Level Up

South Devon College

The aim of this project was to raise learner achievement and aspiration by developing a new progressive marking strategy across the English department and by implementing a marking cycle across the English department delivering Functional Skills, GCSE and A Level English.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway.


South Devon College is a General Further Education college, based in Paignton, with ‘out centres’ throughout South Devon.

The aim was to make marking more meaningful for teachers and provide learners with the opportunity to upgrade.

The stages of the cycle were as follows:

  1. Learner completes their summative assessment work
  2. Teacher marks and grades learner work
  3. Suggestions for improvement are provided by the teacher
  4. The redraft and upgrade work is completed by the learner
  5. Upgraded work is marked and marks are added to ‘LEVEL UP’ the learner grade

This cycle would also support the development of learners’ lifelong metacognitive skills, transferable to vocational courses and industry.


Although summative assessment work was marked by teachers in the English department, further moderation and work scrutiny identified inconsistencies in terms of:

  • The focus of marking activities
  • The impact of marking on learner progress
  • Time taken to mark work after completion
  • Methods used to provide feedback
  • The language used to communicate the feedback
  • Time allocated for learners to respond to feedback
  • Teachers’ response to improved learner work

Learners’ attainment in English was identified in our last Ofsted inspection as an area for development: “Learners do not improve their English and mathematical skills in all curriculum areas and at all levels well enough.”

We also found that there was a disproportionate balance between the time teachers spent marking and the time spent by students responding to their feedback.

Figure 1a-2 shows the average amount of hours spent on marking an assessment by the teacher (1 hour per student) compared with the time students spent responding to their feedback (average 15 minutes).

There were also missed opportunities for teachers to use the marking of summative assessment to identify students who would benefit from an exam access arrangement referral, for example: extra time, use of a laptop, reader or prompt.

We were unable to track any measurable impact that teacher marking, feedback and upgrade may have had on student progress.

The value of re-drafting or improving work was under-rated. Opportunities were missed to develop student resilience, motivation and aspiration to produce work to the best of their ability and achieve a higher grade.

Following an initial CPD session, teachers commented:

“They were committed to marking books, and spent excessive time completing marking, but would welcome the opportunity to be supported to make their marking more efficient and to have a greater impact on their students.”


A ‘continuous learner assessment cycle’ was created to show each stage of the process clearly and was used as a tool for staff members in the initial CPD launch in July 2019. The cycle was a model built on the principles of the existing ‘DIRT’ model widely used in the schools sector (see https://ukedchat.com/2019/04/29/dirt/ ) which inspired the additional stage of the re-marking of the upgraded work and provide recognition for the progress made.

At the initial CPD session the cycle was modelled using an example of a learner journey and the positive impact on learner progress. It was important for us to raise awareness of the risks, should any of the stages not be completed, such as work not marked, feedback not actioned, feedback actioned but not marked and upgraded, and how the learner impact would be compromised if all stages of the cycle were not completed by the teacher or the learner.

We also placed a strong emphasis on how the cycle helps the development of employability skills and metacognitive skills. For example, following teacher feedback, students need to reflect and take an active part in their improvement by planning, monitoring, and evaluating their upgraded responses.

To support teachers, we purchased 25 sets of stamps which they are able to use to indicate that feedback has been actioned.

Other methods included typed feedback slips which could then be copied directly onto the electronic learner record system.

There is now a proportionate balance between time marking and learners acting on feedback (Figure 1a-5).

A learner focus group was formed which served to highlight the similarities between the upgrade cycle and other quick feedback processes that underpin digital platforms such as video games, Instagram and Facebook. This idea was developed by our Learning Technology Team who designed the branding for the LEVEL UP promotional poster, complemented by branded purple LEVEL UP pens for learner use.

Professional Learning: Evidence of changes in teaching, learning and assessment practices

The use of the Level Up model is now consistent across Functional Skills, GCSE and A Level English courses and features on the scheme of learning and assessment following summative assessment points. There is an active action learning set of 14 teachers, based across college areas, who use the Level Up process. This includes teachers from maths, science, history, catering and geography.

Vocational staff members have been instrumental in adapting the feedback stage of the LEVEL UP model for their vocational subject. However, rather than written feedback, feedback is recorded by audio or video.

The Level Up process used by the teacher in Case Study 1 will form part of her QTLS professional development plan.

The LEVEL UP model has helped to build positive and collaborative relationships between learning support assistants in the classroom who support learners completing their upgrade work. The project has been fully supported by the senior leadership team and features as part of the South Devon College teaching and learning framework, contributing to the development of the organisation.

As part of the learner improvement process, exam access requirements have been identified and the improvement work has been used as evidence to provide referrals for use of laptops in class and in summative assessment. There was also a focus on learners who had Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCP), identified to have Special Educational Needs (SEN) or pupil premium students to use the upgrading of work as a motivational tool and raise aspiration.

As an English team we have had regular meetings to moderate marking and linked this specifically to the examining board criteria. The use of marked examples from the examining board has enabled us to maintain and update our awareness of the exam criteria.

The project has encouraged staff members to evaluate and adapt their practice to use other evidence-based approaches, which can be seen in the learning walk record:

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

Following the CPD sessions held in June 2019 and January 2020 a number of staff members across the college community expressed an interest in incorporating the LEVEL UP model within their own practice. Members from the Teaching and Learning Coach team actively supported these practitioners with marking learner work, creating achievable targets and facilitating learner upgrade sessions, thereby strengthening the collaboration within sections throughout the college.

The personalised feedback has enabled all learners, including those with SEN, EHCPs and exam access arrangements, equal opportunities to upgrade their work.

The LEVEL UP project team were invited to present at the Senior Leadership meeting. The success of this presentation raised awareness amongst Curriculum Managers who fully decided to include the upgrading process as a key feature on schemes of learning and assessment across college.

Because of the success of the upgrade project, it has now been implemented in the South Devon High School which is a 14-16 provision and although situated on the college campus, is recognised as a separate external establishment. Further CPD sessions were provided and 1-1 coaching to help them adopt this new progressive approach to marking.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

All A Level learners made progress in their marks which was reflected in many cases in the grade boundaries.

Pre-upgrade the highest achievement was a B grade but post upgrade 3 B grades had been achieved as well as an A grade. Following the introduction of the upgrade process, the learners who remained at a D grade did achieve higher marks and were motivated to attend supported one-to-one study to gain additional marks to move them into a C grade.

All GCSE learners made progress which can be illustrated on the bar charts at Figures 1a-10 and 1a-11.


Learner comments included:

“It teaches you how to improve. I think that’s very important as we all want to get the best grades we can…The feedback…helps us get a better grade… The process makes it all seem achievable.”

“It gave me confidence for other exams throughout the whole school, so I know I can actually do this and improve on everything I do.”

Learning from this project

One of the biggest challenges faced was the new November retake, introduced across college. Teachers delivered an intense GCSE English scheme of learning and assessment from September to November. Because of time restriction, this scheme did not provide regular opportunities for learners to upgrade their marked work and gain recognition.

Within the initial CPD sessions staff confidentially expressed their concerns about how they felt their time spent marking was not always able to demonstrate measurable learner progress. As a result, coaching was offered for staff members to bring learner work up to standard and receive support with the process to ensure it had impact and could be completed more efficiently.

The LEVEL UP upgrading process was most successful when used consistently and as part of a scheme of learning. Learner feedback showed that they felt that completing an assessment was now the first part of the future opportunity to improve and gain a higher grade. The process removed the fear of ‘making mistakes’ from previous summative assessment where their grade would be final.

The teachers’ capacity to meet all learners’ needs has been greatly enhanced by the LEVEL UP project, by providing constructive, actionable and personalised feedback, modelling high grade examples and empowering the learners to learn more effectively.

The process has developed a new aspirational culture for all learners to access and strive to produce the best work possible, rather than settling for mediocrity which they had perhaps done previously. Students were engaged in the process and were keen to share their upgrade success with other teachers and managers in celebration events.

The postcards home to share success with parents and carers were extremely motivational and received excellent feedback.