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Life after levels - one school’s journey with learning ladders

Life after levels - one school’s journey with learning ladders

Main Subject: CPD

Subject: Assessment Leadership

Author: Beth Budden

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The loss of levels has put many schools back to square one, but Beth Budden and her fellow teachers have found a way to climb to new assessment heights...

The change from the old to the new curriculum, together with the abandonment of levels, has been less than straightforward. Though the old NC was disapplied in September 2013, this was only the case for Years 1, 3, 4 and 5 – it remained statutory for Years 2 and 6. And in place of levels there has been, well, nothing. This unsettling experience has caused many schools to snap up costly commercial packages, or to simply dig in, keep levels and hope it’s all a bad dream. But it isn’t.

At John Ball Primary, back in September 2014, we found ourselves in a good position to take a proactive approach to this change as Ofsted had judged us ‘outstanding’ in all areas on a recent visit. If we’d been waiting for the call, or had HMI breathing down our neck, it might have been a different story – it’s been a hard time for schools weighed down by uncertainty, apprehensive about taking steps into the unknown. Many have felt there’s been no choice but to hold tight and wait, and that’s understandable. However, levels needed to change.

In many schools, assessment was not improving learning; often it was inhibiting it. Never mind assessment for learning, most schools relied on the assessment of learning, which has little affect on pupils. At worst, this resulted in children being shoe-horned into levels to satisfy a data-centric system, rather than teachers and pupils understanding next steps and how to achieve them. Children were labelled with a number and letter, yet often had not achieved important aspects of that level; the ‘best fit’ approach led to widespread disparity in assessment. Pupils knew whether they were a 2b or a 3c, but many had little idea of what that meant, or how to improve. We shouldn’t forget the potential damage this can cause to children’s mindsets.

Consequently, we decided to find an assessment system that reflected the true meaning of the word. As Sue Swaffield, senior lecturer in education at Cambridge, comments, ‘assessment’ derives from the Latin ‘assidere’ – to ‘sit beside’. It does not mean to ‘sit in front of’, ‘behind’ or ‘peer over the shoulder’; it’s about the teacher being next to the pupil, showing her what she can do, what comes next and how to achieve this. Eventually, this approach builds pupils’ autonomy and self-management. This is the authentic aim of AfL: to move pupils closer to learning independence, not just improve progress. Our new assessment system had to be based on this concept.

Starting life without levels

To begin the process, we had to engage teachers and pupils with the new curriculum. Together with a small group of other schools in Lewisham, we opted for the Learning Ladders system because this supported how we wanted assessment to affect learning. The ‘ladders’ bring curricula objectives together with learning outcomes to produce a series of ‘I can’ statements (called rungs) for each strand of reading, writing and maths. Each strand is called a ladder and progresses from Year 1 through to Year 7. This creates expected year group content for each subject, ascertains the percentage of content learnt by pupils, and results in data for attainment and achievement. Importantly, the data is merely an outcome of a system that is led by in-class assessment for learning. Learning Ladders is electronic, which means that every time a statement is achieved, it is ticked by the teacher and feeds a live system, creating opportunities to monitor overall attainment and achievement of individual pupils, classes and groups etc. Each tick aggregates towards an overall score for reading, writing and maths; the average is 100 points of progress per year. So, for example, on average a child will end Year 1 with 200 points, and Year 2 with 300. Again, I cannot state strongly enough, the scores are a by-product of an effective system, not the fuel, and not the focus; they certainly aren’t shared with children. Good assessment for learning practices precede good data.

The ‘live and on-going’ nature of the system is vital for our assessment ethos. Previously, we had termly ‘assessment fortnights’ when teachers assessed pupils and handed in data. Towards the end of each term an assessment frenzy ensued. Teachers whizzed down corridors with old QCA papers; classrooms were converted into test centres; everything was pawed over for evidence of this or that sub-level – a 3c, or at a push, a 3b? This was not the ‘sitting beside’ assessment at all. We’ve always had excellent teachers who plan and teach according to pupils’ needs exceptionally well, yet we had lost our way when it came to linking formative and summative assessment. Teachers needed to trust themselves, and we needed the right system to support this.

Data crash

To begin with, teachers had to baseline their pupils against the new curricula content by teaching and assessing against the ladders. This was challenging because staff were confronted with gaps in both pupils’ attainment and their own approach to assessment. The resultant data was horrendous, taking a nose dive into red oblivion. We took a deep breath. We knew it was fine; our pupils and teachers are first-rate. OK, we have some gaps to fill – Year 3 need to know half their tables by heart and do things with fractions they were doing in Year 4; Year 4 need to do nearly everything Year 5 used to…’ and so it went on. But gaps can be filled. It was the teachers’ assessment skills and confidence that needed a boost.

Teachers got together to talk over the content, moderating and teasing out what quality outcomes really looks like. We also held inter-school moderation, collaborating with our group of Lewisham schools. Confidence in assessing new content grew. This kind of moderating and professional dialogue will continue to be a central feature of assessment for us, building our shared understanding of quality in learning.

Teachers began to understand the differences between the old and new curriculum and what had to be taught to catch up. The next challenge was to convert to ongoing assessment for learning as a direct route to summative assessment. Teachers were already ‘interventionalists’, so pupils were supported and stretched effectively; what teachers needed to do now was to formalise good assessment practice. This meant using the Learning Ladders objectives to identify and plan next steps, then use in-class assessment to not only effect learning, but to summarise it. Rather than teachers mentally storing assessment information to tick over later and back up with tests during assessment weeks, teachers now had to note pupils’ achievement on the system in real time. We needed to change our assessment habits. The ‘what are we learning today?’ and ‘have we learnt it?’ was now supported by a clear and accessible curriculum assessment map. Teachers open the online Ladders system and click on individuals or groups of pupils; this then formally highlights to which areas they need to return.

At first we found this change of habit hard; however, in the end it has benefited everyone. Most importantly, it has benefited the pupils’ learning because everyone is clearer on what children’s next steps should be. It has prevented those ‘assessment frenzies’ where teachers tried to summarise learning with old evidence and then fit children into a number. Instead, assessment data is now simply an outcome of effective, ongoing, in-class assessment that is aimed at benefiting not just the learning, but the learner as an independent thinker.

Beth Budden is assessment leader at John Ball Primary School, which is partnered with Torridon Junior School. Together they are part of an assessment working group in Lewisham with St John Baptist Primary School .Learning Ladders is part of School Explained, a social enterprise originally set up by teachers. For more information go to

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