Lies, Damned Lies and Levels.

Anyone that works with children knows that learning is not linear; it ebbs and flows, rises and falls and sometimes fizzes and pops like elementary particles. To continue the Physics analogy, measuring progress in learning affects the learning itself and gives only a momentary snapshot of a particular view of the phenomenon. Inferring the degree of learning from a series of observations and measurements can provide a more reliable picture but it does not predict the future progress of development other than in a very “broad-brush” way. When Levels were first introduced I did not much mind although I knew they were merely instruments of simplifying school accountability into an accountancy process. They were broad, summative of a “Key Stage” and in many ways better than the % and “position in year/set” that we had been using. Then teachers got their hands on them!

For quite a period they remained a broad, comparative summary of a range of capabilities but slowly they were subverted to describe ever more spuriously specific examples. After some very good (strategy) CPD on “Levelness” to get teachers describing the same thing, things began to go awry. It started with “Levelling” items of work, continued with targets based on linear, uniform inflation of Levels linked to Key Stages and gained insane pace with linear, uniform interpolation of these into Year Targets. Since their introduction the inflation has been increased to “Aspirational” levels. Finally, there came the complete fiction of sub-levels; never introduced or advocated by DFE but invented by teachers blinded to the ridiculousness of their fantasy of fine judgement. In spite of being unable to agree reliably on the gross level of an item of work, teachers blithely talk of this pretence of precision as if it is shared by all identically and established by evidence. I would like to share two anecdotes to illustrate the idiocy of this and it’s obscuration and obfuscation of a realistic discourse of children’s learning:

The first is a Department meeting part of which conducted the following business:
“…has asked that we fill in the missing end of year targets.”
“…(name)?”
“Been here a week”
“5c then?”
“Is a higher or lower than c?”
“Higher!”
“Ok then”
“…(name)?”
“Been here a week, no two”
“5c?”
“Ok”
“…name?”
“Been here about three months, seems bright but doesn’t speak English so 6c”
“How do you know he is bright then”
“We’ll he looks bright”
“This is ridiculous!”
“Ok 5b then”
” but if he doesn’t speak English shouldn’t it be 3b?”
“Ok”
“…(name)?”
“Mine. Not seen much”
“Does she drool?”
“(Laugh) No!”
“5c then”
“Why don’t you just put random numbers in, this is ridiculous!”
“… (name)”
“Educated off-site”
“Bright?”
“Don’t know”
“5c?”

Eventually, after some barracking and sarcasm from someone you know the task was rightly abandoned. But numbers appeared eventually.

The second was from a parents evening, this is what I heard from a technology teacher to my left repeated each time with different names and numbers:

“Hello Mrs. Bloggs. Junior, yes, she has a target this term of 5a which is slightly above average and on the first exercise got 4c with LA of 5. She then did work at 5b but LA down to 4, still her last work was 6c and I would give LA of 6 now.”

“Is she doing ok then?”

“Well she needs more consistency but I think 5a is possible at the end (smiles).”

“Does she get homework? We haven’t seen any at home and she says she doesn’t get homework in Technology”

“Oh yes, that’s why I gave LA 6, she did a good package design for homework”

“We’ll, thank you, any problems …… Etc.”

On the right was an English teacher, it went like this:

“Hello….etc, Junior got 5a in her listening test and 6c for writing. Her spelling test was 5b though so overall she is 5a and needs to improve to reach her target this year, she needs to practise her spellings and be more careful with presentation……etc”

The polite parent looked smilingly but anxiously at these teachers and seemed to me to be responding almost entirely to nonverbal cues. The information (with its ridiculous precision) meant nothing to her or Junior; this continued all night with both teachers helpfully sharing their conditionally formatted spreadsheets with the bold colours and close-packed numbers.

Both teachers were sincere, they really thought that they were imparting meaningful data and that they were diligently tracking ‘progress’.

The madness of this numerical mayhem has even been recognised by DFE who used it as justification of the abolition of Levels at Key Stage 3. They reckoned without teachers though, desperately clinging to levels and sub-levels, year targets and their ‘evidence of progress’. It has been even more delusional at Senior Management Level where this garbage data is further skewed by having reporting by teachers leading to ‘analysis’ by managers who force ‘interventions’ on teachers all to be avoided if the reported levels were just a bit…..

So what’s the point?
It doesn’t have to be this way, it wasn’t.
Even before levels, learning was reported in a way that exposed the particular measure and buttressed with words; descriptions of perceived progress. Later, these codes were introduced and used in a Nationally comparative way. They are now useless thanks to us and must be replaced. Some bloggers are starting to show the way but school progress measures must be divorced from these bankrupt codes before sanity may prevail again.

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5 Responses to Lies, Damned Lies and Levels.

  1. Can you add some kind of timeline to this? I trained in primary in 2003, and I don’t recall any discussion of levels during my PGCE course. I’m fairly sure I wasn’t asked to submit levels until 2005. By 2012 I was being asked to moderate writing with colleagues before submitting levels each term. Point scores crept in around 2011. And it can’t just have been a teacher thing, because we have still got the ‘can only have level 3b at KS1’, even though everyone in primary knows that’s daft… It’s useful to have this info, because lots of new teachers seem to think that we have always had levels and point scores.

    • bottomsbray says:

      A bit of research would do it but off the top of my head it was much earlier at KS2 and 3 as Levels arrived with SATS in the ’90s. The DFE never ask for sub-levels to be reported or report in sub-levels; that happens in schools as interpolations of Key Stage expected progress. Levels were never intended to be precise but were a nationally recognised (initially standardised) summative measure of abilities at the end of a Key Stage allegedly to allow Parents to compare the progress of their child but really for DFE accountants to measure schools. We made the madness!

  2. Pingback: Looking for progress? It is a mirage. | Esse Quam Videri

  3. Pingback: Looking for progress? It is a mirage. | Esse Quam Videri

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