The post-levels challenge - primary leadership

11 May 2015

Leader logoJulie McCulloch explores the rationale for the overhaul of primary assessment and looks at how a new commission will aim to resolve some of the problems raised.

How to assess children’s attainment and track their progress in the brave new ‘post-levels’ world is one of the biggest challenges facing primary school leaders.

The removal of National Curriculum levels has had a mixed response with some primary schools delighted to move away from what they regarded as a rather reductive approach, but others feeling concerned about the potential for inconsistency and lack of rigour.

In response to these concerns, the government set up a Commission on Assessment Without Levels last month to collate, quality assure, publish and share best practice in assessment, and work out how to respond to concerns about the current plans.

The case for change

The government set out three main reasons for introducing changes to primary assessment and accountability:

  1. We’re not aiming high enough. We should have higher expectations for what children can do at the end of primary school.

  2. We should be looking at progress as well as attainment, recognising and celebrating the work done by schools with challenging intakes.

  3. Our model of assessment is wrong. Assessment should be focused on whether children have understood key areas of knowledge and skill, rather than whether they’ve achieved a particular level or are moving at a fast pace up through the levels.

What’s happened so far?

The new National Curriculum and Key Stage 2 SATs are significantly harder. The proposed new attainment floor standard will require primary schools to get at least 85 per cent of their pupils to the equivalent of a Level 4b – a target so ambitious that, according to recent modelling by the CentreForum think tank, only 10 per cent of schools would currently achieve it.

This ambitious target will, however, sit alongside a new progress floor standard focused on the value that schools add. Primary schools will remain above the floor standard if they achieve either the progress or the attainment target.

And the model of assessment the government wants schools to use is also changing. From 2016, SATs results will be expressed as scaled scores, rather than National Curriculum levels. Teacher assessment at the end of each key stage will be done against a set of performance descriptors, with seven and 11 year-olds potentially being described as ‘at mastery standard’, ‘at national standard’ or ‘below national standard’.

Within key stages every school is now expected to design its own assessment system, tracking pupil progress against its own curriculum, and focusing on deepening children’s knowledge and skills in key areas, rather than moving them quickly on to the next set of objectives.

Why the confusion?

There is much to welcome in these changes. It is vital that children start secondary school well-prepared for the challenges that they will face there. Progress is a much fairer accountability measure by which to judge the effectiveness of a school. And we believe strongly that heads and teachers should be trusted and empowered to track children’s progress between end-of-key-stage assessments in a way that makes sense alongside their own school curriculum.

What is less helpful, however, is the disconnected way in which the changes are being introduced. Primary schools began teaching the new National Curriculum in September last year with no clear sense of how children will be assessed against it. Many schools have grasped the nettle of developing their own assessment systems, without knowing how these will sit within a broader framework. Parents may never have properly understood what a Level 3b meant, but many now face a bewildering array of different ways to show how well their child is doing.

What needs to happen next?

The Commission on Assessment Without Levels creates an opportunity to work with the teaching profession to address these issues and develop a strong, coherent approach to assessment in the primary years. We will be urging the commission to:

  • refocus attention on the benefits of strong formative assessment and effective feedback

  • ensure that there is clarity and consistency between the ways in which externally marked tests and teacher-assessed elements are reported to parents

  • revise the performance descriptors, addressing in particular concerns around structure and terminology

  • consider how best to support heads and teachers in moving towards an assessment system based on fewer things in greater depth

  • consider how best to support schools in working together to develop robust approaches to progress-tracking

The challenge will be to provide a clear framework while continuing to encourage and enable schools to develop approaches to assessment that suit their own ethos, curriculum and children.

Sharing approaches

One of the commission’s key aims is to share information about effective approaches to assessment already being used by schools. If you’d like to share the approach that your school is taking, contact the commission or email

Julie McCulloch is ASCL Primary Leadership Specialist.