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'Scrapping levels has not unleashed freedom for schools to innovate...yet'

Amy Finch, researcher at the thinktank Reform, writes: 

The coalition government’s recent focus on school and teacher autonomy is to be welcomed. Yet when schools struggle to use this autonomy to innovate, governments must think carefully about how best to enable innovation to grow. 

In the first education white paper of this Parliament, The Importance of Teaching, the coalition set out its view that “teachers must be free to use their professionalism and expertise to support all children to progress”.

In some respects, this commitment was honoured when, as part of the national curriculum review, the coalition announced that it would no longer require schools to use levels for assessing pupil achievement and progress. The cohort starting new programmes of study this academic year are the first to be formatively assessed without levels since the introduction of the national curriculum in 1988.  

Levels have gained a reputation among school teachers and leaders as being both overly bureaucratic and unhelpful in assessing pupil progress. A survey of teachers by the National Foundation for Educational Research in 2011 found that using the government’s system of assessing pupils’ progress (APP) was one of the most commonly cited examples teachers gave of the “bureaucratic burden preventing them from raising attainment and achievement of pupils”.

Additional concerns have surrounded the reliability and validity of pupil assessment through levels. Research by the now-defunct Qualifications and Curriculum Authority in 2008 found that the corroboration between different markers’ assessment of a pupil’s level could be as low as 56 per cent.

Yet while “level bashing” is a common feature of discussions about pupil assessment, their removal has not unleashed professional freedom and autonomy, either. The effects of this sudden delegation of responsibility to schools has led to heads' union the NAHT to establish a framework on assessment to guide school leaders. It therefore appears that schools have freedom from government interference over formative pupil assessment but currently lack the freedom to develop their own methods. 

There are a number of potential reasons for this. Formative assessment is incredibly important at primary school to help pupils progress quickly. Yet many of these primaries are small, standalone schools, and therefore lack the economies of scale necessary to invest in curriculum and assessment development on their own.

Another potential factor is the assessment market’s ability to keep up with the pace of policy change. Many of the providers offering resources for assessing progress are focused on delivering the new primary baseline test, and must have a minimum number of schools signed up by April this year.

The coalition has recognised some of these challenges and is taking action. Speaking at a Reform event last week, the minister for school reform, Nick Gibb, announced a new government-led commission on assessment without levels. While the remit of the commission has not been announced, the message he gave was clear: “internal, formative assessments do not need to be benchmarked to some national standard”. Assessment should inform pupils of how well they are learning and teachers of how well they are teaching. In Gibb’s view, this implies that “there needs to be more assessment, not less – but not centrally determined and not high stakes”.

These ideas echo the comments made by former education and childcare minister Liz Truss, when she spoke to Reform last year: “We are clearer about the end result - about what each child needs to know and is able to do. But we recognise teachers are the experts at the ‘how’.” 

Yet it is less clear how the commission will prevent what Gibb himself termed “the Nick Gibb version of levels”. In May last year, the coalition tried to fill the hole left by levels by awarding eight schools across the country £10,000 each to develop new methods of assessment. It is now approaching a year since this Assessment Innovation Fund was established, but there is no clear outcome from the initiative. It also remains unclear how the work of these schools will link to the new commission. 

Some may consider the commission on assessment to be an admission by the coalition that schools are struggling without levels. Yet it takes time for schools to use newly gained autonomy to innovate. It is the job of government to set the framework for this innovation to take place.

The framework for the commission will therefore be of vital importance to the future of pupil assessment. While the underlying intention is to speed up innovation, there is a risk of creating more central prescription. The commission should be careful to strike the right balance if it is to get the best from its schools.  

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