Seven-year-old Archie can say “yes” by twitching his right wrist.
He is fully aware of all that is spoken around him, yet because of a range of complex medical and physical needs, including infantile pompe syndrome, he is almost completely paralysed or “locked in.”
You might think, therefore, that current government attainment targets aren't much use when it comes to measuring his progress in school. It's not likely, for example, that he would ever get beyond P1 in English (under the government's P levels for measuring educational attainment in SEND children). Because to get to P2 a pupil must “begin to respond consistently to familiar people, events and objects, and react to new activities and experiences”.
For Archie, his teacher would never be able to tick the box because his only response or reaction is an occasional faint twitch of the wrist when prompted with a yes/no question. It's his only communication tool.
Yet the performance of many special schools and their teachers is still judged on whether children such as Archie make progress through P levels. Archie is one of 96 pupils at Chailey Heritage School, a charity-run special school near Brighton, where headteacher Simon Yates ditched P levels around three years ago.
Another way to measure progress
The school's pupils, aged from 3 to 19, have a huge range of physical, sensory, learning and medical needs. There are those with profound and multiple learning difficulties (PMLD) and those who are all-at-once blind, non-verbal and restricted to a trolley bed.
While P levels are “not doable,” what's more important for measuring progress at Chailey is teacher input, says Yates. “We believe that you can't measure these kids against each other and you can't measure one school against another. That's why we measure input,” he says.
“We believe that if the input to each child's learning is the very best it can be then whatever progress made by that child is going to be the best they could have made.”
For the 14 or so teachers at Chailey, this means an annual “Learner Progress Interview”, which lasts for two to three days and is conducted not just by the head but by an external consultant.
“It's our big thing,” says Yates. “I've not seen any school anywhere which does this, and people are astonished by it.
“It's rigorous. We look at planning, recording, learner progress files and a biggie for us is evidence of interventions and requests for support. Because if a teacher is stuck, we don't want them working in isolation. Have they gone to, say, the lead teacher for visual impairment? Have they talked to a therapist or gone to the parents?
“There's also a whole section on: how are they a better teacher this year compared to last year? It's not something which gets asked so overtly in other schools. We ask what have they learned and what skills have they picked up, what have they researched, what have they developed? What more can they give?”
'Drop-in' teacher observations
Teachers are also monitored through regular “drop-in” observations carried out by senior leaders, which are typically five minutes long and can take place unannounced at any time throughout the day, throughout the year. That's on top of at least two formal lesson observations per year, among other monitoring mechanisms.
Teachers need to show skills, knowledge and expertise in dealing with a raft of challenges, which can appear all at once; from someone needing a nappy change to someone having a seizure to someone pulling out the tube through which they breathe.
One child breaks down uncontrollably when anyone says goodbye, another doesn't like being near other people, and there are teenage issues like erections and periods.
Each class has half a dozen teaching assistants as well as therapists and sometimes equipment engineers – not to mention doctors and nurses on site. Teachers need to work in close partnership with them all, as well as parents, of course.
So isn't the rigorous monitoring of teacher input making life even more difficult? The answer is no, say the teachers.
For one thing, without P levels, they are no longer having to search for evidence, often in vain, that pupils have met government targets. And they say they are “liberated” in that they now set their own targets for pupils (in conjunction with parents and therapists), which can often be “life-changing.”
“I had this young girl with profound learning difficulties and we were really struggling with getting her to identify 3D shapes, and we couldn't move her on for love nor money,” says class teacher Meriel Green.
“Then I noticed that, at 12 years old, she was still drinking from a baby's bottle and what she's managed to achieve this year is to drink, with support, from a cup. And she's still not aspirated and still managed to maintain her fluid levels.
“It's about making meaningful progress and being able to say that we've expanded the gross mobility of this young person by a couple of years. That's so much more liberating than sitting there and working with levels and descriptors.”
'The child is the curriculum'
Chailey Heritage School has also ditched lessons in all of the traditional subject areas, such as English, maths, history, geography and science – because what's more important is that each child has their own individual curriculum based on their own individual needs and capabilities. The school's motto is “the child is the curriculum” – and there are 96 of them.
Of course, English and maths are still taught to some higher-end children, but for others a target or “next step” may be as simple as offering a hand when asked, or playing a turn-taking game with an adult, or learning to drive their own wheelchair.
Post-16 teacher Michelle Maskell taught at a state-run special school for 11 years before arriving at Chailey, and found a huge difference. She says: “In my last school I was tied to the curriculum of history, geography, science and maths but the students were getting nothing out of it.
“I had one class that was PMLD and another where the pupils were a mixed bag of challenging behaviour and autism. And it meant nothing to them learning about Romans and Tudors and the planets.
“It wasn't that they weren't making progress – they were, but in areas we couldn't mark or record. So it looked like I wasn't providing sufficient resources and teaching material for them, and also it looked bad on them.
“Here, one of my student's next steps was learning to wipe her own mouth, and she's really chuffed with herself now after achieving it. But where do you put that on a P level?”
'Bar charts don't add anything'
As the government prepares to scrap P levels (following the Rochford Review), Yates wants to provoke debate around the ideas of expected progress and comparative data, and ask the question, “What are we producing the numbers for?”
“It looks like, for next year, they've simply rejigged the P levels and made fewer of them, and the private businesses who provide assessment tools are already producing massive spreadsheets of tick boxes," the head says.
"But my big message to the special needs world is: have a think about it. Do we really need this? It’s all about fear and being accountable to Ofsted, and people thinking that the only way they can demonstrate progress is by producing a bar chart.
“But bar charts don't add anything, and they take up a lot of teacher time. In the run-up to an Ofsted, I used to spend weekends and holidays doing my data. But it doesn't mean anything at all and there's no benefit whatsoever for the kids.”
One of the problems with P levels, says Yates, is that they've been used to calculate teachers' performance-related pay and, therefore, education, in some cases, has been based not on the individual needs of each child but on the teacher being able to show that they've ticked boxes.
“In the past, I've spoken at conferences to gasps of disbelief when I've said schools can fiddle data. They can tweak it and make nicer looking graphs.
“What you then get is the receiving teacher the next year looking at levels pupils have been assessed at and thinking, 'Oh my God, really?' and this either means they have to teach pupils above their ability or they have an internal struggle where they go to the headteacher and it's just horrible.”
Chucking out the data
In his role as an Ofsted inspector, Yates has inspected around 25 schools in the past two years, many of them other special schools in the South East. He says what he values from schools is data on teacher development.
“When you go in on an Ofsted, you are there to be convinced. You don't go in saying things should be done in a certain way, but if a school can show how senior leaders have trained the staff and how they've monitored them, and then on an Ofsted day you can see that in action – that is so much more important to me than the pupil outcomes.
“I'm talking to more and more brilliant special schools now who are chucking out the data and daring to have Ofsted in without the charts.”
What Simon is advocating is “Ipsative assessment” for special needs kids like Archie, or “assessment against themselves”. It involves information produced in written form rather than charts and numbers.
“For Archie what we say is that this was him and this was what he could do, and this is what we've done with him, and this is what he's learned on the way, and here he is now. And you tell me that's not good enough progress and I'll have the argument with you.
“You want me to compare him to any other kid in this place or in any other school? You can't. How and why would you be doing that? But what I can say is that the input that Archie is getting is spot on, and that we've looked at every approach. We've talked and we've read about his condition and I can say the same for every kid here.
“So you tell me, Mr Inspector, that those kids are not making enough progress, and I'm ready for the fight.”
Archie, meanwhile, is winning his own battle and has made remarkable progress in his own way and at his own pace. After a year of development and support – with the help of his teaching assistant prompting him to choose words and symbols using his “yes” response – he wrote an award-winning poem.