Up until now we have held off on moving away from levels, but with the vast majority of new GCSE specifications starting in September 2016, and the KS2 levels being replaced with the Year 6 test score we decided that it was time to think again.
In the beginning…
When the DfE announced that the assessment ‘levels’ used to report children’s attainment and progress would be removed from September 2014 and would not be replaced allowing teachers greater flexibility in the way that they plan and assess pupils’ learning, I was dubious to say the least! I like many, was struggling to understand how the removal of assessment levels was a good thing. But, there were a few facts that I kept coming back to which spurred me on to keep looking for a better alternative for SJB:
- The nature of levels means that teachers, parents and students want students to climb higher up the level ladder and they are therefore always looking for how they can ‘move up to the next level’. The consequence of this is a willingness to accept superficial knowledge just in order to progress.
- Preparing students for harder, content rich, GCSE specifications and linear a-levels designed to rigorously challenge depth of understanding requires a different approach from day one in primary school (and since we cannot influence that directly within our four walls, day one in year 7!)
- Assessment levels have always been problematic in non-core subjects where descriptors were vague at best and non-existent at worst.
- The primary national curriculum changed significantly in September 2014. In time this will present significant implications for transition from KS2 to KS3 (there are many complex issues to consider here, far beyond ‘life without levels’, not least the balance of curriculum time – can science really be classed as a core subject in primary when it is given so little curriculum time each week? A whole other discussion!)
The old national curriculum, measured in terms of levels, encouraged undue pace. Children were accelerated onto more complex concepts before really mastering earlier ones. Imagine the cubes to the left represent the building blocks of learning. As you move on swiftly from one concept to the next the tower gets taller and taller, shakier and shakier, until eventually it comes crashing down. By moving on before a child is ready, before they fully understand the underlying concepts, you are helping them build a tall tower, which at some point will become unstable.
The new primary national curriculum encourages the study of fewer skills in greater depth in order to achieve mastery. By taking the same cubes and arranging them differently, the tower remains standing. Similarly by ensuring that the foundations are solid before moving on, children develop a more stable platform from which to build a solid platform for life-long learning.
The principle of encouraging depth over acceleration is critical to our approach to learning and one which underpins our new assessment framework.
Developing life-long learners
Our mission is to be a Catholic School where every individual is highly valued and where care and concern for others is central to our work. All our students are expected to achieve their full potential and become equipped for adult life. At SJB everything we do is guided by Gospel values.
The development of life-long learners, equipped for adult life, has helped shape our vision for learning and teaching and in turn the decisions we have made in light of the curriculum changes at KS4 and KS5 at the moment.
Resilience, independent learners, constructive feedback
After careful consideration and consultation with both staff and students we decided that we wanted and needed an assessment system that
- Is underpinned by our vision for student learning;
- Promotes high expectations for all;
- Encourages departments to plan a ‘5 year curriculum’ in order to best prepare our students for the rigors of the new GCSE and A-Level specifications;
- Integrates the key principles of ‘teaching for mastery’;
- Supports the development of resilient, independent learners;
- Is based heavily on formative feedback;
- Allows all students to succeed;
- Is simple and easy for teachers, parents and students to understand;
- Has consistent principles which are used across subjects, but the flexibility to be suitable for all subjects*
* This final point has become even more critical as the year has progressed and as departments took up the challenge of finding a way of making it work in their subject.
All our students strive for excellence in everything they do. In order to support this idea, the new curriculum key stage 3 will be broken down into four different learning paths:
The idea is that students entering SJB as ‘secure’ in a particular subject (determined by baseline assessments – see further details below), who make expected progress each year should leave with a minimum of a grade 5 at the end of year 11 (see diagram below).
It is up to individual departments to best interpret this and define the 5 year journey for their subject. We started by giving them the grid below which contains a mixture of Bloom’s Taxonomy (something teachers here are very familiar with) and the Solo Taxonomy (not that we called it this as we didn’t want to introduce anything else new!) Heads of Department were keen to build their own curriculum and assessment frameworks and ‘make it work’ in their subject so all bought into the idea, and with the support of their teams, set about re-writing their curricula.
- What knowledge and skills do students need to master, in order to be successful at GCSE and/or A-Level?
- What does excellence look like in their subject?
- What does a ‘grade 9’ at GCSE look like?
- What wider learning skills need fostering at KS3 in preparation for KS4 and beyond?
- What is the most simple way of breaking down the curriculum to make it usable for teachers, students and parents?
How is it different to levels?
- Students are not assigned a target level – they are all expected to aspire to excellence.
- Rather than focusing on a pre-determined end point we focus on their start point and build from there.
- Monitoring is based on progress made so celebrates the effort of all students.
- Departments set the standard of excellence expected in their subject.
- Students are not given feedback such as ‘you’re a 6b’ or ‘you’re secure’ but instead focus is on formative feedback that makes students think about how to develop their understanding.
- The KS3 framework is used for planning teaching and progression, not for labeling students.