Life after National Curriculum Levels – What now?

Some thoughts….

The end of National Curriculum Levels has been greeted with both unbridled joy by some teachers or with utter horror by others. However, it does provide an opportunity to investigate whether there is a better model or whether it is a case of better the devil you know!

Interesting starting point: 
Review by the expert panel for the National Curriculum review – Chapter 8

8.3 We have concerns, expressed also in the Bew review and by some respondents to this review’s Call for Evidence about the ways in which ‘levels’ are currently used to judge pupil progress, and their consequences. Indeed, we believe that this may actually inhibit the overall performance of our system and undermine learning. For this reason, we suggest a new approach to judging progression that we believe to be, in principle, more educationally sound. This has some significant implications for assessment and accountability.

8.4 We are concerned by the ways in which England’s current assessment system encourages a process of differentiating learners through the award of ‘levels’, to the extent that pupils come to label themselves in these terms. Although this system is predicated on a commitment to evaluating individual pupil performance, we believe it actually has a significant effect of exacerbating social differentiation, rather than promoting a more inclusive approach that strives for secure learning of key curricular elements by all. It also distorts pupil learning, for instance creating the tragedy that some pupils become more concerned for ‘what level they are’ than for the substance of what they know, can do and understand. This is an unintended consequence of an over-prescriptive framework for curriculum and assessment. 


National Curriculum levels were originally designed to report on what students could do at the end of Year 9. They were meant to be a holistic view of the student and were only to be used for this purpose and at this time in a student’s education. However, as the years went by, they took on a life of their own and mutated into something very different from their original incarnation.
First, they started to be used at the end of each year in KS3, then to grade individual pieces of work. This was something they were never designed to do. In many cases they were not suitable, as individual pieces of work could not fulfil all the criteria in a level. Then, the mythical sub-levels were introduced. By this stage, NC levels had moved a long way from their original purpose and had more often than not, been rewritten in student speak and laminated for the classroom wall – quite often no longer resembling the original document. As a result, it could be argued that it became harder to be sure that a Level 4b in one school was the same as a Level 4b in another – or even between teachers in the same subject and same school, as there was no sub-level criteria and teachers were often making up their own assessment criteria for individual pieces of work, based loosely on their interpretation of the NC levels for their subject.
For many teachers and students, NC levels can be confusing – what exactly makes a student a 4c rather than a 4b, if there are no published and agreed criteria. However, for many parents in my experience, NC levels are a complete mystery. I have lost count on the number of occasions at parents evenings that I have asked whether a 4c is better or worse than a 4b. Plus, most parents have no idea what it means if their son or daughter is a 4b in a subject. “So what does that mean they can do exactly?” is a common question.
Video sections:
14:30 – NC Levels in practice. Why they are not fit for purpose
26:45 – Devising a system without levels
36:30 – Living in a world without levels
So where now?
If we take the view that we need to report student attainment at KS3 and want a method that students and parents will easily be able to understand, then I would suggest that it makes sense not to muddy the waters with another new set of numbers or letters and criteria, but make use of what already exists and is understood – Could using GCSE grades across KS3 and 4 be the answer?
An interesting video about assessment without Levels can be viewed here… Watch this interactive TouchCast


Advantages of adopting GCSE grading at KS3 in September 2014
  • Familiar language of assessment – grades are already known to parents and students – less confusion.
  • Raft of existing assessment materials in each subject which could be used/adapted for use at KS3.
  • Easier to show progression from KS3 to KS4.
  • Clearer understanding of potential outcomes for students at the end of Year 11
  • GCSE grade descriptors already exist for subjects. No new criteria would need to be created.
  • Easier to ensure consistent reporting of progress between teachers and across the school.


If average student achieves C grade at GCSE in Year 11, you would therefore expect them to be D grade in Year 10, E in Year 9 and F in Year 8 and G in Year 7. Therefore, grades already exist along with level descriptors. Those below grade G could be classed as ‘progressing towards G’ or additional grades could be created eg H and I with modified descriptors based on those already in existence.
Use of existing exam papers (or parts of), would ensure that assessment of progress is accurate as grade boundaries already exist, along with mark schemes from exam boards. Therefore should be more accurate reporting of student attainment – as less about teacher interpretation.
In addition, a wealth of example student answers and exemplar materials exist on exam board websites which would provide ideal AfL materials to show students how to improve. In addition, a range of student exam scripts can be bought back from the exam board each year so that examples of students performance at each grade can be used by teachers and students to cement understanding of what performance at each grade looks like.
Disadvantages of switching to GCSE grading at KS3 in September 2014
  • With GCSE grades changing from A*-G to 1-9, this could confuse the issue if this new KS3 grading system changes after one year in operation.
  • After a period without a standardised system, government may introduce new system which may lead to more confusion if another change made. Therefore is it better to stick with the status quo?
  • Many departments will have spent a lot of time and effort creating assessments based on National Curriculum levels, so is changing worth the upheaval?
  • May act as disincentive if students receive G grade. Also parents may not be happy with this as G or F grade may imply failure or lack of achievement in their minds.


I must confess, I never have liked NC Levels since the expectation that they be used to assess individual pieces of work, something they were never designed to do. I find them too vague and cumbersome to use in this context.  In the absence of standardised assessments and exemplar materials in the ‘foundation’ subjects as they used to be known, I find that they are open to too much interpretation.

As a result, I find myself in favour of an assessment model that would give me confidence that the grade I give would be much the same in any school. Also, that the assessment materials help to prepare students for the requirements of GCSE exams and is clear for both parents and students to understand. Finally, I find it very appealing that I could then use exam board AfL materials to help students see how they can improve their work.
However, maybe I am barking up the wrong tree. There are some alternatives that I have been reading about:

Assessing without Levels Example 1
Assessing without Levels Example 2
Assessing without Levels Example 3

Here, there is a definite move away from numbers and letters (at least when communicating progress with students) – this may address one of the concerns I raised above about the de-motivation that may result in using the lower GCSE grades.

Since asking for ideas on Twitter, colleagues have shared other models being developed by schools. Such as using gold, silver and bronze:

More here: Assessing without levels Example 4

After reading these blog posts and thinking about GCSE grades, I wonder whether there is a middle ground, where we report to students and parents using the terms such as secure, excellence etc but record the corresponding KS3 GCSE grade so that we can still have a handle on how students are progressing and what intervention, improvements need to be made in order to improve understanding, application, skills etc, but without students and parents getting hung up on a number or letter – as was the original concern in the expert panel review .

When failure equals success

After watching a recent Sir Ken Robinson interview sent to all staff by my Headteacher, I was struck by a few things. Firstly, the idea that creativity is applied imagination. There are plenty of people in education who are imaginative, but actually it is creativity that is important. As he states: “You can be imaginative all day long, but never do anything….. To be creative you have to do something.” Being a ‘finisher’ is important.

The second thing I thought was that actually, as teachers many of us are desperate to be creative, try new things and be innovative. However, we are often constrained by the system in which we work. I have always tried to be creative in the way I teach and when I was a Head of Department, in the way I redesigned our curriculum and more recently in the work I am doing redesigning our Year 7 and 8 curriculum across the school. However, I am always frustrated by the way we are constrained and thwarted by the system in which we work. This is not a criticism about my school but the way in which the education system in this country operates. The pressure of results, constant weighing of the pig through lesson observations, lack of any meaningful development and evaluation time, OfSted etc. These things have definitely got worse and are only likely to get worse considering recent policy announcements. Don’t get me wrong, the pig needs to be weighed occasionally, but more importantly, it needs to be fed in between.
Imagine if you had the opportunity during the working week, like the workers at Pixar. They are entitled to have 4 hours a week at the Pixar University- to try something new, to take a moment, talk to colleagues, be imaginative, creative and innovative. WOW. Imagine the ideas that would be generated. Imagine the conversations that would take place!
I was struck by the anecdote in relation to the Nobel prize winning chemist he knew, who stated that 98% of the experiments he conducted failed. But he argued that failure is an essential part in the process of encouraging creativity. Imagine that! Having a lesson observation where you failed (satisfactory or inadequate) and were not made to feel like a complete failure, a burden to the teaching profession and a worthless individual, as many people I have worked with in my career have experienced.
Imagine if 98% of the work that we did in schools failed. Imagine working in an education system where people are not frightened to make mistakes. Where getting things wrong was actually a sign of success – a sign that you are prepared to be imaginative, creative and innovative – not feeling frightened of doing so, not scared that a lesson observation less than ‘good’ would put a black mark against your name. WOW! How incredible would that be. Imagine what a difference the quality 2% would make.
If by innovation, we mean putting good ideas into practice, then we know that this is vital in schools – for both students, teachers and managers. However, you cannot go straight to innovation, you have to have a process of creativity. To be creative you have to foster nourish and encourage imagination. All that takes time, space, trust and confidence – these are all too often currently lacking in schools. Only when the education system values these over performance tables, lesson grading and target setting, will we be in a position to offer our students a truly world-beating education system fit for the 21st century.
I have just decided to make a late new years resolution. My resolution is to fail. I have just realised that I do not fail enough. This is not because I am some kind of super-teacher. Believe me, I am not. It is more to do with the fact that I don’t try enough new things. I pledge to be more imaginative, creative and innovative. That’s it. So, if I do not increase my failure rate this year….. I have failed!
Watch the full Sir Ken Robinson interview here:

My week – It could just be wind

So, it’s Friday evening and I left school exhausted, but with a smile on my face. I don’t know whether it is the post-Ofsted relief, wind or the realisation that comes to me now and again that despite the 60+ hour weeks, the stress and the ridiculous workload – I could not imagine doing another job.
This week has just highlighted to me all the reasons why after 15 years and numerous roles and responsibilities, I still enjoy teaching. Forget the paperwork, random emails from colleagues about the keys that they have lost and then found 10 minutes later and the inability of the Department of Education to leave anything alone for more than 25 seconds, and focus on what happens everyday in the classroom.
This week, I have laughed, sat open-mouthed, fallen over, been speechless, felt stunned, proud, embarrassed and amazed by the things that the students have done and all these emotions and actions were the result of positive interactions in the classroom, corridors and on a field-trip this week.
Sometimes we can get sidetracked by the negative behaviour and attitude of some children that we teach. If there have been 25 positive things that happen in a week and one negative, I will often remember and stew on the one negative. However, I am trying to change this and just focus on all the positive things that happen during the week.
Sometimes though, it’s the other things that happen throughout the day that sidetrack me and prey on my mind. Mostly this is the result of email. Checking email two minutes before a class arrives and seeing a list of things that you are being told need to be done by the end of the day (when you are teaching all day) will guarantee to get me in a bad mood. This starts me off on the back foot in a lesson and can then affect how a lesson goes.
So, this week I have re-focused. What is the most important aspect of my job? Teaching the best lessons I can to the children sat in front of me. To do this I need to be focused on my teaching and not distracted by emails with unrealistic requests or demanding me to involve myself in pointless bureaucracy. As a result, I no longer open my email account until 3.30 pm each day. If it is that important, someone will come to my room and tell me or I will go and talk to them. Otherwise it can wait until the teaching day is over.
Is it co-incidence that I have felt less stressed this week and have finished with a smile on my face? I’m not sure. It may indeed be wind. But whatever the reason, I am sticking to the idea that I control email, not it me and that actually, talking to colleagues and the students as much as possible is the way forward

Targets, targets, targets

Target: Make a table.
So, you need wood, screws, a saw, screwdriver, a tape measure and spirit level. All the raw materials you need are laid out. Setting to work, you know that as long as you put everything together properly, follow the instructions and give yourself the time, you will end up with a table.
But hang on, the wood has been taken off by someone else to be given some extra intensive wood training. The screwdriver decides that it is no longer interested in turning screws into wood and decides that it would rather just sit and watch. The spirit level can’t be bothered to check if the wood is straight as it has lots of other work to do right now. Does this happen? No
You want to make a table, so you get the materials and you are directly responsible for whether the table ends up being fit for purpose, or whether it looks more like a small rodent shelter. Target met or target not met is directly down to you.
In teaching, you may have the raw materials, but there are so many variables. At any given moment, the wood can turn into vegetarian gravy! We can do everything within our power to try and meet the ‘aspirational’ targets set for the students that we teach – based on whichever target setting software is in vogue that week. We spend hours planning lessons in the evenings, weekends and holidays, we mark their books, we give them SMART targets, we run extra revision and catch-up sessions after school.
However, students are not planks of wood. We do not have direct control over whether they meet their target. So when the student does not meet their target for whatever reason, why is it that the teacher is the one who is hauled over the coals and made to feel like a failure?
Don’t get me wrong, poor teaching should not be allowed to hamper student progress. We have plenty of mechanisms in schools now to deal with this. Setting targets for student achievement is a good idea. It is important that students have targets to aim at and we know what those targets are so we can help them try and achieve them. But that is the point. It is student who has been set the target. Many teachers, plan and deliver good quality lessons (as evidenced by lesson observations), mark their books, employ intervention strategies, contact parents etc etc, doing all they can to help their students achieve their targets, but as a teacher cannot actually write the controlled assessment or go into the exam hall and sit the exam for their students, how can they be directly responsible for the outcome?
We seem to live in a time where when something goes wrong it is someone else’s fault. Where there’s blame there’s a claim etc etc. Actually, no. We should be teaching students that they are responsible for their own actions. It is not automatically the fault of the teacher that they have not achieved their target grade You put the work in, you reap the benefits – targets are simply that, targets and should not be a stick to beat the teacher with.

OfSted arrive!

On the 27th and 28th of September 2012, we were ‘done’! The views, observations and opinions below are my thoughts following the OfSted inspection. They are my reflections and mine alone – and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of my employer.

So the email circulated at lunchtime on Wednesday: ‘Urgent meeting in the staff room at 3.15pm’. For someone who has been through four Ofsted inspections, it could only mean one thing!
So the frantic preparations began for the arrival of the inspection team the next morning. My first thoughts went back to our last inspection in 2009, where we were graded as ‘satisfactory’ and the comments made then, that too much teaching was safe. On those two days, many went into their comfort zone and relied on lessons delivered from the front with power point led lessons, trying to cover all bases with pages of objectives, NC level aims etc etc. As a result the quality of teaching was graded as ‘satisfactory’.
We were ‘done’ last time at the start of the new framework in 2009 and as a result, felt aggrieved that we had been dealt with harshly. Since then, the framework has changed twice and each time we had been told that the threshold in each category had been raised…. Gulp!
As a school we have been through quite traumatic events over the last few years, but throughout, the staff and students have worked very hard to ensure that for the last five years, our results have improved year-on-year. As a result, I was convinced that we deserved better.
So, I sat down to re-plan my lessons for the next two days – as you do. I had already planned some lessons, lots of group work, laptops, movement etc, so was thinking of how I could change them to make sure that I was fully in control and that I could ensure that behaviour was not an issue. Ten minutes later, I thought…. Actually I am not going to change anything. There was plenty in these lessons that could go wrong (and did by the way) but, this is how it is. All my previous in-school, county and OfSted observations had been positive, so why change it. I did my lesson plans – very brief and hand written on our department template and photocopied another set of seating plans from my folder.
Day one, full teaching day…. Nothing. The door was open all day, but nobody arrived. Day two, Period 1, Year 9 arrived. In they came, register done and lesson introduced based on the storms and floods across the UK that week as part of the ‘Deadly Geography’ unit. Many of the resources they needed I had collected earlier that week and posted:  These were to be accessed via the laptops I had booked. So the trolley was sat at the front of the room humming away – enough for one between two. Working in groups, they had to investigate the causes, effects and possible future management strategies that could be employed in the event of a similar flood event. In addition, the groups had a blank UK map, atlases, sugar paper and three newspaper articles from papers I had bought on the frantic drive to school that morning.
Quick 5 minute intro from me – two simple slides on the whiteboard. Slide one – A single lesson objective. Slide Two – What the presentation had to include for each NC level to be achieved…..and then they were off. The room was swarming with bodies moving all over the place, collecting laptops, loading laptops, bits of paper everywhere, students wandering around collecting resources etc. I just stood and watched…
What have I done? They could have all been sat in silence, writing in their books and I would be nice and calm, checking progress, giving the SEN children scaffolding worksheets, asking difficult questions of the AG&T students and providing writing frames to stretch them etc. Instead, it looked like chaos (to me).
Two minutes later, all the laptops crashed! Sir… Sir….Sir…Sir…. aarrgghh! I turn around just in time to see the inspector arrive, followed by the inspector inspecting the inspector! My career was flashing before my eyes. Is this what it feels like just before a heart attack?! I thought.
I took a moment…… this stuff happens all the time, things go wrong in my lessons and you adapt and get on with it. So all the laptops were shutdown and returned to the trolley (which at that moment was going to have a meeting with a large sledgehammer at some point.) and we carried on. The kids were not fazed, it was not unusual for technology to fail in the lesson (DVD, projector, laptops etc), so they just carried on, using the newspaper articles instead. I appeared to be the only one who was remotely bothered!
The kids were great, working in their table groups – totally absorbed. For the next 40 minutes the two inspectors wandered around, talking to the kids, asking questions and making copious notes. I was virtually redundant! I didn’t stop the class once. I did no teaching from the front, just circulated checking they knew what they were doing and giving suggestions and instructions to the student who had been put in charge of each table.
Five minutes before the end, we wrapped up, did a quick plenary and off the kids went. The inspectors and I were left alone in the room……. Deep breath….. ‘Any chance of some quick feedback?’ I ask. ‘Amazing… Outstanding’ came the response. The relief was overwhelming.
To summarise, she said that by talking to the kids, it was clear to her that this was not a one-off Ofsted lesson and I was just doing what I normally do and not playing it safe – relying on teaching from the front to have constant control of the lesson. Things go wrong, but so what? she said. They were all engaged, they and we were clear about what they were meant to be doing and were doing it….. Maybe the laptops can live for another day then!
I can’t say yet what we were graded as a school until the report is officially released. All I can say is that we are very happy. I guess the feedback from the inspector following my lesson sums it up. We didn’t all play it safe. We just did what we normally do. As teachers we regularly plan interesting, challenging, risky, thought-provoking, topical lessons. Colleagues at my own school do and I know from the tweets I read from the geography teachers I follow on Twitter via @_DavidDrake, many, many others do too on a daily basis. Things often go wrong, and normally we just chalk it up to experience and learn from it for next time, but when we get ‘the call’ or get observed for Performance Management we can sometimes seize up and teach like we are back in the 1950s. I know I have sometimes.
When you get ‘the call’, and the people with clipboards arrive at your door… just do what you do. Staying up until 2 am producing copious pages of power point slides with 15 differentiated objectives, mini-plenaries every 10 minutes, 6 page lesson plans, 20 different worksheets for every conceivable type of student will just make you look like death warmed up…. Forget it.
In my humble opinion Mr Gove, there is a reason that GCSE and A-Level results keep going up and it is not that the exams are getting easier. It is that the quality of teaching in this country is the best it has ever been. The vast majority of teachers work ridiculous hours and invest a massive amount of time, care and energy into the schools they work in and the students they teach. The idea that we stop work at 3pm and need to work harder is frankly ignorant to say the least. As someone who has worked with teachers in 12 different secondary schools in Wiltshire whilst a county-AST I feel that I have a reasonable amount of evidence to back up this view.
So, fellow Super-heroes – don’t play it safe when they arrive… Take the risks you normally would. That’s what we keep telling our students isn’t it?
Take a backseat and let the students carry on. Then when it’s all done and dusted, have a big Full English Breakfast!
UPDATE – Thank you for all the positive feedback I have received about this post on Twitter @_DavidDrake Much appreciated