Educational leadership & learning

I have paused whilst reading the “Final Report of the Commission of the Assessment without Levels” that was published this week. The reason is frustration and to a certain extent annoyance.

I do not disagree with many of the statements made by the Commission about more productive ways of using in-school assessment intelligently to inform teaching and learning, nor the underlying principles for these statements. However the impact in the past on schools and staff of how levels have been used (and abused)has been severe. The Commissions itself states:

“Teachers are subject to conflicting pressures: trying to make appropriate use of assessment as part of the day-to-day task of classroom teaching, while at the same time collecting assessment data which will be used in very high stakes evaluation of individual and institutional performance. These conflicted purposes too often affect adversely the fundamental aims of the curriculum, particularly regarding breadth of content and depth of learning”. (page 3)

I do not believe that removing levels has significantly removed these conflicting pressures, if anything they have merely created more uncertainty. Ofsted may well say from September 2015 that they do not expect to see a specific assessment system, but they still expect school’s to be able to define and evidence attainment and progress in year. What about Performance Related Pay (PRP)? School leaders have been told to be more rigorous with Performance Management and deal swiftly and decisively with any underperformance. How are they expected to judge this? Is there a fair and transparent system in every school? How are teachers expected to clear show their pupils progress? Have we really moved on from assessment being coupled with high stakes individual performance?

Hard working, dedicated and passionate colleagues whom I have known have been adversely judged in the past due to lack of sub-level progress. Careers have ended, either with early retirement or changing of career due to pressure exerted externally on individuals (both class based and leadership colleagues). Relationships and trust has been broken between members of staff.

I have led meetings with colleagues in the past. Questioning them ‘robustly’ about the progress rates of some of the pupils in their class. I have added fuel to this pressure cooker, and made colleagues wary of being open and honest with me, about their pupils, and the teacher’s assessment of their learning. I have been encouraged and required to do this by headteachers, governors, local authority advisors and Ofsted in the past. Will this requirement continue in the same way?

The Report states:

“The pressure generated by the use of levels in the accountability system led to a curriculum driven by Attainment Targets, levels and sub-levels, rather than the programmes of study. The Commission believes that this has had a profoundly negative impact on teaching and learning”. (page 12)

I agree it often had a negative impact on the curriculum, and the focus of our teaching and learning. Of course it did. If as a school you do not show you have met floor standards: if as a teacher you did not demonstrate that your pupils had made at least expected progress, there would be consequences.

Having been a senior leader in three Ofsted inspection pre September 2014, I know that the inspectors focused in on data as the key form of evidence. That data was presented in levels and sub-levels, because that’s what they expected and understood. They expected certain rates of progress (measured in sub-levels). They expected schools to set aspirational expectations for progress. Would +6 sub-levels for all pupils in all subjects in KS2 get you a Good, or did it have to be +7? If you were inspected in October what was the APS progress of each cohort since September, and why had some pupils not achieved your internal progress expectations? How do you demonstrate that pupils have made progress in one lesson and how much closer are they to the next sub-level?

I clearly remember being congratulated by one of the inspectors in one of these inspections, when during an observation of my class, when asked I was able to clearly and quickly inform him which pupils in the class were working at which sub-level currently and why I had positioned them in class as I had. Apparently I had accurate assessment and knew my class very well.

I don’t blame any particular inspector, they were just working in a given system. As we were. As we still are. There is still a game to be played in my opinion. (I am not saying this should be the case).

The Commission then talk about how levels led to undue pace in learning.

“Depth and breadth of understanding were sometimes sacrificed in favour of pace.” (page 5).

Indeed one of the Ofsted frameworks from 2014-2015 stated the intention of looking for “rapid and sustained progress”. Since September 2015 they are only looking for “sustained”. This does raise a question for me when the DfE talk regularly in the media about intervening swiftly in failing and coasting schools. I don’t think pace as a requirement in progress will diminish when schools still have this threat hanging over them. Even when the Commission states:

“The key to raising standards by enriching learning and pupil motivation and enabling teachers to grow professionally and make better use of their time, knowledge and skills.”

Can teachers and school leaders grow professionally, and make sustained (but not rapid) progress when they know their reputations and careers may be on the line? Can they grow as professionals in short, highly pressurised periods of time? If we are saying that pupils cannot and should not learn like that, why should we expect adult learners to be so different?

The final quote that grabbed my attention from the report was:

“In reality, the difference between pupils on either side of a boundary might have been very slight, while the difference between pupils within the same level might have been very different.” (page 12)

Now try reading that sentence again but substitute the word ‘pupils’ with ‘schools’, and ‘levels’ with ‘Ofsted grades’.

If gap between levels may be minimal, and gap within levels wider how does that compare with Ofsted grades. Compare a school that just scrapes a Good judgement to a school that just dips into RI. There may be very little between them. A few bits of data (probably just a few individual pupils, or a particularly complex term in school life). But the implications and consequences for the two schools and staff are vastly different. How many schools will go downwards in a negative spiral? How many staff will struggle with their health, well-being, self-belief?

The Commission states that the old National Curriculum was “too dominated by the requirements of the national assessment framework and testing regime.”

Are the futures of individual schools and individual staff still too dominated by the requirements of external accountability and an inspection regime?


Comments on: "The vicious external accountability cycle" (2)

  1. To answer your last question, I think, ‘of course!’. I too have just dissected the report, and though I welcome some of the direction because it now gives external authority to some of the things I’ve been trying to explain to SLs (e.g. not trying to use teacher assessment in the context of tracking data and performance management), I think it is naive in the belief that it’s more transparent and reliable than levels and that it undermines the ‘closed mind-set’. How much more can you reinforce a closed mind-set than by reminding a pupil each year that they have not met the objectives as some surely won’t?

    “I do not believe that removing levels has significantly removed these conflicting pressures, if anything they have merely created more uncertainty.”

    You are very right, and it has been a nightmare trying to deal with it in the last two year.


  2. David Lyness said:

    Thank you. Like many, I have no doubt on the sincerity and wisdom of the report.
    How realistic is it, I wonder, for a generation of teachers, leaders and inspectors to fundamentally change their entrenched mindsets and definitively move on from the old erroneous ways?


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