What help are local authorities giving to primary schools as they face life after levels? Schools Week contacted every local authority in England to see if they are easing the burden, and if they are not – why not. Sophie Scott reports
Only a quarter of all local authorities (LAs) are offering support to primary schools by providing a suggested assessment framework to replace the withdrawn levels.
The other 75 per cent have either done nothing, or have left it up to headteachers and schools to decide the best approach.
But even those offering to help are providing a mixed bag of support.
It has been suggested this is because LAs are worried that any proposed framework might not meet the government demands.
Schools Week used the Freedom of Information Act to ask all 152 LAs in England if they were providing a framework to the schools in their areas. Eighty per cent (121) responded, with 75 per cent of them saying that they were either not supporting schools at all or were acting in an advisory role.
Among their reasons for not providing a framework were Teaching Schools taking the lead and the academies programme taking away council responsibility. However, latest figures show just 12 per cent of primary schools are academies, compared with more than half of secondary schools.
For example, Bromley, in its FOI response, said: “We do not recommend a specific framework or model as this is outside our policy remit.”
Bedford Borough Council, by contrast, is providing a number of options for schools to consider, but not an assessment framework.
The Local Government Association said: “Councils know their primary schools best and will therefore know the right approach to supporting their headteachers and school senior management teams in preparing to newly assess pupil attainment.
“Some may decide to offer an assessment framework for all schools in an area to follow, while others may find it more appropriate to allow neighbouring headteachers to collaborate and collectively follow an agreed assessment plan.”
More than half of the authorities that do offer a framework say “commercial interests” stop them releasing any details.
Kent County Council, for example, said in its FOI response: “Disclosure of any information forming the assessment framework would prejudice the commercial interests of the council . . . adversely affecting future sales and weakening its position in a competitive environment by revealing information of potential usefulness to its competitors.
“This, in turn, will result in the less effective use of public money.”
Michael Tidd, deputy head of Edgewood primary school in Nottinghamshire and a member of the Department for Education’s (DfE) teacher reference group, said he was surprised as many as 25 per cent offered support. “In all honesty, LAs have been as unsure as schools about the whole thing and so have been understandably reticent about suggesting a model.
“As with schools, clusters and chains, everyone has been worried that whatever they propose will later be shown not to meet the demands of the DfE or Ofsted.”
Last month, the DfE finally published a report with six recommendations about how schools could prepare for life after levels.
The report says that no template will be provided and warns against the use of assessment systems from external providers before schools develop their own approaches.
Mr Tidd added: “It’s taken so long to get clarity about exactly what freedoms schools have that I think authorities haven’t dared pre-empt things like the Assessment Commission.
“Alongside this, of course, authorities have been stripped back to the core. Current funding means that authorities just don’t have the capacity to do much more.
“In my experience of working around the country, many have done what they can to disseminate information about a range of models to schools and provide information about what else is available. And frankly, that’s about as much as could be expected.”
What did the report say?
After an almost two-month delay, the government’s Commission on Assessment without Levels published its report last month.
The report was ordered in response to concerns that teachers were struggling to prepare for the abolition of levels.
It gave six recommendations for implementing new assessment levels.
Click here to see them.
‘We’ve had to organise it ourselves’
Many schools have been left to go it alone or within clusters.
In Oxfordshire, Lynn Knapp, headteacher at Windmill Primary School in Oxford, the largest primary school (three-form entry) in the county, says she has worked with three other schools in her area – primaries that feed into the nearby secondary school – to agree on an assessment method.
“The trouble is, local authorities have been cut back so much that they can’t help us.
“We lost what support we might have previously had from the council and have had to organise it ourselves.”
Windmill is using a method devised by Clive Davies OBE of Focus Education that costs between £40 to £100 per subject.
It provides termly tests in maths, grammar, punctuation and spelling, as well as “target sheets” for pupils across the curriculum.
“We are not fully confident in it yet,” Ms Knapp (pictured below) says.
“The statements within the assessment are very broad, and we know that they don’t apply to our pupils.
“For example, in maths it measures knowledge of length, width and capacity and we know that not all our pupils will progress in exactly that way.
“With a three-form entry, the differences in each class, and across the school, are much more variable and we notice it a lot more when it comes to assessment. So, we are having to adapt it for our school.”
Ms Knapp says one of the biggest hurdles is parents’ lack of understanding about what was happening.
“It has been really hard to explain these changes to parents. They were used to one method, and now they do not know where their children are sitting in relation to what is expected.”