Assessing the progress of children with special needs is an increasingly important task for mainstream schools as the tide of inclusion brings more such children into their classrooms. Before the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) brought out the P scales in 2001, children with learning difficulties working below level 1 of the national curriculum could only be assessed as W - or "working towards" level 1.
"It was just W,W,W I " says Neena Lall, deputy head of St Stephen's primary school in Newham. "But we needed to be able to see the value-added for these children." Since 2001, St Stephen's has been using the P scales to assess around 2 per cent of its pupils, and staff, including teaching assistants, have found them very useful, she says.
The P scales break pre-level 1 attainment down into small steps, from P1 to P8, and are suited to children aged five to 16. In English, for instance, a child is assessed as P4 in listening if he or she can demonstrate an understanding of at least 50 words and respond to simple requests such as "Get your coat" or "Clap your hands". At P8 in listening, the child takes part in role play with confidence and responds appropriately to questions about why or how, such as "Why does a bird make a nest?"
"We can now see a child's progress within the P scales, and it is very clear to all the adults involved with that child exactly what the next step is," says Ms Lall.
Not all mainstream schools, however, have been so quick to grasp the P scales message. In 2004, the QCA commissioned a team to review the core subject P scales. One of the aims was to ensure that they were more widely used in mainstream schools.
"Most of the P scales are not very complicated, but people sometimes think they are," says Nick Peacey at the Institute of Education in London, who led the review. "I think it's partly the name: P scales sounds a bit obscure."
In a further attempt to boost take-up, the authority has now issued a DVD, Using the P scales. Some 15,000 schools - including many mainstream primaries - have requested copies, according to John Brown, the authority's adviser for inclusion. The DVD tries in particular to help schools understand the concept of best-fit - for instance, a child should be assessed as P5 if most, but not all, of his or her attainment falls within the P5 range.
It also encourages teachers to get involved in moderating the P levels, working either with teachers in their own school or from other schools.
"This can be a really good form of professional development," adds Nick Peacey.
Some teachers, John Brown acknowledges, have asked for an even more detailed breakdown of attainment than the P scales provide. The QCA suggests that schools can use other schemes, such as "B-squared" or "Pivats"(developed by Lancashire local education authority). St Stephen's primary, for instance, has found B-Squared, a commercial ICT-based scheme, a helpful adjunct.
As Melody Hadjipetrou, special need co-ordinator at St Stephen's, comments:
"All our special needs children make some progress, even if it's the tiniest step. And it is very important for parents, too, to see that there is progression."
The scales, John Brown emphasises, are not designed to help teachers assess whether or not a child has special educational needs - there are other schemes available for this purpose. One which is proving popular with mainstream schools is Snap (special needs assessment profile), a computer-aided diagnostic assessment which schools can carry out for themselves.
Snap, published by Hodder Murray, first appeared in 2003. "We wanted to get a swift overview of a child having difficulties," explains Charles Weedon, itsco-author and head of learning support at George Watson's college, Edinburgh. "We wanted to take everything that we knew about a child - including parents' views - and run it through a computer program to produce an overall picture."
Teachers and parents fill in a questionnaire about the child. The program then matches this data against checklists for 18 specific learning difficulties to produce a bar chart "which shows where the centre of gravity of a child's difficulties lies," explains Mr Weedon. If you click on the bars, they generate helpsheets with advice for both teachers and parents. Snap version two (now available) includes a new section on self-esteem, as well as advice on learning styles.
Stuart Lucas, head of support for learning at Loretto, an independent boarding school in Edinburgh, has used Snap with a few 13-year-olds. "We wanted to get more teacher-feedback on specific pupils," he says.
"Sometimes teachers keep things to themselves because they don't think they are pertinent - but when you put it all together, using Snap, you get some interesting information. The Snap recommendations are often good, basic things that need to be reinforced in the classroom. Snap is also a good way of touching base with the parents and getting them involved."