Briony, a little girl who was so ill when she started here she couldn't hold a paintbrush, is now doing her art GCSE with a local mainstream school

17th June 2005 at 01:00
Oh, I wouldn't go there!" cries my daughter, advising her young cousin on the secondary school she should go to. "It's rubbish. I don't know anyone who's left who can't spell FUDGE with their GCSE results."

That's one way of measuring progress, I suppose, and I can't help sneakily thinking that FUDGE is a more interesting word than ABBA or BAA or even AAA. At my school we formally measure pupils' progress in "P's", which doesn't spell anything very interesting at all. But our results are fascinating; one of the great things about working in a special school is the way the children surprise you with their achievements. For example, Jeremy, a "selective mute" who didn't talk at all when he was in my class, now works in a supermarket, chatting politely to customers and getting on well with his colleagues. Peter, who came to us late after having "failed" in a school for moderate learning difficulties and whose self esteem was at rock bottom, is now working on his Duke of Edinburgh award, taking part in expeditions, and helping at a tuck shop to raise money for charity. Briony, a little girl who was so ill when she started here she couldn't hold a paintbrush, is now doing her art GCSE with a local mainstream school. That spells success in my book, and I don't care what grade she gets.

One of the most startling examples of progress, though, is Phoebe, a beautiful autistic girl who, for many years, was locked into herself, her routines and rituals. Autistic children are not supposed to have any imagination, but to see Phoebe, after years of patient input from staff, dancing gracefully like a butterfly in the school play almost made me cry.

It also confirmed that we are right not to restrict children by their diagnoses but always to maintain the highest expectations.

I've seen the formula mainstream schools use to predict GCSE grades based on Sats results, but where's the fun in that? And how helpful is it to give children a ceiling? I wonder if Smart (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-related) targets, predictions and streaming help children at all. Do they instead send us down a narrow road where we only value what we can assess?

We have to assess our pupils annually in maths, English and science, which we do conscientiously. We then try to use the results to raise standards in as meaningful a way as we can. The really useful assessments, though, are going on all the time, are collaborative and dynamic, and can be seen to be helping pupils make progress. Trouble is, they're not to do with "beginning to show awareness of how full stops are used", "describing the properties of 3D shapes", or "naming parts of a flower". It's more likely to be: "Ian got lost in town today but made his way back to the minibus and waited for us there." Examples like this tell us about the progress our pupils are making and how we might move them on, but are not in areas that are easy to set targets for or assess in a formal way. Targets needn't always be Smart.

When not even the sky is the limit, children can surprise you and cope with situations, such as being in the school play, doing work experience or going to an adult education class, that their assessments in school wouldn't indicate that they could.

We should remember that getting FUDGE is only part of the story, there's much more to education than what you can spell with your results. As for my qualifications; my degree spells BED and now I have some modules towards my Masters degree I have some CAPS to go with it. Good night!

Maria Corby is deputy head of a special school for pupils with severe and multiple learning difficulties. She writes under a pseudonym

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