How special schools can determine what constitutes progress for each pupil
As an education consultant, I work in a range of schools across the UK and I see a wide variety of practice relating to the area of “making progress”. I think it is obvious from parent views, teacher perspectives, Ofsted requirements and leadership quality assurance, that we should pay close attention to ensuring pupils make progress. My question, in every school I visit, is “but what does progress actually look like?”
With the removal of National Curriculum levels, this question is even more relevant. Schools have adopted a diverse range of approaches to measuring progress, including employing new systems and techniques, copying great practice from around the world, and instigating pupil-specific targets and tracking. My input as a consultant to the school is at least in part dictated by what specific method or approach a school has adopted. Understanding the system goes a long way to understanding the school, and therefore being able to recognise good practice and areas for development in teaching and learning at that particular setting.
Nowhere is this more relevant than in special education establishments and special schools.
In the special schools I have worked with, I have encountered a huge range of purchasable systems that track the following: behaviour, P-Level assessments, specific-element assessments (such as pupils’ responses to musical stimuli, motor skills, eye gazing recognition or personal skills), generic National Curriculum KPIs, and other systems that provide a variety of blends of each of the above.
The difficulty, I have discovered through countless conversations with teachers, leaders and support staff, is that the range of needs and abilities even within one class of one special school can be so diverse that “progress” can mean ten different things to one teacher. Some pupils have degenerative diseases that may mean “progress” for that individual is the same as standing still or even going backwards for another pupil in the same school. Some pupils have such difficulty with retention and recall of information that “progress” steps are almost imperceptible when compared to other pupils in the class or school.
Some pupils have singular areas of real academic strength, so even within their own pupil profile they may be dramatically exceeding expected progress in one area while in another area or subject they find it difficult to get even close to expected levels. For some pupils (and their parents), “progress” means non-academic results, such as tying their own laces, taking themselves to the toilet independently or eating without assistance.
Exacerbating this situation (although it is in part caused by it) is the distinct lack of specific training and support for special schools. While training does exist, it can at times be so generic that it doesn’t always address the particular needs of a school. This can be frustrating for headteachers and staff. This is in no way a criticism of individual training or support companies, but hopefully demonstrates the complexity of the situation and the difficulties that we all face with sometimes conflicting expectations and priorities.
What is the answer? Well, I’m afraid I don’t possess a magic wand for supporting special schools, but I would say this: the schools that I have worked with appreciate bespoke and tailored support, where providers have worked hard to understand the specific needs of the school, the pupils, the parents and the leaders. They appreciate an approach that acknowledges the difficulties and constraints outlined above. Most beneficial, in my experience, is a synthesised approach that utilises the best elements of good practice that are appropriate to the specific setting. Is this a formula for success? I’m afraid not. Is it a flexible way of supporting a school and helping them grow and develop? Definitely.
Adam Reed is Director of School Improvement at TT Education: