Breaking the Shackles of National Curriculum Levels


“We need to switch to a different conception of children’s ability. Every child, during Primary, being capable of anything, depending upon the effort that they have put in and how it is presented to them. Levels have really been getting in the way of this. What we want is a model of ability based on each child being capable of anything and us looking progressively, through assessment, at what ideas a child has understood.”
Tim Oates, Cambridge Assessment

A great deal of ink had been spilt about the death of National Curriculum levels. It turns out rumours of their death are greatly exaggerated. Schools have been given the freedom to get rid of levels, but the reality is a wary wait for accountability measures that militates against the potential ‘risk’ of implementing an innovative assessment model.

This hasn’t stopped schools innovating and forging ahead. Small, but hugely significant steps have been taken. The Department for a Education has announced the assessment models it will fund to help spur on developments. See this press release with some details of the successful school models here. The DfE have also established a TES Community blog which promises to share ongoing developments in this area of innovation – see here.

Shaun Allison, Deputy Head teacher at Durrington High School, has blogged about one of the successful models in question here. Happily, Shaun’s model shares many qualities with the assessment model we are devising at Huntington. The germ of our model was outlined in my blog here and we are currently making great progress across every department in our school. Thousands of schools are doing the same.

We have agreed upon our core principles that drive our assessment model months ago – see below:


Now, each department is forging ahead and defining the indicative content relative to their subject specific assessments. It gives flexibility for our respective departments, but within a common framework of core principles that students, parents and teachers can understand.

Every school needs to get to the root of their own assessment principles and seek out the best possible assessment at key stage three (Key stage one or key stage two if you are in the Primary phase) that is truly ‘assessment for learning‘. Dylan Wiliam helpfully defined it thus:

“The distinction between assessment of learning and assessment for learning is basically about the intention behind the assessment. So, if you’re assessing in order to help you teach better, that’s assessment for learning, and if you’re assessing in order to grade students, to rank them or to give them a score on a test, then that’s assessment of learning.”
Dylan Wiliam, ‘Assessment for Learning: why, what and how

Seeing models from other schools is, of course, really helpful and it can give you confidence that your school isn’t forging an isolated path. Daisy Christodoulou has collated some excellent blogs on new assessment models that give us a path for life after levels here. She has repeatedly written with great insight on the rationale for why we should move beyond levels, such as this post here on ‘Why National Curriculum Levels Need Replacing‘.

Another helpful step, when devising new assessment that spurns the shackles of NC levels is to put your prospective assessment model through a rigorous evaluation process. Professor Robert Coe, from Durham University, has produced this excellent article with 47 questions to do just that – give it a read here.

New assessment models are emerging all the time and there is a nascent sense that assessment models that supplant levels will flourish, that the cadaver of NC levels will be buried, but the future is uncertain. We need only seize the opportunity, but, no doubt, further support from the Department for Education in the devising, implementation and dissemination process would be a boon. The Department for Education needs to also be aligned with our inspectorate in ensuring different models of assessment can be applied without fear of recrimination, otherwise schools will fear to tread new, innovative ground.

The most helpful item from the DfE in recent times is this excellent video of Tim Oates, bona fide assessment guru, ripping levels into little sub-level sized shreds. He clearly presents a better model of slower and deeper assessment, free of the flimsy semblance of accuracy conveyed by levels:

3 thoughts on “Breaking the Shackles of National Curriculum Levels”

  1. Peter Gandy

    Thanks for your article.

    One of the most dispiriting things for me, a Learning Support Assistant working in year 6, occurs at the beginning of the school year, when children are asked about their hopes and expectations for the coming year. More often than not, they will phrase these hopes in terms of National Curriculum levels: “I want to get a level 5 in English,” rather than, “I would like to make my writing more interesting.”

    This sort of thing continues throughout the year:

    “Can you have a look at my work please sir?”

    “Yes. Do you think that if you had described your character’s actions, it would have shown how they were feeling rather than you having to tell me?”

    “What level is it?”

    “And if you had included some direct speech, do you think we would understand the characters better?”

    “Is it a level 5?”

    I know that schools are judged on results, but I’m sure we push process of writing rather than the outcome. Is it just because the levels exist and form part of pupils’ targets that they so often concentrate on them so exclusively?

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