Tracking the P scales

8th July 2005 at 01:00
Nick Peacey looks at the background to monitoring achievement below national curriculum level 1

P scales are in the news again. New government guidelines are expected to encourage their use by mainstream schools. The scales - which grade progress over eight levels leading up to level 1 of the national curriculum - are commonly used in special schools, but many experts feel that mainstream schools do not do enough to track the progress of their special needs pupils.

The P scales story begins in 1988 with the introduction of the national curriculum and the parallel development of performance criteria for assessing attainment. Children who failed to reach level 1 were recorded as W or "working towards". But teachers of pupils with learning difficulties saw the W label as unfair and unhelpful.

Eventually the pressure from teachers and special needs practitioners led to the introduction of new scales for those working below level 1: the P scales. In 1998 they covered English, mathematics as well as personal and social development. Official guidance steered teachers firmly towards using them for long-term target-setting. Special schools seized upon the new tools gratefully and brought them into their assessment schemes, but the scales had little impact on other schools; few saw them as relevant to the mainstream.

It soon became clear that pupils working at the lowest levels could spend a long time moving through even one P level. This worried teachers of pupils with profound and multiple difficulties who found the scales hard to use for monitoring progress.

They were also seen as demoralising to report on, with the pupils making little apparent progress, when, in reality, they might have achieved a great deal. Many teachers used alternative schemes, such as Equals or Pivats. These were attractive because they offered smaller steps and finer divisions.


The revised national curriculum in 1999, with its statutory inclusion statement, prompted the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) to publish booklets offering guidance for every curriculum subject: Planning, teaching and assessing the curriculum for pupils with learning difficulties. The booklets also set out revised P scales for every statutory subject, with additional "small steps" introduced into the first three levels. In effect, this created a 16-level national curriculum, with P1-P8 below the eight mainstream levels. All the P scales follow the same model: the first three are the same for every subject; P4-P8 are subject-specific. The assumption is that subject learning starts at P4.

Meanwhile, government policy on target-setting was tightening. Another guidance booklet appeared in 2001. Teachers were now expected to set targets for students working at P scale levels. Supporting the Target-setting Process (QCA) detailed P scales for English, mathematics and science, the three statutory subjects for target-setting in mainstream schools.

All the publications made one assumption that P scales would, over time, be adopted in both mainstream and special schools. Unfortunately, the Government's commitment to this desirable conclusion was never reflected in either funding or strategic policy directives. As a result, the response to the guidance was patchy. Some local authorities used P scales or their equivalent in every school, but many mainstream schools continued to ignore them.


In 2003, the pound;3.6 billion spent on special educational needs in England and Wales prompted an Audit Commission investigation. It found that lack of monitoring made it difficult to recognise the good work in many schools, or to identify where children were poorly served.

"With resources for SEN increasingly being delegated to school level, it is critical that appropriate accountability structures are in place so that parents can be confident their child's needs are being met." said the Commission (Special Educational Needs: A Mainstream Issue, 2004).

Part of the Government's response was to promote and extend the use of P scales. It announced its intention to include the scales in the annual data collection exercise and feed information back to schools in the PAT (pupil achievement tracker) and Panda (performance and assessment) reports.

Other changes introduced at the same time included minor adjustments to the core subject scales and the separation of the scales for speaking and listening: a single scale was unsatisfactory because the development of receptive communication is usually ahead of expression.

The gap some had perceived between P8 and national curriculum level 1 was examined and found to be caused by a change in style of assessment, rather than a jump in the expected performance level.

The scales were checked for their usefulness for target-setting and tweaked appropriately. Hundreds of classroom teachers working with students with learning difficulties attended consultative conferences on the proposals.

The results were published on the QCA website and replaced any earlier P scales.


The Department for Education and Skills has raised the possibility of using P scales in performance tables, but it seems unlikely that they could be introduced while schools are using them voluntarily.

Whatever the rationale, an appropriately collaborative approach to increasing their use is being followed. From this summer the DfES will invite schools to use P scales to report the attainment of any child with special educational needs working below national curriculum level 1.

The QCA has published exemplar materials for those using the scales, with case studies from mainstream and special schools.

To map a longer-term future we need to remember the scales were originally designed for school improvement through target-setting and review. Some special schools have taken their enthusiasm for the scales too far; they seem to have become the curriculum rather than the tools for its development.

We must take equal care about their national role. Target-setting and review using P scales or other national curriculum levels is arguably always a value-added exercise. You start with a plan for an individual or cohort's progress and check what they have achieved. As a self-evaluation and monitoring approach, this is uncontroversial.

Some local authorities already gather P scale results and offer schools print-outs of them collated for internal analysis; some schools use systems such as those provided by QCA collated results or by commercial schemes. It is reasonable to extend that approach to a system that allows schools to bench-mark their results against others.

But politicians with ambitions to take the P scales into the annual performance tables need to realise that they risk discrediting a useful resource that was not designed for that role.

Nick Peacey is co-ordinator of the Special Educational Needs Joint Initiative for Training at the Institute of Education, University of London. He led the team commissioned by QCA to review the core subject P scales in 2004.

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