Going 1-9: Life without Levels

I greeted the removal of levels with great enthusiasm. The opportunity to have an assessment system fit for purpose seemed really exciting. However, I think this is already becoming a missed opportunity.

From Levels to Grades

Confused and desperate schools are opting for a 1-9 model. In some regards this has some logic. By choosing to go 1-9 progress towards GCSEs can easily be seen by observers. Each year we can see students moving up a grade each year and getting ever closer to their GCSE targets.

The problem with 1-9

The logic of 1-9 is ultimately overshadowed by the fact that this is not their purpose. The purpose of 1-9 grades is for an end of Key Stage 4 summative grade, taking into account the result of students’ scores in several skills and topics, as well as the dreaded ‘bell curve’. In this I can see history repeating itself. The purpose of National Curriculum Levels was always to give a best fit end of key stage level, taking into account students ability in a range of aspects of our subjects.

However, NC levels became warped into being used to grade individual assessments. For history, this was a disaster. Trying to break down and oversimplify student’s work. Ultimately history teachers came to take of a 4a as ‘describing’ and 5a as ‘explanation’. This was the height of genericism! Mark-schemes began to become massively oversimplified. The key concepts of history started to be treated as skills which were always the same. It didn’t matter if you were looking at the causes of William’s victory at Hasting or the causes of the first world war, students still needed to jump through the same hoops.

Having this removed seems to have been a huge culture shock for many teachers. As a result, as a profession we seem to be looking for something that does the same thing. For me we should take the opportunity to dream big (but that is a discussion for another time). Instead schools are trying to come up with general statements of what a Grade 3 is, and set that as the target for many Year 7 students. THAT IS NOT HOW GRADES WORK!

Let’s just think about the new AQA History GCSE. If we were to break down what we would expect from a student who was getting a Grade 3 overall, we wouldn’t be expecting much. Maybe a few very weak paragraphs. That is not what a Year 7 student who would be expected to go on to achieve a Grade 6 or 7 would be doing in Year 7. In all likelihood, they can write an essay, providing evidence and explanation. They can do more than would be expected of a Grade 3 student.

Does that mean they would get a Grade 5 if they sat their exam tomorrow? No! There is of course an element of age related expectation. Their writing and thinking lacks the sophistication of many older students. And that is why assessment is not a simple set of hoops to jump through.

The progress climbing frame

To steel a phrase progress is a climbing frame not a ladder. Progress is not linear a tidy. Progress looks very different in each subject and assessment models need to reflect this. There are different aspects, skills and knowledge in subjects which create variations in progress. 1-9 fails to capture this!

Who and what are we assessing for?

Ultimately this is the question that explains the motivations behind 1-9.

Broadly speaking the answer is as follows:

  • OFSTED – The logic seems to be that 1-9 is good for OFSTED. Schools can show OFSTED that they are progressing towards their GCSEs.
  • Senior leadership – Leaders can see patterns and weaknesses and plan interventions (apparently necessary).
  • Parents – Can see their children moving ever closer to GCSE success.

However, when it comes to who are for me the most important in this process, teachers and students, 1-9 falls short. For both teachers and students assessment needs to be diagnostic and formative. It needs to be about moving students on. I understand that there is a need for whole-school tracking and picking out trends. But there are better ways than 1-9. Furthermore, not only are ther better ways that 1-9 but 1-9 is a direct hindrance to formative assessment as it is not a model of students progress but is being forced to be one.


To bring my rant to a close, I really believe that 1-9 is not the way to go. However, many schools, including my own, are going down this root. Therefore, I have been racking my brains over how to accept this and develop a useful assessment model. Therefore I will post an article soon in which I will explain how we have tried to overcome these weaknesses in History.


Let’s not overemphasise the fingertip knowledge

Knowledge is back on Britain’s education agenda. Whether it is debating knowledge vs. skills or traditionalists vs. progressives. Talk about knowledge is all over twitter and blogs. I must admit a bias in favouring the reawakening of knowledge. But I do think that we need to make sure we are emphasising the knowledge which is most powerful.

This is a particularly prevalent concern for a history teacher. As I fear that in teaching substantive historical knowledge we may just come to teach a list of key ‘facts’ and dates. Facts and dates have a place in history education. This knowledge is what Christine Counsell has referred to as ‘fingertip knowledge’. That is to say this is the knowledge which students need in their minds, or at their fingertips, during historical enquiries. Without knowledge of historical events students would be incapable of constructing answers to historical questions.

For example, let’s look at that classic Year 7 History questions ‘Why did William win the Battle of Hastings?’ How possibly could students answer this questions without knowledge of events. Moreover, this enquiry would need to take place over several lessons, requiring students to retain that knowledge over several lessons. Therefore, knowledge needs to be taught and students need to retain this knowledge during their enquiry.

However, the retention of this knowledge is not the ultimate objective of the history classroom. Instead what we must value is what Counsell calls residual knowledge. This is the rich historical residue that is left behind after students have moved to another enquiry or area of study. This is what can help to develop a sense of period (perhaps I will explain the importance of this in another post) or develop understanding of substantive concepts.

If my students retain knowledge of key dates, people and events then great. If I can give them a quiz and they get questions right in Year 10, about topics they studied in Year 7, then brilliant. I use retrieval tasks and timelines from memory. But we have to be careful that we do not spend too much time focusing on dates, people and events. Instead our focus on knowledge needs to be focused on developing students’ conceptual knowledge.

For a long time second-order concepts have been the focus of history teachers pedagogy. This focus is absolutely correct, as second-order concepts provide the organising principles for history teachers. When we answer questions in history, then we focus on cause and consequence, change and continuity, interpretation and significance. It gives shape to students’ learning. This is vital. But we also need to think about substantive historical concepts.

Concepts such as democracy, kingship, empire or nation are what have been called substantive concepts. These have a changing nature based on their historical contexts. For example, ancient Athenian democracy is very different to modern liberal democracy. Yet, they are both democracies. That is a challenging idea for young history students. It takes a huge amount of knowledge about the past to develop an understanding of these concepts. Students need to have studied these concepts through different historical examples.

Furthermore, teachers need to help students manage the cognitive dissonance which is needed to grasp the at times conflicting nature of these concepts. For example, trying to understand the role of slavery in Athens and its role in developing democracy. Substantive concepts are complex and at times contradictory. History is at times messy and that is the challenge. As a result, some of the powerful discoverieswhich have been made about how students learn, need to be utilised.

Therefore, it is using residual knowledge to develop students’ knowledge of substantive concepts which should be teachers’ long-term focus. We need to use retrieval and interleaving to achieve this (another post needed to go into that too). It is through focusing on students’ mastery of these concepts that we can best prepare them for further historical study. By grasping the complexity of these concepts students’ will have the language and contextual understanding to grasp future study.

Focusing on substantive concepts requires students to engage with fingertip knowledge. But when we talk about making knowledge important in the history classroom we need to be careful. We have to be careful not to focus on pub quiz knowledge, which so many have criticised those who value knowledge for wanting. That is now what I think most people want from a knowledge curriculum. A knowledge rich history curriculum should therefore be focused on develop students’ conceptual understanding and sense of period.