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The currency of assessment for learners with SEND

Written by: Alistair Crawford
7 min read

This article explores aspirations and meaningful outcomes beyond the school gates through the perspective of ‘experts by experience’.

… this problem of deficit framing is located within the wider societal issue of the meritocracy, life’s “sorting principle” which has narrowed what we perceive a “good life” to be and what is valued by schools and across society.

(Newmark and Rees, 2022, p. 13)

Newmark and Rees (2022) explore the challenges of meritocracy for learners with additional needs, identifying how narrow measures to assess progress and success will more than likely lead to an education system in which there are ‘winners and losers’. Sadly, for many learners with SEND (special educational needs and disability), they will fall into the latter category.

The Institute of Health Equity’s paper ‘A fair, supportive society’ (Rickard and Donkin, 2018) shares shocking statistics about long-term outcomes for young people with additional needs. Despite a disproportionate number of specialist schools achieving Ofsted’s highest rating, a future that includes little chance of meaningful employment, a significantly reduced life expectancy and a 50 per cent chance of suffering from chronic loneliness could be described as anything but ‘outstanding’. Even the government’s SEND and AP (alternative provision) improvement plan (DfE, 2023) states that outcomes for children with SEND are ‘poor’, yet practitioners across the country could share the most inspiring stories of students with additional needs making incredible progress every day… perhaps we value and are measuring the wrong things? 

An ongoing challenge for schools is to define what ambition and progress look like for students with very diverse and broad-ranging needs, while working within an accountability framework that seemingly steers towards certain types of progress in specific areas – namely English and maths. The pressure on students and teachers starts almost immediately, with EYFS (Early Years Foundation Stage) profiles and early learning goals, before quickly giving way to going for ‘greater depth’ in SATs and then aiming for 9s in GCSEs. 

This means that education can often feel like something of a short-term game, with the focus being on passing the the next test, getting a good set of results and making it through an upcoming Ofsted inspection. This ‘in the moment’ way of working moves away from looking towards longer-term success and can drive certain behaviours around curriculum and assessment that reinforce the status quo of meritocracy and a deficit model, limiting opportunities and aspiration for our most vulnerable learners. Finding a balance between a narrow curriculum that drives standards and offering a more rich and varied offer that equips students with a more holistic set of skills is a question debated long and hard in leadership meetings up and down the country. 

Many students with SEND are regularly required to engage with external interventions away from their peers, often in their weakest curriculum areas. Assessments for these learners regularly flag as ‘red’, not making age-related expectations (ARE) and working towards – the deficit language and narrative really begins to take hold. In conversation with Billy Ellerington, now an apprentice TA in the specialist school that he once attended, he described the challenges that he faced in mainstream secondary school: 

My Tourette’s and ADHD got me into trouble quite a bit in my mainstream secondary school. I found English and writing really hard so they made me do more and more of it, taking me out of things like PE, which I enjoyed and was good at. Focusing on the things I couldn’t do knocked my confidence and self esteem… I didn’t feel I’d ever succeed at anything.

Endless ‘booster sessions’ can stifle personal development, while an over-nurturing ‘life skills’ approach all too often puts a ceiling on academic progress and limits aspiration for students with SEND. The two are not mutually exclusive, and the best, most inclusive schools celebrate progress in social communication, independence and developing confidence in the same way as they would a 100 per cent score in a maths test. For some of the most vulnerable learners, physically making it into school and class that day might be outstanding progress.

For Sunningdale School in the North East, their vision is best encapsulated by the phrase ‘Be more…’ – that is, they want every child to ‘be more’ in whatever way is important to them. They might want to be more communicative; they may want to be more active; they could want to be more creative, be more engaged, be more happy, be more comfortable, be more flexible, be more resilient, be more sociable or any and all of the above at the same time. This will be different for every child.

Technology continues to develop at a rapid pace and supports great innovation in assessment practice across the education system. Bar charts, graphs and an obsession with ‘getting it down on paper’ have given way to more nuanced ways to record and celebrate unique learning journeys. Sunningdale use the Evidence for Learning (EfL) app to capture what motivates and engages students in all aspects of the curriculum. The library of mini video clips and photos support teachers and TAs to deep-dive and become experts for students with the most complex of needs. Practitioners and curriculum and assessment leads use evidence to shape provision and plan aspirational next steps in learning that are bespoke and appropriate to the individual learners. This is illustrated in the following quote:

At Sunningdale School, we have attempted to develop an approach where pupils are ipsatively assessed, based on a range of factors unique to them. Evidence for this assessment is varied and heavily moderated. Deep-dive pupil progress meetings are used to undertake detailed personalised judgements on how well pupils are progressing towards their goals. The effective use of EfL is central to this process.

(Waller, 2023)

Swiss Cottage School uses EfL to share learning and evidence with families. This is very much a collaborative approach to assessment, with parents taking photos and videos to capture their child’s learning in the home environment and out in the community, alongside teachers, TAs and multi-agency professionals sharing and celebrating progress and ‘wow moments’ across the school day. This depth of evidence across a range of settings builds a comprehensive and holistic picture of learning and progress, and the flow of information rightly places parents as co-pilots rather than passengers in their child’s learning journey. Swiss Cottage places genuine co-production and family voice at the heart of a child’s provision, building positive and trusting relationships between home and school. 

Many of our pupils are not able to go home at the end of the day and share their learning experiences through spoken language with their families. It was important for us to bring a renewed vision so that our formative assessment processes communicated small steps of learning frequently to the home, as it equipped class teams to reflect on learning design. The practitioner and family-led developments promote true ownership by the pupil of their celebrated steps of progress and co-defined next steps. The EHCP, curriculum framework, targets and EfL become a powerful tapestry for the pupil and their family to embrace. I love hearing parents and carers share how their child wants to view their learning journey at home with great pride.

(V Patel, 2024, in conversation)

Frank Wise School continues the learning conversation after students leave at 18, to help them to understand what worked well and best prepared students for positive, sustainable outcomes in their community. The Frank Wise Alumni provide the next generation of students with aspirational role models and play a key role in shaping provision that has a laser focus on the things that matter most and have currency beyond the school gates. As described my Simon Knight, co-headteacher at Frank Wise School:

In exploring the outcomes secured by students in later life, it became apparent that commercial accreditation was often having no impact and sometimes having a detrimental impact on further opportunities. As such, we have ceased all commercial accreditation and have put in place alternative ways of articulating student capability that is less equivocal and reflects more effectively the functional application of knowledge and skills in broader contexts than just school. This is with the intention that our communities see and act on the potential our students bring to them as organisations, rather than focusing on the differences and the barriers to participation.

Innovation and good practice in this space extends beyond the specialist sector, with many mainstream schools and multi-academy trusts developing assessment tools and systems to celebrate learning outside of traditional, core subject areas and recognising and valuing personal development and extra-curricular opportunities. Embark Federation and its 23 schools in Derbyshire have the ‘Embark Award’, which sees students engage in activities such as camping out, helping in the community, playing sports and learning to play a musical instrument. The more activities that students complete, the closer they get to their bronze, silver or gold award, which is presented in a glitzy end-of-year event. The Embark Award in many ways flips the narrative, in the sense that students with SEND who may struggle in some academic areas are achieving on a par or even surpassing their peers. Their bronze, silver or gold award holds at the very least equal value to a greater depth in reading.

Carpenter (2024) described the need in these challenging times for schools to be agile and responsive to the changing needs of students and to become ‘congregations of compassion’, reaffirming the notion of teaching as a relationship-based profession. There is clearly excellent practice across the education system that recognises that progress and success take many forms and can start with the tiniest of steps. If we can change our perspective to encompass slightly longer-term outcomes and engage learners and families with authentic lived experience, we can co-construct and reimagine assessment and meet students at their point of need. If we can recognise that learning journeys are unique and do not always follow a linear path, we can collectively challenge a deficit narrative and help to create an inclusive school system in which all students, regardless of their needs, can succeed, feel valued and ‘Be more’!

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    Author(s): Bill Lucas