The Removal of National Curriculum Levels and the Implications for Able Pupils’ Progression

This post is about the continuing lack of clarity within the National Curriculum Review process over arrangements for assessing and reporting attainment and progression.

It considers the implications of that and other emerging details of the new National Curriculum for high attaining gifted learners.

This is the fourth in a sequence of posts I have written about England’s National Curriculum Review:

  • In December 2011 I provided an extensive analysis of recommendations by the National Curriculum Expert Panel to drop National Curriculum levels and, in that context, censured them for neglecting the issue of able pupils’ progression.

How We Got To Here

All of the background is set out in my previous posts so I will not repeat it here. The bare bones are set out below.

The remit for the National Curriculum Review says it will provide advice on ‘what is needed to provide expectations for progression to support the least able and stretch the most able’;

The terms of reference for the Expert Panel instructed it to advise the Review in exactly the same terms, but the Panel neglected this aspect of its remit, noting that further work would be needed on the issue.

In Chapter 8 of its Report, on Assessment, Reporting and Pupil Progression, it offers a scantily researched and rather outdated view of support for able pupils in other high-performing jurisdictions, concluding with this rather generalised summary:

‘There are issues regarding ‘stretch and challenge’ for those pupils who, for a particular body of content, grasp material more swiftly than others. There are different responses to this in different national settings, but frequently there is a focus on additional activities that allow greater application and practice, additional topic study within the same area of content, and engagement in demonstration and discussion with others (often vital for consolidation of learning and identification of misunderstanding and misconception). Additional tutoring is employed in some settings, but it is important even in systems in which tutoring is widespread. These systems achieve comparatively low spread at the end of primary education, a factor vital in a high proportion of pupils being well positioned to make good use of more intensive subject-based provision in secondary schooling’.

(Since the publication of this Report I have published detailed posts about the extensive gifted education programmes that operate in three of the high-performing jurisdictions referenced in the Report: Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea. There is no reference whatsoever to gifted education programmes in the Report, despite their critical relevance in this context.)

The Expert Panel recommended the removal of National Curriculum levels because:

  • It had ‘concerns about the ways in which levels are currently used to judge pupil progress’. It cites the outcome of the Call for Evidence in support of this position (even though a clear majority of respondents to the Call for Evidence were in favour of retaining levels – including a majority of teacher respondents);
  • It suggested levels ‘may actually inhibit the overall performance of our system and undermine learning’;
  • Pupils come to ‘label themselves’ in terms of levels and so the system ‘has a significant effect of exacerbating social differentiation rather than promoting a more inclusive approach that strives for secure learning of key curricular elements by all’ ;
  • ‘It should be possible to do better, particularly in primary education…By the end of secondary education pupil attainments are necessarily differentiated…However we believe strongly that before the end of compulsory schooling, the structures for assessing and reporting achievement…should foster the possibility of high attainment for all’;
  • Some of the high-performing systems examined appear to have a radically different approach. ‘Crude categorisation of pupil abilities and attainment is eschewed in favour of encouraging all pupils to achieve adequate understanding before moving on to the next topic or area’.

The recommendation to remove National Curriculum levels, combined with failure to advise on support for able pupils’ progression, led to continuing uncertainty about progression generally, and about the progression of and support for high attaining learners in particular.

In recent months, Secretary of State Michael Gove has made no secret of the fact (see the answer to Q 225) that he was inclined to accept the recommendation to remove National Curriculum Levels, at least in the primary phase.

It was confidently expected that, when this decision was formally announced, it would be complemented by a clear set of proposals for how attainment and progression – including for able pupils – would be assessed and reported under the new arrangements.

This Week’s Announcement

On 11 June 2012, the Government finally published a partial response to the December 2011 Report by the Expert Panel for the National Curriculum Review ‘The Framework for the National Curriculum’.

The response consisted of:

  • Answers to a series of FAQs about the Review;
  • A letter from Secretary of State Michael Gove to Tim Oates, the Chair of the Expert Panel; and

The Government also published a response to consultation on whether to disapply the ICT Programme of Study from September 2012 and a fresh consultation on the regulations required to secure that disapplication.

Substantive Points

The draft Programmes of Study are made available for ‘informal consultation’ after which they will be revised and reissued for formal consultation – the Review Update says this will take place ‘towards the end of this year’ – prior to introduction in September 2014.

There is to be a further consultation ‘later this summer’ on plans to introduce modern foreign languages into the National Curriculum from the start of Key Stage 2. Otherwise, the subject structure of the primary National Curriculum remains unchanged. Revised Programmes of Study for these other subjects will also be published ‘later this year’.

The FAQs make clear that, although:

‘The new draft National Curriculum for primary mathematics and science is set out by academic year for both Key Stages 1 and 2, while English is set out by academic year for Key Stage 1 and by two-year blocks for Key Stage 2, though with requirements for grammar set out for each school year.

And that:

‘This approach has been taken in order to give sufficient clarity in the progress pupils are expected to make from Year 1 to Year 6’

schools continue to enjoy flexibility over when they teach this subject matter:

‘Maintained primary schools are required to teach a Programme of Study by the end of each key stage. Schools will however continue to have the flexibility to move content between years, so long as they cover all the content by the end of the key stage. They will also be able to move on to the content covered in the next key stage early if they believe it is appropriate to do so.

This point is repeated in the introduction to each draft Programme of Study.

The FAQs give the following reason for the failure to publish draft secondary programmes of study in English, maths and science alongside the primary programmes (as had been expected):

‘It is important that we consider changes to the secondary National Curriculum alongside the qualifications that students take at the end of Key Stage 4. We will set out our proposals on both these fronts in due course. The decisions set out in the Secretary of State’s letter to Tim Oates about curriculum aims, the ending of levels and spoken language development [see below] apply to the secondary as well as the primary phase.

The FAQs identify the connection between National Curriculum content and GCSEs as one of three issues on which there will be further announcements ‘in the new year’:

  • ‘how we can ensure that the National Curriculum in this country is as ambitious as those we have looked at in the highest performing education jurisdictions;
  • how the new National Curriculum should be structured, including issues such as the nature of attainment targets and the key stage framework;
  • how we can increase the degree of coherence between the content of the National Curriculum and GCSEs.’

The letter to Tim Oates reveals that:

  • The Government accepts the Expert Panel’s recommendation that the aims of the curriculum should be defined and there will be further consultation on such aims (though it is not clear when this will take place);
  • From September 2012 all schools must publish online their school curricula ‘and lay out what is taught year by year’. These curricula must set out ‘high expectations for all subjects’;
  • While spoken English has been included in the draft primary Programme of Study for English, ‘We will continue to consider as the review proceeds how best to ensure that spoken language development is embedded across the curriculum as a whole, for example through the curriculum aims’;

The Update on the Department’s website adds that the Secretary of State will write to the Expert Panel about the secondary National Curriculum ‘in due course’.

The Removal of Levels

The Press Notice confirms that:

‘the current system of levels and level descriptors – which is confusing for parents and bureaucratic for teachers – will be removed and not replaced’.

The letter to Tim Oates gives a slightly different reason for the decision:

‘In order to ensure that every child is expected to master this content, I have, as the panel recommended, decided that the current system of levels and level descriptors should be removed and not replaced.

As you rightly identified, the current system is confusing for parents and restrictive for teachers. I agree with your recommendation that there should be a direct relationship between what children are taught and what is assessed. We will therefore describe subject content in a way which makes clear both what should be taught and what pupils should know and be able to do as a result.’

The FAQ adds some clarification:

  • as already noted, this applies to the primary as well as the secondary phase;
  • the levels system will not be replaced but the Government ‘will consult further on how attainment should be graded as part of the statutory assessment arrangements’.

It gives the following limited response to the question ‘how can this approach take account of the spread of attainment?

‘Teachers should set high expectations for all pupils and they will need to make clear how these expectations will be set in their school curriculum. A minority of pupils will have particular requirements that arise as a consequence of Special Educational Needs. Teachers must take account of these requirements and make provision, where necessary, to support this diverse group of pupils.’

But the letter to Tim Oates adds:

I have considered carefully the panel’s suggestion that, in primary schools, all pupils should be expected to have grasped core content before the class moves on. The international evidence which you provided on this issue is indeed both interesting and important.

I do agree with the panel that there needs to be a relentless focus on ensuring that all pupils grasp key curriculum content. The removal of level descriptors and the emphasis in the new Programmes of Study on what pupils should know and be able to do will help to ensure that schools concentrate on making sure that all pupils reach the expected standard, rather than on labelling differential performance.

In terms of statutory assessment, however, I believe that it is critical that we both recognise the achievements of all pupils, and provide for a focus on progress. Some form of grading of pupil attainment in mathematics, science and English will therefore be required, so that we can recognise and reward the highest achievers as well as identifying those who are falling below national expectations. We will consider further the details of how this will work.’


Summing up the Key Points on Levels and Progression

So, to summarise the central messages:

  • The full range of National Curriculum levels will be removed from all subjects across all Key Stages, primary and secondary, not just the primary sector as intimated by the Secretary of State to the Education Select Committee;
  • Although the published draft Programmes of Study are typically set out on a year-by-year basis, schools are free to teach them in a different order as long as they cover all the material within the relevant Key Stage. They will also be able to anticipate material from a subsequent Key Stage. These arrangements are therefore unchanged;
  • It is unclear from the drafting of the letter to Tim Oates whether it is agreed that in primary schools, all children must have ‘grasped core content before the class moves on’, but the preceding statement suggests that this may be unlikely. Greater clarity on this point would be highly desirable;
  • The draft Programmes of Study define only the essential core of material in each subject – so schools will be free to introduce additional differentiated material alongside. They will also have to publish details of their full curricula online and, though the format will not be specified, it is expected that they will set out ‘high expectations’ for all subjects. (That phrase is not further clarified);
  • There may be further announcements in the New Year about the structure of the National Curriculum, including arrangements for international benchmarking and ‘the nature of attainment targets and the key stage framework’, so the former may continue to exist in some form yet to be established, while the latter may change, potentially in line with the Expert Panel’s recommendations. There has been no suggestion of any action to align domestic assessment arrangements with international benchmarking studies such as PISA;
  • There will be further consultation on ‘how attainment should be graded as part of the statutory assessment arrangements’. There will definitely be some grading of attainment in English, maths and science ‘to recognise and reward the highest achievers’ and ‘provide for a focus on progress’. Further work is necessary on this but no timescale is given.

Where Does this Leave Us?

We are not much clearer about future arrangements than we were before the announcement.

The sweeping away of National Curriculum levels leaves a big hole. While the announcements suggest they will not be replaced, some of their functions will need to be reinvented to provide the basis for grading attainment and supporting progression.

It would have been preferable had the Government been ready with an ‘informal consultation’ on this issue alongside the release of the draft primary Programmes of Study.

And of course the decision to dispense with National Curriculum levels has huge implications for wider education policy, especially how we hold schools accountable through the publication of performance tables, but also how we hold the Government itself accountable for its education policy.

At least three of the Department for Education’s suite of Impact Indicators depend on the achievement of specified National Curriculum levels, as does one of the newly-announced cross-Government Social Mobility Indicators. It would have been helpful to have seen even some preliminary information about these wider implications and the options for addressing them.

As far as provision for high-attaining pupils is concerned, the broad approach set out will apparently permit the use of a judicious blend of breadth (enrichment), depth (extension) and pace (subject-based acceleration) to meet their needs.

However, the balance between specified core and additional optional material remains opaque. It would have been useful to have received a brief statement of the balance assumed by those who prepared the draft Programmes of Study, since there must have been a common assumption shared by the three different drafting teams..

We are still uncertain how high achievement and strong progression will be defined and recognised. End of Key Stage 2 tests will need to be recast to reflect the new reality, as will assessment at the end of Key Stages 1 and 3, assuming they continue to exist.

A basic tripartite arrangement similar to the high/medium/low attainers division now included in Performance Tables (ie above expectations, at expectations and below expectations) will be far too crude an instrument to apply, especially when:

  • Level 6 Key Stage 2 tests have just been introduced to stretch the highest attaining primary pupils, and surely need to be retained in some form; and
  • OFSTED has only just recommended that DfE should raise its expectation of those achieving Level 5 in Key Stage 2 maths tests to four levels of progress across Key Stages 3 and 4 rather than the current three, given the high level of hidden underachievement within this population.

In the secondary sector it may be possible to devise a system based on current GCSE grades A*-F, in Key Stage 3 as well as Key Stage 4, but that too would have significant limitations.

(Incidentally, I could find no reference to the P Scales in the Government’s announcement, so it is unclear whether they survive the cull of levels at the other end of the attainment spectrum. If they are to be retained, that begs some potentially awkward questions.)

It will be critical to get the balance right between simplicity and specificity. The risk is that, in pursuing the former, the latter will be sacrificed and outlier pupils, including high attainers, will be the most likely to suffer.


June 2012

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