Archive for the ‘severe learning difficulties’ Category

Part of the National Curriculum Though the use of P Scales is still developing it may be true to say that no other country has such a useful and flexible tool for looking at the progress of children who progress slowly at early levels of learning.

Following the recent consultation, the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) is incorporating the P scales into the national curriculum. This is welcome it emphasises the continuity of learning.

Their inclusion in the National Curriculum means that schools must now use P scales to provide data to show the progress of pupils’ aged between 5 and 14 who are working below level 1 of the national curriculum

A framework on which we can observe early levels of learning. P scales were introduced as a framework for observing progress progress of individual pupils who progress very slowly by the 2001 QCA guidance booklets ‘Planning, teaching and assessing the curriculum for pupils with learning difficulties.’

They were written as broad flexible statements so that they could be related to as many aspects as possible of the enormous range of difficulties that affect different pupils, and be capable of being pertinent to the pupils of a very wide age range from 5 to 14 .

This flexibility is an important strength but it has also meant that schools and organisations have developed various approaches to their use . In addition different professionals use them for different purposes and there are various approaches to interpreting observations, using information. Different professionals and stakeholders will have different needs and interest in various uses of P scales

A dialogue for everybody from support assistant to secretary of state . Though their original use was to observe individual progress at an individual or class level. Gradually they have also become used to generate information to illustrate and measure progress of groups. It is clear that this information can help schools ask questions that stimulate school improvement. So it is important that there should be good practice in developing and using P scales both – as an assessment tool for individuals, that illustrates progress and supports planning –and as a basis for developing information about the progress of individuals and groups.

Hence it is important that all users are involved in a professional dialogue so that developments and uses take clear account of – and create clear understanding of, the strengths and limitations that are inherent in the flexibility of the broad P level descriptors, and the inherent importance of using and trusting professional knowledge and judgement that is an important element described in the original QCA advice in 2001 and re emphasised in Using P scales 2005.

Other pages in this blog give reference to useful information including the author’s interpretation of QCA Guidance.


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The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) guidelines 2001 state that there is a need to recognise different perspectives on progression for pupils whose special needs mean that they will progress very slowly throughout their whole school career and may still be working towards level one even during their Secondary or Post 16 years.

The guidelines discuss three aspects of progress:

  1. Vertical progress – is the characteristic nature of progress described in national curriculum programmes of study i.e. climbing the ladder of knowledge, as pupils successively develop more complex skills and conceptual understanding. It is typical of what we think of as measurable steps.
  2. Lateral progression – Is important to us all but often taken for granted. It relates to widening and consolidating knowledge and skills. Through experience pupils extend their abilities by generalising connecting and combining skills and concepts, developing abilities to see relationships apply them to different circumstances etcetera. Because it relates to generating a web of connections it is not easy to prescribe the order of learning and as such is more difficult to prescribe levels to create units of measurement.
  3. The Maintenance of abilities – is an important focus for teachers working with very special children who may have complex temporary difficulties or medical conditions that may lead to deterioration. Under such circumstances sustaining their functional and social abilities are an important contribution to maintaining the quality of their lives.

A Great Challenge

Pupils who face very significant barriers to learning cannot be expected to climb the vertical ladder of progress at the same rate as their more typical peers. They need opportunities to consolidate the knowledge and skills that they learn through experience of applying their learning in different contexts.

For this reason lateral progression is an important element of their progress and often represents great achievement which should be celebrated, and yet it is not shown in assessment data.
P scales are generally by their nature vertical and data drawn from them fails to reflect the progress of children who progress very slowly. However they are written as broad descriptions containing a number of elements rather than specific objectives, QCA guidelines suggest they should be used as a framework for best fit judgements incorporating professional knowledge of the learner, circumstances etc. As such they can give us a framework on which to view not only the levels through which individual pupil’s progress but also progress within levels.

The current situation offers special needs practitioners a challenge and an opportunity. Whilst data derived from the eight P levels is inadequate to represent detail of progress pupils make reporting on the extent of our pupils’ lateral progression within levels will give us the opportunity to illustrate the breadth of their learning and achievement.

Many special schools have well developed systems for illustrating positive developments of their children to parents. What does your school do to ensure that information about how much children have progressed by widening, consolidating and applying learning illustrates the extent of their achievements when data about vertical progress is inadequate to do so.

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The process of making assessments and talking to each other about levels, particularly around P levels 1 to 3 is made much easier if we think back to the wordings in the descriptions from which the P scales were developed.

The table reproduced below from page 27 of the “General guidelines” booklet of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) guidance series “Planning teaching and assessing the curriculum for pupils with learning difficulties” (order ref QCA/01/736 was part of the resources used in first developing P Levels.

It is still useful now for illustrating common sense interpretations.

It is worth noting that it was also a key element used in Ofsted training related to assessing the achievement and progress of pupils with profound learning difficulties.

Recognising Attainment
The framework below can help teachers recognise attainment levels below level 1 of the National Curriculum. It describes possible changes in individual pupils’ responses and behaviour as their early perception of experiences and their increasing involvement in the learning process develop into areas of knowledge, skills and understanding. The development of internal learning processes, for example, thinking skills, is shown by degrees of attention, discrimination and participation in experiences and activities.

A framework for recognising attainment
Encounter Pupils are present during an experience or activity without any obvious learning outcome, although for some pupils, for example, those who withold their attention or their presence from many situations, their willingness to tolerate a shared activity may, in itself, be significant.
Awareness Pupils appear to show awareness that something has happened and notice, fleetingly focus on or attend to object, event or person, for example, by briefly interrupting a pattern of self-absorbed movement or vocalisation.
Attention and
Pupils attend and begin to respond, often not consistently, to what is happening , for example, showing signs of surprise, enjoyment, frustration or dissatisfaction, demonstrating the beginning of an ability to distinguish between different people, objects, events and places.
Engagement Pupils show more consistent attention to, and can tell the difference between, specific events in their surroundings, for example, by focussed looking or listening; turning to locate objects, events or people; following moving objects and events through movements of their eyes, head or other body parts.
Participation Pupils engage in sharing, taking turns and the anticipation of familiar sequences of events, for example, by smiling, vocalising or showing other signs of excitement, although these responses may be supported by staff or other pupils.
Involvement Pupils actively strive to reach out, join in or comment in some way on the activity itself or on the actions or responses of the other pupils, for example, by making exploratory hand and arm movements, seeking eye contact with staff or other pupils, or by speaking, signing or gesturing.
Gaining skills
Pupils gain, strengthen or make general use of their skills, knowledge, concepts or understanding that relate to their experience of the curriculum, for example, they can recognise the features of an object and understand its relevance, significance and use.

Readers will note that the table begins by describing a level on which children may only be “encountering” experiences; they may show little response without any obvious learning outcome. This description may have resonance for staff working with a wide range of pupils who are extremely hard to reach – ranging across those who are slipping in and out of consciousness through the effects of epilepsy or medications, to others whose extreme autism leaves them unwilling to tolerate shared activities leading them to withdraw attention. Many young pupils will mature and generally move to higher levels of awareness but some pupils who are profoundly affected by their conditions may be prone to shift in and out of the encounter level throughout their lives.

A second level on the table describes the beginning of “awareness”, and that is followed by a level characterised by beginning to “attend and respond”. The table continues through small but significant steps that describe developing; “engagement – participation — involvement”; towards more sophisticated levels of “gaining skills and understanding”.

If one considers this table alongside P level descriptors for levels P 1 to P3 you can see the relationship. Between its wording and the words used in the performance descriptions.

  1. P1 ranges from “Encounter” through developing “awareness”; begining to “attend” and “respond”.
  2. P2 ranges from “Responding” more consistently – through developing the inclination to become “engaged” in joint activities learning to cooperate, communicate preferences and “participate” in exploration with support.
  3. P3 is characterised as pupils “Participate” with less support developing intentional and more conventional communication, “anticipating” initiating sustaining activities, beginning to be “deliberate” in their explorations and starting to show some understanding of actions.

The diagram below attempts to offer a visual representation of the levels which illustrates that the way the P scales recognise that there is no absolute or hard edge to levels. The wording supports a view that there is overlap and lateral progression within levels.

Beginning to be “responsive” in the sense observed by P1 descriptors is the beginning of working at P2 and “participation” beginning across the P2 range develops towards P3, the nature of our learners means they ebb and flow and we have to assess through observations over time making use of best fit judgements that use professional knowledge.


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Best Fit Judgements

For some learners, it may be appropriate to ignore elements of a descriptor to acknowledge the impact of particular impairments. When making best-fit judgements, staff will need to take account of:

  1. Pupils’ ages and prior attainments.
  2. The levels of support, modelling or prompting pupils receive.
  3. The effects of the barriers to learning experienced by pupils.

The examples of activities and responses in the P scales are illustrative rather than prescriptive. Staff can be confident that it is acceptable to look for alternative but equivalent learning.

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Best-fit judgements are based on:

  1. The teacher’s knowledge of the learner.
  2. An awareness of the contexts in which learning takes place’
  3. Consideration of a variety of different forms of evidence gathered over time.

Staff should not make judgements about levels on the basis of a single piece of work or any single item of evidence. However, pupils do not need to repeat responses that are regarded by staff as secure (by performing a given skill five times over, for example).

A pupil does not necessarily have to demonstrate every element in a level descriptor or demonstrate an element a certain number of times in order to be awarded a given level. Pupils do not need to demonstrate mastery of a certain percentage of the elements in a level descriptor. There is no need to create further sublevels or subdivisions within each
P level.

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Staff should use their professional judgement to decide which  P level descriptor offers the best fit for a pupil’s performance according to the evidence gathered.

Staff will need to work together to review their perspectives and decide whether a pupil’s performance, taken as a whole over a year or key stage, has been ‘more P5 than P4 or P6’.

Considering pupils’ work against elements of the levels above and below a proposed level is an effective way of clarifying a best-fit judgement. Staff should make best-fit judgements on the basis of normal, everyday teaching and learning processes.

There is no need for testing or setting up special assessment tasks or activities.

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P scales are progressive levels describing learning that leads to level one of National Curriculum subjects. They are intended for pupils with all kinds of special needs who are still working towards the National Curriculum across the age range from 5 to 16. P scales are related to National Curriculum progress and as such reflect that part of the whole child’s progress

They are of great use helping us reflect upon the steps that children with special needs make as they develop and extend the application of knowledge and skills. Such children often make progress in very small steps, or in idiosyncratic ways, following very individual paths. Consequently they often need their own individual objectives.

P scales are not a curriculum or preset objectives, or recommended or expected steps. They are intended to be broad framework to help teachers make professional judgements taking into account their knowledge of individuals and circumstances to reflect on the progress of a wide range of children.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) guidance states that whilst they provide useful information there are many considerations that must be taken into account when using aggregated data derived from P scale assessments.
In 2005 QCA produced further guidance ‘Using P Scales’ which reaffirmed many important messages about the use of P scales including.

  1. P scales were a useful framework to support observations and assessments over time – making best fit judgements
  2. They are a framework that outlines attainment and helps track linear and lateral progress.

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