Beyond National Curriculum Levels: One Year On

… the National Curriculum is a very politicised document. It was created to promote social and moral values that were ingrained and argued as being important. However, this has not always been the case. According to a report by the National Union of Teachers, as recently as 1999, the National Curriculum was a document that could be changed at any time. In 2004, a good deal of parental concern was raised over the introduction of the National Curriculum. Similar concerns were raised when the new English Baccalaureate was introduced. Despite this, the National Curriculum has not, as some feared, been watered down. When one looks at the history of the English Baccalaureate and the

the news of the government’s decision to send a bill to overhaul the national curriculum to the House of Lords has caused a flurry of conversation online. The proposals are designed to be “simpler, clearer, more coherent, and more relevant.” But we shouldn’t be surprised that the government wants to reform the curriculum, given the continuous reduction in classroom time and the increasing pressure on teachers to teach “relevant” subjects. So, what are the new proposals? Children will spend one hour a week on English, maths and science; a further hour a week on English and maths, or two hours a week on English, maths and science. As for English, the proposed new curriculum will make a number of changes

I want to remind you of a story about two parent-teacher conferences. A colleague of mine took the regular course at his son’s primary school and discovered that his son was at level 1a for reading at reception. When he asked what this actually meant and what he could do as a parent, the teacher was a little confused. The teacher struggled to make clear what was really important, getting bogged down in a mass – or jumble – of data and layers.

My experience with my young daughter: I have learned what she can do, what she understands and what she needs to do more of, both at school and at home. In addition to her knowledge of letter and number sounds, I learned how confident she is with others and how happy she is. There are no levels, sub-levels or targets for the data. It was a very different approach, without data fixation. …. and it worked. It’s a fairly simple distinction, but a profound one.

We must ask ourselves: When did we get lost and go down a rabbit hole of subterfuge and worse? If we have lost sight of what learning to assess should be.

Schools like Wroxham Primary were already leading the way with their assessment methods – see here – so we were encouraged and took the opportunity to remove levels from the National Curriculum over a year ago. We wanted to move away from the narcissistic level and unleash the true power of formative feedback (see Dylan Williams’ video here).

Fortunately, I can say that at my school we have put the NC levels behind us and will not be looking back. Last year at Huntington School we introduced our new assessment model at level 3.  Over the past year we have invested a great deal of time and support in developing a new curriculum and, at the same time, a new assessment model. The contribution to continuing education has been significant – totaling approximately 20 hours.

We decided that it was imperative to review both the curriculum and the assessment model, given the evolution of our cohort and their needs, as well as the forthcoming changes in GCSEs and in other areas. We wanted to make more attempts and complete the annual GCSE intervention at the last minute.

We began by establishing our general principles for evaluating KS3:

  • The main purpose of our assessment system is to improve student learning;
  • Transition to the system of formative evaluation
  • No longer just record performance, but rather progress against the student’s baseline;
  • The emphasis is on the ideals of the growth mindset;
  • End of year examination in class 7, 8 and 9;
  • Flexibility to add variation to the material.

Definition of a butterfly

We have begun to put aside superficial degree designations and define what our students should know, do, and understand by the end of their Huntington education, whether at age 16 or 18. We then planned a reverse process, so that this knowledge and skills would be covered in stage three – with fewer assessments and more in-depth learning. We tried to master the big ideas of each topic (or threshold concepts).

We then compiled the results and assessments by subject area to ensure that we focus on the knowledge and skills that matter. It was very important that we set a standard of excellence and that this was reflected in the development of the programmes and the evaluations. We were inspired by the work of Ron Berger and Butterfly Austin. Watch this video to learn how formative and meaningful feedback can lift the poverty of the assignment just above the previous level:

We knew that each subject had to define its own butterfly – set a standard for each test – from an essay in English to an opus in music. Then we began to think about the steps each student should take to reach the best possible level, just as Austin took his path to excellence.

It is important that this process is manageable for teachers. It is therefore best to divide the students into groups to compare their progress with that of their peers. Therefore, we chose the following approximate groupings (based on existing RAISE data): high, medium, and low (obviously, these designations were a brief indication to instructors and were not and will not be given to students). It was not a limitation on progress or achievement – it merely gave us a baseline and achievable groupings. They were beginners, so they could evolve in groups according to their progress.

We again used Austin’s image of the butterfly to explain that learners have different starting points and that progress is always linked to their current starting point:

Student A can start with level one of these symbolic butterflies, while student B can start with level four. With this in mind, we have considered how to monitor current progress. In the vain pursuit of exact science, we can easily get lost down the rabbit hole. Of course, these assessments are relative and relate to the best fit – they are made by the teacher who knows the student best, not based on abstract national criteria. When we impose data on teachers and expect steady progress like a Stalinist head of state, we can kiss meaningful evaluation goodbye.

We have created a simple taxonomy for our advance descriptors, influenced by a very useful report from the NAHT Evaluation Commission. Each of the three groups in the cohort will make progress from their starting point. There are four descriptors of progress that correspond to what we expect of them at this stage of Key Stage 3 (which may be reviewed annually):

  • Expected progress exceeded
  • Meeting Expected progress
  • Working towards expected progress
  • not making the expected progress

We used this information to track students, with teachers focusing on subject-specific improvement strategies. Instead of the heavy hand of endless interventions by school leaders, our interventions focus on quality and appropriate education.

Of course, months were spent helping teachers understand the new grading system and get consistency in reporting. We had to redo a lot of things in the progress descriptions. It takes time to determine the difference between doing and striving in a particular area, and we will continue to work on that. It’s not easy, but it does mean that teachers need to understand what they are assessing (Tim Oates of Cambrige Assessment has said that teachers need to become experts in assessment – right down to the questions we ask and the students – and he’s right. We need to put time and effort into deepening our knowledge).

Of course, it is a little more difficult to evaluate performance in different subjects. For example, pupils take longer to make the expected progress in music than in English, but we accept these differences between subjects and try to understand them better. That’s what real learning is about – the complex differences and nuances of understanding, rather than the endless, inexorable climb from one sub-level to the next that characterizes many of our assessments (learning and progress are gloriously messy – like a butterfly, you have to catch it often).

The core of our work this year has been an active programme of alignment within departments and understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the new assessment system and our new curriculum for KS3. To achieve consistency, we have included a subject-specific training program, performance monitoring and department-specific facilitation. As Tom Sherrington said:

At the heart of this problem – when students are given assignments that are too easy or settle for substandard work – is the fact that teachers lose sight of the expected standards.  They do not determine what a finished butterfly should look like for each student based on their age and past performance. The key to a real evaluation of this type, and the real standardization it can bring, lies in the routine moderation processes.

Good moderation was – and remains – the key to success.

Daisy Christodoulou, Head of Research and Development at Ark, also commented on the limitations of vague and abstract criteria:

It is not by means of abstract criteria that we will achieve a common language. We find common ground by teaching common content, doing common work, and sharing students’ work with their peers.

I think Sherrington and Christodoulou have covered the whole issue of assessment effectiveness in KS3. Teachers, including myself, got caught up in the PPA’s maze of criteria and levels, and we were robbed of the ability to use our own judgment. I know with an accuracy that transcends all other levels whether any of my students are making progress as they should, or whether their work is meeting what I expect of them. I can assess and compare similar students at my school. This is the liberating power of transcending levels – we can use our best judgment and then focus on providing formative feedback to students on how to improve their performance.

Trials of the third stage

We report progress to parents once a trimester. The only activity report we give to parents is the end of year report. I know that the mere mention of exams can evoke anti-utopian visions of the factory model, but with the right approach, they can help our students learn better. Huntington’s teachers agreed: In the world of GCSE exams, students must learn to make the most of their memory and recognise that this is in fact an essential part of learning. The effects of the tests will also reduce stress and anxiety in the future.

We have developed an appropriate end-of-year evaluation for each subject. Some have adapted earlier material, others have taken useful test material from assessment committees, and still others have started from scratch. As Tim Oates amusingly puts it, we have become appreciative kleptomaniacs. Frankly, this has proven to be the most difficult aspect of our new program and evaluation model, and there is no doubt that there is still much work to be done.

We have taken the opportunity to extrapolate grades to the new 1-9 system in some subjects, such as English and math, while in other subjects, such as physical education and food technology, we communicate in percentages (we give parents a clear explanation of what we are doing). Of course, grades are evaluative, but they do provide insight into the future performance of our students. In the future, we will develop these iteratively and keep parents informed of our developments.

Actually, the actual performance isn’t the most important thing (it’s just a benchmark) – it’s the actual process of learning a different style and improving your memory to do it well.

This is a difficult time for schools and parents. Year 9 pupils starting their GCSEs next year will have numbers and letters on their exam certificate. We must not limit our new KS3 programme by focusing obsessively on GCSE skills and grades. It is tempting to think that by lowering the GCSE descriptors we can wait until Key Stage 3 and thus better prepare our students….. but this is not the case. We’re waiting for a false dawn. We only expect abstract language that does not change the way someone teaches in the real world.

We must rely on our expert instincts in this matter: If pupils learn what we think they should now know, do and understand, they will pass GCSE exams, regardless of vague descriptions of skills.

Waiting for responses to the new GCSEs will only give us technical information about changes to some content and adjustments to types of assessments such as practical work, fieldwork etc. However, the core skills and knowledge required by our pupils at GCSE and A level – the subject-specific threshold concepts – will not change significantly. We need to be confident that we are developing an excellent KS3 programme and that the GCSE results will take care of themselves.

What’s the next step?

There is no doubt that we are still in the early stages of designing our curriculum and assessment model for KS3. I think teachers will need three years to fully adjust and understand the standards we have set for our students. We will create workbooks for students in English, portfolios for food technology, videos for physical education, music audio collections, etc. We will continue to create that common language that Daisy Christodoulou talks about. Good moderation – teachers working together to thoroughly examine student outcomes – is key to more effective assessment of learning.

We have been lied to for far too long about the supposed accuracy of NC values. There was never consistency across schools – the assessment was inconsistent. It is better to acknowledge this error and instead strive for consistency at a micro level, so that schools can track their own progress with some certainty and not have to compare themselves to other schools. Either way, success in KS4 and beyond will depend on the success of our KS3 programme.

Like anything worthwhile, it takes effort. The design of the new systems will have flaws and will need to evolve, but the important thing is that lessons are learned quickly from these flaws and that the model is developed so that it better serves its purpose: to help our students learn better.

I was surprised how quickly the levels were forgotten. In October, some of my 8th graders asked me. I explained to them and the whole class our approach to formative assessment and our desire to improve. They didn’t ask me anymore – they were busy with their work.

We have received a small number of complaints from parents (we introduced the new marking model at information evenings last year, to which there was a very positive response), but we report on effort and progress by term and, most importantly, we provide your child with a subject-specific improvement strategy so that parents understand the purpose of the new model. You will receive quality, specific and useful feedback, as I received during my daughter’s parent-teacher conference.

Sometimes we are so afraid to deviate from the established norm that we forget what freedom we can exercise at school. By losing the NC levels, we actually lost very little. I think every teacher has put time and effort into learning how to properly assess learning, and in the future we will learn much more about our students than a simple substitute can tell us.

Associated measured value:

– I wrote about the original reasons for exceeding NC levels here.

– The excellent Tim Oates speaks in more detail here about the need to move beyond levels and focus on fewer things.

Associated companies

Frequently Asked Questions

What level should YEAR 5 be?

Year 5 should be at the same level as Year 4.

When did National Curriculum levels end?

National Curriculum levels ended in the summer of 2015.

What is the curriculum for Year 1?

The curriculum for Year 1 is as follows: English Language Arts: -Reading and Writing (30 minutes) -Spelling, Vocabulary, Grammar (30 minutes) -Math (30 minutes) Science: -Science in the World Around Us (45 minutes) -Science in Ourselves (45 minutes) Social Studies: -History of the United States of America (45 minutes) -Geography of the United States of America (45 minutes) Mathematics: -Math in Ourselves (30 minutes) -Math in the World Around Us (30 minutes) Health: -Physical Education and Health (45 minutes) -Healthy Living and Nutrition (45 minutes) What is the curriculum for Year 2? The curriculum for Year 2 is as follows: English Language Arts: -Reading and Writing (30 minutes) -Spelling, Vocabulary, Grammar (30 minutes) -Math (30 minutes) Science: -Science in the World Around Us (45 minutes) -Science in Ourselves (45 minutes) Social Studies: -History of the United States of America (45 minutes) -Geography of the United States of America (45 minutes) Mathematics: -Math in Ourselves (30 minutes) -Math in the World Around Us (30 minutes) Health: -Physical Education and Health (45 minutes) -Healthy Living and Nutrition (45 minutes) What is the curriculum for Year 3? The curriculum for Year 3 is as follows: English Language Arts: -Reading and Writing (30 minutes) -Spelling, Vocabulary, Grammar (30 minutes) -Math (30 minutes) Science: -Science in the World Around Us (45 minutes) -Science in Ourselves (45 minutes) Social Studies: -History of the United States of America (45 minutes) -Geography of the United States of America (45 minutes) Mathematics: -Math in Ourselves (30 minutes) -Math in the World Around Us (30 minutes) Health: -Physical Education and Health (45 minutes) -Healthy Living and Nutrition (45 minutes) What is the curriculum for Year 4? The curriculum for Year 4 is as follows: English Language Arts: -Reading and Writing (30 minutes) -Spelling, Vocabulary, Grammar (30 minutes) -Math (30 minutes) Science: -Science in the World Around Us (45 minutes) -Science in Ourselves (45 minutes) Social Studies: -History of the United States of America (45 minutes)

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