Abolition of National Curriculum levels does not make sense

I have been meaning to write this blog for some time and Michael Gove’s comments at the National College’s Seizing Success conference in Birmingham this week provided the final spur to start tapping away.

In his Q&A session the Secretary of State was asked what was going to replace National Curriculum levels and sub levels. By way of reply he said that essentially it was up to every school for itself to decide what to do.

This seems to be an incomprehensible decision at many levels.

First, how is achievement and progress going to be assessed and reported in the tests that will accompany the new national curriculum in mathematics and English. Are we just going to be back to pass and fail? We ought to know how assessment is going work. If levels of achievement are appropriate for even the new GCSE why are they so inappropriate at other key stages?

Second, if we accept that one of the better things the government has done is emphasise tracking of pupil progress how will we assess progress made between key stages in the national curriculum regime? What will be the equivalent of the measure that reports the ‘proportion of pupils making the expected levels of progress’?

These are not unreasonable points given that the Secretary of State’s own response to Tim Oates, who chaired the Expert Panel on the Curriculum Review, said that it was “critical” to:

“recognise the achievement of all pupils and to provide for a focus on progress”.

The letter went on to say that there would, therefore, be:

“Some form of grading of pupil achievement in mathematics, science and English will therefore be required…We will consider the details of how this will work.”

Well, Michael, that was written in June 2012. One year on we are still none the wiser about how it will work.

Third, it has taken a long time for the National Curriculum levels to become embedded and for there to be a common understanding of what progression through the curriculum looks like for children. Moreover it is an understanding that teachers can take with them as they work in different schools and as they engage in professional dialogue with other practitioners. The curriculum levels provide a national vocabulary of learning.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, it has the potential to undermine pupil learning. I have visited a lot of primary schools in the last six months. As I have been round classrooms I have found the existing levels and sub levels translated into language, charts and targets that pupils can relate to. The pupils know what they have to do to reach another sub-level. The curriculum levels are being used to empower pupils as learners.

Michael Gove says that the current system of National Curriculum levels is ‘confusing for parents and restrictive for teachers’. Many, many teachers would, I suspect, dispute that. The Secretary of State may say that he was acting on the advice of the Expert Panel though he has rejected the Panel’s alternative of how pupils progress and ‘mastery’ of subjects should be applied.

It seems to me to be little short of education vandalism to tear up something – which may not be perfect but is understood and being used on a daily basis with pupils – before you have worked out how your alternative is going to work and what the implications might be. Especially when the issue is so fundamental to how your education system works.

June 2013

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