Assessment without levels: Tim Oates’ expert presentation

The Key

William Millard, Senior researcherFor me, one of the highlights of The Key’s recent event on ‘life after levels’ was Tim Oates’ presentation on the rationale for National Curriculum reform, and the principles of high quality assessment. Tim is the Group Director of Assessment Research and Development at Cambridge Assessment, and was chair of the expert panel for the National Curriculum review. You can read more about the ideas Tim discussed within The Cambridge Approach, a document freely available on Cambridge Assessment’s website outlining the principles for designing, administering and evaluating assessment.

One of the main ambitions underpinning the design of the new curriculum was to encourage pupils to learn ‘fewer things in greater detail’, a principle applied with great success in high performing jurisdictions around the world. The new curriculum, which will help pupils master key areas of knowledge, skills and understanding, is particularly important for pupils of primary age. A major reason why the new curriculum is front-loaded, with a large amount of content in years 1 to 6, is to help lay the foundations for success throughout secondary school.

Tim stressed that the National Curriculum is a starting point for schools, and does not represent the entirety of the content pupils should be taught. Schools should continue to devise and structure learning opportunities for pupils that extend beyond the remit of the statutory curriculum.

Why were National Curriculum Levels removed?

Tim Oates speaking at The Key’s October 2014 conference. He is also appearing at our ‘Life after levels’ conference in March 2015

Tim then outlined several reasons why the government decided to remove levels. One major reason was because children would often solely focus on, and even lose motivation as a result of, their level, rather than read and respond to the formative targets provided by the teacher. Levels also encouraged undue pace in learning over and above a deeper mastery of curriculum content. Tim accredited this to an accountability system that encouraged schools to move pupils up through levels quickly, rather than securing knowledge in each subject area.

Moreover, there was a lack of clarity about what levels actually were. Parents, for example, did not generally understand what a level 3 was per se, but understood that it was better than a level 2. Levels consequently made it difficult to discuss pupils’ learning without resorting to, at some point, this over-simplified definition of achievement.

Describing a pupil as a ‘level X’ has three further implications, and can mean different things in different contexts. It might reflect an average score a pupil has achieved in a test, in which they have performed certain tasks well, and others with less confidence; the level sheds no light on the pupil’s actual strengths and weaknesses. Alternatively, a level could reflect how a pupil’s work ‘best fitted’ with a particular level descriptor. In this scenario, a teacher might think a pupil’s work ‘looked like’ a level 3, even though it simultaneously displayed characteristics associated with other levels. A third problem was that some pupils would ‘just scrape’ a particular level. Such pupils’ mastery of the knowledge and skills would not match that of a pupil working more consistently at the same level, but would be recorded in the same way.

The removal of levels is a watershed moment for schools, and offers the opportunity to conduct more assessment ‘of the right kind’. Tim highlighted several ways in which schools can make assessment accurate and effective. One way is through asking the right sort of questions – penetrating questions are a hugely valuable way for teachers to assess what pupils have and haven’t absorbed. Another way is to focus on task-specific, personalised feedback. Assessment must take place all the time, and always relate to the knowledge and skills being taught at that point in time.

Tim encouraged delegates to experiment, and try a range of assessments to help support pupils’ learning. Assessment ‘professionals’, teachers who confidently and effectively conduct a range of assessments during their lessons, are usually ‘assessment kleptomaniacs’, constantly on the lookout for new assessments and tests. These might have been created by other teachers and be freely available online. Such practitioners constantly use a variety of assessments to help support and extend pupils’ understanding in particular areas of the curriculum.

You can read more about assessment on The Key for School Leaders. We have a range of articles about assessment, including two that examine, respectively, how primary and secondary schools have been responding to the removal of levels.


The Key will be hosting another ‘Life after levels’ conference in central London in March. Click here to read more details or on the link below to secure your early-bird booking discount.

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