Reflections on the Rochford Review & implications for our semi-formal learners with severe and complex needs – One school’s perspective
It is not my intention in this article to look at the background legislation that was considered by the Rochford Review or enter an in-depth debate about the value of P scales. Whilst the focus of the Rochford Review was on statutory assessment at the end of key stages 1 and 2 many of the sentiments and, I believe, expectations can be applied to all semi-formal learners up to the end of key stage 4.
I do believe, as is implicitly implied in the Rochford Review, that the triad of essentials of pedagogy, curriculum and assessment are closely linked and there is a need for assessment to inform what and how this group engages in that learning. I would also argue that the environment we create is also an essential ingredient in that process of learning.
What I want to explore is the structure of a curriculum and assessment processes for learners with severe and complex learning needs. Schools have high aspirations for this group of learners and strive to raise educational standards through carrying out rigorous ongoing non-statutory assessment daily. This group of learners sit in the range of P4-P8 and fall below age related expectations, working below the standard of national curriculum tests and, I would argue, the interim pre-key stage standards that the Rochford Review have recommended for the end of key stage one and key stage two. It is unlikely that this group of learners will be engaged in subject based learning; they will be engaged in learning that develops their thinking skills, their ability to solve problems and supports their emotional and social development and mental well-being.
This article draws upon experience, discussions held with colleagues and leading professionals in this field as well as undertaking enquiry based research.
Understanding our learners as a precursor to developing a curriculum
It is important to recognise that semi-formal learners with severe and complex learning needs do differ from the familiar population of SLD learners that schools have supported over many years. Increasingly the learners have multiple co-existing and overlapping conditions that significantly impact on the curriculum provision schools need to offer. To meet their needs we have to be looking at personalised pathways that recognise each individual’s unique and changing learning patterns. They have truly spiky profiles and we need to recognise and celebrate their neurodiversity.
This is not to say that we cannot identify some common underlying needs of this group of learners. This group of semi-formal learners struggle with all areas of thinking; cognition (thinking and understanding), problem solving (acting upon understanding) and metacognition (thinking about thinking). They have difficulty with memory and face challenges with information processing; they may have sensory and auditory processing difficulties, sensory integration difficulties and problems in perceiving sensory patterns.
Our semi-formal learners are similar to all learners in that they take information through their senses and using that information relies on the brain being able to interpret that information and make sense of it through connecting to the learner’s existing knowledge. If that ability to process information is impaired then our learners may encounter difficulties in areas such as visual discrimination, visual sequencing, and visual motor processing or auditory sequencing.
Memory is part of information processing and our semi-formal learners can struggle with the demands of our classroom learning environments for many reasons. Our learners are likely to have smaller working memory capacity than typically developing children. Research suggests that our semi-formal learners who have an atypical development trajectory have not only smaller working memory capacity but also a severe lack of working memory skills such as paying attention and making sense of spoken language. We are also aware that our semi-formal learners have difficulties with generalising and problem solving.
If we accept that our semi-formal learners exhibit these common traits when we take into account those coexisting and overlapping conditions our learners are increasingly presenting within our school population then the challenges we face in meeting those needs increases. Consider, for example, a 10 year old semi-formal learner, born prematurely & working at around P4 -P5 with physical difficulties, hearing loss, complex medical needs and displaying autistic traits; what is the dominant learning need? We would agree they are working well below age related expectations; would we expect to teach subject specific learning to someone who is cognitively working at around 22 months but with additional needs? The answer must surely be no.
The Rochford Review recognises age-related expectations are not appropriate for many, especially those working below the standard of national curriculum tests and the interim pre-key stage standards for the end of key stages 1 and 2; clearly so in the example given. I would argue that this covers our semi-formal learning population who operate below P8 by the end of key stage 4.
Faced with such coexisting and overlapping conditions, combined with the impact that premature birth, alcohol or drug abuse during pregnancy has on a child, schools need to consider carefully the curriculum diet they offer and challenge a subject based curriculum that is based on linear progression. Robust assessment needs to be appropriate and the seven aspects of engagement based on cognition and learning Rochford recommends is a step in the right direction. I will return to these points.
The Enhanced Triad of Essentials – the learning environment
The Rochford Review recognises that the triad of essentials of pedagogy, curriculum and assessment are closely linked and there is a need for assessment to inform what and how this group engage in that learning. The creation of learning environments is also an essential ingredient in that process of learning.
Whilst there is perhaps general acceptance of the triad of essentials there still is a prevalence of 20th century classrooms with traditional displays and adult notices with only some regard to sensory needs rather than what I regard as 21st century learning environments. By developing a rich sensory environment that enables increased sensory responsiveness, increased social participation, that facilitates neuroplasticity and hence development, we will see increased levels of engagement, sensory responsiveness, reduced levels of stress and anxiety resulting in improved learning and memory. Such playful and engaging environments will enable our learners to become risk takers and explorers who welcome challenge and enjoy learning.
Engaging through an appropriate curriculum
The challenge schools face today is to develop an appropriate curriculum diet that facilitates engagement and learning; that moves away from subject based learning to one that is developmentally appropriate and recognises that each learner has a unique profile of intelligences and increasingly complex and overlapping difficulties.
A semi-formal curriculum that uses themes and topics, designed to help learners explore a number of ways of knowing is one that encourages the exploration of ideas, provides opportunities for problem solving, reasoning, critical thinking and reflection. Consequently, it is a curriculum that is more developmentally appropriate than one based on subject specific learning and content.
Topics provide opportunities for mathematical thinking, thinking scientifically, musical thinking, language and communication, movement and spatial representation and the social & emotional intelligences of understanding others and understanding ourselves.
Play remains an important element of this semi-formal curriculum. Play is a motivational driver. We recognise the importance of play in the development of neuro-typically developing children but lessen its value for our complex learners as they become older. Why? Our understanding of play should recognise that play is an intrinsic part of learning, as it provides opportunities for social interaction, to think and also allows our learners to make sense of the world around them.
Assessing learning and engagement
There has been ongoing debate about the value of the P scales in education and their value in assessing learning. The P scales were designed in 1998 to sit below the old national curriculum descriptors and there remains a statutory requirement to assess and report the attainment of learners working below the standards of the national curriculum tests. They are not a curriculum. The Rochford Review concluded that given the challenges and range of issues associated with them that a new approach to assessment is needed for those learners working below the standard national curriculum tests. Educational research and research in the field of neuroscience challenges the premise that learners working at P5 (around 24 months chronologically) are ready to be engaged in subject specific learning and therefore assessed using subject specific standards. We should not fall into the trap of making a tool, devised to meet the demands for showing linear progression, matched to the national curriculum subjects drive the need of assessing our 21st century learners. I agree we should have tools to enable us to measure progress from P4 – P8, but these tools need not and should not be dictated by tenuous links to subject content. If you remove the subject headings from the P scales then much, if not most, of what is included are pre-requisite or early learning skills. The drive to include words, particularly at P8, to make them sound subject specific detracts from the real purpose of assessment at these levels.
What form should assessment take for semi-formal learners? Assessment provides a view of the whole learner. It needs to value and capture the broad range of attitudes, skills and learning which lead those learners to become successful and confident individuals. Assessment should be rigorous and ongoing based on reliable judgements that enable us to be certain about the appropriateness of the curriculum diet we are offering as well as driving progress. Assessment needs to capture every type of progress an individual learner makes; whether that is linear, lateral or consolidation of previous learning. Assessment for this group of learners should not be about setting age-related expectations or what they should they achieve by the end of key stages.
The Rochford Review rightly feels that assessment should be suitable for our learners’ individual needs and used flexibly according to prior progress pathways. I believe that whilst we all recognise the need for rigorous ongoing daily non-statutory assessment there is a need to understand progress in areas of thinking and problem solving, communication and becoming literate learners, social and emotional development and those pre-requisite or early learning skills. We need to have an understanding about the learners’ levels of engagement.
Using both formative and summative assessment should help us capture and understand that learning and levels of engagement. It should also allow us to understand that progress and informs of us the next steps in learning. It should help us set targets that are personalised, realistic and challenging and are based on the full range of data capture from previous years.
In this respect we wanted a school based assessment instrument based on the P scales that also measures levels of engagement. A system that looks at cognition and learning and not subject specific learning or content; a system to inform target setting for all learners whose attainment is outside age-related expectations; an instrument that uses a common structure and language to track progress. In this respect, three years ago, Fountaindale School developed a tool that assesses learning through the semi-formal thinking skills, early learning skills and play; STEP. STEP helps us to understand progress in those key areas I have identified earlier; it uses progress descriptors of acquiring, developing and consolidating (and generalising).
And what of the interim teacher assessment framework for pre-key stages 1 and 2 for pupils working below the test standard?
A number of commentators have extrapolated from the review that there is recognition that the interim pre-key stage standards sit above P8, hence above the upper end of our semi-formal pupils’ learning.
The interim pre-key stage standards were designed to align with and complement the statutory national assessments ensuring consistency and a progression pathway. I believe that there is general acceptance that the July 2016 published standards sit above P8. This is recognised in the final report of the Rochford Review; the recommendation is the introduction of additional new pre-key stage standards of ‘Entry’ and ‘Emerging’ designed to assess knowledge and understanding necessary to progress onto the higher standards.
How do they sit? I have mixed feelings. It is important to recognise the achievements of all learners and any assessment needs to be fit for purpose. The assessment mustn’t become a statutory tool that replaces one system with another that ultimately leads to the same failings. I would hope that we would start with the learners’ needs, the nature of their learning and identify what are the important learning needs of this group. This I believe means looking wider than reading, writing and maths. These should be part of looking at how the learner is developing as a mathematical thinker and becoming a literate communicator; it should be part of that broader assessment. Subject specific learning targets need to be removed from our assessment language for this group of learners.
The next stage is to undertake a detailed review of STEP once the outcomes of the Rochford Review are known. If there is no longer a requirement to undertake statutory assessment and reporting using P scales then I envisage that STEP will develop into an assessment process based on a route-map similar to the concepts found in Routes for Learning that captures cognition and communication for those learners working at the very earliest stages of development. The STEP route-map will need to recognise an individual’s levels of engagement, monitor progress and take account of the idiosyncratic nature of learning of those with complex and severe learning needs not ready for subject specific learning. Preliminary work on this is being undertaken now to see how such a route-map might work.
There are many other issues that need to be considered; for example, the role of educational health care plans in this process of meeting the needs of this group of learners.
The school needs to continue to be involved in inquiry based research and actively seek partners to continue to drive forward improvement.
The school will continue to share its ideas and developments through local, regional and national training. Over the next months the school will speak at national conferences and provide national training events in association with Hirstwood Training as well as providing bespoke training for schools. The school will continue to welcome visits to discuss practice and will actively seek working with others to share expertise and practice.
I would like to express a big thank you to all those schools who have shared their practice and thoughts over the years. Such collaboration and sharing provided challenge to our practice and helped and continues to help drive improvement.
Deputy Principal at Fountaindale School
Steve Phillips and the team from Fountaindale School will be presenting at two of our forthcoming curriculum conferences –