Stephen Kilgour reflects on getting 'back to basics' in the way we approach observations and assessment.
Although you might not believe it, and 5 minutes on social media would certainly encourage you to think otherwise, there have been some positive developments in education over recent years. The two areas I am most invested in are Special Educational Needs and the Early Years. In both these fields of late there has been a concerted effort from the powers that be to move away from a data-centric model. Firstly, following the Rochford Review in 2016, P-scales are now no longer statutory when working with children with additional needs. As a Deputy Head teacher in a school for children with complex needs for 7 years, I had a responsibility for ‘assessment’. This time allowed me to become well versed in the significant benefits a shift away from progress scores can make. Ten years ago, if Ofsted were visiting a specialist school, they would have an unhealthy interest in a school’s data. There was a phase where a document called ‘Progression Guidance’ was introduced which told you exactly how much progress a child with complex learning needs should make over a given period of time. Obviously, it was in the best interests of schools to ensure that the vast majority of their pupils adhered to the guidance in terms of their progress. It was the ultimate example of a ’tick-list’ approach at its worst. Teachers were required to mark off statements from each P-Scale on the computer (with a presumption of linear progress – otherwise the data didn’t work!). This, unfortunately, even in an ‘Outstanding’ school led to bad classroom practice. It is completely unsurprising that it did so. Teachers are judged on the progress that their children make – the measure of this progress is what the computer says it is – so inevitably we teach towards targets that are not necessarily developmentally appropriate, and certainly not child-centred. Thankfully there has been a shift in inspections over the last couple of years, and Ofsted no longer wish to see this assessment data. This is hugely significant, and the best schools are embracing the newfound freedom. Unfortunately, where these systems were relied upon to patch up knowledge and skills, then the removal of these systems has led to a level of panic – and obviously there are now tens of alternative models for how to do assessment ‘right’! Who’s to say which is the best?!
The subject of guidance in the EYFS is a very topical issue right now. Although I have witnessed denial of it ever being a problem in recent weeks and months, many early years settings had fallen into a similar trap to their specialist counterparts. I know this from my time visiting nurseries in London as part of outreach work from my special school, and now as an advisor in the North East, visiting nurseries and schools, supporting them with children who have additional needs. I have heard many times ‘we need help with child x – we just can’t show any progress data for him’. One option in this scenario is to break each milestone down into ten tiny ‘targets’ – that way progress data can still be calculated and shown to whoever might want to see it (hopefully no one!). My preferred approach would be to get back to basics and consider developmentally how the child is currently achieving. For this particular child, what is the most important thing for them to learn next – and is it developmentally appropriate? Involving the family is key here. Can everyone involved with the child tell the story of the learning, and what they have done to enable it? If there has been no learning, then what are we going to do about it?
This would be my advice in a specialist setting or in the Early Years, but it relies heavily on practitioners having a sound understanding of typical child development. It would appear that documents such as Development Matters have been patching up gaps in training and knowledge for some time now. That is not to say that they can’t be incredibly useful as a guide for practitioners, but they should not replace high quality CPD that focuses on child development. How many new practitioners these days are pointed in the direction of books like ‘From Birth to Five Years’ by Mary Sheridan? If they’re not, why not? There is much to learn from the old NNEB qualification and the types of practice that were expected. The placement expectations for the training were also amazing.
I am a huge believer in progression in education, and improving what has gone before, especially if documents start being used in a way that they were never intended for. At the same time, it is crazy to think that we can’t learn from the past – exceptional learning took place before 2012/2008/…... If ever there was a time to consider the CPD needs of our practitioners, it is now. In my opinion it is the perfect time to get back to basics.
Edited by Jules