Life Without Levels: a parent’s perspective


Spending life on the peripheries of the education system has been my lot since returning to the UK and quitting the classroom. Since leaving teaching nearly 9 years ago, I have worked in organisations that support schools and I have done a couple of stints as a school governor. I could get my head around the data as a governor and in my professional life – but the way children are monitored and levels are set on an individual level has always baffled me as a parent.

My first experience of how children’s progress is measured was at my first primary school parents’ evening where the teacher reported in on my oldest child’s progress midway through the year. My daughter was in Reception class, had only been in the country for 6 months and was learning English quickly, her thick Israeli accent gradually disappearing. (We still fondly remember a rowdy boy she was playing with who shoved her, and her saying sternly: “You want I will do dis to you? So don’t you do dis to me!”)

That evening, the Reception class teacher sat opposite me, gave me a nonplussed look, turning the corners of her mouth down and shrugging said, “Yeah, she’s alright really, no complaints”. I must have given away my bafflement at this statement and after a pause where she seemed to be thinking of something else to say, she added, “Yeah, no complaints at all.” I think she expected me to be pleased. Having been a teacher myself, and being naturally empathetic, I imagined that she had had a really stressful few months, settling in these small creatures, many of whom had never been in a nursery setting or school before. I knew my daughter was polite, well-behaved and wanted to do well at school. But my jaw dropped and I asked if she could give me some more detail on what she was doing well at, where she might need some more support and so on. Nothing. Trying to help, I asked where she was as compared with her peers. “Oh no, we don’t really do that. Compared to the start of the year, she has made progress and is reaching the expected milestones”. Apparently, what these milestones were, belonged strictly to the professionals and were not something parents needed to know. Unless there was a problem I guess and then perhaps there would be…complaints.

Weirdly, the next parents’ evening that same year was a complete contrast and we were handed a booklet with descriptors and little blobs against different levels of achievement for various milestones of development. It made me want to go back to the other suddenly more sensible continuum of ‘complete pain in the arse’ to ‘no complaints really’. Again, on trying to make sense of it all, we were told these were the new national curriculum levels and this was really only useful to the teacher, however, the Early Years department thought it would be good to share them with parents. I must say, at this point I did make an appointment to talk it through with the headteacher. She thanked me for letting her know that I was confused and agreed that the teacher had some work to do on her communication skills. But I shouldn’t really bother myself with detail. They will inform me if there’s a problem.

Meanwhile, in the world of the Children’s Centre, my youngest was having a wonderful time and the staff seemed engrossed in gathering tons of paperwork on every child’s progress on about 10 different aspects of their development. Every week we had a report on what our youngest daughter did, said, ate, how long she napped, things she liked and didn’t like. It definitely helped ease my guilt at being a full-time working mum, knowing all that had been going on at nursery. Once a term we had an amazing array of descriptions, documentation, photographs and observations sent home to us in a personal folder. We didn’t even have that much depth of evidence for our own understanding of the kids as their parents. It was phenomenal and probably a bit much. I wondered if they spent more time with their noses in their clipboards than they did establishing eye contact with the kids. The staff agreed it was all a bit knackering but that they were obliged by government to keep to this level of detail.

Later on in primary school, we started to hear about national curriculum (NC) levels and each child was ranked against these for every subject – either below, at or above expected NC levels. I once questioned one teacher, who was super-pleased (relieved even) that the kids in his class had reached the expected NC level across the board, if that was a high enough standard considering how bright they all seemed to be.

My youngest, since discovered to be dyslexic, was having trouble with reading and the little writing she did was backwards and with no vowels. I spoke with the teacher about it, and she said she had never seen anything like it before. I reminded her that my children are Israeli. They write backwards and with no vowels in Israel and at Hebrew school at the weekend. I asked if there was any special support she might receive since she was both EAL and apparently dyslexic. I was told no, as she was functioning just below NC levels and they reckoned they could just about get her to expected NC levels by the end of the year. We waited and did our best to support her. She is a bright kid and loved listening to us reading to her and to audio books so her spoken language was extremely advanced and rich for her age.

The following year, we were told she was still nearly at NC levels and so no extra help was offered. She still couldn’t read or write and by Year 4 was actually sobbing at night about being thick and not being able to keep up with her clever peers. And yet, the reports came home, the parents’ evenings were spent having the teacher say that she was at NC levels so there was nothing really to worry about. Just a bit more practice at home.

The most deflating parents’ evening was the one where the teacher proudly said to me about my oldest, “She’s a level 4” to which I found myself wide-eyed saying: “No, sorry, her name is N___ and she has reached a level 4”. And all the time, throughout their time at primary school, the message was that they were to achieve such and such levels of progress but at least now, it was also against their own expected levels of achievement and not just against the national average, which for many, was still pretty low in terms of expectations.

Fast forward to parents’ evenings for daughters now in Year 8 and Year 6. The teachers are floundering. They are obviously lost between levels as they were and so-called life without levels, which, as far as I can tell is life with different names for the same thing. Year 8 parents evening: “She’s a level 6 in old money but now she is a…. which would be now classed as….well it’s all a bit complicated because they made us change the system, we’re not allowed to use levels any more. But we sort of are, we’re just calling it by another name really…” My eyes glaze over.

Because we moved to a different area, the younger child is at a different primary school that has recognised that she is dyslexic and is giving her plenty of support. It was going well at the termly meeting this week when they were discussing what she can do, and what progress she has made. Then I sit blinking at the teacher and the SENCO as they discuss between them “She’s a W3a I think” says the teacher. “Oh hang on, which is a…what? What a level 4 would have been?” asks the SENCO, taking notes. She turns to me “there’s a new system you see, have you heard about life without levels?” The teacher adds, “We’re all just finding our way with it and actually, what would have been a really high standard, a level 5, for the end of year 6 in previous years, is now the basic standard expected for all, so they’ve raised the bar and it’s pretty impossible to get there”.

And all the while, I just want to shriek: are the children in your class making progress? Are they being challenged? Do they tell you when they don’t understand and need some help? Would what is happening in your class be good enough if they were your child? And most of all, are they HAPPY?!


9 thoughts on “Life Without Levels: a parent’s perspective

  1. I despair for you Penny. What have we done to this system?! (on the upside, being able to write with no vowels is *perfect* for shorthand should your daughter ever fancy being a journalist).

  2. Hi,
    Our school are using Lexia, a reading programme. A child with a diagnosis for dyslexia has made over a years progress in seven weeks. He’s working so hard at this. Most importantly, he is so much more confident. Hope you don’t mind, I’m a head not a sales person.

    1. Thanks Helen. I have heard of it. She’s reading voraciously now after a year of intensive work on Toe by Toe, Word Shark and encouragement. Still dyslexic but at least enjoying the written word now!

  3. Hi Penny.
    Great read. Sounds like you and your children have been let down at every turn as far as assessment is concerned. This has been my concern throughout. In 87 when introduced into a rich curriculum, level “descriptors” improved all learning dialogue, by giving a shared language to begin to describe progress. By becoming “data”, they just became numbers, not the words, so lost their ability to inform. Over the past 10-15 years, accuracy was replaced to be able to ” talk progress”, but without the basis.

    The current “life beyond levels” is in danger of accentuating issues, as you describe, as teachers flounder. It diminishes their judgement, demeans discussion and will demotivate learners and children.

    The original descriptors, although with some flaws, described a notional hierarchy in learning in each subject, the general capabilities of a child. This was a guide to vocabulary and language, as well as basic knowledge. Teachers need to know subject development as well as child development to be able to marry the two.

    After 40 years in this job, I am at my most frustrated, by the current lack of coherence, which did exist and, fortunately still does, in identifiable pockets, but with brave heads leading insightful staff. Lambeth and Hackney have some of these.

    Best wishes,

  4. As a recently retired Teacher and Data Manager I can only cringe at the things you have gone through, the Government past and present imposed the National Curriculum (NC) upon us all and gave us hundreds of nice statements and descriptors and then wrapped all these up in the ‘wonderful’ Levels. After many years of ‘so called’ consultation the NC was reduced down to a far more manageable level, however the Target Culture then became all pervasive, Primary School were forced to push more and more children to the Level 4 goal in English Maths and Science and Secondary schools hit with Key Stage 3 targets and Key Stage 4 GCSE Targets. The pressure on everyone to reach or better still to exceed these was made worse by the OFSTED regime which changed the Targets and criteria at least once every 12 months, only those who played the game or were fortunate enough to have intakes of bright, enthusiastic students with parents who supported them all the way could hope to achieve the Good or Outstanding judgement. Overwhelmingly the evidence began to build that the Levels ideology was flawed and more and more teachers, students and parents spoke out about the ‘data’ driven outlook rather than the student centred world we all really wanted to work in, the response was very clever, OK so you don’t think Levels are right, so it is up to you to create something that takes their place that is much better, but must be just as accountable, Result – 1000’s of school all working in isolation to come up with something that could be applied to the NC and be able to be quantitative enough to satisfy the ever increasing new Progress 8, EBacc and other data lead Targets. I used to love my job as a teacher, the most satisfying outcome being the look of understanding and even enjoyment when any student ‘got it’ it didn’t matter if they were budding Einsteins or even the least able, that moment was magic. Nowadays my ex-colleagues are all chasing their tails to make sure they retain the newly awarded GOOD from the latest OFSTED, fortunately I know there are still many who see the students as individuals with specific learning styles and needs not just the number of 5 A*-C candidates.

  5. Great piece. Levels or no levels your final point is it! I got told my child’s spelling was years ahead of her actual age. My response was “so what do you do about that in the classroom”. To which I received a “yes it’s very difficult, no I haven’t asked anyone what I can do to challenge her, but you can!”. It’s not about levels it’s about being challenged, stimulated and motivated and given extra support when needed. No interested teacher needs a label to assist them plan or reach out for support. Perhaps levels are killing the teachers motivation as much as it is destroying the children’s enthusiasm for learning

    1. The new system is killing us on all levels. Teaching has become data led and the enjoyment of discovering interesting things in lessons with the children is being driven out by testing and our appraisals depending on how we move children on. this is why I am teaching so that my kids progress but some of them make very small steps and that just isn’t accepted by management. Looking for employment elsewhere,

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