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Nick Gibb Speech: Assessment after levels

26th February 2015

Nick Gibb outlines the support given to schools as they move away from level descriptors.

Reform is an important think tank because of its clear commitment to public service reform and the fact that its reports are always based on strong evidence.

When this government came into office in 2010, there was no public service area in greater need of reform than our education system. Our ambitious programme of reform, based on increased academic standards, high aspirations for every pupil and professional autonomy for schools, is now beginning to bear fruit.

The proportion of 6-year-olds able to decode simple words and pass the phonics screening check at the end of year 1 increased from 58% in 2012 to 74% in 2014. That means 102,000 more 6-year-olds are on track to be reading more effectively as a direct result of this policy. The number of pupils attending good or outstanding schools has increased by more than a million since 2009 to 2010.

Since 2010 we have effected a major, evidence-driven renewal of the content of the national curriculum, drawing on the study of the curriculum content of high-performing countries. These changes have restored the vital content lost in the 2007 changes to the national curriculum, and are the basis for a more secure assessment system that no longer uses the notion of ‘levels’.

Levels were introduced with the new national curriculum in 1988. They were devised with the intention of delivering an assessment system which measured pupils’ progress against a national framework.

But international comparisons tell us that fast-improving countries around the world do not use levels – Singapore does not, Finland did not during its time of rapid improvement, Hong Kong does not, nor does Massachusetts. And it’s not that they are missing something. Wroxham Primary School in Potter’s Bar – with a demanding, mixed intake – doesn’t and hasn’t used levels as it has made its journey from ‘special measures’ to repeated judgments of ‘outstanding’.

What these other nations do, and what effective schools in England do, is focus on the specifics of key areas of the curriculum, and ensure deep, secure knowledge and understanding in these specifics. Levels have been a distracting, over-generalised label, giving misleading signals about the genuine attainment of pupils. They have driven undue pace as Ofsted insisted on ‘progress against levels’. They have resulted in a lack of trust between primary and secondary schools and they have clogged up the education system with undependable data on pupil attainment.

The lightbulb moment for me came when visiting a primary school I saw a poster on the wall with 16 words labelled as level 5 words, the implication being that just learning these words would result in a pupil becoming level 5.

As Tim Oates of Cambridge Assessment – and who chaired our curriculum review – points out, any assessment is a claim. A claim that a person can do ‘a’ or ‘b’; that they know and understand ‘x’ and ‘y’. These are claims which have consequences – that a person is ready to study medicine or engineering, that they are ready to progress into advanced study in languages; that they know things. These claims need to be well grounded. If they are not, pupils will be misled about their own progress and we will all be misled about the quality of schools.

But what things does someone with the label ‘level 3’ actually know; what things can they do? In the drive to use levels for school improvement, for measures of national standards, for school inspection, we lost sight of what kind of claim we were making with levels and how reliable they are.

We lost sight of the purpose of the national curriculum as a clear statement of necessary content. The revised national curriculum reinstates the distinction between the national curriculum – the content of the core academic curriculum; and the school curriculum – the broader curriculum and activities of a school which should be left to the discretion of teachers.

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