Build a New English Department: Step Two – Unlock Achievement

Life after Levels: The rationale

In another step towards restoring authenticity to the secondary classroom, our department has completely re-created our process of assessment. We have abandoned the old ‘curriculum levels’ model and replaced it with a standards-based badged achievement system. Finally we are able to develop a scheme for assessment that empowers us to concentrate on what we value in the students’ learning and that ensures that everything they achieve in their learning is clear, contestable and authentic.

I overheard someone saying of an observed lesson recently:

“The observer asked one of the students what level they were working at. ‘Level 5B’ the student replied. The observer asked, ‘how do you know you’re making good progress?’ and the student replied ‘because last term I was a 4A”’.

Apparently this was brilliant. This was not brilliant. It’s a travesty.

No longer does a student have to derive pride from their attainment of a ‘level 7’ – now their sense of achievement comes from unlocking highly valued achievements in areas such as “Perform a Shakespearian Soliloquy“, “Analyse an Extended Text” or “Write a Perfect Paragraph“. Students achieve meaningful outcomes in pursuit of the knowledge and skills that our subjects encompass. We ensure these achievements are authentic by aligning them closely to our individualised programmes of learning, providing detailed exemplars to illustrate what ‘success’ looks like, moderating achievement with rigour and by issuing a digital badge to signify the student’s success, they gain a real sense of meaningful achievement. We’ve called it Unlock: Achievement.

The power of true standards.

The stakes in secondary education are high. If students don’t show the requisite ‘progress’ in their learning, careers and the future of entire institutions can be jeopardised. A damaging artefact of this is that it has become almost impossible for a student to fail. Far from being a case of the “all must have prizes” misnomer often ascribed to progressive secondary teaching, as soon as a student’s progress falls below that of the average, spreadsheet’s turn red, alarms sound and interventions are staged. All a school’s spare resources can be poured into ensuring that a student’s flaws are diagnosed, that they are then drilled in the right procedures, rehearsed in what to write and laser sharp precision teaching methods are employed on a continuous prescription until, finally, after intensive therapy, a test is passed and sufficient ‘progress’ has been achieved.

What is lost in this procedure (apart from the total bypass of the heart of English) is one of the most important lessons of all, the lesson taught by failure. Unlock Achievement puts constructive experiences of failure at its core by unlocking the power of the phrase not yet achieved.

How it works

An Unlock: Achievement Case Study – The Study of Shakespeare

The study of one Shakespearian play affords a teacher of English and Drama extraordinary opportunities to extend and deepen their students’ learning. In our department we embrace this and think nothing of spending 12-15 curriculum weeks exploring the worlds of some of our greatest literary heroes and villains. Due to the multi-faceted nature of a Shakespeare study, it is normal for students to encounter opportunities to unlock up to 15 of the around 50 Key Stage 3 Achievements currently on our books. In those weeks, we will read the entire play cover to cover, analyse its language, characters, setting and themes, perform traditional and interpreted readings, explore writing using some of Shakespeare’s techniques, examine the staging of a tragedy, create props that support the symbolism of the text – the list is endless.

The current models of assessment for work such as this generally revolve around the writing of an extended literary essay. We are great fans of the literary essay, but it does not by any means encompass the learning afforded by the study of a Shakespearian play. The dangers in relying on such narrow methods of assessment (which are, even more alarmingly, being increasingly presented to us as stepping-stones towards success in an English Literature GCSE, as if that were the sole purpose of secondary education) are many, but the most significant of these is the fact that a student can be drilled in writing an effective essay without having to fully understand the text it explores, nor the ideas it expresses. An essay can be written to a formula, and teachers under pressure to produce “Level 7” essays may be seduced into this practice by the pressure and expediency of it.

Our new model of assessment allows us to define the areas of attainment that are of the greatest value, and focus the students’ attention on excelling in these areas.

Jamie’s Shakespeare Study [read the project outline]

Exemplar 1: Read the Play

While the play is read, the students are asked to explore the language effects used by Shakespeare and explain their impact. This example demonstrates how the students unlock achievement for exploring the use of figurative language in a literary text. You can read here the post revision where he attempts, after receiving feedback, to extend his analysis in order to unlock the higher level Figure it Out badge.

Jamie Souffrin-Watts - Discovery

Click for Jamie’s journal entry where he explores the figurative significance of the invisible dagger in Act 2, Scene 1 of Macbeth.

Exemplar 2: Explore the text’s dramatic dimensions

Later in the project, Jamie also made a prop for a scene he was performing from the play. He extended his appreciation for the symbolic significance of Macbeth’s “Dagger of the mind” by making the blade of a transparent material and in his verbal explanation of the thinking behind his making of the prop, he finally unlocked the Figure it Out reading badge – but has not yet demonstrated the quality of analysis in his writing to unlock the corresponding badge in writing.

Exemplar 3: Perform a Soliloquy

As a dramatic example of the power of “not yet”, you can view Jamie’s first and second attempts at performing a dramatic monologue from Macbeth. His first attempt was an accurately-recalled attempt to unlock the Soliloquy badge, but didn’t meet all the criteria. The films linked to below (and the comments attached) demonstrate the motivational effect of a set of clear guidelines and the inherent power of a fixed standard to encourage the pursuit of excellence.


COMMENT: (read the student’s live version here)

Congratulations – this recital of Shakespeare’s lines easily unlocks the “Poetry by Heart” badge.

Unlocked: Poetry by Heart

To unlock the soliloquy badge that you’re going for, your performance will need to show more evidence that you understand what Macbeth is saying (and feeling) at this point in the play. Remember he has just found out that his wife is dead, and he is facing his own end.

Rather than trying to be a broken king (something you may not have personal experience of), you might find it useful to think about his idea of the passing of time and how we all come to nothing. He is sad and disappointed – these are emotions we all feel sometimes, and if you are able to summon these feelings as you say these words, you are likely to convince us completely.

Have a look at the examples of students who have achieved the Soliloquy badge already – I look forward to your next try!


Exemplar 4: The Literary Essay

Jamie’s literary essay was evaluated against two major sets of criteria: The Literary Essay badge is a writing achievement that defines and exemplifies the parameters for effective analytical writing. In parallel with this, he also attempted the This is Novel badge, which describes our expectations for the reading dimension of a literary essay. In addition to this, Jamie may also unlock a range of other achievements, including the Figure it Out achievement outlined earlier, and including the “Perfect” series of badges that define achievements for students able to render complex pieces of writing on the page without any technical error.

Students can log into the Unlock Achievement site at any time to see what they’ve achieved (The badges they have attained are summarised at the side of every page, and when they visit a badge they’ve already achieved it tells them so) – and to set their sights on their next goal.

Screen Shot 2015-02-14 at 17.42.20

Have a look at how a range of different teachers have interpreted this system for their programmes of learning:

How does it fit the state school system?

English state secondary schools have been given a great gift with the removal of the imperative to assess to national curriculum levels. Our new standards-based scheme allows us to take control of our Key Stage 3 learning programmes and ensure that one of the devices that was previously used to control teaching by outside agencies – the means of assessment – works to strengthen our objectives. Here are some key advantages

  1. It is standards-based, so all assessment outcomes are clear to all parties concerned.
  2. A badge is either unlocked or it is not, ensuring that students strive for the highest possible outcomes, and providing a very powerful mechanism of goals and a meaningful overview for students who are still working towards achieving these.
  3. A student can attempt a badge as many times as they wish, making their learning a progressive, individualised experience and failure a natural part of learning
  4. Attainment is determined by the teacher, so the outcomes of learning are precise and relevant to the experience of learning
  5. It is contestable, so students, their families or other parties are able to discuss the quality of a student’s work and clarify what is truly required for a standard to be reached
  6. It is flexible, achievements can be created for every facet of learning that is deemed important by those who develop the programmes of learning
  7. It is valid, because the context and criterion are developed in concert with each other and described in clear, factual terms with exemplification
  8. Achievements are transferrable, once a capacity is defined, it may be demonstrated in a range of different modes or settings. For example, quality of reading can be assessed in both the verbal and the written mode. The quality of non-fiction writing can be assessed outside of the English domain – in a science or PE report, for example.
  9. It is precise, allowing for much more detailed and useful tracking of student attainment. Instead of knowing a student is “Level 4B and has made 1.4 levels of progress” you can determine that a student has not yet demonstrated the skill of: “Literary Writing, Expository Writing, Non-Fiction Reading and Perfect Accuracy”. At a whole-department or whole-school level, this information is immediately useful – but to parents, it’s gold.
  10. It lends itself to effective moderation. In our school, a variety of teachers take responsibility for moderating specific badges, calling for the work of individual students who have unlocked particular badges and checking this against the standards. See an example of moderated work below.

How can this system be used to track progress?

As every badge represents a fixed standard, they also enter the school’s progress tracking system at a fixed grade point. Students are expected to complete a range of badges in our subject in each year of school which corresponds to ‘expected progress’, however they are not limited to these achievements. When a student unlocks an achievement, a teacher switches that badge to “unlocked” in our shared progress tracking document:


Then this document automatically updates the progress level for the student – taking the imprecise alchemy of determining levels out of the hands of teachers altogether – but still providing the school infrastructure with progress information in the form they need it.


We also run regular, formal, summative tests in the form of examinations to ensure a clear and reliable correlation between then levels of progress we award from the students class-based assessment and their performance in norm-referenced examinations. Here’s an example of one of our purpose-designed Year 9 examination papers:

How is it Moderated?

Nominated moderators look at the tracking information and select students who have achieved a given qualification. They then call for the work that achieved this as evidence and a document such as this is produced:


Is it all about technology?

While the adoption of language from the world of gaming is not co-incidental, and the use of blogging prevalent in our department, these aspects are about our wider vision – they’re not crucial to the notion of a standards-based assessment scheme like this. In fact, a scheme like this could just as readily be run using paper and stickers.

We’re on a journey in the London Nautical School Department of English. In the first 18 months since our re-formation, we’ve put in place a wide array of new strategies to ensure the most rich and powerful learning experiences for our students. We care about their exam results too, and our performance there has been phenomenal. If you’re interested in talking to us more, then please get in touch any time. We’re always looking for partners and collaborators.

We’re also hiring for September 2015


This journal entry is part of my “Build a New Department” series. Read Step 1 here.

Build a New English Department: Step One – The People

He aha te mea nui?
He tangata.
He tangata.
He tangata.

(What is the most important thing?  It is people, it is people, it is people.)

I start a new year in a new role, Head of Department for English. As part of my application process for the position, I was asked to make a presentation to the selection panel about how I would have an impact. In this presentation I placed the student firmly at the centre of the picture and expressed the view that to be truly outstanding as a department, everything we did had to be done in pursuit of the best possible outcome for our students. In order to achieve this, I contended, we had to inquire as to what the ‘best outcome’ looked like – we also had to embrace the notion (made famous by Hillary Clinton) that “it takes a village” to successfully bring up a child;

There are many significant benefits to working with the families of our students, but the two that are in close focus for me with this current English department plan are:

  1. Families carry enormous wisdom and practical knowledge and highly interested in their sons’ schooling
  2. By collaborating with families, we amplify our efforts within the school walls.

The Town Meeting

Never afraid of a cheesy metaphor, at the end of last year I set up a town meeting where the 2013/14 teaching team, families, students and any other interested parties were invited along to discuss the whole sphere of learning in English. We asked the assembled group of about 50 people a range of questions about our role in the boys’ learning and what their expectations, aspirations and concerns were. An online survey was also available for those who weren’t able to attend the meeting. It was a brilliant, honest, positive and critically reflective meeting which we will now repeat on an annual basis. We published the raw feedback online and pledged our accountability to acting on the plans and expectations that were set.

It was wonderful to spend a couple of hours in deeply engaged conversation about our subject with the students and families for whom we work. There were many points of agreement – and of divergence – but in the end the messages were coherent. The students, families and the teachers alike all valued the subject of English for its capacity to promote in young people a critical voice, a capacity to engage with society, we prized it as a vehicle for self-expression and creativity, but also the subject’s role as a core engine for basic literacy and the importance of this for life success was clearly underlined.

We gained for ourselves a mandate.

Real Choice

One strategy that we have invented to respond to the need to differentiate what we offer to meet a variety of differing needs and expectations has been to empower our students and their families to participate in the selection of class groups. This is how it will work:

  1. The teachers, taking into account the mandate implied in the coherence of the responses at the Town Meeting, create a set of learning programmes that are designed to engage the students, thoroughly cover the curriculum and provide for a diverse range of options at every year level.
  2. We produce a set of booklets that guide the students and their families to make their course selection.
  3. The teachers present their individual programmes to each year level at the beginning of the year, giving the students an opportunity to ask questions and discuss the implications of going with one programme over another.
  4. The students and their families consider the options and make a first and second choice selection using an online form – where they are asked to write a paragraph explaining why they wish to be considered for the programme of their preference.
  5. The teachers formalise the class groupings, informed by the students’ selections.

I’ve attached a draft of one of the course booklets. The Edutronic functions as a hub of information for this course selection process and there the students (and you) can access detailed information about each of the programmes, information about the teachers, the assessment schemes, exemplars of work as well as the usual notices and information you’d expect from a department site.

Here is a presentation I made for #TLT13, The University of Southampton Teaching and Learning Takeover:

Have a look around The Edutronic and let me know what you think of what we’re building for our students – your feedback would be gratefully received.

Here’s a development sample of one of our course booklets, you will already see how much the teachers are embracing this process and creating programmes along the principle of a ‘line of inquiry’. They are empowered to engage in their passion for their subject and use their professional judgement to balance the interest with the requirements of the curriculum:

Download (PDF, 335KB)


We’re on a journey in the London Nautical School Department of English. In the first 18 months since our re-formation, we’ve put in place a wide array of new strategies to ensure the most rich and powerful learning experiences for our students. We care about their exam results too, and our performance there has been phenomenal. If you’re interested in talking to us more, then please get in touch any time. We’re always looking for partners and collaborators.

This journal entry is part of my “Build a New Department” series. Read Step 2 here.