, teacher assessment will see professionals giving their charges what sounds suspiciously like a level, but is not being called one.
At key stage 1, in reading, writing and maths, children will be assessed as either at “mastery standard” or at “national standard”; “working towards national standard”; or “below national standard”.
For key stage 2 writing, an extra performance descriptor is added to the above: “above national standard”.
For the subjects of key stage 2 maths, science and reading – where, presumably, national curriculum tests will provide greater differentiation of pupil performance – and key stage 1 science, there is only one performance standard: “working at the national standard”.
Surveying the above, it seems impossible to comprehend how it gets away from any problem of labelling. Indeed, in replacing, say, a child achieving level two or three in key stage 2 writing with the judgement of “below national standard”, it probably exacerbates the problem as described by Oates, in the linguistic bluntness of the description if nothing else.
The single “working at national standard” – or not – verdict, where it is to be offered, also seems to invite a simple “pass/fail” judgement. This, it is hard to avoid thinking, will set up the view among many children that they are failures at an early age: from the age of seven, in the case of science.
There will be arguments about the defensibility of that, but above all it is hard to see how it can be squared with the stated aim of reducing labelling.
The labelling issue is probably the most glaringly contradictory output of this process, when set against the original rationale for removing levels. But other aspects of the vision, as set out by Oates, seem also to bump up against reality.
So Oates describes another problem of the old levels system: that it encouraged a sense that pupils had to be rushed from one level to the next. “The whole of the system has been focused on getting kids to move quickly through the levels,” he says in the video.
However, again, pushing children on to “tougher” material earlier seems to have been exactly ministers’ thinking in introducing the new national curriculum. And that thinking is reflected in what the new curriculum says.
For example, in maths, pupils are supposed to be progressing through the manipulation of fractions at a younger age than they used to, are to be taught their 12x tables in year four as opposed to knowing up to 10x tables by year six in the old system, and now to be using square and cube numbers during year five.
As teacher Karen Mills told me last year in relation to the latter: “Year 5 children are supposed to be using square and cube numbers. The assumption in the new curriculum is that they are ready for this, but many of them do not really understand the number system. If we try to force them forward on to new material, we are going to lose half of the class.”
And yet here we are, with the new curriculum and assessment regime seemingly being billed enthusiastically by the politicians overseeing the system as pushing children on to more challenging material earlier (as shown here and here).
Finally, Oates talked about the new national curriculum building deep conceptual understanding and focusing on “fewer things in greater depth”. The notion of stripped-down content seems largely true in subjects other than English, maths and science. But the new performance descriptors hardly suggest subjects concentrating on a few essentials.
Indeed, the question as to whether this new curriculum really moves away from the tick-box approach which is widely thought to have troubled its predecessor and its associated assessment seems very real, when one considers the new performance descriptors.
Prompted by the advice of a very experienced assessment expert, I noted that, for a KS1 teacher assessing whether or not a pupil is at national standard level across reading, writing, maths and science, there are 129 assessment bullet points to work through. At KS2, the equivalent figure is 144 bullet points.
There is one final point to make about the performance descriptors: we still seem in the dark about who exactly wrote the consultation document. So, if people are unhappy with this outcome, who can we hold to account for it, or at least explain it?
Criticism of the lack of transparency around the development of this new curriculum has dogged it throughout. Sadly, that is just one aspect of the dysfunctionality around policy-making that this national curriculum review, 2010-14, has exposed so vividly.
Warwick Mansell is a freelance journalist and author of ‘Education by Numbers: the tyranny of testing’ (Methuen, 2007).
DfE’s consultation on its proposed performance descriptors ends on 18 December. For the descriptors and how to comment on them, click here.