Special school pupils ‘treated differently’, following the removal of standardised assessments

No national progress routes for children with severe or profound intellectual disabilities study shows

Following the recent withdrawal of standardised assessments, children with intellectual disabilities at special schools in the UK are again being treated differently to children at mainstream schools, says a new study from researchers at The Open University.

Published in Disability & Society, the peer-reviewed research shows there is currently no national progress levels for children with severe or profound intellectual disabilities – meaning teachers have no standardized way of tracking the development of students in both academic and non-academic learning areas.

As in many countries, the intellectual and academic progress of pupils at UK schools is assessed using standardised, nationwide tests given at specific ages (for primary school pupils in the UK, these tests are given at age seven and 11). But these tests are not suitable for pupils with severe intellectual disabilities being taught in special schools, as these pupils will be operating far below the levels being tested.

Because pupils with severe intellectual disabilities should still make progress over time, their progress needs to be assessed just like pupils in mainstream schools, both to determine what kind of continuing support they need and to show at what level a pupil is working if they change schools. Until recently, the progress of children with severe intellectual disabilities was determined via standardised assessments known as Pre-National Curriculum Performance Levels, or P-levels, which were specially designed for pupils working below the level of the standard tests and assessments.

In 2016, however, a review of P-levels concluded they were no longer fit for purpose because they were too restricted and limited to assess the complex difficulties associated with many children in special schools. This caused the UK government to discontinue P-levels for all but pupils with the most profound intellectual disabilities and instead ask special schools to develop their own assessment programmes.

According to lead researcher Elizabeth Smith, although this move did allow schools to tailor their assessments to the specific needs and abilities of their pupils, it has also created lots of problems and placed extra burdens on the schools. She and her colleagues argue that these downsides have not been properly considered.

“While some teachers welcome the chance to re-organise or design a new curriculum and associated assessments, many teachers are left perplexed and exasperated by the fact that they have no statutory guidelines or framework to work with and are expected to create their own,” says Smith.

“And if schools are creating their own assessments, how can they ensure these systems are not just viewpoints or opinions but are valid assessment frameworks grounded in theory? With each school creating their own assessments, it will also be difficult for them to know at what level a pupil joining from a different school is working at.”

Smith and her colleagues further argue that the abandonment of P-levels shows that special schools and their pupils are still viewed and treated very differently.

“This would never happen in mainstream schools, so why are special schoolteachers being left to cope with all this extra work without the time and resources to do so?” she says.

“Despite governments’ policies promoting equality amongst all children and the need for inclusion of all, children in special schools are again being treated as ‘other’.”

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1 Comment

  1. The Engagement Model is a step in the right direction for children who have Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities. The emphasis is on reflective pedagogy and an individual and personalised progression pathway. No child with PMLD can have their learning compared to another, and for some children maintaining their skills or supporting them as they lose skills is also part of the reality of their school life. For some children, they may not make what could be recognised by everyone as ‘progress’, but removing standardised expectations gives schools the freedom to capture their successes and celebrate each moment of engagement when it’s meaningful to them and their families. It means time can be taken to support their medical needs, postural needs, care needs and nurture needs with equal value and importance within their school day, because every moment is a learning opportunity if their individual learning is the focus. If they have a good quality, co-authored EHCP, working towards their own aspirational outcomes is what is important, rather than an arbitrary ‘thing’.

    The failure of the Gvt is that the P levels were removed several years before the Engagement Model was implemented, and it became statutory without proper training or implementation. There was DFE funded training that has materials and resources within, but I know very few teachers who have had access to this, (or who know it exists). Finally, Assessment Leads in a school are often not familiar with a Pre-Formal Curriculum or teaching children who have PMLD. The Engagement Model says to use it alongside existing assessment methods, which will also cause some schools to tag it on and add workload because they think that the local authority or Ofsted won’t understand the outcomes not having numbers next to them. Who is brave enough to have this conversation when the DFE haven’t?

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