I am not a number! Why distilling the skills and knowledge of D&T into a single figure is not a fair representation of a student's success

Paul Woodward
27th April 2018 at 17:32

Levels and grades and numbers…throughout the education process, the poor students are subjected to a range of assessment methods. Not so long ago, they had levels at key stages 1 and 2, followed by NC Levels in KS3, grades in KS4 and KS5 unless they did BTECs for which they were rewarded with a pass, merit or distinction. Should they go to university, they then get a division of a degree rated by class.

With the introduction of Progress 8 measures a few years ago, this has changed. NC levels have gone, to be replaced with…well, nothing really. Many schools are adopting a "life without levels" approach while they try to understand the new fandangled Progress and Attainment 8 system (and introducing a different type of level in the process). Let's look at this new system, which is complicated for students and parents, but also for schools and teaching staff.

The GCSE was originally intended to be rated on a 1-8 scale with 8 being the best, but then they decided to add in an extra level, so now it's 1-9 with one being the lowest. Even with eight levels, these don't exactly match the grades we used to use and no one can really decide if a 4 or a 5 is considered a pass, like the C grade used to be. Unfortunately, someone referred to a 4 as a "Poundland C" and the 5 as a "Waitrose C", which was not well received – and not great adverts for the two stores either!

Now, throw in Progress 8, which takes the best eight subjects, presuming that maths and English count for two each. Add up all the levels achieved and divide by 10 to get an Attainment 8 score, which is different to the Progress 8 score, which is how much better a student does than their target attainment level. Confused yet?

Each subject is given a target level at the end of KS2, but these are combined to give an overall target, so in reality it doesn't matter if you are brilliant at D&T or English; they all get thrown into a pot, divided up and spat out as a single number from 1-9.

Not surprisingly, we have a conflict of interest where the KS2 teachers want the best result possible for their efforts and years of work with the little ones, but on the other hand, those teachers taking them through KS3 and 4 really need that score to be as low as possible, so they have a better chance of improving their Attainment 8 score, while adding to the school's overall Progress 8 score, and possibly securing their jobs for another year. If you think that won't matter, bear in mind that a positive Progress 8 score could keep the inspectors away, while a negative score could trigger a visit from Ofsted.

It all got a bit complicated, so here is a recap:

KS2 aims for high attainment scores to show they have done well, but KS3 wants the lowest scores so they can show improvement. KS4 will eventually stop caring about the skills and experience delivered and just aim for that increase in overall attainment because: an Ofsted visit if below; no visit if above. Simple.

With D&T arriving late to the level party, it’s one subject still awarding a grade this year, so it will be a few years before we see how it looks in terms of Attainment 8 results. But would you want to be the department or, even worse, the teacher responsible for a negative attainment score that potentially triggers an inspection?

Of course you wouldn't, and this, along with a new GCSE and no accredited technical awards, will make the subject an even harder sell to SLT and students unless it can meet and beat those attainment targets. On the one hand, it means that D&T will have to show successful results just like the other option subjects to justify its place in the secondary curriculum. If you are doing well and getting high results, then it all looks rosy. On the other hand, D&T offers a unique experience for students and a chance for them to express their creativity, learn problem-solving and communication skills, and many more practical life skills that cannot be simplified to a single number.

After all, a Level 9 in the NEA and a Level 3 in the examination will likely result in a Level 5/6, which would hardly reflect the design and manufacturing skills evidenced. I fear that, unless your students can achieve a higher level overall in the subject, the things that this subject can offer, beyond mere academia, will eventually be lost.

Even if we overlook the individual subjects and the skills inherent in subjects like D&T, how long before the number system becomes a convenient measure of the overall attainment in education? Once it becomes accepted that students will leave school with a single level, how long before employers or colleges simply state a number requirement for entry to courses, to take students on to training courses or even into employment? I really hope it never comes to that but, like the American Grade Point Average, simplifying the outcome down to a single number might just be too tempting a benchmark to sum up those five years of secondary education. For a subject like D&T, it may eventually deter prospective employers and administrators from considering the full skill set of candidates or from seeing their full potential once it’s distilled down to, and disguised by, a single number.

Paul has taught and led design and technology in a variety of schools, as well as working as a musician, artist, designer, examiner, moderator, resource author and D&T consultant. He is currently the head of creative arts at a large independent school in the North of England