Looming towards the Void – Levels/Grades and a Paradigm shift

There’s no point denying this – and it’s bucking the trend perhaps, but I’m an avid fan of of NC Levels. And NC tests at KS2 and KS3, although I know how skewed the learning can become in year 6 and 9 when they are used to assess schools in a ‘league tables’ way, they are still valuable from a parents’ perspective. From the minute children start counting, they are making progress towards their Mathematics GCSE, but I want to keep that qualification and the intense revision that leads up to it, a standalone part of mathematics education. In particular, at KS3 , mathematics should be enjoyable, illuminating, experimental and investigative – slowly developing academic rigour and the thought processes which enable problem solving through resilience; challenge without fear. It is not fitting to measure a Year 7 in terms of what they are aiming for at the end of Year 11 – or else why not scrap GCSE grades and just go the whole hog, and measure student progress   of A Level grades?

sats front

As a parent I have experience of tracking progress (trying, anyway) with and without National Curriculum levels. There was widely varying attention to detail tracking any progress at all come to that – in primary at one school, they told me at the end of the year which topics had been mastered and which were targets for the following year. Being difficult to maintain continuity (one child had 7 teachers in 6 terms due to staff retirement, maternity, sickness etc.) we never knew until the report the following summer whether those targets had ever been met (or attempted). My children’s experiences of preparing for GCSEs and A Levels was aided or hindered by good or indifferent academic and pastoral support. The latter being much less apparent during the final years of life in school, where in 6th form all my children were worryingly mostly just left to get on with it. They all went to 3 different schools, state comprehensive, and gender selective high schools, so I can only comment on limited observations of experiences related to them – with the exception of being a teacher at two other schools, one a top performing selective comprehensive where I trained, and another where I have worked for the past few years.

So I am dismayed about the possible disappearance of levels and comparable and portable measurability across institutions in England. Already, publishers have sought my opinions via surveys, their reps have come to chat and discuss each of their unique solutions to the void which is looming ahead. What was wrong with levels (apart from the constant need to drill deeper or refine them into sublevels)? They worked fine in maths by giving us a nice warm toastie feeling for progress and understanding, term by term, topic by topic.  I resisted APP, and refuted the use of sublevels as meaningless and self-indulgent twaddle – NC levels were never written with that nonsense in mind. And yes, marrying levels and grades was a moveable feast – one school using level 5 = grade D, another level 5 = grade C; but then FFTD resolved that issue – we just worked towards that as a target in itself. Even FFTD has a limited life span – we have abandoned it at 6th form in favour of ALPS. So many choices, so many dictats, so many parents who have no idea what the progress truly is that their offspring are making in school. So much smoke and mirrors.

If the eyes are the window to the soul, so education is the window to endless opportunities

If the eyes are the window to the soul, so education is the window to endless opportunities

In my training school we reported on levels, and used RAG grids to determine understanding by sub-topic, which is again coming back into some departments – for some, it never went away – how many short-term initiatives have we passed through in the intervening 10 years? But why all this frequent change to mathematics education? The content has changed very little – the delivery is far more open to interpretation. How and why has the teaching of mathematics gone so drastically wrong that even today so few students leave school being able to apply their maths learning to facilitate their everyday lives? External exams are not the gold standard we would wish and we are constantly being compared unfavourably with international education systems. When we consider:

  • the large numbers of very well-educated people who are in education and those who drive it,
  • the phenomenal investment in £ and untold hours,
  • the many new and wonderful initiatives which have the promise to make learning more efficient and engaging

How can they all have driven down the standards of mathematics to where it is today?

Is the old paradigm no longer fit for purpose?


Well,  many of our students have embraced technology to find out answers to their problems – not just ‘the’ answer, but the YouTube ‘how to do it’ answer – they are determined to understand for themselves. Some teachers are embracing technology to learn and share, to develop their own CPD programmes in their own time; to plan interesting and imaginative activities to understand and apply maths in a variety of situations. It is the ability to share ideas in a global real-time framework which is driving learning forward – online tuition, MOOCs etc. Admittedly there is some sifting, but this is the new direction of education it seems. So if (given platforms) students can learn for themselves, and construct meaningful ideas linking maths across topics, why, why, why are we harking back to an era when I took my ‘O’ and A levels? This doesn’t appear to be progress does it?

Time and time again in school, I hear professionals bemoan mature applicants who have come from other industries – what makes them think they have anything to offer teaching? What makes them think they have transferable skills which will enable them to become good teachers? I bite my tongue – but we are by and large, caring people, and we develop relationships with other adults (parents and carers usually) and we take heed of what they say with regard to their children. When asked apparently, many adults will tell you that they hated school, and really disliked many of their teachers. On parents’ evening this comes across quite forcefully sometimes. And of course, most teachers did well in education, and are comfortable with the learning environment; perhaps this is why they are so distrusted publicly – what they have experienced is quite different to most adults who have left education after school. Everyone who has been to school has a valid (subjective) opinion on the state of education and what is wrong with it – they can see from the outside what those on the inside often fail to realise is the case. There are polarised views from all of us who are personally involved in education so making sense of these is a huge challenge for school leaders, present and future.

If your only experience is that of being incarcerated in an academic environment all your life, it is unlikely to be advantageous to developing perspective, nor to developing a paradigm shift. We can wait for others to make significant change, or do it ourselves. Not for the fainthearted then! Looking forward not only to more of 2040 Vision and High Tech High online MOOCs, but to the next generation of educational entrepreneurs.

Best wishes.


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