A new approach to recording learning targets for special needs pupils is already paying dividends, reports Esther Read.
Anne and Dave Rodger are delighted with their daughter's progress at school this year. "Perhaps it's just that Alison has matured a little," says her mother, "but she really seems much more focused on her work this year."
Alison has Down's syndrome, Anne explains, so her progress can often seem so slow that you scarcely notice it at all.
"While parents with pupils in mainstream schools receive reports indicating the level at which their children are working (A to E in accordance with 5-14 curriculum guidelines), we've simply had to accept that Alison will probably always be working towards level A.
"In the past that's meant that while the reports we received were helpful, they were also rather general. For example, we were told things like, 'Alison enjoys the one-to-one situation of reading and related word games and takes care over her handwriting exercises but is inclined to rush when copying scribed work.' The targets for her next stage of learning were implicit in that but never spelled out."
Spelling out the targets for pupils with special educational needs is the aim of a three-year project, which is being co-ordinated by Professor Donnie MacLeod of Northern College in Aberdeen as part of the Scottish Executive's Success For All initiative. Aberdeen's Hazlewood School, which Alison attends, has been one of eight schools involved in piloting the initiative.
Assistant headteacher Jill Barry explains: "The target setting initiative is not just about a set of boxes on a form, each requiring a tick. It's a process.
"Within the special needs sector we've always had to devise individualised educational programmes (IEPs) for our pupils. However, the danger was that with different teachers or different schools using different formats, the programme could be a bit unbalanced or linked only to short-term learning goals or could fail to transfer the desired knowledge and skills right across the curriculum.
"The new format allows us to set long-term as well as short-term targets. We've set four long-term targets in three main areas: language and communication; environment, numeracy and environmental studies; and personal and social development. The targets set must be SMART, that is, specific, measurable, achievable and relevant targts.
"In Alison's case, for example, one long-term target related to her being able to work independently on addition and subtraction to 10 using Unifix counting matierials. Our success criterion was that she should complete one such task independently.
"The short-term targets specify the teaching strategies as well as the resourcesenvironment to be used to achieve this. Everything is broken down into manageable steps.
"I'm glad to say that by the test date in January, this was a target Alison had successfully attained.
"In addition to setting out the targets, here at Hazlewood we also list the child's special aptitudes and abilities as well as likes, dislikes and anxieties. The latter information may be important since a child's fearful reaction to something could be misconstrued as bad behaviour. The process takes into account the child as a whole.
"We've only just completed the first phase but already it's clear that it can be a tremendous aid to teaching."
The headteacher at Hazlewood, Rhona Jarvis, agrees. "In the past there was often the feeling that special needs schools more or less did their own thing and certainly didn't share information very well, but that's all gone.
"The analysis and interpretation of the outcomes of target-setting allow us to go on to assess our own performance as teachers more accurately and to find ways to improve what we do. It also enables us to benchmark our performance as a whole against that of other schools.
"More than that, it encourages closer co-operation between the home and the school. Many of our children are unable to communicate at home what they've done at school and, since many are also bussed in to school, we may not meet up with parents as often as we'd like. However, where possible, children themselves will be involved in drafting the new targets, while parents will also be asked for their input."
Mrs Rodger believes that the new approach has already begun to pay dividends. "Alison is much more competitive where her reading's concerned - something she's never been before. She's always responded well to praise and perhaps the new programme makes it easier for her to be given that praise at an appropriate time."
Certainly it boosted the family to see all Alison's attainments, plus those she is still working towards, recorded in detail.