ALAN’S BLOG On not being a Muppet: Life beyond Levels – Alan Brine

October 13, 2014
Alan's Blog,

“RE needs to match more closely the principles set out by the DfE for the rest of curriculum. Otherwise we look like Muppets” Mary Myatt on Twitter October 14.


Last week the blog looked at some of the assessment problems of the past and the reasons why we need to celebrate the ‘beyond levels’ culture. It was great to have the thoughts of Kathryn Wright on this and to see the debates on the Save RE Facebook site.


One thing is very clear: there is no quick fix and no simple answer. Any real culture change is a bit threatening and destabilising. What follows is a hopeful contribution to the transition – it is not the answer.


This quote from the National College sets the agenda:


‘A culture shift regarding the nature, range and purpose of assessment needs to take place, in recognition of the new opportunities provided both by the new curriculum and the removal of levels’. 


Beyond Levels: alternative assessment approaches developed by teaching schools (National College of Teaching and Leadership September 2014)


A culture shift


Mary Myatt’s quote above is ringing in my ears! If we don’t want to be Muppets we have to grasp what is going on in the wider curriculum. Two big themes related to assessment seem paramount:


1.  We won’t get assessment right if we don’t understand the wider changes brought about by the National Curriculum review. Forget the rhetoric of Gove – that was fodder for the Daily Mail. All that stuff about ‘learning facts’ is largely irrelevant. We need to listen to those who really shaped the new National Curriculum – Tim Oates in particular. A key characteristic of the new curriculum is that it ‘offers far more specific age range content with an increased expectation of attainment.’ (Beyond Levels NCTL 2014)


New approaches to assessment are rooted in the idea that we need to be much clearer about the content being taught at each stage of a child’s education. We need to focus our assessment on how well pupils come to terms with that content – what many refer to as ‘mastery’.


This should be music to our ears. Two recurring themes in recent reports about RE have suggested that we desperately need: a) to raise the level of challenge; and, b) much greater clarity about what we should be teaching with a strong re-engagement on the notion of ‘religious literacy’.


More Challenge and Clearer Content could be the crusade banner for RE!


The question is whether the new RE Council 2013 RE Framework has gone far enough in matching those National Curriculum principles and providing that ‘specific age range content’ and an ‘increased expectation of attainment’. We need to address this in order to ensure a model of ‘mastery’ becomes the key to a new approach to assessment. (More in my next blog!)


2.  The second theme is about the new freedom for teachers to work collaboratively to find approaches to assessment that work. The new culture offers a ‘revitalised approach to the pedagogy of assessment’ enabling teachers to ‘take back control of the process of assessment’ and giving ‘pupils ownership of their learning and progress’.  (Beyond Levels NCTL 2014) Not just ‘no levels’ but no set formula or prescribed approach to assessment!


In relation to the Foundation Subjects (let’s include RE) is that that we may need to use different assessment tools for different subjects – the demand for one standardised approach for all subjects may be both unrealistic and, more importantly, undesirable.


Senior leadership teams should be encouraging innovation; trying out different approaches; sharing ideas across subjects; but not demanding that one size fits all. Music to the ears of those secondary RE teachers frustrated about having to mark work every week and trying to devise quick solutions rather than focus on what would give ‘pupils ownership of their learning and progress’.


One of the recurring messages in the Beyond Levels report is the excitement about teachers collaborating together to develop new thinking – a great encouragement for the emerging hub activities in RE.


Wonderfully scary freedom! – could be the second crusade banner for RE.


The good news from Ofsted


Suspend belief for a moment – Ofsted could be your ally in all this!


One worry is that all this freedom and innovation is fine – but what would Ofsted say? We can’t afford to innovate when senior leaders want us to keep feeding the data monster ‘because of Ofsted’.


I get this! Ofsted does not always speak with one voice BUT an overriding message is that Ofsted has been one of the most vibrant critics of current assessment practice. The 2013 RE report , the 2012 English report Moving English Forwardand the 2013 HMCI Annual Report all criticised stultifying approaches to assessment.


Recent guidance to inspectors about assessment clearly states that in this period of culture change: “Inspectors will not expect to see a particular assessment system in place and will recognise that schools are still working towards full implementation of their preferred approach.”


SO –we need to exploit this. If your school insists that levels are used as an interim so be it – but inspectors will be excited if there is a sense of innovation and fresh thinking about assessment in the subject. AND repeating the last blog – I think we should strongly resist inventing new levels – that fails to grasp the culture shift.


So what’s the way forward?


“RE needs to match more closely the principles set out by the DfE for rest of curriculum. Otherwise we look like Muppets”


We need to grasp the wider picture and accept that it will take time to develop effective new models.


But there are some very clear pointers from the Beyond Levels report (the references are to some key pages in that report):


  • Cross-phase collaboration across subjects and schools is crucial – because there is no juggernaut of ‘right’ answers coming from the DfE. Talk to colleagues and seek out any local hub networking. It’s about ‘teachers doing it together for themselves!’
  • New approaches to assessment must be more integrated with changes to curriculum planning (throughout and page 37)
  • Overwhelmingly innovative schools are moving towards a mastery or competency model of assessment using language such as ‘Emerging/Developing/Secure/Exceeding’ to describe pupils’ success in relation to the defined ‘content’ of the curriculum (page 24)
  • Planning and teaching needs to include clear ‘progression objectives’ so that pupils and teachers have real ownership of the goals of the learning – making sure we all understand what it is we are trying to ‘master’ (page 14)
  • Solo taxonomy models are proving worthy of further exploration – they are adaptable to the needs of different subjects but also offer a common approach so good practice can be shared across subjects(pages 12 and 22)
  • Bloom’s taxonomy is useful in helping to extend thinking skills and  improve questioning for assessment but NOT to devise a new tyranny of levels (pages 13 and 23)
  • New ways of designing points systems for tracking progress across cohorts and linked to the mastery model (not dissimilar to the approach used in EYFS) are being developed. These have the virtue of being much more directly related to what pupils are actually learning and are not reliant on disembodied level statements. (Page 26)


So I strongly recommend a strong cup of coffee or a favoured alcoholic beverage and a curl up with: Beyond Levels: alternative assessment approaches developed by teaching schools (National College of Teaching and Leadership September 2014)