The Progressive Traditionalism of Special Education

Since engaging with Twitter and the world of educational blogging I have read with interest the debates between those espousing a Traditionalist or Progressive view of education. What has struck me is that this position often seems to be characterised as being about the teacher as a singular professional, taking a distinct pedagogical approach within a wider professional community. This raises the question of how those with differing philosophical approaches coexist within a single organisational structure and to what extent competing approaches enhance or compromise the collective provision of a school.

In Special education one of the key characteristics which drives successful provision is a very clear, consistently delivered pedagogical approach. This is not to say teachers need to deliver uniformity, but it is advantageous to operate within a consistent philosophical framework. Part of the reason for this is to maintain the continuity between classes from one year to the next. This supports the management of challenging behaviour and helps maintain developmental momentum. The nature of the learning needs of many of our pupils would mean that too significant a shift in the style of teaching from day to day or even year to year, could have a negative impact on progress. As such our mode of delivery, of a curriculum which is tailored to meet the highly individual need of our pupils, is a matter of agreed consensus within the teaching team.

I am aware that the very nature of what is Traditional or Progressive is part of the debate. So for arguments sake I have borrowed definitions and comparative statements from Tom Sherrington’s excellent blog “The Progressive-Traditional Pedagogy Tree”.

Traditional: Leaning towards an emphasis on content, structures, ordered systems, formal learning, measurable outcomes

Progressive: Leaning towards an emphasis on processes, experiences,organic systems, informal learning, intangible outcomes” – Tom Sherrington (2014)

So what characterises the approach we take, what are the key elements of our style and how do they interrelate with one another?

In reflecting on this, there are two key areas of consideration. The first is the curricular structure of the school and how this adjusts from one age phase to another. The second is the way we approach the acquisition, consolidation, generalisation and application of knowledge.

As a school we have two distinct curricula, one for pupils up to the age of sixteen and one which is for pupils within the post-16 department. These are broadly focussed on two different educational purposes and reflect the only point in the school where there is a distinct shift in approach, a conscious decision to reflect the transition into adulthood and life beyond the school.

In the main part of the school the curriculum is essentially a concept base structure within which the focus is on the developmentally progressive acquisition of knowledge, understanding and skills. Once pupils arrive in Post-16 the focus becomes directed on the successful application of existing knowledge within functional community based contexts. This is not to say that the pre-sixteen curriculum doesn’t allow for application or that once a child reaches sixteen we abandon new knowledge, but rather that the emphasis is on a movement from acquisition towards application. This can be summarised in the diagram below:

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As can be seen from the diagram there is a movement within the school which can be defined as being from a broadly progressive approach through one which is characterised by more traditional methodologies and which is concluded with a return to progressive modes of delivery.

The curricula we have written can be found here:

However the methodologies used within those parts of the school are not definitively traditional or progressive, but rather a synthesis of the two.

In the Early Years we are working with children as young as two, all of whom have some form of complex developmental need. The nature of these needs is not always clear and as such one of the key roles of the staff in that part of the school is the formal assessment of existing skills, in order to establish which areas of cognitive development are developmental priorities. This is delivered in a traditional method making use of direct instruction, expert knowledge and repeated testing in order to establish understanding. Yet we are not just looking at the nature of intellectual development, but also the sense of development of self. To what extent are the children aware of others, can interact effectively, are able to operate within social structures and understand how to behave in a way which won’t leave them isolated. This requires the teacher to act as facilitator and interpreter, with learning being flexible and self directed. What we are trying to develop, is an understanding of the wider socio-emotional development of the child and that is best served by a less directed structure. But at the same time we are establishing behavioural guidelines and this is based on a causal relationship between behaviour and consequences which has traditional elements.

As the children move into full time education we move towards a model which is more rooted in traditional pedagogies. Having established the developmental needs of the child and begun to address them in within EYFS, the focus becomes more directly on acquisition of new knowledge and skills. The main aim being to address gaps in development and improve attainment. This is highly instructional and reliant on teacher expertise both in the identification of the developmental priorities and in the specifics of delivery. There is a significant amount of 1:1 teaching with the process of learning being very tightly defined and highly structured. However this is not the only methodology used, more of which later.

Once the pupils get to year 12 and move into the Post-16 part of the school then the organisational structure has far more in common with progressive approaches, as does the way in which the staff work. There is no age based grouping with all three year groups working collectively. Lessons do not always have a defined length, but instead can be process based, for example the tasks necessary to decide upon what to eat, buy, prepare and consume the food. However the assessment of this is very clearly structured with tightly defined learning objectives for every young person, covering context specific learning and more generic personalised progress. There is a high level of co-construction, choice and group based work, as we begin to deconstruct the structures around learning in order to better reflect the contextual reality of applying those skills learned within the wider world.

So for us the curricular models we have developed reflect a movement between progressive models and traditional ones, making use of elements of both to best suit the needs of the pupils at any particular time and also meet the needs of what is being taught.

It is also important to consider the pattern of learning from the point of view of the introduction of new concepts and skills. This would be initiated through detailed assessment of developmental need on a highly individualised basis. Then individual targets would be taught directly to the child using a highly structured 1:1 approach. Once the agreed criteria for success have been reached then we would be looking to have these generalised through less structured group work sessions, using varied resources and contexts in order to avoid conceptual understanding being tied to particular tools or activities. This would then be taken further through extension based work where the pupils work with minimal adult intervention on skills which are known to have been generalised. In many ways our approach to teaching starts with the traditional and becomes more progressive as the pupils demonstrate competency, a journey from traditional acquisition through to progressive application, within curricula structures which start off broadly progressive, become traditional before returning to the progressive. A fluidity which allows us to maximise the potential of the exceptionally complex children that we work with.

So considering this, admittedly brief, summary of our approaches, where do we sit within the context of the traditional or progressive debate. My view is that we are neither, but at the same time both. We are Progressively Traditional, or possibly Traditionally Progressive?


Assessment Innovation Fund – Frank Wise School’s proposal

The work referred to in the blog has now been made publicly available and can be found here:

Alternatively it can be downloaded as an iBook with the accompanying videos embedded within the text. This is free to download and can be found by searching for ‘Frank Wise School’ within the iTunes store.

Since the announcement by the DfE of the schools allocated funding under the Assessment Innovation Funding programme, there has been little in the way of detailed information made available. The press release indicated who the schools were and gave a brief summary of what their bid was comprised of. @shaun_allison has blogged on his successful application, but there is still a lack of wider information available to schools about the content of the bids and how they may help schools beyond the use of the NC levels. So on that basis I thought it may be helpful to share what we are doing and how it may be used more broadly to support pupils in both Special and Mainstream settings.

What areas does it address?

The basis of our assessment tools are grounded in what we describe as the Intellectual and Reasoning Curriculum. This is comprised of the cognitive skills which are prerequisite of later learning and are often developed intuitively by children in their formative years. However they are not always fully developed or effectively generalised and in our experience are often the root cause of developmental delays or slower than expected progress.

The ares which are focused on can be seen here in a broadly hierarchical illustration of developmental progression:

ImageIt is important to make the point that this is not a comparative assessment and will not provide graded scores or produce data in order to track progress. What it does do is provide detailed formative information about the extent to which specific areas of development are in place and which require additional attention. We would argue that without the knowledge that these areas of development are well formed and able to be generalised and applied, then any further learning is likely to be built on shifting sands. You may not see delayed progress immediately, but it is likely that at some point gaps in cognitive development will have a negative impact on progress. As such it provides a strong foundation for whatever systems of recording progress are used and can be used as a precursor to any formal or informal system a school chooses to use.

Here is an explanation of what each area focusses on in a little more detail.


SIGHT     To focus on or track visual stimuli without there necessarily being an interpretational factor to the response.

HEARING     To listen to or turn to auditory stimuli without there necessarily being an interpretational factor to the response.

TASTE / SMELL     To respond to taste/smell stimuli without there necessarily being an interpretational factor to the response.

TOUCH     To respond to tactile stimuli without there necessarily being an interpretational factor to the response.

Responses to a range of stimuli may be observed over long timescales in order to observe and then teach more refined responses. This may be carried out in combination with a study of preferences as demonstrated by consistent responses with the long term aim of teaching pupils to use these responses to communicate intentionally.

FINE MOVEMENTS     Some pupils need to learn to increase the control or range of the fine physical movements that they are capable of making with their hands. This may include grasp and release, rotational movements or isolating parts of the hand. These skills may be taught through the use of a variety of interesting materials and physical prompting where appropriate.


Play can be one of the most effective ways to enable young children to develop a variety of abilities including language and communication, intellectual and reasoning skills, social skills and physical development. Consideration is given to ensuring the children experience variation in the environment, on a range of scales, as well as in the materials presented. The children are encouraged to explore and interact with the materials in increasingly complex ways. The adult may remain present in a largely observational capacity, occasionally tactfully involving themselves in a subtle manner in order to assist a child’s development. The following sequence is used as a notional framework through which development may progress, although it is acknowledged that children may acquire skills laterally for an extended period of time, or in indeed in a non-linear manner.

EXPLORATORY PLAY     Children explore and manipulate unfamiliar objects, materials or toys.

SOLITARY PLAY     Children play without involving others, either independently or as a continuation of previous play.

SOCIAL PLAY WITH AN ADULT     Children play with an adult who guides, supports and extends their play, encouraging imitation          whilst always valuing and following the child’s own initiative.

SOCIAL PLAY WITH A PEER     Children play alongside each other but will interact with each other when the opportunity arises.

GROUP PLAY     Children develop the ability to negotiate and collaborate with others developing their own rules or playing within established rules.

IMAGINATIVE PLAY     Children are encouraged to role play and to use toys and objects imaginatively within this.


Many pupils with severe learning difficulties do not immediately understand the type of response which is required of them in the learning situation. Very often, before it is possible to teach even the simplest cognitive skills, it is necessary to establish that children can, for example:

Give eye contact to the task in hand
Transfer eye contact from adult to task and back again as appropriate
Point at an object or picture on request
Give an object to an adult on request
Put an object into a container on request
Transfer objects from one container to another

It is only when these good working practices are established that it is possible to move on to basic matching and identifying, in the knowledge that the child has a reliable method of response. Very often, it is most logical to teach early learning responses as a bridge between early stimulation (where the child is the passive respondent) and the teaching of simple visual perception skills (where the child is expected to be an active participant).


SEARCH STRATEGIES     To eliminate possibilities in search of an object which is conceptually perceived as still present, though hidden from view (object permanence). As well as learning to find items covered by a range of transparent, opaque, rigid and flexible objects, the pupils would also be taught to anticipate objects disappearing and reappearing along the same trajectory when passed along a tunnel or behind a screen.

CAUSE AND EFFECT     To develop the concept that an action or initiative can have a directly linked effect upon something else. This would be taught through a range of activities using various resources including instruments, balls, bricks and switches connected to ICT equipment.

ENVIRONMENTAL CONTROLS      To develop some control over the immediate environment through the use of switches, beginning with a choice of at least 2 switches. For example, choosing between using a switch to operate a musical output device or a switch to operate a fan. This could develop to operating an increasing number of devices in the world around them using a switch panel. This would be particularly relevant for pupils with some motor impairment.


2-D REPRESENTATION     To recognise that a two-dimensional photograph or picture can represent a three-dimensional object, or group of arranged objects, progressing from coloured photographs, through coloured illustrations to black and white illustrations.

COLOUR     To match, identify and name colours, and to discriminate between shades.

SHAPE     To match, identify and name basic shapes, and to match irregular and complex abstract shapes requiring closer visual discrimination.

SIZE     To match, identify and name objects according to their size: ‘big’, ‘little’ and ‘middle-sized’, and to match objects according to their size working with greater ranges requiring closer visual discrimination.

SPATIAL     To visually recognise the differing spatial relationships which can exist between objects in table top situations. This may include arrangements of objects as well as objects seen in different ways, such as from varying angles or as a silhouette.

Once these basic visual perception skills are established, further work on close visual discrimination may be undertaken. This would include matching or locating increasingly complex shapes, and later letters and words, within larger choice arrays. These tasks may be made more complicated by requiring the pupils to match words within a set of words that begin with the same initial letter and have the same shape. To reduce the risk of children using sight vocabulary or phonics as visual cues, nonsensical combinations of letters may be used.

Visual sequencing may also be taught, firstly through copying and later through continuing a repeating pattern of shapes, letters and words. This concept, along with the skills for close visual discrimination, provide an invaluable foundation for learning to read.


To discriminate between everyday sounds and relate them to their source. This would include identifying them, probably by selecting a corresponding photograph, and, where appropriate, naming them. This may develop from individually heard sounds to recalling and repeating sequences of sounds including non-verbal everyday sounds (musical instruments or recorded), individual words and later single-syllable speech sounds.


To identify the exact nature or quality of a tactile experience. This may begin by distinguishing between objects or surfaces through tactile exploration and could progress through identifying items or locations by their tactile qualities. If appropriate, pupils may be taught to define increasingly minimal differences between tactile surfaces or objects in order to develop their ability to infer meaning from the world around them. This would be particularly relevant for children with a visual impairment.


To refine hand/eye co-ordination and the development of useful manual skills, leading to the use of pencils, scissors, paintbrushes, tools and household implements. These skills would be developed through learning to make a range of movements of increasing complexity, beginning with drawing a straight line on a page in varying directions, working through drawing basic shapes to forming letter shapes. Similar processes would be carried out for using scissors and other basic household tools.


CATEGORISING     To categorise objects or pictures according to given criteria. Initially the children work with simple concepts, for example sorting animals and vehicles, and could then progress to more abstract groupings, such as items associated with a particular task or room. Once these basic concepts have been established, they may progress on to defining which item does not belong with other items presented, firstly with items that are otherwise identical and later with objects that are similar in function or association but       visually different.

TEMPORAL SEQUENCING     To recognise and understand that certain events have a natural sequence which must be logically followed. Developing this understanding begins with placing just two or three pictures that depict a sequence of events into the order that reflects how they would occur in everyday life. It may well be taught using photographs of the pupil themselves carrying out a familiar or favoured activity in the first instance and then the children would progress to organising a sequence of photographs showing unfamiliar people and settings. Over time, pupils would move on to working with sets of photographs showing a greater number of stages to the sequence of events. In all instances, pupils would be taught to organise the photographs in a horizontal line, working from left to right in order to establish this important concept that lies at the foundation of reading and writing.

SHORT-TERM MEMORY     To improve short-term memory skills. This would initially be taught by encouraging the children to recall an object or picture that they have been shown after is has been hidden for just 5 seconds. Both the length of time and the number of objects would be gradually increased, although only through adjusting one variable at a time. Once it is clear that the children can recall items using the visual cues, their skills may be extended through asking them to remember increasing numbers of words spoken to them verbally over greater time periods, thereby developing their auditory recall. It is important to note that when teaching this skill, the pupils may need to visit the tasks briefly and intermittently rather than rehearsing repeatedly, in order to promote clear thinking.

How does it work?

There are a battery of assessments which address each of the identified subsections in isolation, allowing for the person conducting the assessment to focus in detail on each aspect of the child’s cognitive development. In combination this will provide the necessary information to construct a cognitive portfolio, highlighting either individual areas requiring further development or trends across multiple areas.

Each assessment is task based and can be completed by any member of staff instructed in how to do so, with each being completed 1:1rather than as part of a group. Whilst this is time intensive it is important to enable staff to draw out the subtleties of the child’s engagement with the task as well as their attainment within it. The areas being focussed on can then be built into other areas of learning in order to consolidate understanding and ensure that the skills can be generalised.

The nature of the tasks can be personalised in terms of the criteria for success and the repetitions required to demonstrate a sound body of evidence. This provides the flexibility necessary to be able to perform objective evidence based assessments of children who present differently from day to day due to medical or behavioural factors.

Schools are able to select resources that are appropriate for the individual and as such address the potential issues around age appropriateness, access from a sensory or motor control point of view and motivation.

What does it do?

It enables teachers to develop a better understanding of the nature of the impact of any identified learning disability on the basis of the child’s unique individual need, rather than risking making poorly informed presumptions based on generalisations around characteristics of specific disabilities.

This allows teachers to develop individualised targets which match the child’s cognitive priorities and therefore enables pupils to make purposeful, tangible progress in comparison to setting targets based on a more generic system.

It ensures that teachers are in an informed position with regard to establishing factors related to delayed progression, enabling interventions to be more focussed on specific cognitive areas rather than broader subject areas. This provides an opportunity to address gaps in a systematic and developmentally appropriate manner, using evidence of cognitive understanding as opposed to subject based evidence of concept acquisition or application.

It also provides an opportunity to investigate cognitive development proactively. There is no need to wait for the symptomatic indicators of developmental delay before using the assessment. It provides teachers with a tool which can enable them to check for hidden delays preemptively.

It directly links to the creation of Individual Education Plans which in turn influence the content of lesson plans within the context of a broad and balanced curriculum. The information can be utilised in such a way as to both inform direct teaching one to one and the application of acquired concepts and skills in broader contexts.

The information also ensures that teaching and planning is informed by individual need and therefore serves to address developmental delays formatively, in advance of delayed progression within specific subjects. The identification and addressing of developmental gaps results in a more secure foundation for further subject-based learning.

The system is developmentally determined, rather than by age, so is inclusive of all pupils of all abilities. As mentioned above, as the resources for the implementation of the assessments can be personalised then it is also possible to be inclusive of individual motivations and address particular multi-sensory needs as well.

This assessment is particularly effective when considering specific needs of children with identified SEND or who may be exhibiting developmental characteristics which might need further analysis.

This is an objective assessment which avoids deficit based conclusions, but rather identifies capabilities and areas for improvement within the context of a developmental continuum.

The information is based around specific developmental markers which are progressive by nature and broadly linear in construction. It is easy to summarise attainment based on those aspects which have been completed successfully and then identify which aspects are next step priorities.

As the information is cognitively based rather than subject or content based, then the areas to be developed can be applied within any subject. This is also supported by the fact that the areas addressed are prerequisite and therefore applicable to all subjects, just at a very early level.

The assessment lends itself to narrative summary of the areas completed or being worked towards. As such these are generally easy for families and other professionals to understand as there is no assessment specific language or knowledge necessary to analyse the information.

Who would you use it with?
We use this assessment as our main tool for establishing early developmental need and as such every child who starts at the school goes through the process of being assessed in this way. This is irrespective of whether they start at our Assessment Nursery, or if they transfer to us from another school later on in their education. However there may be other ways in which schools would want to make use of the assessment, depending on the numbers of children they wish to assess and their capacity to deliver the assessments. It is also important to recognise that this is not a SEN specific assessment. Nearly all children will go through the process of acquiring these skills, it is just that some will do so more quickly than others.

In order to make best use of the assessment and maximise its impact on pupil progress, it may be that schools would want to focus on groups of pupils such as the following:
Children with a statement of SEN
Children on School Action or School Action plus
Children in receipt of Pupil Premium funding
All children on entry to EYFS
All children on entry to the school
Those who constitute groups with identified attainment gaps within the school

What next?

Whilst we have been using the assessments for many years and are therefore well versed in completing them, this has been within the context of a fairly small team with access to experienced members of staff.

In order to disseminate them effectively we will need to produce documentary information and guidance as well as some film based illustrations of them being delivered. This will ensure a level of consistency in terms of their completion and enable people to refer back to source materials about how and why they are used. This will take a bit of time to put together, but we have committed to making it available by January 2015. In the meantime if there are any particular questions or queries then please get in touch using: