Oliver Beach, second-in-charge of economics and business studies at Central Foundation Boys' School in London, writes:
The removal of national-curriculum levels in primary and secondary schools has been the source of much debate and consternation this year for those working in schools. While schools are coming to terms with yet another systemic change, I’d like to share some positives about the abolishment of levels, to be considered before one starts calling Christine Blower and brushing the cobwebs off the pitchforks.
1. Levels often forget skills
In John Hattie’s seminal classic, Visible Learning for Teachers, he insists that in order for students to progress, they must have rapid and constructive feedback in order to correct errors and learn required skills. The learning of these skills can be motivational to achieve future goals. It is crucial, therefore, that each level/grade within each subject has attributed skills so that students are aware of what they need to do and are developing as they pass through the threshold from skill to skill. This also applies to praise in the classroom. Praise must be precise and specific to the skill that the student has demonstrated, in order for that student to be aware what will contribute to growth and progression. It’s often difficult for students to articulate the skills that they have at a 6B in English or need to achieve a 7C (other than working hard), and so removing these levels and ensuring that schools are communicating to students and parents the skills required at each level will ensure students are motivated to progress and are knowledgeable and confident in what they are acquiring as they become more able in each subject. We want students to become unrestrained in the seeking of new knowledge and (soft) skills that are invaluable to their future pathways.
2. Levels are distracting
When a teacher gives a student a piece of work back, the student will immediately look for the grade, rather than the key areas they need to work on to improve – as well as those in which they are strong. Schools now have the autonomy to create a culture whereby students (especially at Key Stages 2 and 3) are focussed on correcting errors, developing growth mindsets and gaining confidence in subjects through sustained qualitative feedback. This confidence and appreciation for mistakes will extend into KS4 and 5 and when grades are given in GCSEs and A-Levels, it is the written feedback that students will use to achieve the quantifiable results crucial for their futures. I appreciate the workload that this may create, but if a level on a piece of paper distracts a student from important information to progress, the level is then a distraction and is therefore redundant.
3. Levels create stress
This is true for students, parents and new teachers. Quantified but not qualified levels create a stressful exam culture for students too early on in their academic career, which leads to them becoming apathetic towards and frustrated by the system of examinations. What if they were assessed on their effort, mastery and love of learning instead of focusing on performance goals? This would provide a long-run gain and would contribute to, perhaps, more focussed students once they reach KS4. It also reduces stress for teachers; they would be able to teach the subject that they love and not have to condition 9-, 10- and 11-year-olds into a mindset around numerical achievement. Let’s foster a learning culture, rather than holding students to account in their formative years. If skills are written as levels, then it may also be easier for teachers to report on student achievement, making report-writing less of an ethanol-inducing sport and more specific to the needs of the students.
4. Levels create limits
Unless all students have an intrinsic growth mindset in their hearts, a fire to always better themselves, then levels create limits. The removal of levels allows students to create, be innovative in their thoughts and push the boundaries in their subjects. If we loosen the chains of assessment, then students can have more freedom in their contribution to assessed work. As a result, teachers will become more aware of their students’ abilities and areas to develop, new benchmarks can be set within classes and year groups and students can be championed for their contributions to subjects.
As an ambitious professional, I’m deeply aware of the importance for school leaders to be able to measure attainment, justify progress to external bodies and be able to communicate to parents about how their children are progressing. We’re used to levels, they’re easy to understand and give comfort to those who are high-achievers and provides evidence for schools to intervene when some are under-performing. I also appreciate that change is uncomfortable for teachers and creates a level of uncertainty. However, just because we’re used to a model, it doesn’t mean that we can’t change it. It may get some time to get used to, but I believe it will create young people who want to master their learning for their success. Progressive education is about doing what’s right for our students, not what’s easier for us.