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Life after levels: making the right choice

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We‘ve been seeing increased interest among members of our school leader service in our articles on assessment. Searches for ‘levels’ were twice as high in March as in the same period last year, while interest in our article on what will replace National Curriculum levels has almost quadrupled in the last six months, suggesting uncertainty about this particular reform.

Almost a year ago, the Department for Education confirmed that levels would be removed, and promised examples of good practice to help schools make the change. The Department has now published principles for creating assessment systems and brief outlines of assessment systems used by schools awarded development funding from the Assessment Innovation Fund. More information on these systems will follow, with the intention of helping schools to develop their own systems, based on the needs of their own pupils and staff.

Sharing lessons from successful schools may be inspiring, but there will still be questions for school leaders working on their own system. How will assessment be moderated? How can teachers be trained to apply assessment consistently? How can its effectiveness be demonstrated to Ofsted – and what exactly will inspectors be looking for?

At a recent Reform seminar, I heard the children’s minister, Elizabeth Truss, speak on this topic. She said headteachers will now be accountable for how they choose to assess their pupils and how they use the data they have gathered. There won’t be any set hoops for schools to jump through, but the system must make a positive impact. That’s a daunting challenge for school leaders. How can they make the right choice for the school? What will happen if a new system is rolled out in a school, only to prove unworkable?

Our research has shown us that some schools have been successfully using their own systems for some time. Independent schools, for example, have never had to use levels, and many have their own systems in place. To learn more about this, we’ve been visiting some of these schools.

My colleague Andrew Lifford recently talked to Lisa Low, Head of Lower School at Notting Hill Preparatory School in London. Lisa discussed options such as adopting the EYFS system of age-related expectations. She also argued for assessments that give a holistic picture of children, incorporating habits of learning along with achievement. We’ll be adding more about what Andrew learnt at Notting Hill to our articles for school leaders.

Until more guidance is produced by the Department, local authorities, commercial providers or experts in the field, I imagine caution will be the watchword for many schools. At the same time, it may be hard to prove that sticking with levels, or something like them, is the right choice for a school. With no official map to guide them, looking out across the sector for innovative practice will help school leaders find their way.

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