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Updated: Apr 20, 2020

Education and teaching are all about enabling children to reach their potential. It is key to have high expectations of all. This is even more true in special needs education, where we have to identify and celebrate every small step of progress. But increasingly in a world dominated by data, OFSTED and floor targets, we are losing sight of those small steps and what we need to identify to assess children’s progress.

We live with continual data tracking, often to the point where we have no time to teach anything between each round of formal assessment. Now we enter a ‘world without levels’. A world where children ‘exceed’, ‘meet’ or ‘do not meet’ age expectations. For many children with special needs, they will not meet age expectations. That is one of the reasons, they have been identified as having special needs. However, the step in the minds of children, parents and teachers from ‘not met age expectations’ to ‘failure’ is frighteningly small, while the impact of this on a child’s self-esteem and the mind-set of the adults around them is huge.

But what are we measuring? Academic achievement? Is high academic achievement the appropriate measure for all children to identify their success and progress? The clear answer is no. And despite the government’s demands (and mathematical nonsense) that all children should be above average, this is not what wider society wants or needs. So what should we be assessing?

A child is more than a number, more than the categories of ‘met’ or ‘not met’ expectations. But in setting these clear lines for measurement of success we lose sight of so much. We are losing our ability to see and appreciate the whole child, their talents and the impact of their wider lives. All this was epitomised for me by a moment during our Year 6 leavers’ show. Dave was standing by the side of the stage as his classmates performed ‘The Pirates of the Curried Bean’.  Unusually, he was looking forward, not down. Then he began to dance alongside the others, but at floor level, hidden from much of the audience. Then there was a magic moment. Dave stepped up onto the stage and danced, smiling, alongside his classmates. All the staff blinked backed tears.

Dave has met age expectations. He is ‘a success’. But this does not tell the whole story. It does not explain the journey. Dave has a diagnosis of ASD. He struggles with noise, crowds, transitions, taking risks, making mistakes, the bustle of moving around the school and a myriad of other things. He hates being different from others, yet he cannot cope with or understand the world in the same way as them. He spent much of the last school year in tears, meltdown and a constant state of high anxiety. He was coaxed into each lesson by his amazing Learning Support Assistant and spent much of each break in his safe haven, building up his mental strength to tackle the next lesson. This year he is attending a special school. Yet he spent his primary career, within a specialist unit, in a mainstream primary school, part of the overall data recorded for that school. Dave’s academic success required a superhuman effort which ‘met age expectations’ does not describe. It was dependent on the expertise, patience and commitment of our Special Needs Unit staff. The emphasis on hard data, headlines and summative assessment misses both the large and small achievements of children, particularly those like Dave.

Yes, his SATs results showed achievement, but how much more of an achievement was his confidence to dance. How do we measure that? How do we persuade OFSTED to recognise it as evidence of progress and achievement? We need to move away from floor targets to something more holistic. As The Prisoner famously said in 1967, many years before Dave was born, “I am not a number, I am a free man.” We need to ensure that our assessments reflect our children are more than numbers and not all their progress can be described by numbers.

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