THE NEW KEY STAGE 1 PERFORMANCE DESCRIPTORS

First, the good news:  The descriptors are brief, clear and manageable. They are much more helpful than the draft mega-lists we saw last year with all their inconsistencies and foibles.  They will be useful touchstones at the end of Year 2.

The replacement descriptors will be easy to use because they list specific and observable features of pupils’ work.  There are no big surprises, bar one, because in the main, they reflect the known priorities of the DfE.

The descriptors are organised in three sections describing attainment above, below and at expectations.

Reading

The reading descriptors are the most familiar and they are covered in just seven  bullets, five of which are about word reading.  The other two look at  self-checking behaviour and answering questions about what they read.

Inference, prediction and comparing texts are left to the next level called ‘Working at greater depth within the expected standard’.  What a curious expression. The DfE avoids saying anything that seems to encourage moving onwards and upwards to new objectives.  I wonder how many private schools will adopt this approach?  I’m guessing none. Heads will wish to be very cautious about expressing this sentiment to parents who want to see their able children progress quickly to the highest level of which they are capable. The impulse to secure learning very tightly and in lots of contexts is completely right, but the right/wrong testing regime we now have (‘Underline the adverb’) seems to pull in a different direction.

Writing

The writing descriptors sound the first alarm bell. There are eleven descriptors at the expected standard:

  • 5 concern grammar
  • 4 concern spelling
  • 3 concern handwriting

What has happened to the quality of the ideas expressed, paragraphing, vocabulary, the range writing types and the many objectives in the National Curriculum that concern the process of composition?  If teacher assessment and moderation are to ignore these factors, schools will be faced with a very significant shift in what is assessed and how children will perform.

The sudden accent on handwriting is also a surprise.  The new curriculum shifted the emphasis away from  joining-up and onto legibility and elegance.  Here, the focus has switched back to a more basic level of physical joining.

Mathematics

The issues raised by the mathematics descriptors are similar to those raised in writing. Where writing has been narrowed down to a slim band of SPAG objectives, mathematics is preoccupied with number. Of the eleven descriptors at the expected standard

  • 7 concern number, including one on fractions
  • 3 concern the measurement of time and money (but no other measurements)
  • 1 concerns geometry (but only the properties of 2D and 3D shapes)

Statistics, position and direction, and the measurement of temperature, length, capacity, etc have disappeared.  This puts a huge premium on number which some mathematicians will consider disproportionate because the missing elements are necessary for the wider mathematical agenda that follows.

Science

Science has held on to its ‘process’ objectives from the Working Scientifically paragraph then lists the KS1  topics using descriptors that mostly start with the word ‘Describe’.  They are easy. The ambition lies in the range of topics covered, which I suspect is intended to protect the subject from erosion.  I doubt it will work.  The erosion of science is coming from the laser-like focus on the basics of literacy and numeracy, and its exclusion from the accountability regime. It may be called a core subject but in primary this is little more than a title.

This dogged adherence to coverage is doing the subject no favours. It holds a lot of territory but has lost its grip on pupil progress which is, after all, the purpose of  education and lies at the centre of the accountability regime. It desperately needs to update. Without a national sense of what constitutes progress, publishers now decide for secondary schools what goes where and to which standard it will work.  In primary, science has become a pleasurable yomp through topics, but lacks a theory of progress.

It would be a success for science if schools did any moderation at all. If they did, the problems of each school having its own version of progression, and its own order of topics, would soon become apparent. Sadly, I think it unlikely that schools will moderate much science when there is so much new happening in English and mathematics.

An ‘interim’ measure

The title of the document containing the new performance descriptors is ‘Interim teacher assessment frameworks at the end of key stage 1’.  Having just overturned their own first draft, the DfE is already trailing the revision of this iteration next year.  It is as well to gauge how they work in practice in the first year of assessment under the new curriculum, but it’s also a wearisome prospect.

Schools and unions should say now if they want the descriptors to acknowledge the range of the curriculum, because at the moment, the teacher assessments will focus on the same sort of objectives as the tests.  For the government, there will be relief in this. It will end the awkward gap between SAT and TA results which arises because they are assessing different things.

Lord Bew, in the settlement that saw the end of the test boycott, hinged his proposals on a simple insight: assess in tests what is best assessed in short timed assignments, and use teacher assessment to measure those things that can only be sampled over time and observed in everyday application. That seemed to be to be a sensible tenet, and it has been overturned.