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Small steps up the ladder

Next month SCAA will launch a teacher's pack on assessing and recording the progress of pupils with severe learning difficulties. Margaret Peter reports.

When the national curriculum came into schools in 1989 many teachers of children with severe, profound and multiple learning difficulties felt stranded on the edges of educational change. What did the new statutory curriculum have to offer pupils who made small steps of progress and who might never reach the first rung on the 10-level ladder or might linger in the foothills of learning, somewhere between levels 1 and 3?

Guidance from the National Curriculum Council, which preceded the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA), helped to allay teachers' early anxieties that pupils with the greatest learning difficulties would be forgotten or set apart. But their need for more guidance on assessing and recording small steps of progress and on accrediting achievement at key stage 4 was voiced again and again. Finally, in his review of the national curriculum in December 1993, Sir Ron Dearing recommended that SCAA should investigate ways in which these steps were assessed, recorded and reported positively and should commission a study to see how the achievements of pupils could be accredited, especially within level 1.

The National Foundation for Educational Research has now turned these recommendations into action. After a 13-month survey, commissioned by SCAA, Felicity Fletcher-Campbell and Barbara Lee have produced Small Steps of Progress in the National Curriculum. Its five criteria for evaluating good practice (see below), its recommendations for action and its examples of good practice will form the basis of a teachers' pack to be introduced by SCAA at five regional conferences next month.

Advisers, teachers and other local education authority personnel who attend will be asked for their reactions before SCAA makes the final, revised version available to LEAs for use in schools next January. It is likely to be issued around the same time as SCAA's booklet on planning the curriculum for pupils with profound and multiple learning difficulties.

Until the pack appears for the November conferences, its success in meeting teachers' demands for further guidance can only be guessed at. Judging by the content of the NFER report, the materials should go some way towards meeting the needs of special and mainstream schools whose assessment, recording and accreditation practices for pupils with acute learning difficulties reflect three different stages of development.

While some schools are still struggling to identify and assess small steps of progress within the early curriculum levels, others have well-developed systems tied to statements of attainment and programmes of study. A minority has moved beyond small steps schemes, abandoning ticklists for broader and less linear methods of assessing and recording. They have been spurred on by the replacing of statements of attainment with level descriptions and the strengthened focus on programmes of study in the revised curriculum. Whether or not the final pack will satisfy all three groups is an open question.

Schools still struggling with small steps and hoping for a recipe book from SCAA will almost certainly be disappointed. The report cautions against the use of ready-made and published assessment schemes, unadapted to the needs of individual schools. While it offers useful examples of LEAs' and schools' schemes, it gives few hints about the processes which led to them.

Those whose assessment, recording and accreditation are well developed are likely to welcome the five criteria for good practice and the checklists of related questions but, like the schools which are exploring beyond small steps, they may be hoping for stronger encouragement to pursue new approaches than the report gives. Because the NFER survey was completed in August this year, almost all the examples of good practice given in the appendices relate to the national curriculum before it was revised. In the three months before the final pack is issued to LEAs, could SCAA update the examples which the NFER has given?

All three groups, however, will probably applaud the report's key recommendations. These include the development of assessment procedures and materials, the creation of recording systems which ease pupils' transfer between schools and phases, the extension of accreditation systems at key stage 4, more staff training, and encouragement for pupils to be active in their own assessment. All three are also likely to welcome the valuable overview of current practices.

Five criteria for evaluating effective practice * Assessment is integral to the pupil'ssystematic learning * Assessment procedures have authoritywithin a wider public context * The pupil is as fully involved as possiblein the process * Reports are accurate and informativefor a range of audiences, including parents, pupils and employers * Accreditation systems have national recognition and acceptability

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