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Philippa Stobbs looks at how well an afterthought to 1980’s education reforms are serving those working below National Curriculum levels

Back before the passage of the Education Reform Act in 1988, when the National Curriculum (NC) was a twinkle in the eye of the then Education Secretary Kenneth Baker, we were not as focused as we are now on the attainment and progress of children with SEN. Ministers did not take into account children with SEN as they should have done, and we did not make them. Collectively, we failed to make sure that the new NC included all pupils, even though it was an entitlement for all children.

The NC sets out what should be taught and what children should learn. In effect, it defines our priorities for children’s education. Accompanying the Curriculum are sets of descriptions, outlining what knowledge, skills and understanding children are expected to demonstrate at different levels and in different subjects. 

Teachers working with children with complex needs found that the NC level descriptions started at too high a level for their children, so, as an afterthought, the P-scales were invented to sit below Level 1 of the NC. The P scales do not constitute a curriculum; they are level descriptions that can be used to assess progress in the curriculum. They provide a ladder into the NC level descriptions for children who have not yet reached level 1 in their learning. 

The “P” stands for performance; the different scales, or levels, provide broad descriptions of performance. There are eight levels within the P scales; levels 4 to 8 lead into the relevant subject descriptors in Level 1 of the NC. Levels 1 to 3 are more developmental and are not subject specific.

P levels 1 to 3 are each divided into two sub-levels – for example, P1(i) and P1(ii). This subdivision was a development, following a review of the P scales, and was intended to provide smaller steps in learning at earlier stages of development.

For children who are working below their peers, the P scales are important indicators of where children are in their learning. Knowing where they are provides pointers for the next steps in learning and so provides the basis for setting targets and for describing and measuring progress. Where children are learning more slowly than their peers, it becomes particularly important for parents, teachers and learners themselves to be able to recognise and celebrate progress. Having a shared framework for talking about this can be an important factor in working towards a coherent and more consistent approach between home and school; it can support a joint approach to agreeing priorities and setting targets in learning. Performance descriptors are broad indicators; it is the teacher’s professional judgment that determines which descriptor offers the best fit to each child’s knowledge, skills and understanding, and therefore where a child is placed on the P scales. Where teachers’ judgments are moderated, the judgments become more reliable; teachers can review their decisions and children get a more accurate judgment, enabling better targeting for their programme of work. Moderation brings teachers together to discuss teaching and learning and, wherever that happens, there is sharing of ideas and good practice. Teachers often come to a new understanding of their own practice through this reflective process; reflective teachers tend to be good teachers. 

Teacher’s professional judgments determine where a child is placed on the P scales.P scales in action

Here is an example of how writing is reflected at different P levels and at Level 1 of the NC:
At P4: Pupils show they understand that marks and symbols convey meaning. They make marks or symbols in their preferred mode of communication.
At P8: Pupils show awareness that writing can have a range of purposes. They show understanding of how text is arranged on the page. They write or use their preferred mode of communication to set down their names with appropriate use of upper- and lower-case letters or appropriate symbols.
At Level 1 of the NC: Pupils' writing communicates meaning through simple words and phrases. In their reading or their writing, pupils begin to show awareness of how full stops are used. Letters are usually clearly shaped and correctly orientated.

The P scales are not perfect; they are not scientifically devised but they provide a map of children’s learning, reflecting the order in which, for most children, skills, knowledge and understanding seem to develop. It should not be assumed that all children will learn and progress in the same way. The overall shape of the P scales has evolved over time and through a number of revisions, informed by teachers’ experiences of children’s learning.

Since September 2007, when the P scales became a part of the statutory NC arrangements, the collection of P level data has been compulsory. This data collection has started to give us a national picture of how many children are on the P scales:

  • at the end of Key Stage 1, at the age of seven, about 25,000, or four or five per cent of children are on one or more of the P scales. Many of these children will be on the P scales for just one element – for example, in English it might be for writing. With the majority of children expected to be at Level 2 at the end of Key Stage 1, children on one P scale in one element of English may not be that far behind their peers
  • at the age of 11, the percentage of children on one or more P scale has fallen to about 0.4 or 0.5 per cent
  • by the age of seven, fewer than a thousand children are on the lower P scales in all subjects – a tiny proportion of children, between 0.15 and 0.20 per cent
  • by the age of 11, the number of children on the lower P scales in English, maths and science has dropped to about 300 children or just 0.05 per cent
  • in Key Stages 3 and 4, not many of the children on the lower P levels at the age of 11 are likely to move off these levels.

Using P scales

Though the P scales are used for a very small percentage of children, particularly once we get beyond Key Stage 1, they perform an important function. They are used in target-setting and tracking of progress. They can provide valuable feedback on different approaches to teaching and learning. By sharing targets and evidence of progress, P scales can increase ambition and improve outcomes for children with SEN; they can also support a coordinated approach between home and school.

Wider policy developments may reduce the availability and relevance of the P-scales in the future: firstly, academies and free schools can opt out of the NC altogether and this may mean reduced use of the P scales; secondly, the Department for Education has proposed the removal of level descriptions from the NC at KS2. It is not yet clear what means of assessment would be developed in their place or whether the P scales might be left as the only level descriptions in the assessment framework. How inclusive would this be? It would be good to think that, if we did have a new system for assessing children’s progress, it would be inclusive of all children from the start. Is this hopeless idealism or have we learnt something since 1988? 

Further information

Philippa Stobbs is Assistant Director of the Council for Disabled Children:
www.councilfordisabledchildren.org.uk

Comments   

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#1 Ian Penfold 2013-08-31 16:42
P scales support our pupils very well and allow teachers to use the system to fit the children rather than expecting the children to conform to a standard for all. What Academies and Free Schools choose to do is of no consequence to the kids benefitting from P scales and should not be seen as a reason to do away with them because others are making it up as they go along. Lastly please don't fall for the 'there will be another one along in a minute' approach, change needs careful planning so don't throw away something that works well unless you can prove that you have something substantially better to replace it with. Do we need them, yes we do.

Ian Penfold, Special School Governor and Parent of a young man with complex learning difficulties and Autism.
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