Life without levels | With opportunity comes responsibility

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It is probably true that: “The removal of levels from the curriculum creates an amazing opportunity to redefine success and progress for children…and to reshape teaching (and assessment)” It is also true that poor thinking or planning of a new curriculum could lead to the promotion of mediocrity and the inching over thresholds or jumping through false hoops that hang in the air… and ultimately results in slower progress that has a detrimental impact on learning and progress.

From September 2014 levels have been removed from the curriculum (except Y2 and Y6). Tim Oates provides a good case fro their removal: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-q5vrBXFpm0  Whilst a number of schools have chosen not to jump and retain levels, a brave few have jumped to new approaches. It would be fair to say that Primaries are ahead of the game in their thinking in this new world (the compulsion to act has been greater).


Which begs the question what should be considered in the new world without levels?

The following attempts to offer a set of What if… comments that underline the new opportunities that are presenting themselves and how a set of key principles can be applied to seize this opportunity. It is clear that this will play out differently across 3-19 (we must however anchor our approaches around the same principles).


What if we saw the move away from levels as an opportunity not to just re-do/rethink assessment and how we track progress?, but instead asked the question what should teaching look like in a post level world? This initially shifts debate toward pedagogy and away from how do we replace numbers/levels/labels. It is proving very easy to shift to a system that simply reframes levels and replaces with grades for example.

What if we considered the age related standard that children should reach each year. What if this is clearly located around what would be the expected standard of a child in terms of knowledge, skills, understanding, application, conceptual awareness and mis-conceptions?

What if the age related standards are clearly communicated on single sheets that show the specific areas – not dissimilar to PiXL Covey table or PLC grids…a DTT approach. What if deliberate practice approach is then used in lessons and intervention to close gaps.

What if we then further embed ideas around Blooms and SOLO taxonomy? That “by age” we were very clear about what is expected (what competences children need to know or be able to do?)…and that this provides the framework for depth, teaching, questioning etc. as it already does in many classrooms.

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What if the achievement of these age related standards were delivered through a Mastery approach – such that teaching was given the time and focus (and teachers the permission) to secure the age related standards…and that this was non-negotiable.

What if we were able to teach to depth around these age related standards because the necessity to cover lots of content is removed. What if there was a real stickiness around redrafting and re-doing, such that children were challenged to do their best work and this enabled students to achieve age related standards.

More generally, in top performing education systems the curriculum is not mile-wide and inch-deep, but tends to be rigorous, with a few things taught well and in great depth.

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What if we did not seek breadth and reduced the burden on teachers; freeing them from the need to skim and teach at pace.

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What if we made a far greater investment in developing (continuing to develop) teacher subject, conceptual (and mis-conceptual) and pedagogical understanding.

What if instead of using KS3 as the basis for performing in GCSE exams that we asked what do we need student to be able to do and know, so that they are set up to perform well at GCSE and in the rest of their lives?

What if this is firmly located around a growth mindset model (Dweck) – where an anything is possible  – what if it was the absolute expectation that children had to meet the standards. …ensuring, of course, that we do not set the bar too low.

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“People with Growth Mindsets and who show GRIT achieve more when they engage in deliberative practice … it is this practice that achieve marginal gains (Steve Peters), inching toward excellence.”

In Finland, Japan, Singapore, Shanghai and Hong Kong, students, parents, teachers and the public at large tend to share the belief that all students are capable of achieving high standards. (BBC news)

And yet, results from Pisa tests show that the 10% most disadvantaged 15-year-olds in Shanghai have better maths skills than the 10% most privileged students in the United States and several European countries. (BBC news)

What if we focused more on the journey; on the “near win” (Sarah Evans)

“The pursuit of mastery is an ever onward almost.” … “Grit is not just simple elbow-grease term for rugged persistence. It is an often invisible display of endurance that lets you stay in an uncomfortable place, work hard to improve upon a given interest, and do it again and again.”(Sarah Evans)

What if that when children achieved the standard for their age the focus shifted to greater depth (not breadth) moving to the top of Blooms and across SOLO taxonomy and not moving to the set of age-related targets.

What if all of this also sought the ethic of excellence, because… https://dannicholls1.wordpress.com/2015/01/24/the-ethic-of-excellence-powerful-lever/

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“Once a student sees that he or she is capable of excellence, that student is never quite the same. There is a new self-image, a new notion of possibility. There is an appetite for excellence.” (Ron Berger)

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What if this seeking excellence required an unswerving expectation that all teachers were  purposeful, deliberate and precise around formative feedback and that this was within tasks and lessons and not bolted on.

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What if we judged the quality of feedback much more on the quality of what students produce and less on ticks or comments or forced dialogue in books.

What if we described progress not in terms of levels but is terms of a child’s progress in line with age related standards. Perhaps the conversation at parents evening becomes much more powerful and useful: compare “your child is below what would be expected at this age, we need to focus on…” “with your child is a 4a to move to a 4b we need to focus on…” Levels can mean little to (parents and students).

What if we are very aware that there is a real danger that we could teach to the middle and even bottom with this approach and that we should embed from the beginning the ability to challenge children to depth to ensure that those on steep progress trajectories continue to accelerate improvement.

What if parents evening was a discussion not about a series of letter or numbers, but real clarity about what is expected by this age and a rich discussion around the students work (in books), oracy, knowledge and practical skill.

What if summative assessment remained a key part of preparing and testing students. That this could test against age related standards and also indicate present GCSE grade and given professional judgement and trajectory the most likely grade at end of KS4. Keeping an end in mind.

What if the curriculum was interleaved so that the age related standards are re-visited to embed and secure new knowledge and understanding?

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Maybe then we would have a curriculum and teaching that:

  • was purposeful, deliberate, formative, to depth…
  • sought to move all children through age-related standards… and these raised the bar…
  • used a mastery approach, a growth mindset and an ethic of excellence focus to expect much from every child…
  • is really focused to depth on the things that mattered…
  • enabled teachers to not race or skim content, but to focus on quality outcomes…
  • invested heavily in formative assessment…
  • measured progress on security of the age related standards…
  • used evidence to show progress not movement between random numbers…
  • reported formatively to secure next steps…
  • was not hung up on numbers or grades…
  • used summative benchmarking to quality assure and formatively develop teaching and children.

And finally all of this requires time, thought and professionalism. Teacher and team ownership is crucial and particularly the setting of appropriately challenging and well communicated age related standards the detail really matters, because this is worth getting right.

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The Ethic of Excellence | igniting the possible

It is probably true that:

“Once a student sees that he or she is capable of excellence, that student is never quite the same. There is a new self-image, a new notion of possibility. There is an appetite for excellence.” (Ron Berger)

Which begs the question, “how often do students produce excellence?”

It might be that although students are capable of excellence we rarely support students to produce their very best work and that much of the work produced falls in the bottom quartile of what is possible for that individual. It might be true then that the opportunity to  enable students to see what is possible rarely happens as students simply tread water in the mediocre.

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 So what if?

  • What if students skewed their work right toward excellence (and teaching prioritised and supported this) and not left where it probably sits at present.

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  • What if the Curriculum and teaching shifted to focus on depth? Avoiding the skimming of content?
  • What if every child kept their very best piece of work as the benchmark for subsequent work, published and accessible?
  • What if feedback was within and not after tasks? So that students were supported throughout tasks to move to excellence. What if this supported the production of excellence more than summative feedback that comes at the end and does little to inform the outcome.

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  • What if we forget green pen and dialogue and replace with on-going embedded feedback that expects much through the work and supports redrafting and re-doing on the journey to excellence.
  • What if the essence of deliberate practice informed teaching more so that:

    practice (is) intentional, aimed at improving performance, designed for (a student’s) current skill level, (aimed at excellence), combined with immediate feedback and repetitious.” (Malcolm Gladwell)

  • What if students were not allowed to finish work until it was excellent? excellence
  • What if we borrowed much from Dan Coyle’s insights and took seriously the role of:
    • Deliberate Practice,
    • Establish the conditions for ignition, (ideally from within themselves and what they achieve)
    • Provide the feedback of an expert coach from within tasks to tease out and expect excellence.

“we are often taught that talent begins with genetic gifts – that the talented are effortlessly able to perform feats that the rest of us just dream of. This is false. Talent begins with brief powerful encounters that spark motivation (ignition) by linking your identity to a high performing person or group (or self image). This is called ignition, and it consists of a tiny, world shifting thought lighting up your unconscious mind: I could be them (or do that, or achieve that – in fact look at my best work… my near wins).” (Dan Coyle)

  • What if students were more inspired and surprised by themselves and the production of their excellent work; what if it is this that ignites the intrinsic motivation within each child to be more and achieve more.
  • What if all of this is allied with a growth mindset that set the conditions and ethos for a class, cohort or Academy to stretch for excellence. (Dweck)

“People with Growth Mindsets and who show GRIT achieve more when they engage in deliberative practice … it is this practice that achieve marginal gains (Steve Peters), inching toward excellence.”

  • What if we focused more on the journey; on the “near win” (Sarah Evans)

“The pursuit of mastery is an ever onward almost.” … “Grit is not just simple elbow-grease term for rugged persistence. It is an often invisible display of endurance that lets you stay in an uncomfortable place, work hard to improve upon a given interest, and do it again and again.”(Sarah Evans)

Maybe then…individuals would see that they are capable of excellence, that this would change them forever and raise their personal benchmark. They would have a new self-image, a new notion of possibility and an appetite for excellence. Maybe observation and education would value the outcome, the quality, the closeness to excellence and be less fixated on observed practice…

“If you’re going to do something, I believe, you should do it well. You should sweat over it and make sure it’s strong and accurate and beautiful and you should be proud of it” (Ron Berger)

January 2015