Progress 8 fails pupils with special needs

23 Nov 2019, 5:00

Thousands of pupils with complex needs are guaranteed a negative P8 score and are at increased risk of exclusion as a result, writes Steve Preston. They and their schools deserve better

When you visit the performance table for secondary schools, the Department for Education makes it clear that Progress 8 (P8) is its key accountability measure by putting schools with the best scores at the top of the list. Yet, of the 754 special schools in England with pupils at key stage 4, only one has a positive P8 score. Does this mean that the thousands of pupils in our special schools aren’t making good progress?

In theory, P8 takes account of a pupil’s starting point. The measure compares each pupil’s attainment at key stage 4 with other pupils coming from the same point at key stage 2. All well and good, except that the premise is that every child is able to access and achieve a GCSE-level qualification. This will often be out of reach for those with severe learning difficulties.

Based on our recent analysis, about a third of pupils with education, health and care plans (EHCPs) have an Attainment 8 (A8) score of 0 because they didn’t pass any GCSE-level qualifications. But since some pupils with very low key stage 2 attainment do achieve some GCSEs, anyone with an A8 score of 0 will have a negative P8 score.

This means that, each year, more than 3,000 pupils with EHCPs are guaranteed negative P8 scores, regardless of the progress they may have made.

This is especially pronounced for SEND pupils with more complex needs, but the problem exists for the SEND cohort as a whole. Nationally in 2018 EHCP pupils scored -1.09 on the P8 measure, and those on SEN support -0.43.

The premise is that every child is able to achieve GCSEs

Not only does this fail to recognise the progress these pupils have made, but it reflects badly on their schools, no matter what they’ve done to support that progress. In turn, that may mean schools instead prioritise resources where the impact is more visible.

It isn’t surprising that schools for whom P8 is a core accountability metric are tempted to look for ways of ensuring that pupils with SEND don’t negatively affect their scores.

As highlighted in our recent post-16 SEND report for the Greater London Authority, it appears that SEND pupils are more likely to be off-rolled than other pupils especially when they have lower levels of prior attainment.

However, many pupils with complex needs are making good progress, but not in ways that are traditionally easy to measure. Schools are working hard on ways to account for this and the government owes it to them to consider how to recognise it, especially in schools that have a high proportion of learners with complex needs.

For mainstream schools this could mean additionally publishing adjusted P8 figures without pupils with very low starting points, or without those in SEN units or resource bases. However, while this would help to remove the incentive to exclude, it would still fail to recognise the important progress many SEND pupils make.

Incorporating the achievement of entry-level qualifications at key stage 4 would help. In time, though, we would like to see the achievement of targets in EHCPs become the de-facto standard for measuring progress for these pupils.

One step towards improving measures for SEND outcomes and to give credit to schools and local authorities is our recently published inclusion index – a first attempt to use publicly available data to measure inclusion at the local authority level by looking at the placement of SEND pupils, as well as their outcomes in terms of attainment and exclusions.

If accountability measures can be refocused away from just exam results – or at least just GCSE results – this should disincentivise schools from excluding pupils with SEND. Ultimately, this will mean schools are given credit for the fantastic work they do with our most vulnerable pupils. Better yet, it will mean young people with SEND will see their progress appropriately recognised, and have access to the same opportunities as their peers.

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  1. Anne Brown

    Pupils with SEND and no chance of getting GCSEs won’t have access to the same opportunities as their peers and there’s no point pretending otherwise.

    Any school who prioritises their league table rankings and progress 8 scores won’t want them. Again, there’s no point pretending otherwise.

    What we need is an answer to the question ‘What does a good education look like for those for whom academic success simply isn’t going to happen?’ Forget talking about the ‘failed third’, how can we stop failing them?

    • Thanks for the comment Anne. Given that a good education outcome could look quite different for pupils with different types of special needs, we would hope that a well written Education, Health and Care Plan – incorporating the views of the child and parents, as well as the practitioners supporting the child – would be the way to recognise what an appropriate outcome would be for each individual child. In our experience, however, there is still much to be done to improve the quality and consistency of EHCPs.

  2. We see an keep hearing of send children being either off rolled,forgotten,our been failed,but yet nothing has been reported with a fix,what about parents of send children?parents deal 24/refusing attendance,child no support,apps here there,instead of going that extra mile to help n support,instead there punished for something that’s completely uncontrollable to them,receiving threats of fines court action more meetings of finger pointing an told what there doing wrong.sending police to there home claiming safeguarding.
    The list continues I am one of these parents an also professional so I see both sides

  3. Progress 8 discriminates not just against special schools but schools which are inclusive and/or have an intake skewed towards previously low-attaining pupils. Such pupils are less likely to take eight GCSEs (or equivalent) in the correct ‘buckets’ but are also far less likely to reach Level 5.
    This undervalues the work that many such schools do to provide a good education for their pupils. It’s unfair and demoralising.

  4. Mark Watson

    A good article and it raises some really relevant points.

    Whilst not disagreeing with the author at all, I don’t think this is such an issue with special schools. In my experience parents with children who are looking for a place in a special school place much less emphasis on league tables and arbitrary measurements and much more importance on the school itself and the teachers – how they behave, what the support is for their child’s particular condition etc. As a very generic comment I’ve found these parents to do more, and better, research before making their choices.

    Where I think it far more relevant is for those mainstream schools with SEND pupils. As Anne Brown says above, any school (be it academy, LA or Diocesan) which has an eye on its league position will know that SEND pupils will bring their position down and this is unavoidable. I am sure many schools know this and dismiss it out of hand, believing in the principle of good quality education for all and that it is far more important to ‘do the right thing’ than climb the greasy pole, but equally we all know this isn’t going to be the case 100% of the time.

    As a parent and governor, not a teacher, I do actually buy in to the idea of tables and comparable data. I firmly believe it’s not the be-all-and-end-all and should only be used as a starting point, but it’s useful to have something with which to compare School A and School B. Taking this further, a metric which looks at progress rather than pure attainment is good as it tells you more about the school and the value it adds rather than just that specific cohort and/or local demographic. So I support the concept of a P8-type-measure, whilst totally accepting it could be improved.

    So what’s to be done?

    Taking Steve Preston’s comment further (“we would hope that a well written Education, Health and Care Plan would be the way to recognise what an appropriate outcome would be for each individual child”) should we ‘remove’ pupils with an EHCP from the P8 programme? A new metric could potentially be developed allowing comparison of schools in relation to such pupils, but it seems it would stop ‘mainstream’ League positions being a factor in the inclusion of SEND children. I recognise that this could lead to claims of treating SEND children differently, but treating them the same in relation to academic achievement/progress isn’t working and objectively doesn’t seem appropriate.

    Would be interested to hear the thoughts of people with more knowledge and experience …

    • Anne Brown

      I’d like 2 sets of progress measures. One academic one for those who’ve got a snowball’s chance in hell of getting academic qualifications and one that measures progress towards independence skills for adult life and how far they’ve been included in the school community. I think it’s fairly obvious by age 14 which category kids are going to fall into and that it’s cruel and demotivating to push people towards qualifications that they can’t pass.