In October Earwig Academic invited Andrew Hackett, Policy Adviser at the Standards and Testing Agency, to meet an audience of headteachers and teachers to discuss the government’s response to the Rochford Review. Special World’s Sal McKeown went along.

In October of last year the Rochford Review — set up to look at assessment procedures for pupils working below the standard of national curriculum tests —published its final report. Twelve months on the Government has published its response.

For many of those working with children with special educational needs (SEN) who are working below the level of national standard test the big question was would the Government agree to scrapping P scales, as the Review recommended, and if it did, what would it put in their place.

P scales

To coincide with the TES SEN show held in London in October, Earwig Academic invited Andrew Hackett, Policy Adviser at the Standards and Testing Agency (STA), to meet teachers, headteachers and journalists to discuss the Government’s response.

Earwig develops recording and reporting software packages to help teachers collate evidence and assessment results and track pupil progress, so it was understandably keen to hear practitioners’ views.

Changes to any national assessment system are bound to be big news, but Rochford is especially important because it covers pupils of all ages from 5-19 who may be in mainstream schools or specialist settings and who cannot be assessed using the conventional National Curriculum tests because these start at too high a level for learners with complex needs.

In 1998 P scales were introduced to meet this purpose. There were eight levels — P1 to P3 to describe early learning and development before pupils begin to engage in subject-specific learning; P4 representing the entry point to subject-specific learning; and P5 to P8, which are subject-specific. By 2014, however, these were deemed by many — both schools and policy makers — to be no longer fit for purpose because of subsequent changes to the curriculum and assessment. But would a new system be any better?

Government response

The Government ran a three-month long consultation which closed in June of this year. Almost 600 responses were received from a range of stakeholders and representative organisations. Many of these were from organisations that ran their own consultations and therefore arguably their responses reflected the views of many more individuals.

Importantly, the Government consultation did not start by asking whether P scales should be scrapped, but if they were whether respondents thought any important information would be lost as a consequence. A small majority (55 per cent) of respondents said no.

Respondents were also asked whether they thought the interim pre-key stage standards introduced in 2015 and currently used for the statutory assessment of pupils who are not assessed using P scales but are working below the standard of the national curriculum tests were clear and easy to understand. Sixty-five per cent of respondents said they thought they were and 54 per cent also thought they supported and encouraged progression onto the statutory national curriculum tests.

On the basis of these responses the Government announced that it will scrap P scales for pupils engaged in subject-specific learning from the 2018 to 2019 academic year onwards and that it will ‘accept the recommendation that the interim pre-key stage standards are made permanent and extended to cover all pupils engaged in subject-specific learning’. In the meantime the Government will carry out a review of the interim pre-key stage standards and will produce a suite of supporting exemplification materials to be used alongside them once the final versions have been agreed.

Cognition and learning

Children with complex learning difficulties in mainstream schools are to be assessed in seven areas of responsiveness.

So what then for the future assessment of those pupils not engaged in subject-specific learning, i.e those working at P1 to P3?

In the main these are children with complex learning difficulties and disabilities and the Review recommended that schools should have a statutory duty to assess them against the seven areas of engagement for learning identified by the Complex Learning Difficulties and Disabilities (CLDD) research project, commissioned by the Department for Education and published in 2011. These seven areas are responsiveness; curiosity; discovery; anticipation; persistence; initiation; and investigation.

In the Government’s consultation just over half (54 per cent) of respondents agreed with this approach, whereas 40 per cent disagreed. Critics felt assessment needed to be wider, encompassing other factors such as communication and interaction, and social, emotional and mental health. Despite this almost two-thirds (64 per cent) thought that the seven areas of engagement provided the right model to be used in the statutory assessment of these pupils and that it would give parents and carers meaningful information about their child’s attainment and progress.

The Government tentatively supported this view. However, it said that while statutory assessment should primarily focus on the areas of cognition and learning this should not undermine provision in any other areas of need set out by the SEND Code of Practice:

As was emphasised by a number of consultation respondents, all of these areas are fundamentally important to pupil development and play a crucial role in promoting independence and quality of life. It is important that schools continue to monitor and support pupils’ development in all four areas to foster engagement with the world and to encourage autonomy.

In recognition of the reservations expressed by some respondents it also announced it would pilot this approach in the 2017 to 2018 academic year before deciding whether to implement it on a statutory basis:

This will mean that, if accepted following the pilot, changes would take effect from the 2019 to 2020 academic year onwards, following amendment to the relevant legislation. In the meantime, schools should continue to assess pupils not engaged in subject-specific learning using the P scales.

Assessment data

 As well as recommending the seven areas of engagement approach for assessing pupils not engaged in subject-specific learning, the Rochford Review recommended that schools should be free to assess these pupils in a way that best reflects their needs. This has led some critics to argue that the recommended model is too subjective and that it will not provide data that is comparable between schools.

Whether or not schools are granted this flexibility will obviously depend on the outcome of the pilot, but if they do then the Government’s response makes clear it would not expect to collect national data on these pupils as there would be no nationally consistent data to collect.

Not having nationally consistent data would not mean that schools’ accountability for this group of pupils would be any less’ the Government response insists, ‘it is simply the case that schools would be held to account in a way that was slightly different.

Schools would have to be able to evidence pupil attainment and progress through discussion, including with parents, governors, local authorities, Ofsted and regional schools commissioners. These discussions would cover the variety of ways in which pupils with the most severe or profound and multiple needs make progress and would be supported by a range of evidence that underpins teachers’ judgements about their pupils.

Until the pilot is completed and the recommended approach is agreed schools will therefore need to continue to report assessment outcomes using P scales for this group of pupils.


Help teachers to have a greater understanding of assessing pupils working below the standard of national curriculum tests.

The Rochford Review also recommended a series of measures to better equip teachers in assessing pupils not engaged in subject-specific learning, including improvements in initial teacher training (ITT) and continuing professional development (CPD), greater collaboration between special and mainstream schools, and the sharing of expertise and best practice. The Government not surprisingly supports these recommendations but does so through highlighting existing initiatives rather than promising anything new.

On funding, for example, it points to the Teaching and Leadership Innovation Fund although none of its existing programmes target the assessment of children working below national standard test level. The one concession to those who have argued that teachers will need more time and resources to collaborate in this way is a commitment to, ‘explore the training materials and additional support that could be offered to schools to help teachers to have a greater understanding of assessing pupils working below the standard of national curriculum tests.’

Little consensus

The divergent views reflected in the Government’s consultation were also to be heard at the briefing organised by Earwig. While some welcomed the end of P scales because they saw them as narrow and restrictive, others believed that these levels had the advantage of being widely understood across schools throughout the UK.

The big debates were around freedom and accountability.

Simon Yates, headteacher of Chailey Heritage School in Lewes, Sussex, welcomed the freedom the new approach promises. He believes that staff can produce a much more meaningful profile of a child with complex needs, reflecting the judgements of teachers and therapists if they are not forced into tick-box exercises. In his view, there is no point trying to compare his pupils with others in different schools who have contrastive needs. ‘An assessment system should focus on your pupils and your curriculum,’ he said.

However, teacher assessments always have at least an element of subjectivity and that is even more likely to be true if they are judging very small steps in progress, so it was not surprising that some teachers would have liked to see P scales updated and aligned to the new curriculum. There was a sense that schools could be cast adrift. Some schools had relied on commercial tracking and assessment packages such as PIVATS. Many felt that schools or authorities would create their own system which would then need to be moderated.

Dr Kim Taylor, headteacher at Spring Common Academy in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire reflected this view. She felt that the new system was controversial and that the Rochford Review had destabilised the special needs world:

For all their limitations, P levels offered a commonly understood language and narrative framework for discussing pupils’ achievements, so we had a way of having a dialogue with other schools. Now with so much uncertainty we have no common ground for discussion.

Whether the rift can be healed remains to be seen but it’s clear that headteachers will be keeping a close watch on the pilot when it gets underway next year.

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About Contributors

Sal McKeown is a freelance journalist and author of several books, most recently Brilliant Ideas for using ICT in the Inclusive Classroom. Prior to this she was a lecturer and in the special needs team at Becta, the UK’s former government agency for technology in education.

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