Rate my learning: Why levels had to go, and bands are no big deal

17th July 2013 at 17:46

Controversy raged this morning as the Government - or rather Nick Clegg - announced that primary school children could be ranked into bands ten percentiles wide. Comments on Twitter raged and roared against it, but I'm not so sure that this is really so controversial.


Because we have to remember what this proposal partly replaces levels. Bloody levels. I've spent hours of my life preaching to graveyards full of crows about why levels are such a fantastic disgrace, I'll cut to the nub of their crimes:


  1. The descriptors are so vague they suggest Alzheimer's
  2. Different teachers can give the same piece of work a different level
  3. Different schools can give the same piece a different level
  4. They invite subjectivity of analysis so advanced that it makes the scoring on Come Dine With Me look impartial
  5. Allowing teachers to assess levels and then have them assessed themselves on reaching those targets, is an invitation to inflate levels. You have created an incentive to cheat, exaggerate, or merely massage. Even without such obviously diabolic motivations, bias creeps in as preferred children are given the benefit of the doubt, and outcasts are not. 
  6. The ghastly culture of sublevels, and levelled homeworks, and everything that its architects Wiliams and Black didn't intend.


Levels are a damn mess; a pulpy wet love letter to optimism and wooly ideology. They assess nothing. They are psuedo assessment. They are cargo cult assessment. They are runes. I would take a hammer to the whole rotten cabinet. I would pull the lever myself, and dance as it dangled.


After its reign of moronism, using a Sorting Hat to assess pupils would appear academic by comparison. Weighing them would be a better way to set classes. We don;t know what will replace levels yet, because like Egypt, we know who isn't in charge anymore, but we don't know who's replacing him. Like the national curriculum, we're in a Phantom Zone; a world between worlds; a Bardo; a purgatory.


And now the suggestion is that, whatever replaces levels, children will be  ranked in bands, and this will be communicated to parents. The explosion of dissent that accompanied this is completely disproportionate to the controversy it actually entails. Is there really, as Tom Sherrington points out, much difference between telling a parent their child is in the third ten-percentile, and telling them their child is on a level 4b? Of course there isn't. If you reach level 6 by the end of KS2 you're in the top 1%. Isn't that data - freely available - just as motivating or otherwise as a band comparison?


There is a deeper question here - does it demotivate kids? I think we're almost afraid to say when a child has performed below their ability. And for most children, I reckon that's most of the time; most children can do better. What's wrong with saying to a parent, 'Your child has been assessed as performing at point X; this is above/ below what the majority of pupils at that age are on. We can now use this information to do Y.'? This is after all, exactly what schools already do. There simply isn't a significant difference, except that this time, we won't use levels. What replaces levels may well be a bag of guano, but the principle of telling a pupil where they stand in relation to other people is utterly inoffensive, unless you think children should never hear bad news, and they must always think they're doing fabulously.


That's nonsense. Worse, it's dangerous nonsense. I want kids to think they need to try harder, to work a bit smarter or longer, on their progress. I especially want children who are underachieving to know that they are, and to know what credible steps must be taken in order to improve.


I'm not married to the band idea, but its wrong to think that this isn't just business as usual in schools - the only difference is that it's a bit more honest. Kids aren't going to be named and shamed on a school board - which they could be anyway, using levels or grades. And how often have you seen a kid receive an assessment and hide their low grade with shame? Despite what the social engineers would say, kids see right through levels, and revert to type. No one wants to be bottom of the class, but someone always will be, and no matter how you dress that up, it's intrinsic to the caste systems of the classroom. The best thing we can do is keep data private, and use it to drive kids onto the next step, then the next, and the next.


Levels are the devil. Bands could be useful. Time will tell if they are used in a way that is different from their predecessors. But saying that one form of data is nice and another is nasty, adds nothing to the debate.