P scales: constraint or opportunity?


The advantages and potential pitfalls of using P scales to assess those with SEN

I work at a school catering for young people with profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD) and complex health needs. We use P scales in the context of a student-centred, personalised curriculum in order to show achievement and progress.

P scales are performance level indicators: they are a set of descriptions for recording the achievement of students with SEN who are working towards the National Curriculum (NC) Level 1. They were introduced in 1998 and provided the first comparative assessment tool for SEN children not yet working at NC Level 1, or whose SEN prevented them from fulfilling certain Level 1 criteria.

The eight different P levels, with the first three levels subdivided, provide a common language to describe children in different settings. The first three P levels are not subject-specific as they relate to general development. These three levels broadly indicate an increasing involvement that students have with their surroundings or people. They assess by observing a student’s responses and the levels are given by meeting various criteria which range from “encountering” to “showing preferences” via such levels as “emerging awareness”. Later P scales, from P Levels 4 to 8, reflect a gain in skills in specific subject areas.

Using a communication device to say “goodbye”.P scales in action

Pre 1998, when students were working below NC Level 1, it was frustrating to only be able to write “working towards NC Level 1” as a descriptor. With the advent of P scales, to have subdivided levels to indicate performance was a huge step forward. These basic levels are sufficiently specific to evidence progress in students who have developmental delay rather than a more limited developmental potential.

However, working with PMLD students, often with complex health needs, it is clear that using P scales alone is not giving us the evidence to demonstrate to ourselves, or Ofsted, that our students are achieving and showing progress. Moreover, the nature of the disabilities of some of our students, those with life-limiting conditions, in reality means that to plateau in their achievements is to progress, since their health is decreasing and their disabilities are increasing. Our dilemma is how to record progress that is based on P scales but can allow us to show the very small steps of progress that our students, with support, can make. There are various systems commercially available that sub-divide the P scales so that each level, or sub-level, is broken down into various steps, ranging from 5 steps per P level/sublevel to a checklist of around 20 or so performance indicators which will give a percentage achievement for that P level/sublevel.

The danger is that these statements can become a sub-curriculum in themselves in order to show student progress. We have found that a balance of various methods works best for our students: all our methods are based on P levels but have a different focus. For our students, comfort is a priority (a student whose posture is not well-managed will not be able to focus and access the curriculum), very closely followed by communication and cognition. We find the cognition and communication route map to be invaluable for target-setting and for giving a clear overview of where our students working within P Levels 1 to 3 are focusing. Linked with this, we use an augmentative alternative communication assessment which has been developed by a group of speech and language therapists and links communication with P levels up to and including P Level 5. It takes account of the augmentative communication devices which many of our students use – either high tech or low tech.

For each student, we have a multi-disciplinary assessment framework which covers all aspects of each student’s individual development, from cognitive, through communication and physical and social. We link this into P levels for students working between P Levels 1 to 3, so that we can record progress in this format as well as through our assessment software – a recent investment. This software can record these subdivided P levels and the numerical results can be fed into more software to give us a national comparison; this national comparison sounds ideal except that most of our students have multisensory and physical impairment and there are insufficient categories on the recording system of the software to document each of every student’s disabilities. Consequently, we find ourselves having to label only what we consider to be their most impacting disabilities. How can we decide, for example, whether visual impairment is more disabling than hearing impairment, or whether autism is more disabling than physical disability?

How successful are P scales?

Using a variety of assessment criteria, which are based on P levels, helps us to retain a broad curriculum and focus on each student’s individual needs rather than looking at the checklist as to where to go next.

As for P levels providing constraint or opportunity, the reality of assessing the performance of our students is that they can dip in and out of more than one level in different areas, or even, depending on health issues, in the same area at different times. A particular problem that we need to overcome is that our students have physical and sensory impairment and for such students an assessment of their cognitive ability can be affected by their physical ability: it’s hard to assess, for example, an understanding of number when a student is working on a reliable “yes” or “no” response. The further constraint of the P levels in needing to place a student into the level of “emerging awareness” or “attention and response”, for example, can be misleading if we are not able to qualify judgements by saying that “on a good day, this student can focus and respond to their environment. On other days they function at an emerging awareness level, perhaps when recovering from seizure activity or following ill health episodes.”

However, there is real opportunity, in using the P levels, in considering how we can show progress through a broadening of the curriculum and using an effective recording method. For example, a student can be recorded as providing an appropriate “hello” response during a “hello” session in class. We can then look at context and broaden that response to an appropriate use of “hello” in other contexts. So we do have the opportunity to show real progress within a P level, using a personalised curriculum and blue sky thinking, and through constructing our curriculum so that it enables our students to interact and communicate with a wide range of people. The only difficulty here is how to evidence this sort of progress, within a P level, so that the onlooker can see each student’s progress at a glance.

The next stage for us is to extend our checklist to allow for assessing within differing contexts; this is another opportunity created through working within the P Scales and striving for the most effective, student-centred, curriculum for each of our students.

Further information

Petrina Lodge is Head of Education at Meldreth Manor School, part of the disability charity Scope:

Petrina Lodge
Author: Petrina Lodge

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