ADLZ Insight
Challenging perspectives on Special Educational Needs & Disability

ADLZ Insight Blog

Challenging perspectives on Special Educational Needs & Disability

Rochford: is this the secret garden of special schools?

In a world which we are finally recognising to be diverse and individual, such linear, normative language as “below the standard” is unhelpful, unimaginative and out of touch.

One of my earliest experiences in SEND was being invited to Rutherford, a special school in Croydon, whose Headteacher then was the wonderful Pearl Netley. A passionate, wily leader who’d seen it all and had wisdom to spare, Pearl was awarded the Ernie Parker Trophy by Croydon Lions for outstanding service to the community. She could have won that trophy daily. She showed me around “Rutherfords”, as it was known in the community, and we stopped to watch a little boy who was deaf, blind and, she suspected, autistic. Wrapped in tin foil, he rolled himself from side to side on a mat. Standing next to Pearl, I thought of my own baby boy, his elbows cracked with eczema, an anxious frown permanently on his face. I wondered why I fussed about him, why I didn’t just celebrate every look he gave me, every sound he made. A year later, my boy got himself jammed in the bathroom while my father was babysitting. A fireman had to take the door off its hinges so the poor child could toddle out to his "Papa". Being jammed in a bathroom at the age of two is frightening but it's not the same as being trapped. To be trapped is, for example, to have no speech, no sound, no sight. Pearl Netley’s mission at Rutherford, as it is for all teachers of children with profound needs, was to take as many doors off their hinges as she could, (metaphorically, of course) to provide her pupils with ways into the world.

Rutherford was founded by members of the Spastics Society, midway between the end of the Second World War and the UN's long-awaited Declaration of the Rights of the Child in 1959. The ‘50s were difficult but transformative years and we easily forget the challenges endured by a generation of visionaries, including a young Pearl Netley. Thirty years passed before the children of Rutherford would enjoy protection of their rights in law and their parents, the right to appeal where that protection failed. Only then could Rutherford be registered as a Special Needs School.

Earlier this year, I approached the Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield OBE, to consider whether those rights were gradually being eroded. I was prompted by the publication of the Rochford Review Interim Recommendations. Diane Rochford's expert panel was convened last year to address the fate of P-Scales in the post-apocalypse known as “Life After Levels”:

“The government is keen that all these pupils have an opportunity to demonstrate what they have achieved at school and that their parents receive meaningful information about how well their children are doing compared to their peers and how much progress they are making over time. It is also important that schools are held to account for ensuring these pupils make progress so that schools receive credit for the good work they do and support can be put in place where improvement is required.

Interim Recommendations of the Rochford Review, pg 4

By whom, and to whom, schools should be “held to account” was unclear, certainly to the reader and perhaps to the members of Diane Rochford’s expert group. It was further muddied by the group’s interim recommendations regarding Key Stage tests, including an exemption for pupils who were:

 “Working at standard of tests, but cannot access tests due to SEND, even with modification / access arrangements.”

It’s a contention of mine that Access Arrangements which do not enable a child to have access are probably not Access Arrangements. Another is that statutory tests which are inaccessible to children only because of their disability are unlawful, by virtue of the Equality Act. Through the kind intervention of Anne Longfield, who responded with great integrity, I was invited to meet with Catherine Wreyford, Head of Assessment Policy at the DfE. It was a faltering, fruitless conversation, for which I don’t blame Ms Wreyford. My suspicion was that we would arrive at a statutory framework of assessment which excluded some children simply because the tests were inaccessible. Ms Wreyford countered that the Rochford Review was committed to an inclusive approach to assessment as far as was appropriate given the problems of statistical validity. I left without profit, but for a minor concession: Ms Wreyford offered to take back to her colleagues my request that the word “below” (as in “below the standard of the test”) should be replaced with something less pejorative. Sadly, the phrase “below the standard” appears 40 times in Rochford's Final Report: it's even in the subtitle. In a world which we are finally recognising to be diverse and individual, such linear, normative language as “below the standard” is unhelpful, unimaginative and out of touch. It robs children of their worth and devalues what teachers do. Thinking of Pearl’s boy rolling in foil, there is no scale which can place him “below” my own little boy who went on to graduate in Classics. They were each learning through their senses and communicating with the world. Don’t give me “below”, ever.

“Our aim should be an education system which permits a harmony between the symbolic and material worlds of learners…”

Jocey Quinn, Learning Communities and Imagined Social Capital, Continuum, 2010

My letter to Anne Longfield quoted several Articles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, including:

“Article 13 (1). The child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child’s choice.”
“Article 28 (1). States Parties recognize the right of the child to education, and with a view to achieving this right progressively and on the basis of equal opportunity, they shall, in particular: (a) Make primary education compulsory and available free to all…”

Is it not the case, as I argued to the Commissioner, that the decision to instigate statutory tests which were not made accessible to all children denied the rights enshrined in these Articles? (At this point, ought we not also to consider again the decisions which have recently been made by Ofqual to fetter the participation of students with SEND in GCSEs?)

I return to the question of accountability, from this starting point...

“In-school assessment serves a different purpose to statutory assessment. Its primary function is to support teaching and to help inform a shared understanding between teacher and pupil of what the pupil knows, and understands, where any gaps lie and what the pupil needs to do to progress.”

Interim Recommendations of the Rochford Review, pg 10

... to this, in the Final Report:

“The majority of assessment carried out in schools is non-statutory. Statutory assessment is important to provide information about pupils’ attainment and progress at key points in their education, but only forms part of the wider assessments that teachers make on an ongoing basis. The focus of the Rochford Review is on statutory assessment at the end of key stages 1 and 2 in primary education."

Rochford Review: Final Report pg 5

Rochford sweeps away the apparatus of statutory tests and P-Scales:

“I strongly believe that assessment arrangements should work for all pupils, whatever their needs or circumstances… Progress in all forms should be recognised and valued… Too often, assessment for these pupils has been too narrow. Existing arrangements for assessing pupils have come to be used as a curriculum, restricting the kind of creativity and innovation that should be used to engage these pupils and to tailor teaching and learning to their unique needs.”

Diane Rochford, Foreword to the Rochford Review: Final Report

So what are – and what are not – the uses of assessment?

“we have been keenly aware of the need to make appropriate links between current assessment arrangements and fulfilling the ambitious aims of wider SEND legislation… Existing arrangements for assessing pupils have come to be used as a curriculum, restricting the kind of creativity and innovation that should be used to engage these pupils… Assessment arrangements must reflect the unique needs and progress of individual pupils to ensure that those who work with them are judged fairly for the results they achieve.” [ibid]

From this, we understand that assessment will be of both the learner and the teacher, simultaneously; in addition, it will be used to enforce the “wider SEND legislation”. More than that, the Report extends its reach to include:

“assessing pupils who are facing challenges such as disadvantage, English as an Additional Language (EAL)…”

The Rochford Review: Final Report, pg 5

To borrow from popular culture, we’re going to need a bigger boat. What kind of assessment can do all these things? What kind of accountability is this, exactly, and for whom?

Rochford recommends that there should be statutory assessment of cognition and learning for all pupils who are not engaged in subject-specific learning. Around that basic premise, Rochford draws upon the SSAT Complex Learning Disabilities and Difficulties research project sponsored by the DfE during the period of the last Labour government and the coalition which replaced it. The project was led by Professor Barry Carpenter OBE and identified 7 areas of engagement for learning, now adopted in Rochford's Recommendation 4:

  • Responsiveness
  • Curiosity
  • Discovery
  • Anticipation
  • Persistence
  • Initiation
  • Investigation

Further development is proposed of the pre-Key Stage assessment set out in the Interim report, as a bridge between the 7 areas of engagement and the Key Stage statutory tests. I’m not going to pretend this is a simple challenge for schools, nor that I offered anything more straightforward when I spoke with Catherine Wreyford. The CLDD project was a major piece of work, engaging with a huge number of teachers in mainstream and special sectors. I think it’s right to build on SSAT’s research. But I raise again the question: accountable how, and to whom?

“Creating a statutory duty to assess those pupils who are not yet engaged in subject-specific learning against the 7 areas of engagement will hold schools to account for ensuring that they monitor and support the cognitive development and learning of pupils with severe or profound and multiple learning difficulties.”

The Rochford Review: Final Report, pg 19

There are no milestones, no thresholds: Recommendation 5 makes that clear. Schools are free to decide which children should be assessed by the 7 areas of engagement and how these will be applied. Can you feel an elephant lumbering into the room? Only 16% of survey respondents thought they would need any guidance on this: 84% are good to go, apparently.

“Where possible, the Rochford Review would like to see work of this nature take account of the need to develop good practice in assessing pupils with SEND and pupils working below the standard of national curriculum tests for other reasons, including disadvantage and EAL.”

The Rochford Review: Final Report, pg 23

“Where possible”? This year alone, around 10,000 children with Education, Health and Care Plans did not achieve the Expected Standard in Key Stage 1 tests, quite apart from those with EAL and those traumatised, for example, in war zones. Training is needed to equip teachers across both sectors to make assessment decisions for these children and I would suggest it should be available to more than the 1-in-6 teachers who self-identified.

Recommendation 9 argues justifiably that standardised reporting to the DfE of non-standardised assessment is implausible. I agree and, frankly, I’m certain the DfE welcomes the recommendation that there should be no central collection of data covering the 7 areas of engagement. But how will the DfE respond if/when, a few years from now, we find that 10,000 children outside statutory assessment quickly became 15 or 20,000? How, then, will they protect the floor standards? It couldn’t happen? Think back, not very far, to the gaming of ‘Contextual Value Added’... Ofsted’s 2010 report, “A Statement Is Not Enough”, suggested that half of pupils recorded as having SEND were misdiagnosed. The claim was exaggerated but not invented. What followed was massive, turbulent reform of the SEND system at a cost to the nation of almost half a billion pounds and, by unhappy coincidence, due for review in Parliament around the same time (March 2017) that the Rochford recommendations need to be signed off. We are in grave danger of repeating the mistakes of the very recent past.

But it’s the present on which government is always focused; and in its present mood, the Department for Education is fending off, de-regulating and devolving at will. Waiving statutory duties on child protection today, unburdening itself of school oversight tomorrow… Perhaps by default rather than design, the DfE will distance itself from the learning of our most vulnerable children.

“The review further recommends that schools support this work by actively engaging in quality assurance through mechanisms such as school governance and peer review. This will provide appropriate scrutiny and help to support a growing body of evidence and shared understanding of good practice in assessment.”

The Rochford Review: Final Report, pg 25

So all schools will choose how to assess children with profound needs in the primary phase, whether by the 7 areas of engagement, the pre-Key Stage framework or Statutory Tests. They will first need to decide which children have such needs, for which purpose there are no precise definitions. Quality assurance of schools' own assessments will be delivered by schools' governors and peers alone.  We will, perhaps, have entered another secret garden.

"It is almost as though some people would wish that the subject matter and purpose of education should not have public attention focused on it: nor that profane hands should be allowed to touch it."

James Callaghan, speech at Ruskin College, Oxford, October 1976