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.