Replacing National Curriculum levels

The original system of National Curriculum levels was based upon children’s cognitive development as they grow older. The levels began with descriptors covering low-level demand and these developed broadly in line with Bloom’s taxonomy up through to levels 7 and 8.  There was a general understanding within education of where on the ladder children were most likely to be at different ages.

In principle, the approach is educationally sound as a formative tool, but in practice it was also used as an accountability measure and this caused it to develop two unassailable operational flaws — flaws that have, 20 or more years after the system’s inception, finally killed it off.

The first operational flaw surrounds the application of the descriptors.  Their appropriate use is to assess the performance of a pupil on a particular task.  But given that every task has different demands (in a myriad different ways) it would be wrong to assume that assessing the same child on the same day but on a different task would result in the same level.  So a teacher’s data on a child will span a range of levels and yet we insist that they report only a single level when held to account (to parents, to the school, even to the child).  Levels are not percentages in tests, they cannot be averaged, and when we do collapse the range to a single “representative” value we give a poor indication of progress: we ignore the wonderful pieces of work, cancelled out as they are by the less impressive (but unrelated) pieces of work from a different day.

Which leads us to the second operational flaw: the need to demonstrate progress.  It is probably broadly true to say that children, on average, make two levels of progress over a key stage.  But that’s it.  Beyond that, we must remember that some will progress more and some less (and often this goes with ability) and that the rate of progress is very unlikely to be linear.  The need to record definite progress at closely spaced intervals (a half term, a term, even an entire year) has led to the confusion of “sublevels” and the nonsense of “two sublevels of progress per year”.  This grew (reasonably?) from teachers’ desire to be able to say things like “well they occasionally did some level 5 work alongside lots of level 4 work at the start of the year, but now they consistently produce level 5 work with the occasional piece of level 6 work”, but when reduced to “they’ve moved from a 5c to a 5a”, the educational meaning is not only lost, but perverted.

I will now argue for an alternative that attempts to retain the original focus on cognitive demand (which I think is correct), but is free of the complicated smoke screen of sublevels.  It is not profound, just a change of emphasis.

I would argue that we should report a child’s ability in a subject relative to age-specific criteria (rather than all-encompassing ones that the child progresses through as they grow older), and that this be done reasonably bluntly so as not to give anyone (parents, government, even the teachers themselves) the impression that a finer simplistic representation is even possible.  This could work by reporting each child as either “foundational”, “secure”, “established” or “exceptional” in each subject at the point in time that the judgement is being made.  This judgement would be made as described in the next paragraph, but, crucially, would not be a progress measure in the way levels were: there would be no expectation for a child to progress from “foundational” to “secure” by the next reporting window, because the next reporting window would have different criteria for each category.  The measure would be a constant snapshot of current performance, more akin to GCSE grades than National Curriculum levels in that regard, but based upon the same underlying cognitive basis as levels originally were intended to be, rather than a percentage mark in a test.

So, how would a teacher “categorise” pupils into one of the four divisions?  The drivers here would be what is useful.  One important use would be to answer a parent’s most basic question: “how is my child doing in your subject?”.  I would argue that, accepting for the necessary tolerances of not knowing what the future holds for individuals, “foundational” pupils at KS3 should most likely secure grades 1, 2 or 3 (ie D to G) in their GCSEs at the end of Year 11.  “Secure” pupils should most likely go on to gets grades 4 or 5 (C to lower B); “established” grades 6 or 7 (higher B to lower A), and “exceptional” 8 or 9 (higher A to A*).  A school could use this guide to generate approximate percentages to loosely check teachers’ interpretations: for instance, perhaps 10% exceptional, 25% established, 50% secure, 15% foundational.  In this way, a child and their parents build up, over time, an understanding of the child’s strengths and weaknesses in a very transparent manner — certainly more transparently than levels allowed.

That is a retrospective view point of course, and could only ever be a loose guide, anyway.  In reality, that guide would need to inform a school’s (and each department’s) approach to how to differentiate schemes of learning and individual lesson objectives and tasks so as to create appropriate challenge.  For instance, in an All-Most-Some model, the lowest demand objectives would be aimed towards supporting the “foundational” pupils, whereas the slightly more demanding objectives would support the “secure” pupils.  If the objectives are written correctly, a pupil’s ability to access them would reveal which “category” they are mostly operating within.  Schemes of work would thus be written to match a level of cognitive of demand whose differentiation is decided in advance (Bloom, SOLO, etc), perhaps hanging together on the key assessment opportunities that will allow the teacher to make a judgement (as York Science promotes).  Those judgements would formatively allow the pupil to know how to progress and also allow the teacher to anchor their judgement in something concrete.

This is not National Curriculum levels using different words.  It takes the best of the levels (criteria based upon cognitive demand), but dispenses with both “expected progress” and with it a “fine” representation of a pupil’s ability.  The fine detail will still be there — but in its entirety in the teacher’s markbook, where it can be usefully used in a formative manner.  And pupils will still progress — but against criteria laid out topic-by-topic in carefully crafted schemes of learning and lesson activities, rather than against a generic set of descriptors designed to span more than a decade of learning across a dozen disparate subjects.

Teachers know how to assess and they know how to move individuals forward — and they know that it is all about details.  Learning (and its assessment) needs to be matched to each individual objective and “overall” progress is a hazy notion that cannot be captured accurately or usefully in a snapshot, let alone in a single digit.

Teachers should be encouraged (and allowed) to commit to crafting superb activities (and assessment criteria) to move pupils through the cognitive demands that are inherent to the concepts in front of them at each moment in time.  And when they are then asked to report a child’s achievements in a subject, they should be allowed to give “woolly” snapshots (more an indication of future GCSE performance than anything else, so that pupils and parents can tell strengths from weaknesses), with the detail being conveyed in the feedback in an exercise book, the conversations of a parents’ evening or the written targets of the annual report.  How a subject department turns their internal data into a whole-school categorisation would be up to them, monitored and tweaked retrospectively by how accurate an indicator it turns out to be.  But it would also be the key driver for ensuring learning objectives are pitched at the correct level of demand in every lesson, for every child, which is, I think, true to the spirit of the original National Curriculum levels.


Using Twitter professionally to network with other teachers

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I use my professional Twitter account, @StuBillington, to follow and be followed by others involved in education. I get lots of ideas, information and resources from those I follow and I try to tweet things that I think they might find useful in return.

I don’t use my professional Twitter account to tweet about my personal life (e.g. what I think about the form of the football team I support). I reason that this might be relevant to my friends, but probably not to my teacher peers who are busy people and who don’t need to wade through that kind of stuff when looking through the hundreds of tweets on their feed. If I wanted to do that, I’d get another Twitter account for my personal life. (Although, actually, I probably wouldn’t, as I wouldn’t want my students stumbling across my life on show!)

I follow nearly 500 people, a number that is increasing all the time as I come across other like-minded people saying things I’m interested in listening to. Finding people to follow is relatively easy: initially, I just looked at who other people were following and, well, followed suit! If you wanted a starting point for some teachers to follow, you could take a look at some of the 500 or so I’m following. There are also “lists” of teachers on Twitter, maintained by attentive teachers; you’ll stumble across those as you look for people to follow.

Some of the people I follow tweet every day, some of them far less frequently. Either way, it adds up to a lot of tweets to read. Top tip: don’t try to read them all. Whenever I make time to look at Twitter, I just look at the most recent few dozen. In fact, timing when you tweet your own tweets is important, if you want to increase the chances of others reading them and not missing them.

Recently, I seem to spend most of my time accessing Twitter directly, through the Twitter app on my iPad. However, there are times when a more sophisticated interface is useful. My personal favourite is Hootsuite, but there are lots of other options out there. I’m also experimenting with Flipboard (an iPad app) at the moment. Perhaps something I’ll blog about in the future.

So, why would you want something more sophisticated? Well, tweets often incorporate “hashtags”: keywords that can be searched for quickly, to assemble a list of tweets on a theme, rather than the random ones on your home page that are limited to the most recent tweets of those you follow. For teachers, one of the most useful is #UKEdChat. For Science teachers, another is #ASEChat. For members of the a school’s leadership team, there’s also #SLTChat. And, more recently, there’s the rapidly upcoming #PedagooFriday. Setting up a Twitter feed for these search terms allows you to rapidily connect with like-minded “tweeps” who perhaps you don’t currently follow. Most importantly, most of those hashtags are primarily for a weekly hour-long online “chat” session, in which lots of Twitter users all tweet on a pre-agreed topic, all ending their tweets with the hashtag, so that their comments are relayed to the other people taking part. This is a very effective and highly regarded type of informal INSET. If you’ve never tried it, you should! #ASEChat is on Monday evenings, 8pm to 9pm, and #UKEdChat is on Thursday evenings, 8pm to 9pm.

Using Twitter with pupils

Previous : A guide to using Twitter in teaching

I use my “Mr Billington” Twitter account, @FallibroomeBIL, to send my pupils things I think that they might like to know about. Sometimes this is a link to something from the world of Science that I think is interesting, sometimes it is a link to online resources that can be used to extend what we’ve done in class, sometimes it is just a message (e.g. information, a question, a joke or congratulations). Crucially, I don’t tweet anything vitally important, as I can’t guarantee that all of the relevant pupils will read it — it’s an “opt in” stream of information, for those that are interested.

While some pupils and parents are “following” @FallibroomeBIL, a lot of my pupils and their parents do not have their own Twitter accounts and so access my tweets simply by periodically visiting the webpage, Although some tell me when they’ve done this, I don’t really have a way to judge how many do this.

As the head of the Science Department at my school, I also maintain a departmental Twitter account as well, @FallibroomeSci. Again, this is for non-vital one-way information giving. However, this is a useful single point of contact for pupils and parents, if they want, as I use the @FallibroomeSci account to follow the individual Twitter feeds of all of the teachers in the Science Department. This is a good way to collect everything together in one place and advertises the existence of the individual Twitter feeds of the teachers.

By the way, it’s useful for a school to adopt an agreed format for all of the Twitter accounts (eg “@Fallibroome…” As it helps pupils and parents to find them all very easily using Twitter’s search box. It’s also useful if the school’s central Twitter account follows them all, too.

I have experimented with using my Twitter account to record (and publicise to parents) the homeworks that I set my classes. This actually worked well, but is limited to 140 characters, which was sometimes not enough. Instead, I switched to a homework blog (, which allows me to also upload resources, including worksheets, etc. More on this in a future post, but worth drawing attention to here.

One final thing, with relation to maintaining a professional level of contact. A school Twitter account is for communicating information to pupils, but they may “follow” your account using their personal Twitter account. It is vital to never forget that it is not appropriate for a teacher to follow the pupil back, or even to look at the pupil’s feed. Just because we know where our pupils live, it doesn’t mean we should ever go round to their house and spy on them through the front window and it is essential to extend the same social boundaries of the “in person” world into the digital world, too.

Next : Using Twitter professionally to network with other teachers

A guide to using Twitter in teaching

Think of Twitter as a big public square where everyone is speaking at everyone else, saying things they think others might be interested in hearing. Each thing said is called a “tweet” and can’t be longer than 140 characters, so each tweet is just a sentence really. You can tune in to what someone is saying simply by visiting their Twitter page, but if you have your own Twitter account you can also “follow” them, so that all their tweets appear on your own “home page”. More from Twitter themselves here.

There are two things really useful about Twitter from a teachers’ perspective: 1) it’s blindingly easy to send general “for information” messages to your pupils (and their parents) and 2) tens of thousands of teachers use Twitter every day to share best practice, making it incredibly good informal INSET in lots of different ways.

If you’re going to use Twitter effectively as a teacher, you’re going to need two Twitter accounts, one for each of the purposes above. Mine are @FallibroomeBIL and @StuBillington. (The “@” denotes Twitter usernames.) Both are public, meaning that I don’t “tweet” anything that I might later regret, including anything that could identify particular students, etc.

If you’ve never used Twitter before, why not take a look at them now, so you’ve got an idea what I mean? Remember, you don’t need an account to read other people’s tweets, just go to their “feed”: and

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