2-19: A continuum of learning

One of the characteristics of Special Education, which often sets it apart from the mainstream, is the fact that we can have children on our roll for the duration of their entire statutory education. Whilst there are some age phase specific Special Schools and some mainstream schools which are all through, 2-19 provision is still currently more prevalent in Special Schools.

With this comes with some specific challenges, in particular the creation of a sense of progression through education whilst not necessarily having the very visible differences marked by going to a new school. However there are also some things which must remain constant if we are going to be able to maintain developmental momentum as children move from class to class. How we achieve this is fundamental to the success of the education we offer. Here are a few examples of how we ensure that we create an effective continuum of learning running through the school from 2 through to 19.

The school’s ethos is absolutely clear, carefully articulated and effectively communicated in a variety of ways. This includes documents such as the prospectus and website, but more importantly through the actions of the staff. In every class at all times we value each and every child as a unique individual. The belief in this being fundamentally important to what we do does not change as the children move through the school. They arrive as unique people and they leave as unique people and our role is to enable them to maximise their individual potential. The children have the security of experiencing a consistency of culture which acts as a supportive structure when other aspects of the school, such as the classroom or teaching team, change.

Behaviour Management
The systems we have in place for managing behaviour are based around a well defined policy implemented by every single member of staff, teaching or otherwise. Where children have an Individual Management Plan, the expectation is that all staff working in that part of the school should know it in detail. Other staff should be aware of it. We also have an agreed stance to take should you encounter unfamiliar challenging behaviour or should you be unfamiliar with a child’s plan, and that is to ignore the inappropriate and praise the positive, unless it is unsafe to do so. This is constant throughout the school so that wherever the children find themselves they are treated in the same manner. That is not to say it is a uniform approach, individual children have specific rewards, sanctions and systems matched to their individual need and age, but the philosophy underpinning it stays the same. This reduction in variability of adult response actively supports the effectiveness of the approaches to behavioral change we use.

Throughout the school we don’t define children as being particular communicators, but rather work to create a communicatively rich environment in which there are many layers of communicative content. Children will have primary communication tools, but will also be exposed to other communication systems both more complex and less. We use Objects of Reference, symbols, Makaton and spoken language interchangeably and adjust its use depending on the needs of the child and the context within which communication is taking place. This enables us as a staff team to adjust approaches and the complexity of those approaches as and when needed, within a consistent framework.

Our curriculum is created as a structure within which learning takes place. It maps out the skills which children will work towards developing, but it does not define the specifics of how and when that learning will take place. That is done based on the knowledge of the individual needs of the children, established through very detailed developmental assessments. However, there are some general characteristics of the curriculum which change over the duration of the child’s career at the school. These can be broadly summarised in the diagram below:

ImageAgain it is important to stress that this is subject to being influenced by individual pupil need, but broadly the curriculum is adjusted like this:

Early Years has a broad focus around teaching the prerequisites for learning, such as early learning responses, play, early stimulation and early reasoning skills. Much of this work is pupil initiated within the context of carefully crafted, content specific lessons, with the staff often working as responsive facilitators making the best use of the interactions the pupils engage in. The level of staff skill is staggering, knowing when to intervene, how and then how best to evaluate the progress made. This is not provision that lacks direction, it is highly structured, but there is a commitment to capitalising on the successes and mistakes of the children. An acknowledgement that what will be learned may not be what was initially intended to be taught.

Within the primary and secondary parts of the school, the nature of the lessons becomes much more focussed on the imparting of knowledge of specific concepts delivered through carefully structured and highly differentiated lessons in which there is a more definitive learning objective for each child. The breadth and balance of the curriculum is adjusted during primary and secondary to reflect the differing need, with some lessons getting a greater representation than others and with more subject specific teaching. Lessons are broadly an hour in length and will often be self contained activities repeated over a period of time with expected progress both within and across sessions matched to the individual.

In Post -16 there is a significant shift from a curriculum based on concept acquisition to one which is more driven by concept application. This is focussed on ensuring that the learning that has taken place within school can be applied beyond school. If education cannot be applied elsewhere then it is potentially of limited value. Again the balance of the curriculum is adjusted and the focus returns to responding more to the students interaction with learning opportunities based in real life contexts. The lessons will sometimes be up to a day in length with real life chronologies being used to determine the students’ capabilities.

Through this approach we work to ensure that the children have developed the skills and competences for effective learning, then use these to develop knowledge and understanding, before applying this practically in the wider world.

As the children move through the school new opportunities also become available to them. One of the best examples of this is the programme of residential visits that we offer which starts off with a one night local visit and then progresses through longer stays, further away, until the Year 11 pupils spend a week in Barcelona. In Post-16 it shifts again with a focus on the self funding of a trip, with the content influenced by the money raised through enterprise projects.

In Post-16, we also focus on work experience more with all students getting an opportunity to spend time in the workplace, but with a significant number getting the opportunity to complete sustained work placements with varying degrees of staff support. There are also wider ranges of accreditation in place to ensure that we are able to capture what has been learned and communicate that as effectively as possible to those beyond the school.

It is important to note that these are just some of the ways in which we work towards creating a learning continuum and whilst these are broadly consistently applied, the needs of the individual always come first and as such we sometimes deviate from this approach. As a school we are bound together by a shared consensus consistently applied, but equally free from the straightjacket of a uniform approach. We are philosophically consistent throughout the school, but the pragmatics of delivery change, ensuring that the educational experience is a varied and stimulating one for all.

A quick introduction to……….Readiness for Reading

As teachers we often have to make informed professional decisions about when to move a child on to the next stage or introduce a new concept or resource. In Special education this process can be further complicated by the range of developmental need of the children we work with and the variability in their individual developmental patterns.

It is important that these decisions are taken objectively and informed by evidence of the child’s understanding of preceding development, rather than on a professional hunch. To support this the school I work in has produced a developmental, skills based curriculum and a broad portfolio of assessments that allow us to establish the specific developmental point of the child, so that when we move them on we do so with a degree of confidence in their ability to succeed.

One area in particular that we find causes our pupils, and ourselves, significant difficulty is reading. In particular when to move from focussing on the prerequisite cognitive skills, often worked on in isolation, to using them in combination within the context of books. So, if you have children who you are unsure whether or not it is time to start formal reading, or you have a child who isn’t progressing as expected, then you may want to consider the extent to which these areas of development have been consolidated:

1 SHAPE MATCHING : At a word recognition stage, we process the visual information given to us by a written word largely through rapid shape discrimination; i.e. when we first begin to read, we look at the shape of a word and cross reference it with the shape of all other words we know. Once we have encountered that word often enough, we remember its shape and only need to compare it with words of very similar shape. Therefore, before beginning reading, shape matching and matching split symmetrical shapes needs to have been thoroughly mastered.

2 SHORT TERM MEMORY : The ability to retain information over a short period of time is essential for fluent reading. There is little value in learning to read a sentence at the top of a page if you can’t remember it halfway down. Similarly, there is little value in reading a sentence if, when you get to the full stop at the end, you cannot remember what was at the beginning. There are no short cuts to teaching short term memory – daily practice with simple activities involving short term memory (by which we generally mean under 15 seconds) is the most effective way. It is vital that a pupil’s visual and auditory short term memory is thoroughly assessed on his or her first joining the school and at regular intervals thereafter. It must be remembered that short term memory develops all the time but it must be reasonably reliable before beginning reading.

3 LEFT TO RIGHT SEQUENCING : A word, a sentence or a book, is a series of symbols moving from left to right. Basic, non-conceptual, left to right sequencing, as a mechanical process, needs to become a habitual approach so that the written word can be processed in the correct order. This must be well-established before beginning reading.

4 TEMPORAL SEQUENCING : The ability to retain and process a series of concepts, linked to convey a wider concept, is vital if reading is to be a meaningful exercise. Teaching of temporal sequencing, beginning with photographic, then illustrative, then symbolic sequences can be important groundwork before beginning reading.

5 LANGUAGE COMPREHENSION OF AT LEAST A 2 INFORMATION CARRYING WORD LEVEL : Reading skills cannot be expected to overtake a pupil’s general level of language development, although they may enhance it. It is, therefore, unreasonable to expect pupils whose language comprehension is at only one or two-word phrase level to decode, understand and read aloud written phrases of any greater length. It is similarly unreasonable to expect children whose vocabulary is very limited to develop a large word recognition vocabulary in advance of their comprehension.(For more information on the concept of Information Carrying Words it is worth exploring the Derbyshire Language Scheme.).

Language development and reading skills at best go hand in hand. Not all of the pre-reading skills outlined above will be brought into play at every stage of our developmental progression but, problems at every stage can often be traced back to at least one of them, sometimes a combination of two or three.

These developmental descriptors are taken from the Frank Wise School Curriculum Framework. The Curriculum in its entirety can be downloaded free of charge here:


The importance of developing Understanding

As a school we have a long history of avoiding educational bandwagons and faddish approaches to improving outcomes. Our view of what are priority changes to our practice is driven by highly detailed reflections on the progress that our pupils make, built directly into our School Development Plan. As such we have a very clear vision regarding to what we need to do to be better and this is focussed firmly on the children.

To support this we ensure that our School Development Plan is very clear and only includes things which are intended to improve the impact of the school on the children and the wider community. It doesn’t include any tasks which occur on a regular basis, these are separated out into an Annual Task Schedule. As such our School Development Plan is a visual map, on a single sheet of A3 paper, of where we are heading as a school.It is contributed to by all and available to all, both within school and beyond.

As a result of this approach we are able to ensure that we never unknowingly fail to complete an identified development aim. We sometimes decide that it isn’t the priority we thought it was at the time of writing, but we never get to the end of the year and realise we haven’t done something we said we would.

In terms of implementing the changes we have identified one of the things we try to avoid is the purchasing of resources to provide a quick fix. Quite often the tools that are available commercially don’t quite fit the development aims or the needs of the children we teach and we will not compromise on their individual needs in order to get something ticked off. More often than not we will evaluate what is out there and then begin to adapt it in order to ensure it does what we want it to do.

This provides a number of opportunities that lead to improved outcomes for the pupils. The first is that we have greater flexibility of approach and are able to better adapt to our pupils’ needs. We don’t invest heavily in overly structured resources, which often define the nature of progress, but instead look at what a resource is trying to achieve and use elements of it in order to create a bespoke portfolio of tools, matched to individual need.

The second is that because we take a highly analytical approach to learning and the identification of individual barriers to progress, we question the nature, sustainability and transferability of progress repeatedly. This means that we often find ourselves finding challenges for which there are no commercial tools. Rather than find the best fit, we will invest significant intellectual energy in developing resources from scratch. One such example is our Early Reading Scheme. This take the individual prerequisite intellectual and reasoning skills necessary for reading and allows them to be applied in combination within a structure that is comparable to formal reading. The plateau that we were previously wrestling with as children moved from applying the intellectual and reasoning skills in isolation to working with books has been addressed and we saw a significant increase in the number of children working with formal reading schemes as a result.

A third impact of this approach is the investment in the intellectual capacity of the teaching team. A reliance on commercial solutions to barriers to learning risks creating a limited depth of engagement with the challenge being faced. You can buy the tool you think is best suited to the job and you can develop knowledge of how that tool works, but without ever analysing the problem from the point of view of developing your own solution, I’d question the extent to which the solution is truly understood. One of the significant values of investing in the development of understanding is that you equip staff with the skills to solve multiple challenges as and when they arise, but it also enables you to better adjust approaches to ensure they truly meet the needs of the individual.

As an approach this is not without its risks, it can be frustratingly slow and requires a collective buy in to the importance of the process not just the outcomes. But it breeds consensus and a shared understanding which helps to develop a culture of expectation across the school. This is essential if children are to have the necessary level of consistency as they move through the school, consistency that is essential if they are not to lose developmental momentum every time they move class.

To enable us to find the time to make this happen we have one compulsory after school meeting a week. Every Wednesday we spend about an hour talking about the challenges we face in ensuring our pupils are the best that they can be and developing the resources necessary to make this happen. Every Wednesday we spend time together as a team developing our Understanding.

Is assessing 4 year olds really such a bad idea?

The announcement yesterday that from 2016 there will be tests for 4-5 years olds has had a mixed response. It hasn’t been helped by the media hyperbole surrounding the idea, with a focus on conjuring up images of Reception age children being sat in rows completing examinations.

However, if we set aside prejudging the way that this will be implemented and consider the possible impact, then I think there is much to celebrate in the notion that we may look at the child’s individual developmental point when they start school.

It is important to recognise that this should be a formative or diagnostic process rather than a comparative one. There is little to be gained by trying to create a baseline which sets one child against the next. This is in part because of the significant variance in age at this point. As a percentage of age, one child could be almost 25% older than another.

An additional factor is that children have not necessarily been exposed to the, hopefully, positive impact of education. Some will have had highly stimulatory formative experiences and others won’t. This will contribute to a wide range of developmental difference, dependent upon numerous factors. Also lets not forget that children are themselves inherently unique which itself brings significant variance.

What is of value is identifying and understanding the extent to which children have developed and consolidated the cognitive skills required for learning. There are a wide range of skills, which are often developed intuitively, that serve to create the building blocks of later development. If these skills are not in place then their absence can have a significant impact on progress.

This assessment opportunity has the potential to provide a greater consistency of knowledge and understanding regarding each individual’s unique developmental point. As a result, effectively differentiated opportunities to develop these skills may be highly supportive of individual progress. What we have the opportunity to create, is a highly personalised start to education rather than the generalist approach we often have now.

It is also an opportunity to explore the idea of Early Intervention in its truest sense. I have always found the notion of Early Intervention somewhat ironic, as it is too often a reactive response to the symptomatic indicators of some form of delay or difference. By having a universal evaluation of the developmental point that children have reached upon starting school, it may be possible to put support in place, or focus on developing particular cognitive areas, before underdevelopment has an impact on progress more broadly.

However we do need to be mindful of making crude generalisations as a result of this information and not make presumptions which limit aspiration, but instead ensure that we use this knowledge of the child to drive personal progress.

Through the provision of outreach support it has become increasingly apparent that children throughout Primary, who are not making the expected progress, have gaps in their cognitive development which have not been addressed. Gaps that with the right, appropriately delivered assessments could have been identified through a universal approach.

So lets not jump to conclusions, in the right hands and with the right intentions this could transform education at its earliest stage, encouraging a far better informed, child centred, approach to curricula and delivery that could build the foundations of future success.