Why Special Schools should embrace the Assessment Innovation Fund

On the 20th December the Government launched the Assessment Innovation Fund (AIF) with little in the way of a fanfare and not much in terms of guidance regarding what they expect:

We are asking schools and organisations to present their approaches to pupil assessment. We can allocate funding to help create a simple, easy-to-use package for others schools to use.

A number of schools, teaching schools and academy sponsors are already developing new curriculum and assessment systems ahead of the removal of levels from the national curriculum from September 2014. As well as schools and sponsors, exam boards and subject organisations may enter schemes.

Up to £10,000 is available to develop each application that is successful. Each package will then be made freely available for other schools to access, download and use.

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/assessment-innovation-fund-application-form
The response was somewhat mixed with some commenting that it was all a bit ‘back of a fag packet’, and for those working in sectors of education which have well developed, if imperfect, systems of assessment, this may well be the case.

However for those of us in Special Education this is something of a watershed moment. An opportunity to contribute at the start of a process of educational development, rather than responding reactively to something presented to us as a fait accompli, and often a mainstream one at that. It is an opportunity for showcasing the pedagogical invention within Special schools.

Given that data is increasingly becoming a significant issue in SEN this would seem to be an opportunity too good to miss. We can share the approaches we have developed which enable us to make objective and informed decisions about what to teach and when to teach it. In addition to this we can share how we judge progress in our schools and provide alternatives to a reliance on the imperfect P-levels, which by all accounts are here to stay.

We can open up these approaches to wider scrutiny in order to address some of the misconceptions around Special School target setting and evaluation of progress. The approaches we have developed at Frank Wise School allow us to set objective and challenging targets that are highly individualised and far removed from the preconception that targets set by teachers are somehow less valid that those which are derived from centralised materials. They allow us as a school to create a consistent data set which enables us to make informed judgements regarding progress both in the short term and longitudinally.

We can demonstrate that our professional judgments, when supported by well developed evidence, are robust and made with the needs of the individual in mind rather than the system. This in turn may provide OfSTED with greater confidence in the assessment processes in Special Schools and demonstrate that we do evaluate progress rigorously. There is no need for us to be on the defensive when it comes to data.

In sharing what we have collectively developed we can begin to build a broader portfolio of bespoke assessment materials available for all schools to draw upon and to adjust and refine in order to best meet the needs of the children in their particular settings. The positive reaction to the work of Mike Sissons at The Dales School shows how much innovation in assessment within Special Education is valued.

This commitment to showcasing what we do may have a significant impact on the quality of target setting in schools more broadly and may go some way to addressing the issues around genuine personalisation. If we have the right tools with which to develop our knowledge and understanding of what children need to learn and when, then maybe we are less likely to rely on more generic checklist curricula which do not necessarily reflect the breadth of difference within our classrooms and can determine what is taught more than capturing what has been learned.

It also has the potential to provide a new portfolio of resources that could be used by colleagues in Mainstream to develop further their ability to meet the needs of the children they work with who have SEN. The further development of routes for sharing expertise between Mainstream and Special is likely to become of greater significance following the implementation of the new SEN legislation this year, as schools adjust to changes in how to access funding for support.

There is also a slightly more prosaic issue to consider and that is if Special schools do not seize this opportunity and ensure that the focus of the AIF isn’t just on the levelling of children in mainstream education, then we will only have ourselves to blame when the outcomes are once again focussed exclusively on the mainstream.

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