“What does progress look like in history?” – not throwing the baby out with the bath water

A blog post by Rich Kennett (@kenradical) and Adele Fletcher (@FletcherAdele1)


Unlike some of our colleagues in other schools, Redland Green made the decision to scrap National Curriculum levels and individual departments were given relatively free rein to create an alternative. To start the process each department was told to define what progress looks like in their individual subject area. A basic framework of three levels of competency (yes, there are still levels of a sort): Core, Combine and Create supported with some notional ‘skills’ that roughly fitted a Bloomsian / SOLO model were provided by SLT as a starting point.  (See the first three columns on the left of Figure 1). [1]


The history department sat down and discussed the merits of different strategies for judging progress,  debating whether to take a first-order or second-order concept focus having read some articles in Teaching History as a starting point to prepare us [2]. It was during this process the team realised something that may not make us popular – we quite liked the old National Curriculum levels. We strongly disliked the way they had been abused by splitting them into multiple sub-levels or using them to judge teacher or student progress each year (particularly as expressed in the expectation that students must each  ‘make two sub-levels of progress per year’). The old level descriptors were also overly complex and wordy making them extremely difficult for us to pick through, not to mention our students and their parents. Additionally, and this is partly our fault, the way they had been used in school left out reference to the necessary development and use of substantive knowledge, with our  mark-schemes and our use of them tending to prioritise demonstration of second-order conceptual understandings. But on the whole we valued the second-order concept focus and the notion of using them as an overarching  progress map, both for teachers and for students, akin to how they were originally intended to be before the abuse set in! As a result we were very wary of ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water’.


So we have attempted to address the particular problems that we had identified with the use of the old levels system, without rejecting the positive features inherent in its structure. The second order concepts have been retained and allocated to separate columns to give clarity. Importantly though,  deployment of substantive knowledge was given its own column and prioritised by positioning it before any of the second-order concepts. This was done to make it visually important to students and to highlight that effective history requires effective deployment of accurate knowledge and depth of understanding.


Fig.1. A progression model for history (if you click on the image below you can download a Word version of this)


Progress Map


The wording of each column took the team hours to refine to a point where we were happy with it. We sat eating our sandwiches during lunch breaks for two weeks to get it right and we are sure that this will not  be the last version. With the previous levels system it often felt like ‘the tail was wagging the dog’, as assessment was often driving practice. However, we wanted ‘the dog to wag the tail’ with the knowledge of what we knew worked well in the classroom and what makes good history used to inform our creation of the assessment system. As a result, the progress map is far more organic than a rigid handed-down system. It works for us, but we recognise that it may not work for you. In the same way that when we had read Alex Ford’s article last year; [3] we doubted that it  would work for us but know it works brilliantly for him.


During these discussions we wondered about whether to cut ‘change and continuity’ as we will admit that at Redland Green it is the least explicitly taught concept. However, we all agreed that it was a fundamental concept that is explicitly included in the National Curriculum and in the new GCSE objectives and as a result the team have now been discussing how we can build in more lessons to Key Stage 3 to properly address this limitation in our schemes of learning. Significance may also appear curious to some. In our lessons we have attempted to use Counsell’s 5 Rs [4] but we confused the students (probably our teaching rather than Christine’s theory!) so the significance column is really a hybrid of significance, importance and consequence using the model that Richard had been using in the Hodder Making Sense of History KS3 textbook series.


Arguably, the process of producing this document was more important than the outcome as the hours of discussion mean the department now shares a very clear idea about what progress in history means to us.


This progress map will now be used to inform and guide the creation of the individual mark schemes for the three official extended assessments per year that school require us to produce. We have begun this process with a Year 9 piece on interpretations of life in East Germany using the wording from the map as a starting point but adding specific and particular criteria for the assessment. As we initially use the progress map it has quickly become apparent that it needs tweaking, that it is provisional and will need to be constantly revised and changed unlike the old levels which we were burdened with.


Although we will readily admit that what they have got is not perfect and does strongly resemble the old National Curriculum levels we believe this will work more effectively. It keeps what we valued about the old levels system but attempts to iron out some of the hugely limiting problems it hampered us with.




[1] The purpose being to create consistency across subjects for reporting. In reports once a year students will be told whether they are Core, Combine or Create (no sub-levels), although in school the teachers will record if they are secure or not in each level, students won’t receive this level of detail. The subject departments were then given the task of defining these competencies in their subject. Each was told they needed to make a map of progression on a single side of A4 that would be shared with staff, students and parents.


[2] See Brown & Burnham, ‘Assessment after levels’ (Teaching History 157), Fordham ‘O brave new world, without those levels in’t; where now for Key Stage 3 assessment in history’ (Teaching History special supplement)


[3] Ford, Alex, ‘Setting us free? Building meaningful models of progression for a post-levels world’ in Teaching History 157


[4] Counsell, Christine, ‘Looking through a Josephine-Butler – shaped window: focusing pupils’ thinking on historical significance’ in Teaching History 114