Sleepwalking into the Past – Life After Levels? Be Very Careful.

After reading this tweet the other night – and then having to clean porridge and haggis off my sporran for the next hour, obviously – a worrying irony began to seep through. Of course it’s beyond ludicrous but the fact that I thought of nothing else for a good wee while kind of worries me. In addition to reading David Didau’s post on Assessment, I realise that we tend to get on our moral high horse about education in Scotland. David opens his post with this:

“With the freedom to replace National Curriculum Levels with whatever we want, there’s a wonderful opportunity to assess what students can actually do rather than simply slap vague, ill-defined criteria over students’ work and then pluck out arbitrary numbers as a poor proxy for progress.” @LearningSpy

Sound familiar? About twelve years ago, at the inception of the Curriculum for Excellence, that’s where we were too. And I worry that we’re making a fumbling, stumbling, crumbling arse of it.

If you ever speak to the originators of CfE these days, those who wrote the original ‘vision statement’ for our Brave New World of education, they look on in amazement, perhaps despair, at the explosion of what I’ve previously called an Eight Word Manifesto into a massive bureaucratic nightmare of assessment criteria. It seems we’ve sleep walked into this and our now waking up into a world which, far from being decluttered, is more rigid and confusing than ever. And while pupils – and parents – need to know where they are in terms of their learning, we should be very careful about how we use that opportunity.

The eight words became ‘levels’ because we needed to assess progression. But that wasn’t enough so within each subject and and within each level we had to create ‘Experiences and Outcomes’ or Es and Os as they’ve become known. We now have a system which has more ‘levels’ than ever before. Even the levels had to be broken down into ‘Developing, Consolidating and Secure’. No-one seems to be able to pinpoint where the things came from. But we all use them. We all forget. We all become compliant. Before long, the optimism and hope of the original documents will become a distant memory.

The problem arises when the language of the Es and Os become the language of the every day; the language that we use to frame just about everything we do in schools and everything we say to parents, pupils and, even worse, to each other. Language becomes embedded and we no longer have to reference the documents. We are using Levels. We never intended to do so but it’s happening at the moment and we don’t seem to be able to do anything about that. So, like the tweet at the top of the page, I do think of England and their new adventure of “No Levels.” I trust that they will do a better job of it than we have.

I hate for this post to sound so negative. I am still incredibly optimistic about the direction of much of we’re doing in Scotland but the assessment part isn’t working in the way we intended it. We are in danger of missing a massive opportunity to alter our approach to assessment. The Language is too important to take for granted. It defines who we are. But rather than us defining ‘almost all we do against England’ perhaps England will be watching closely and learning from us. We may well be attempting ‘to map a mystery with a metaphor’ – see David’s post again – but if we have to create a new language to do so then we change nothing.


3 thoughts on “Sleepwalking into the Past – Life After Levels? Be Very Careful.

  1. As a teacher, the tyranny of CFE is just that – a tyranny. Whatever is thrown at us in terms of assessment is justified, not with positive evidence, but with the phrase ‘but this is CFE proof!’ The paperwork and assessment burden in secondary for the Senior Phase is beyond the capacity of a functioning human being.

    To exemplify, at SSTA Congress, I spoke about how a kid doing National Chemistry has approximately 40 assessable, verifiable and cross-markable instruments to pass. The must be viewed, marked or commented upon and recorded by the teacher. Luckily, we only have classes of 20 maximum but that translates as about 800 separate items of recordable assessment per class for a teacher – IF THEY PASS EACH ONE FIRST TIME!

    And they don’t.

    This year I have taught N3, N4, N5 and old H Chemistry. Next year I could have N2 Science in the environment, N3 Chemistry, N4 Chemistry, N5 Chemistry and N6 Chemistry. For each of these streams of kids I will have an approximately equivalent number of formal assessments to do. If they all pass first time this could limit my verifiable assessment burden to about 4,000 items! (Could be lower due to class sizes but could be higher as over-assessment is required before dropping kids down a level!)

    Intolerable, impossible to meet with rigour and confidence and utterly demoralising to my pupils who are being turned off the Sciences due to assessment. Add in the lack of confidence being engendered by the recent experiences of National examinations not bearing close relations to what is being learned and we are in a dark place just now. Will we be enlightened soon?

  2. The original CfE curriculum had 36 aims, most of them not really academic and hardly any specifying knowledge to be learnt. Is it not inevitable that anything that grew out of that would be a bureaucratic mess?

    And I can’t resist pointing out that this part of the CfE was copied it into our 2007 curriculum. Fortunately we then chucked out that curriculum a few years later.

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