How Assessing Without Levels can make a difference at your SEN school (part I)

This blog has been written for us by former deputy headteacher of an SEMH special school (and now Arbor's SEN specialist!) Daniel Giardiello.

Five years have passed since the 2013 review of the National Curriculum first gave schools the chance to Assess Without Levels (AWOL).

In this blog, I’ll talk about the initial interpretations of these reforms, the challenges that they created for schools and just how this opportunity can be used to meet the needs of learners more effectively. With over 13 years of teaching under my belt, this blog is informed by my own personal experience, and I’d welcome any stories that you may have about ‘going AWOL’ with assessments in the last few years!
Into the unknown

In 2013 I was appointed Deputy Head of a special school for children with Social, Emotional and Mental Health (SEMH) needs. Assessment reforms had just been announced, so it was a tricky time to venture into leadership as I had to really challenge my own position on assessments (at the same time as getting to grips with being a Senior Leader). I became involved in local focus groups, during which we would collectively try to make sense of what the changes meant for our schools (having been given very little official guidance on the matter!). We spent a lot of time going over our options before ultimately reverting back to a ‘safety in numbers’ approach, deciding to assess using statistically driven systems. In many ways, this wasn’t so different from levels…!
On reflection, this sudden autonomy to assess any way we liked was, whilst being a step in the right direction, perhaps too big a change for many teachers. The majority of qualified teachers practicing in England who were tasked with carrying out AWOL reforms came into the profession after 1989 (levels were introduced at the same time as the National Curriculum to schools in England & Wales under the Education Reform Act 1988). Therefore, most people involved in school level decision making, myself included, had very little experience of assessing in a way that wasn’t primarily focussed on national benchmarking and age-related expectations.

1. Why do we assess? For the school or for the child?
The research driving the 2013 assessment reforms discovered that in higher performing jurisdictions around the world, children master fewer concepts but in greater depth. Educators make sure key concepts are mastered before moving students on, rather than pushing them all through curriculum content at a uniform pace. These core AWOL principles have received a wide consensus of support, but haven’t been easily implemented in an educational system where a culture of performance comparison is arguably the primary driver for most decision making.
Knowing that your results are constantly being compared against the school down the road, and that you’ll need to be ready to make a case for your school on an accountability framework at the drop of a hat does create a need for schools to seek external assurances that what they are doing is right. A whole marketplace of curriculum tracking software has therefore opened up to help these schools get this. Numerous standardised assessment frameworks are available to give schools an idea of how their internal tracking fares against other schools also using the system. Whilst this is helpful to schools for the purposes of self-evaluation against national criteria, it’s worth noting that the concepts assessed using these methods are established by externally standardised practice only and are not informed by the contextual needs of the students in the school.
In the pressure cooker environment of school leadership where you are constantly balancing operational demands with strategic decisions, it is completely understandable that opting for standardised approaches is more manageable, and will help you to know if you’re “Good” or not. There is certainly a place for this kind of assessment. However, to improve on this, the context of your learners should also play a large part in determining what else you measure as being appropriate progress for them. This is especially the case for SEN pupils, and in my experience SEMH pupils, where provisioning for individual need is hard work - but undeniably more meaningful and rewarding!
2. The opportunities for AFL in the SEN context
Before AWOL, my experience of assessment for SEMH students was that of measuring a specific range of knowledge and skill variables against a national framework and periodically confirming that they were underperforming. I would feed back to them about the ways in which they could improve in these areas but didn't stop to question the appropriateness of the process itself or the prioritisation of content for them as individuals.
3. When it came to looking at their progress in the purely academic context, they were indeed not making very much. By narrowly focussing on just the academic elements of learning, I was not giving them enough opportunity to build up the cultural capital they would need in order to overcome their difficulties and succeed. It was the learning dispositions such as emotional literacy, self-regulation and conflict resolution that were influencing their lives and decision-making abilities the most, and were also the root cause of academic underperformance in the first place. To be true to the principles of AFL, I needed to incorporate collaborative assessment where pupils became more aware of these metacognitive aspects of learning as well as subject related knowledge and skills.
Aspects of learning such as self-confidence, self-awareness, managing feelings and making relationships receive a lot of attention in the EYFS framework used in early years provision but are broadly left behind in favour of more academic curricula when students reach school age. For many students with SEMH though, these still need to remain at the forefront of their schooling as pushing for academic success can only really be achieved when building from the right social and emotional starting point.

I’ll be posting part 2 of this blog next week, so keep an eye on the website for updates! 

Recommended reading:
8 steps to help manage change in schools
3 ways of centralising data for schools, MATs and LAs
Why have 4,000 schools moved MIS to the cloud?