Scrapping levels was great says Nick Gibb – but he forgets the impact on workload

Last week, members of the government’s ‘assessment without levels’ commission were announced.

Much was made of the fact that Nick Gibb, the minister in charge of the group, had said it would be ‘teacher-led’. However, there are no full-time teachers on the panel.

The Department for Education defended itself by pointing to the three current headteachers in the group.  These are teachers, they said, and so charges that the commission isn’t “teacher-led” are unfair. Three out of eight people in a group, each of whom will teach for only a few hours, is not exactly ‘teacher-led’ but ‘profession-led’ would be an acceptable synonym.

What no one has mentioned, though, is what the commission tells us about teacher workload.

In the government’s recent ‘workload challenge’, where teachers wrote in their droves about things causing them problems, one of the top issues was the time-cost of so many reforms – particularly, those on curriculum, examination and assessments.

Already straining under new tests for everyone – from four year olds up to 18 year olds – teachers of every age group and every subject also have a new curriculum.

Right as this was happening the government ‘liberated’ everyone from the burden of  using ‘assessment levels’ – the eight band descriptors in all subjects broadly explaining what children should be able to do.

The levels were admittedly problematic: the language was old-fashioned, it wasn’t easy to see how some levels were harder than others and teachers too often jammed them into their teaching rather than using them as a first principle. But, in the same way that paving over the M25 might solve that motorway’s queues but would cause them elsewhere, all that has happened since ‘scrapping’ levels is people running around re-inventing them.

That the commission now must run after them gathering up the re-inventions is an admission that (a) we do need levels of some sort, and (b) a hell of a lot of workload has been caused by getting rid of them. Even more work is about to go into finding out what everyone did, evaluating it, communicating it, etc.

Luckily, lots of new operators are willing to help. Tech companies, ‘assessment specialists’, profit-making arms of academy trusts are willing to sell their new wares to you. But weighing up these options is itself more workload. That the ‘commission’ is designed to weed out the best is helpful, but it’s then a problem that more teachers aren’t involved. As the end users they are really the only ones who can say how good a product is.

A more simple solution to the levels problem would be to get teaching schools (who, let’s not forget, receive extra cash to help share their wares), and anyone else who has an assessment system they’d like to share, to upload it onto a central website.

Next, get 200 volunteer teachers to look over them and rate them, and use a ‘wisdom of the crowds’ approach to rate up the best and vote down the worst.

Release the top 50 best and then, get all teachers to trial the one most appropriate to them and, again, vote up or vote down a resource.

Little expense, good practice sharing, evaluation embedded within the system. Sorted.

The only reason I can imagine that Nick Gibb wouldn’t like this idea is because it might mean teachers pick the sort of assessment strategies he doesn’t like. Ones about skills, not knowledge. And with cutesy level names (like ‘panda’ or ‘treetop’) rather than austere numbers.

But if you’re liberating people Nick, you’ve got to let them choose what they want. Unless what you really wanted was for teachers to have the freedom only to choose your preferred solution.

That wasn’t your plan, surely?


Laura McInerney is the editor of Schools Week

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  1. Any experienced curriculum manager in a school could have told the DfE in advance, that this confusion and extra workload was inevitable if you scrap a national system, without having an alternative national system ready to replace it. This is the cost of having amateurs running our education service. Worse that that, these amateurs have absolutely no idea of the actual chaos and stress they have caused. All totally preventable. I note that Nick Gibb trained as an accountant: “knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing”. Where is the accountability for politicians who are so inept?

  2. I don’t think it’s an admission that we need ‘levels of a sort’. I think it’s a recognition that many schools are struggling to know what to do with assessment. A part of the reason for this is that there is little or no institutional memory of operating without levels.

    I don’t see how the establishment of a commission to advise schools means a recognition that we need levels. I think that’s a stretch. I think it’s recognition that schools are largely kind of paralysed and continuing to do what they’ve always done (with levels or GCSE grades). i.e. they’re not well placed to use the opportunity presented with assessment.

    Further, while getting rid of levels has caused a workload issue in some schools, in the majority it has caused schools to do very little – so again, I think saying this is admission of a workload issue is also a stretch.

    If anything, it’s an admission that schools won’t always automatically and autonomously come up with the best solutions – something that undermines *some* of the principles behind the last 5 years’ educational reforms.