What keeps me awake at night - A perverse game of snakes and ladders

9th December 2011 at 00:00

Nineteen level 3s, six level 4s, six level 2s and a solitary level 1 glowing red on the spreadsheet. This is my class in a nutshell; the only information my headteacher requires. It doesn't matter that within the spreadsheet there's a child whose mental maths wouldn't disgrace an episode of Countdown, one who can't concentrate because his parents are divorcing, another who didn't speak a word of English two months ago, and two children whose artwork and writing would make any teacher weep with joy. My head has no interest in any of this because what he wants to know about is Levels (always with a capital L).

Levels are what make the world go round. We write them on assessment sheets, on spreadsheets, on diagrams and pie charts. We write them in the children's books and on their target sheets. They're displayed around the classroom and pored over in staff meetings. In fact, they're everywhere the eye lands, short of having them tattooed on to children's foreheads.

From the moment children start school they're part of the levels system - a massive game of snakes and ladders where everyone must try and keep up with the player in front and no one is allowed to go down.

The levels that matter are reading, writing and maths. If you're below your required level it doesn't matter that you're a level 5 in drama, a level 6 in football or a level 7 in music - these things don't show up on the chart.

For some children, it works well. Some are naturally competitive and the prospect of having a 3b written in their book instead of a 3c can spur them on. The system seems less helpful when you see a hard-working child's face drop when he compares the 2c in his book to the 4bs and 4as in everyone else's.

In our school they must at least hit the national average by the end of the year, regardless of where they start. It doesn't matter that the children might be dyslexic or autistic, that they get no support from home. It doesn't matter that this policy shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept of averages.

There's never any advice on how to achieve the jump in levels. That, apparently, is the teacher's problem. "Move them up and we don't care how" is the subtext. These things are "non-negotiable" and performance management can depend on it. It's no wonder that you hear tales of teachers who just change the numbers and hope for the best. And you can't really blame headteachers. The pressure to get the numbers up is immense and it's ultimately the head who has to explain their spreadsheets to Ofsted.

As a teacher, once you start levelling in earnest you find you can't stop. It was only when I caught myself inscribing a 3a at the bottom of a letter from a parent that I realised I might have lost the plot. I consoled myself with the thought that, even if I'm temporarily unable to read anything just for pleasure, I'm at least a 5b in levelling.

The writer is a primary teacher from Birmingham. To tell us what keeps you awake at night email david.marley@tes.co.uk.

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