How should progress be measured in a special school?

Special schools aren’t just a watered-down version of mainstream schools, and require progress measures that provide meaningful information for students, parents and the government, argues Sabrina Hobbs

As many mainstream schools are still finding their way through life beyond levels, special schools are dealing with a similar scenario of their own.

Our old system of progress levels has been scrapped and a pilot replacement system introduced. The problem is, however, that the trial system is not only demoralising for special school pupils and their parents, it will also fail to provide meaningful data for government.

The good news is that schools have been invited to mould the new system. Weaved within the 2016 Rochford review of assessment for pupils working below the standard of national curriculum tests are phrases such as “schools should decide their own approach” and exhortations for assessment systems to be “meaningful” and “appropriate”.

This opens up a window of opportunity for special schools to frame the agenda on assessment.

At Severndale Academy, the only special school in the Shropshire local authority, we began with internal discussions of purpose and need. Who are assessment results for, what do they tell us, and how are they helpful to raising attainment?

The criteria are so generalised that they tell you little about what works and doesn’t work

The Rochford Review recommended scrapping P scales – a system of levels that worked in parallel with the old national curriculum level descriptors – and replacing with them with “interim pre-key stage standards”.

The huge conceptual flaw is that these pre-key stage standards are designed for mainstream schools to assess pupils with SEND using consistent measures, not for pupils working at lower levels attending special schools. The criteria are so generalised that they tell you little about what works and doesn’t work within a given curriculum or approach.

Essentially, they will end up telling us that all of our pupils are working “below age-related expectations” and will all be forever “emerging”.

The purpose of summative assessments is to tell the government, parents and students what they are attaining. Mainstream students are attaining different things to special school pupils.

The P scales were developed to work alongside the old national curriculum. They bring value to our summative assessment framework, celebrating attainment and tracking progress through a bank of incremental knowledge and skills in different subjects.

Since the replacement of level descriptors with age-related expectations in 2014, the two systems no longer match. But this is an issue related to systems rather than the question of assessment being fit for purpose. We believe the content and our application of P Scales is fit for purpose and so we made the decision to continue to use them, despite the removal of the statutory obligation.

In the government’s keenness to monitor everything scientifically, let us not forget the value of formative data. Parents want to know how their child is doing and what you are doing to improve their learning.

The Rochford Review recommended a new statutory duty to assess pupils who are not yet engaged in subject-specific learning against the seven areas of engagement (responsiveness, curiosity, discovery, anticipation, persistence, initiation and investigation) – effectively a form of behaviour for learning. We have adapted this measure and extended it to all of our pupils at Severndale Academy, and we’ve found it to be useful.

Parents are reassured that their children are being tracked and that adaptive approaches make the difference to progress, rather than being presented with another set of meaningless numbers relating to their child’s attainment.

We need an updated version of P scales that maps to the new national curriculum, to be used as summative assessment data by government. Formative data should be used to provide feedback to parents and pupils, along with the summative progress data from P scales.

Finally, let’s not try and make special a poor relation of mainstream – it’s not a watered-down curriculum, it’s a different curriculum. Every child needs to have their progress recognised, even if it doesn’t fit neatly onto a straight-line scale.

Sabrina Hobbs is principal of Severndale Academy

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