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Updated: Apr 20, 2020

When I think of the new assessment system introduced in 2015-16, I am reminded of the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel. At the beginning of the story, all the peoples of the world speak the same language. They decide to build a tower to reach heaven. When the Tower reaches too high, God confounds the people so that they all speak different languages. They start to fight, the tower collapses and they never reach heaven. I fear that this is what is happening in special needs education.

To provide effective provision for those with special educational needs, we need to understand their needs and how best to support them to learn. To do so schools and teachers need to speak a common language. Despite its many faults, the old system of national curriculum levels and P scales provided this. When a child was not reaching age expectations, we had an agreed language to describe by how much and their rate of progress. The new assessment system, combined with the government’s confusion over summative and formative assessment, is destroying that.

The language of levels was far from perfect, but it gave us common thresholds that could be used throughout a child’s school career. The new system focuses on summative assessment based on age expectations and not yet tested or agreed assessments at 7 and 11, and probably other points to come. Moreover, the language to describe attainment seems to vary from school to school- secure, exceeded, emerging, expected, embedded, above, below, beginning, entering, etc. This is then combined with numerical systems, some going from 1 to 3, some 0 to 7 and almost any combination in between. In some systems 1 is high and in some 1 is low. These numbers are then subdivided with letters, decimal points, addition signs or stars. It is confusing and even worse than the Tower of Babel as some of the vocabulary is the same, but used to mean different things.

From this utter mess, we are supposed to be able to describe the progress and attainment of children. This is a problem for all children, but it is far more damaging for those with SEN. A school can describe a child as having special needs and say that they are working below age expectations. The Code of Practice (January 2015, pages 15-16) tells us “A child of compulsory school age or a young person has a learning difficulty or disability, if he or she has a significantly greater difficulty in learning than the majority of others of the same age,” so this is almost the definition of special educational needs. But what does this mean? How do we measure progress? How do we make appropriate provision for the child concerned?

It is commonly accepted, though not always admitted, that different schools have different thresholds for what is SEN. Working below age expectation is a very broad description. It might mean the child is working just below and needs a quick boost, good quality first teaching or a focused intervention or they may be years behind with little hope of ever functioning at the same level as their peers or anywhere in between. This confusion is going to be exacerbated when there is no common language to describe attainment or progress. The language of ‘not met age expectations’ seem to be developing as one blanket description to cover a wide range of situations.

When schools seek the support of outside agencies with their pupils, it is very hard to identify who needs additional support and who does not, when there is no common language to describe the child. When we submit EHCP paperwork, there is lots of talk of personalised outcomes. But it very difficult to compare these and reach the common ground needed for fair comparison when each outcome is described using different language.

Further, when the focus is has a child met expectation or not, it can be very hard to consider and identify what the child can do. We need a system which focuses on progress and what children can do. But for that to be workable the conversations about learning needs to be held in a shared language where the meaning of key vocabulary is shared, explicit and objective.

Without such a language, we are going to drown in tens of thousands personalised outcomes each written in a different language. To identify who needs additional support and funding, who should access what provision, whose needs is greatest is going to become unworkable. It will become a matter of who demands most, who has the ability and strength to manipulate the system. Inevitably, this will lead to certain children, not necessarily the most needy, doing better out of the SEN system than others. Like the Tower of Babel, without a common language, the system will collapse based on misunderstanding and mistrust leading to individuals’ needs becoming lost in the system.

There should be hope. Hope that teachers will work together professionally to develop a common language to describe children and their special needs. But this will require real working together, ongoing moderation, visiting different settings to develop shared understanding, language and values through the knowledge of what others are working with and how. This will require putting the good of all children, ahead of the children you are working with, know best and are emotionally invested in- a very big ask.

It is an even bigger ask in a world of increasing competition, division and politicisation in education. Schools are constantly being measured against each other. Measured by numbers based solely on summative assessment- how many did or did not meet age expectations. Summative assessment that does not measure progress, but the passing of thresholds. I fear that the high stakes for schools and their leaders required to meet these thresholds may lead to an abandonment of those who cannot meet the age expectations.

Unless we made real efforts to talk in a common language, children with the greatest needs are those who will suffer most in the process. Without a common language to describe children, their learning, progress and needs are we, like the builders of the Tower of Babel, heading for division and collapse?

Posted in: Special needs

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