This report is by Matthew Erskine from The School Planner Company.
On Wednesday 21st January we were fortunate enough to be invited to attend a conference being held by the Cambridge Primary Review Trust, in which they were discussing ‘Learning Without Levels’.
The event was held at the Open University in Camden, a vibrant, eclectic, alternative part of London, and was attended by a group of 40 teachers and education professionals.
After a day at BETT 2015, we arrived at the conference with no real expectations of what we were about to experience. Turning up a little early, we caught the tail-end of the organisers preparing the room, rearranging tables to suit the space available. We couldn’t help but think that, with a group of teachers soon to arrive, they might have been best waiting for the professionals to help with this.
The teachers of course were very punctual, practising what they preach (or knowing that the best biscuits go quickly), and everyone was in attendance and had taken a seat in time for the presentation to begin.
The event was designed to engage attendees in conversation, rather than offer definitive answers. The evening had been arranged to provide an insight into how one school, The Fulbridge Academy, was adapting to life without levels, providing their solutions and examples of what has worked for them.
Before attempting to outline their solution to no levels, it was explained why they had decided that scrapping levels was right for their school, and ultimately education as a whole. From what we understood they had three main reasons for learning without levels in their school.
1. No more labelling children. Whilst schools in this country stop short of making students walk around wearing t-shirts emblazoned with ‘I’m a 4b’, the effects of labelling students as such still has an affect on them.
2. Improve the link between key stages. It was argued that achieving a level 5 in KS2 does not equate to a level 5 in KS3. This can only cause confusion among students and parents. Imagine thinking your house is worth £230,000, to be suddenly told its now worth £180,000 because your possessions are valued differently when you turn 35!
3. Parents don’t understand levels. We have spent years telling parents that their child is a level 2, or a 4, or a 6, but why? Most parents don’t actually know what this means, or what it says about their child. Its just a figure, a hierarchy, that furthers the divide between schools and parents.
We witnessed, over the course of the evening, teachers becoming students. During the points in the presentation which were dedicated to group conversation, the room filled with voices, passionately debating the future of education.
The evening itself was not intended to provide definitive answers or solutions, and it didn’t. If anything, it raised more questions, which was the intention.
Is assessing without levels any different to assessing with levels?
Many people might think that the clue to that question is in the question itself. Of course there is a difference, right? We guess that that is the aim, that education needs to find a solution in which we can assess our students without a framework that ultimately resembles levels. But learning to adapt to life without levels is going to be a long and difficult journey. When teachers are so accustomed to thinking in levels, using a framework to assign a child a number and a letter which represents everything they are able to achieve at that moment in time, how can we possibly move away from that? Before we learn to assess without levels, we must surely learn to think without levels, and that is not a task easily achieved.
One of the conclusions offered by The Fulbridge Academy was that in a world without levels, the importance of teachers having a sound subject knowledge is heightened considerably: ‘Schools will have to look at their pedagogy afresh and realise that sound subject knowledge is an absolute requirement of such a desolate level-less existence.’
As the conference drew to a close, and the room erupted in applause, quickly followed by conversation, we couldn’t help but feel a sense of privilege.
On the evening of Wednesday 21st January, you could have quite easily walked past the OU in Camden, unaware of the debate going on inside. Here were individuals trying to better education, trying to think of solutions to issues that are faced by schools across the country. Individuals learning, and questioning; people who care enough to think, talk and create.
We would like to thank the people at CPR Trust, for allowing us to sit on on an evening of professionalism, and thoughtfulness, an evening in which 40 people in education came to have a conversation, and started many many more. We were allowed a glimpse into life as an educationalist at the forefront of one of the most significant changes in education for years. We came away with a greater understanding of the sector, more appreciation of just how much those working in education care, and the sense that for education to improve, it takes groups of committed people such as these, to have conversations, to share knowledge and ideas, and to make a difference.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
– Margaret Mead
The School Planner Company