Primary school attainment levels explained

by Richard Seddon, primary school teacher and ICT co-ordinator - 11 Sep 2011

Mystified by the levels against which your child is being judged? Don't know how they're performing compared with other children their age? Our guide from primary school teacher, Richard Seddon, should help. 

The scope of work done in primary school, on the whole, can be assessed as level 1 to 5, and, in some extreme cases, level 6. Each one of these levels is divided into three sublevels: c, b and a. As a child progresses through primary school, the level of their work should increase by around 1.5 sublevels every year, not all schools use this as a rule and expect 2 sublevels of progress per year.

Don’t worry too much about this 1.5/ 2 sublevel per year increase too much though. Something as complicated as a child’s academic achievement can’t be expected to fit in with such a rigid rule, one year, a child’s writing may leap up by 3 sublevels and conversely it may only improve by one sub level over another.

What levels are above and below these?

A few years ago, it was possible for pupils to take a level 6 numeracy paper if their teacher thought it necessary. Although the level 6 paper is no longer taken, if a year six teacher has a pupil levelled at 5b at the end of year five, then they will clearly have to assess whether the pupil’s level has increased by two sublevels over the year. In such a case, the pupil would take a level 6 paper and it will be marked internally. Level 6 work is rarely seen in primary school and any pupil working at this level in a primary school will be on the gifted and talented register and may even have their own Individual Education Plan (IEP).

To level work below 1c, Early Years Goals are used. These are a set of objectives used by the Foundation Stage (Nursery and Reception). They are split into six categories:

  1. Personal, Social and Emotional Development
  2. Communication, Language and Literacy
  3. Problem Solving, Reasoning and Numeracy
  4. Knowledge and Understanding of the World
  5. Physical Development
  6. Creative Development


The expectation is that pupils achieve these goals by the end of foundation stage, however, some children will exceed them, others may not achieve them all " this may be due to special educational needs, having English as an additional language or they may have a summer birthday, this plays a bigger part in pupils’ achievement during the early years of primary school.

How are levels worked out?

Even though the word SATs is most commonly used when talking about year 6 or, in some schools, year 2, SATs papers are also taken by pupils in years 1, 3, 4 and 5. These are known as ‘Optional SATs’, most schools use them to assess pupils’ work throughout primary school and the papers are taken at the same time as the year 6s take theirs. Some schools use alternative test papers to give the same information.

An increasingly more common method of assessment is now being used in schools known as APP, this is where teachers assess work done in the classroom without the need for an exam. Each school uses their own method, the only expectation is that in year six, children take the SATs papers for use in national league tables.


Any primary school teacher in the country worth their salt will be able to look at a piece of writing and be able to level it within a minute and they will know at what level every child in their class is working. So any discrepancies in test results due to nerves are often ignored and replaced with a teacher assessed level. 

At what level should my child be working?

This is a really common question and there are two answers. My answer is that a child should be reaching their personal potential. It’s clear when a pupil just isn’t giving 100% and that’s underachieving. The other, more clear cut answer, is that the Government set out an expectation that at the end of year six, pupils’ work should be level 4.

When schools’ SATs results are published, the percentage next to each subject shows how many pupils achieved this golden level 4 expectation. If you take level 4b as an expectation for a child’s work at the end of year six and use the 1.5 sublevel increase per year rule, it’s possible to see expectations for each year group, remember, this will look different if you assume a 2 sublevel increase per year:

Year 6 " 4b

Year 5 " 3a/ 4c

Year 4 " 3b

Year 3 " 2a/ 3c

Year 2 " 2b

Year 1 " 1a/ 2c

If, at parents’ evening, you find out that your child’s work is below this then don’t worry, this is an average expectation and pupils very rarely fit into it exactly. If your child’s teacher is concerned about low levels or unsatisfactory improvement then they can write an IEP for them. This will set out clear targets and how they can be achieved by the pupil, targets are usually related to Literacy and Numeracy although they can also be used for behaviour.

IEPs should be signed by the parents, who should be kept informed on any progress. Remember, if you’re concerned about your child’s progress or achievement then ask, communication shouldn’t be restricted to parents’ evenings.

Which subjects are tested?

In year six, pupils take tests in Literacy and Numeracy. The actual tests consist of a spelling test, a short written task, a long written task, a numeracy paper with a calculator, a numeracy paper without a calculator and a mental maths test. Year six pupils no longer take a science paper although schools still assess this internally. In each year group, pupils are assessed in Literacy, Numeracy and Science. Other subjects are assessed although nowhere near as stringently. 

It is unfortunate that we assess children’s development and achievement in such a narrow, academic band. Pupils can feel labelled by assessment and sometimes refer to themselves as ‘a level 3b’ as if they themselves are that level rather than the work that they produce. There are plenty of ways for children to be skilled and intelligent, don’t get too bogged down by ‘the three rs’.

How do these levels affect sets for secondary school?

Before SATs papers are taken, secondary school teachers meet with primary school teachers to discuss levels. The predictions for SATs results are given to the high school and this is what is most commonly used to set pupils. Most secondary schools retest pupils at the beginning of the year anyway. 


Tags: primary school, SATs, levels, attainment
Bookmark and Share