'Removing levels provides the profession with an opportunity too good to miss'

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The successful implementation of the new national curriculum, which came into force this September, requires a radical cultural and pedagogical change. In recent years assessment in schools has been too dominated by the requirements of the statutory national assessment and testing framework. Teachers have been subject to the conflicting pressures of trying to make appropriate use of assessment as part of day-to-day classroom teaching, while at the same time collecting assessment data that will be used in high-stakes evaluation of individual and institutional performance. This has had a detrimental impact on teaching practice.

The removal of national curriculum levels provides an opportunity the profession cannot afford to miss. We need to build teachers’ confidence in developing their own approaches to assessment that focus on the needs of their pupils, are tailored to the school’s curriculum and support really effective teaching.

I acknowledge the challenge schools will face in moving away from a system of assessment that has been so conditioned by levels, but very much hope they will recognise the possibilities presented by the change. Good assessment is the key to raising standards by enriching learning and pupil motivation, as well as enabling teachers to grow professionally and make better use of their time, knowledge and skills.

The Commission on Assessment Without Levels, which I chaired, worked to produce advice and support for schools in developing new approaches to assessment following the removal of levels. I very much hope that schools will resist the temptation to reinvent levels by turning the new national curriculum programmes of study into attainment targets.

Ofsted worked closely with the Commission to make it clear that large quantities of tracking data and heavily marked pupil work are not required. The best assessment is often about the discourse that takes place in the classroom between teacher and pupils. It is a highly effective way for teachers to identify what pupils know, where gaps or misconceptions lie and how they should plan future teaching accordingly.

In making our recommendations, we were conscious of the need to reduce teachers’ workload. Although developing new approaches to assessment may initially increase the demands on schools, we believe that assessment without levels offers the potential for more appropriate, but less burdensome, assessment and reporting arrangements.

The Commission’s report does not prescribe any particular model for assessment in schools. Assessment goes hand in hand with the curriculum, and assessment policies need to be developed in parallel with schools’ own curriculum policies. The Commission has focused its attention on providing advice that will build understanding and expertise, and that will guide schools through the thinking required to develop effective new approaches to assessment. It offers guidance on developing assessment policies and provides questions that teachers and school leaders can ask themselves in shaping their approach.

It was a pleasure working with a range of experts on assessment during my time on the Commission, who all contributed considerably to the final report. I very much look forward to seeing how practice develops in schools over the next few years. The sector cannot afford to let this opportunity pass.  

John McIntosh was chair of the Commission on Assessment Without Levels, is a member of the National Curriculum Review Advisory Committee and former headmaster of the London Oratory School

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