Don’t neglect curriculum content for pupils with severe learning difficulties

23 Nov 2018, 17:10

We must protect curriculum content if pupils with severe and profound and multiple learning difficulties are to be included in the broad and balanced education they are entitled to, counsels Dr Deborah Robinson

Yesterday, the Department for Education published an evaluation of the seven aspects of engagement assessment and announced its plans for a new approach to statutory assessment for pupils with severe and profound and multiple learning difficulties (SLD and PMLD), better matched to their needs and stages of development.

These plans arose from the 2016 Rochford Review where it was acknowledged that for most children in primary education, statutory assessments are subject-based and in the form of national curriculum tests at the end of KS1 and KS2.

However, the Rochford Review was clear in outlining a problem, which was that many children with SLDs and PMLDs were not ready for the level of subject-specific learning in the national curriculum, even where this was described by pre-key stage standards. National curriculum tests were not relevant or accessible for them and did not reflect the non-linear and unique patterns of learning and progress that were likely.

The review was clear that we needed to find a new way to assess cognition and learning for children with PMLDs and SLDs so that they were more effectively included in national systems of statutory assessment.

I have some serious concerns centred on the content-free nature of the seven aspects

P-scales are the current basis for statutory assessment for this constituency of learners and they describe very early stages of learning, with P-scale points 1-4 representing those learners with PMLD and very severe learning difficulties. Rochford recommended that P-scales were replaced because they were not working for schools, children or parents. They were often too vague and broad to be of use for either summative or formative assessment.

Rochford argued that pupils not engaged in subject-specific learning and working at P-scales 1-4 should have their development in cognition and learning assessed against seven aspects of engagement: responsiveness, curiosity, discovery, anticipation, persistence, initiation and investigation. This was based on research developed by the Complex Learning Difficulties and Disabilities Research Project.

The Rochford Review recommended that the seven aspects of engagement approach could replace P scales 1 to 4 and become the statutory assessment approach that is reported to parents at the end of KS1 and KS2 for pupils who are not engaged in subject-specific learning. Schools would have a statutory duty to assess the seven aspects, using the results to report on achievements in cognition and learning. For pupils working at P-scale 5 and above, the pre-key stage standards would be used.

The DfE accepted this recommendation, with a view to introduce the seven aspects of engagement approach as statutory in the 2019/20 academic year, subject to a national pilot evaluation. The pilot would test the feasibility of this assessment approach and identify any implementation issues.  The pilot ran between January and July 2018 and involved 55 schools, including 13 mainstream schools. It was based on a hub model where one school from each of the eight regional school commissioning areas in England was selected as a hub. These hub schools provided training and support for other participating schools in their areas. The schools were given the autonomy to develop their own approaches to using the seven aspects approach to assess their pupils, according to the curriculum they use and the needs of individual pupils and, if they chose to, they could use materials from the Engagement4learning website.

In October 2017, using the pilot as a basis, IFF Research and the University of Derby were commissioned by the DfE to investigate whether the seven aspects approach would work as a statutory and/or summative assessment. The research was conducted in two phases. In phase 1, researchers interviewed 40 participants. In phase 2, seven case studies were conducted with pilot schools (two hubs and five participating) using a mixture of face-to-face and telephone interviews. Participants included teaching staff, governors, parents and local authority representatives.

There was excitement about the way this tool could improve the quality of teaching 

The findings were that some schools were positive about the potential of the approach as a summative assessment, particularly when they were able to combine it with their pre-existing assessment methods, such as framing the seven aspects in the context of the Education, Health and Care. Most pilot schools were enthusiastic about using the approach for formative assessment. It had enabled them to deepen their knowledge of pupils’ responsiveness. In a detailed way, they could work out how to personalise their practice so that individual children became more engaged. The schools understood that there was a relationship between how engaged children were and how much progress they made. There was excitement in the schools about the way that this tool could improve the quality of teaching for children. There was also evidence that the seven aspects approach gave parents a more rounded understanding of their child’s progress.

But there was a problem. Some schools were worried that where they were measuring changes in levels of engagement in the seven aspects, interpretation was very subjective. Teaching staff could observe the same child in the same activity and make vastly different judgements about a) levels of engagement and b) which aspect particular responses related to and c) what this meant for planning.

There was another problem. Some schools were not comfortable with assuming that increased engagement meant that the child had progressed in cognition and learning. Increased engagement might be an indication of improvements to the quality of teaching and nothing more. Though this was seen as valuable in its own right, it was not considered by all schools, as valid basis for summative assessment of progress.

Schools believed that although the seven aspects had the power to improve teaching, more work was needed on how it could be implemented to assess cognition and learning in a meaningful and reliable way. Schools said they needed more time to develop readiness to use the tool effectively. They also wanted to know how Ofsted and local authorities would manage the seven aspects as the new statutory assessment for cognition and learning and what that would mean for how they were inspected.

In my view, we have reason to be pleased by this announcement. It validates a powerful tool for both formative and statutory assessment and centralises engagement as a key component for learning. But I also have some serious concerns centred on the content-free nature of the seven aspects. Special schools prefer to anchor assessment of progress in a curriculum. Though such curricula are built flexibly around the individual and are not based on the traditional notion of ‘subject’, their content matters to schools as an expression of inclusion in education.

A curriculum dominated by behaviours and dispositions empties schooling of education

The thorny issue is that where statutory assessment processes are not aligned to curriculum content (and the related knowledge, skills and attitudes residing there), they are in danger of reinforcing the idea of uneducability – a concept removed from our legislature in the Education (Handicapped Children) Act of 1970.  Education without content is not education. We know that what is assessed has the power to drive (and even corrupt) a curriculum with narrowing consequences because what is to be tested, impacts on what is taught and more importantly, what is not taught. We saw this happen with the P-scales. If the adoption of the seven aspects as the statutory assessment for pupils with SLDs and PMLDs leads to a curriculum for pupils dominated by behaviours and dispositions (such as curiosity, perseverance), it erodes breadth and balance. It empties schooling of education.

The DfE recognises this risk. It has committed to reinforcing schools’ duty to use the seven aspects approach in the context of a broad and balanced curriculum that is effectively tailored to the needs of their pupils. This means that the systems of assessment that schools currently use continue to be important as methods for formative and summative assessment.

It will be essential to celebrate the positive outcomes that the seven aspects will bring, but we must be on guard when it comes to the protection of curriculum content if pupils with SLD and PMLD are to be included in the broad and balanced education they are entitled to.

Hence, we must call on the experts that will be conducting the expert review to ensure that the seven aspects (or its variation) has a) a close relationship with a content rich curriculum, and b) is recognised as a statutory assessment that works well when used alongside other assessments in the milieu of plan-do-review cycle. Making this clear will validate the practice of those schools that honour their responsibility to deliver a broad and balanced curriculum for PMLD and SLD in ways that inspire. It will also hold back the erosion of content in ways that affirm the educability of all our children.


Deborah Robinson is an Associate Professor and the Head of the Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) in the Institute of Education at the University of Derby and a member of the SEND expert team. CERI conducts research in the area of inclusion and SEND. 


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  1. Emma Williamson

    The curriculum in special school should be broad and balanced and based on making sure all activities and experiences that allow cognition and engagement to happened are delivered by experienced teachers. The progress pupils make against those activities is irrelevant as the fundamental skills of the pre subject specific learning are those that should be identified as important and as the thing to measure. In our school we have developed a broad and balanced curriculum but we measure progress against targets that all professionals and parents involved with the pupil have identified as being the most important targets, those are the ones that are on the EHCP. I can show you a balanced curriculum and individuals making good or outstanding progress against the most important targets that have been set for them.

  2. Zama Mbatha

    When I read this article there was a sense of relief. I felt exactly the same as Dr Robinson as there was a drive of teaching content free lessons only focusing on level of engagement. How do you judge meaningful engagement when there is no content that substantiate your observation.
    I would like to get in touch with Dr DEBORAH ROBINSON please.