Rochford Risks

I’m broadly in favour of the Rochford Review, as with anything there are bits that resonate more than others and areas that I am less clear about, but overall this is a big step in the right direction and it is so refreshing that time has been given to reflecting on the needs of an often overlooked group of children.

Now we have the recommendations, presuming that they emerge unscathed from the approval process, we need to consider carefully the sector’s implementation of them.

One of my concerns sits with the movement between ‘subject-based learning’ as mentioned in the statement below:

“There is a small number of pupils nationally whose learning difficulties mean that they will not be engaged in subject-based learning by the time they reach the end of key stage 1 or 2.” (Pg 6 )

and the use of ‘subject-specific learning’ as mentioned in the following sentence:

“Creating a statutory duty to assess pupils who are not yet engaged in subject-specific learning….” (Pg 19)

For me this is problematic as it makes an assertion that children working below a certain level will not be engaged in ‘subject based learning’, which in my mind is very different to ‘subject-specific learning’.

Having worked for some while with children with SLD and PMLD I have taught within a curriculum framework that was very much ‘subject based’, but was not constrained by this structure, offering developmentally determined provision that was focussed on the evidenced needs of individual pupils. You could support progress related to any of the areas set out in the seven aspects of engagement within a Numeracy or Science lesson, you just need to apply the principles of backward chaining, have a good understanding of child development and some robust assessment evidence.

You can be subject based in your curricula structure without what is taught having to be restricted to being only subject specific.

Now you can debate the validity of that approach, but to definitively suggest that children below a certain level are not engaged in it is a concern. The reason for this is that the review has been received by some as a validation of a movement away from a subject based structure, as if schools were constrained by a perceived need to design a curriculum in a certain way. Yet I’m not convinced that we were ever constrained by it.

In Special schools we have had a long standing duty to interpret the national curriculum and ensure that it is fit for purpose. Furthermore the curriculum is purely a framework that creates a structure within which learning takes place. It is not a scheme of work and shouldn’t determine the specifics of what has been taught. The assessment evidence fulfils this role on a pupil by pupil basis.

Now don’t misunderstand this as an advocation of one approach and a dismissal of another, although if pushed I know what I would choose, we need to be aware of the risks of both. At its worst, a subject based structure could become a procrustean bed, diminishing personalisation and focussed on the wrong priorities. However one that isn’t could become a ‘dead crow’ curriculum lacking clarity and cohesion in which a lot is done but little is learned.

The route of my concern is that we cannot afford for the outcomes we achieve to become lesser. Already, despite the great work in many Special Schools, the quality of life and opportunities available to those with SEND are often limited, so whatever curriculum you use make sure you maximise the potential of those you teach and don’t react too quickly to the recommendations here. The freedoms you seek may not serve the pupils as well as they serve the profession.

There is also another concern and that is the separation of the statutory requirement to report on the those pupils working at a pre-key stage assessment level and not those who are operating below this level, on the seven aspects of cognition and learning. This feels like a pragmatic response to the limitations of a chronologically determined system of comparative accountability, but risks creating a two tier system.

We need to be very careful that a system doesn’t evolve in which some pupils’ outcomes become a greater priority than others. To be scrutinised on the outcomes of one group of pupils annually through a data submission and another, within the same school, every three years through inspection, risks skewing the focus school leaders place on the needs of the pupils they are responsible for. We risk creating an environment in which perverse incentives can flourish and which may be difficult to resist, particularly for schools in more challenging circumstances where self determination and indeed jobs can be on the line.

It is important to hold on to the fact that the provision in Special schools must be equitable, focussed on the complex needs of individual pupils. This is something that the sector at it’s best excells at, so we must not let our response to the recommendations of the Rochford Review become a threat to this. There is lots to be positive in the report, we just need to make the best use of it and make its implementation a considered process, not a knee jerk response.