Graeme Culliford reports on the need to rethink assessment
For a history lesson at a special school in north London, pupils have been dressed as ancient Egyptians. A timeline has been set out on the floor. An autistic girl is dragged across it, kicking and screaming, by her teacher. The teacher now changes the girl's clothes, dressing her in modern attire. She puts on a tape of a Spice Girls album. In about 15 minutes, the autistic girl's lesson - her experience of the past and the present - is complete.
Another member of staff witnesses this lesson and is appalled. Yet this can be the practical implication, she argues, of teaching the national curriculum, without sufficient guidelines, at schools with children with profound, severe and multiple learning difficulties.
"Most of our children do not have an understanding of tomorrow or yesterday," she says. "History is a conceptual subject, in my view. It's not something you can demonstrate or put your hands on."
A different view is taken by Andrew Turner, a teacher at Severndale special school in Shrewsbury. "I don't accept that there is a cut-off point at which people can't access history," he says. "We should have a culture of entitlement. Even at the level of standing in an old building, children will have an understanding of history."
But most teachers would agree that the curriculum has not been suitably adapted so far. The Government appears to be trying to improve matters and last week the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority distributed new policy guidelines on the teaching of special needs.
Andrew Turner, who advised the QCA, says the standards imposed by the national curriculum are detached from the reality of teaching children with special needs and Office for Standards in Education inspectors have so far received no training on how to asses special schools.
"There is a significant level of agreement among inspectors about what constitutes good practice in history teaching," says Andrew Turner. "This concensus focuses clearly on personal chronologies and makes little or no reference to the programme of study requirements." Inspectors have had to make up their own unofficial criteria for assessment.
"The curriculum was drawn up by subject specialists and dominated by subject lobbyists," he says.
Why has it taken so long for the QCA to come up with guidelines? One reason could be that teachers were afraid of speaking out because of the fear that they might be excluded from a national education system. "Schools were previously allowed to get on with what they wanted," says David Godfrey, a senior teacher at William C Harvey school in Tottenham, London. "This sometimes wasn't very much. We considered the national curriculum to be a useful basis on which to work, and we thought it was better to be part of the same national system as mainstream schools."
Juliet Greely, special education adviser at the National Union of Teachers, says: "The NUT is pressing for OFSTED inspectors to go on specialist training and to have more experience of working with children with special needs."
The position in which OFSTED inspectors are placed when assessing schools catering for children with special needs has now been acknowledged by the QCA. "There has been a problem of OFSTED inspectors going into schools with their own handbook, which isn't always appropriate," says QCA spokesman Peter Jackson. "The new guidelines will legitimise current practice in some special schools."
What is needed is a commitment to ensure inspectors are made aware of the unique needs of children with PMLD. Will the new policy changes prove sufficient?
QCA news, page 4