Let's hear it for the level 3s

1st August 2008 at 01:00
Children who defy adversity to attain a level 3 at KS2 should be applauded, not singled out as failures

How do you tell a keen, hard working and enthusiastic Year 6 child that they got level 3? Every year I talk each pupil through their results. They whisper as they wait outside my office, desperately hoping for level 4. As I tell them what they've got, I see the looks on some of those faces; children who somehow, from somewhere, have received the message that level 3 isn't good enough. We chat about the good progress they have made since they were seven, but I can still see their disappointment, even as I tell them and their parents that their result is something to celebrate.

As The TES reports today, figures buried away on the Department for Children, Schools and Families' website reveal that nearly all children who do not have special educational needs are attaining the expected level 4 at the end of key stage 2. Of these, 92 per cent are attaining level 4 or above in English, 88 per cent in maths, and a stunning 95 per cent in science. Of course, that still leaves room for improvement and I'm all for raising these figures to 100 per cent. But they still represent quite an achievement.

That said, there is a certain predictability about these statistics. Given that level 4 is the expected benchmark for every child, they simply show that the vast majority of pupils are meeting the standard we expect of them. Children likely to struggle at KS2 will probably have been identified and put on the special needs register in Years 2 and 4, when we set our expectations for their progress.

Predictable as the figures may be, they are nevertheless to be celebrated. They demonstrate that our schools are striving towards an agreed benchmark, and that when children don't meet that mark, we don't just shrug our shoulders and make lame excuses about cohorts or catchment areas. We accept accountability for that group of children, ask what their particular needs are and intervene to ensure their progress.

The fact is that we have become very good at getting pupils to the expected level. The DCSF figures demonstrate how far schools have come in understanding the progress of pupils: we either secure age-related expectations for our children, or identify and meet the needs of those who don't reach that benchmark.

The problem is that sometimes, no matter what we do, we find ourselves under fire from Ofsted. I've encountered one too many colleagues who've been on the receiving end of an inspection team that pooh-poohed all their hard work in securing attainment and showed no interest in their explanations for any shortfall. It sometimes seems as if the interpretation of data is one area where the Ofsted process is a lottery: you're either lucky with the inspectors you get or not. It's time we trusted schools to assess the progress of their pupils and reduced our reliance on crude performance data, which often lack any understanding of a child's individual circumstances.

What is especially interesting about the new figures is that they implicitly acknowledge that the existence of children with special needs has an impact on results - and that there is a limit to the number of children capable of attaining level 4. For primary teachers, who have felt for so long it was heresy to say such a thing, this is a long overdue outbreak of common sense. For a benchmark to be meaningful, we have to acknowledge that not everyone will attain it. We are constantly improving practice and maintaining aspirations, but the fact is not every university student gets a first class degree. Society is geared up to accommodate this fact.

Recognising that some children won't attain a particular benchmark isn't about lacking aspiration or being soft on failure. It's about being realistic, then doing our best with every child. Aspirations are more inspiring when tempered by realism.

Such realism involves ending the fixation on level 4 and recognising that good progress can still be made by children who attain a lower result. To regard such children as failures is an insult. Yet, over the years, I've had to work really hard to show children and parents who are themselves fixated on level 4 that, over the course of time, their child has made greater progress in attaining a level 3 than some of those who attained a higher grade. Is it any wonder when everyone - the media, the Government and Ofsted - trumpets level 4 as the Shangri-La of a child's primary education?

If, by publishing these figures, the DCSF is acknowledging that there are intelligent ways of looking at attainment and recognising the needs of children, then I welcome it. But such talk does not make me complacent. Come September, I will be working to get as many level 4s and 5s as I can, but I also want those 3s. For the children who work hard and make good progress securing them, they will be something to celebrate.

Huw Thomas is a Sheffield primary headteacher.

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