What is the difference between closing a gap and diminishing a difference?

The release of the new OSTED documents is always a sign for teachers that summer is really over. This year we can breathe a sigh of relief as there seem to be few major changes. However, for those teaching disadvantaged pupils and those with SEND there has been a subtle change of language in the new OFSTED handbook. Gone is the language of ‘closing the gap’ and in its place is ‘diminish the differences.’

This would imply an acceptance that there are differences between children and differences in their attainment and rates of progress. Further, that the aim is to diminish these differences, rather than to close the gap and eradicate them.  For disadvantaged pupils OFSTED uses the language of progress and attainment. While for those with SEND the focus is solely on progress. This implies an understanding that what identifies children as SEND is their different rates of progress and attainment.

The handbook makes it clear that OFSTED understands the impact on attainment data of large numbers of SEND. This is not new.  But it is something that many have been arguing for, and about, for a long time.  OFSTED is not without understanding of this, but Head Teachers and SENCos need to be able to tell their data story explaining how many children with SEND there are and illustrating their progress, not only across the school, but within the different sub-groups. We all need to be confident that OFSTED are not expecting children with SEND to attain at the same level as those without.  Paragraph 187 is clear ’evaluations should not take account of their attainment compared with that of all other pupils.’ We need to be clear about which children have SEND and if/ when they are also part of other sub-groups, particularly disadvantaged pupils, summer born boys and English as an Additional Language. With this latter group, it must be clear that your school does not equate EAL with SEND, but at the same time does not ignore SEND among the EAL cohort.

If we reduce the significance of attainment as a measure of effectiveness of support for children with SEND, we need to be confident to measure and record progress. This is particularly difficult in a world without levels. Different schools are using different assessment schemes and measures. This is confusing for teachers and even more for inspectors where every school is talking a different language. It is worth producing ‘an idiot’s guide’ to your school’s assessment and tracking systems. This is useful for new staff and governors and vital for inspectors, if they are to understand quickly how you measure and track progress and attainment. This is particularly so for children with SEND who, almost by definition, are likely to be working below age related expectations.

To measure progress, we need to know where a child starts. In the OFSTED Handbook there is much about comparisons with those with similar starting points.  But this is where issues arise. It is not made clear how either schools or inspectors are to do this or where the data is to come from.  How is this to be measured and recorded and by whom? It might become clearer with this year’s RAISE release, however that will only relate to the end of Key Stages. The real problem is that such comparisons are very difficult and largely meaningless.

What does those with similar starting points mean? Each school, and indeed each cohort and child, is unique. To compare two children as having similar starting points meaning; for example, they both have communication and interaction needs does not allow for the vast range of individual differences and difficulties within these board umbrella terms. Equally, eligibility for free school meals is a huge and highly varied cohort. There are vast differences between a high performing individual temporarily unemployed, so in receipt of benefit, and a family living in inter-generational poverty with no clear way out and a newly arrived refugee from a war zone.  This means that comparison with those with similar starting points is going to be a complex, frustrating, and controversial issue.

Even comparisons to previous cohorts within the same setting are dubious.  Populations and degrees of difficulties are changing. In no cohort are the individuals in one year group an exact match for those in previous or future years. This is even more true when you consider only the smaller population pool of those with SEND.  There is the urban myth of the OFSTED inspector berating a school for the poor performance of their Asian boys. When it was pointed out that they only had 3 such pupils; one was a recently arrived and highly traumatised lone asylum seeker with little English, one had been in hospital throughout the assessment period and was now dead, and the third had left the school without completing any assessments. We must be ready to clarify and highlight such issues before OFSTED begins to look at them.  In any small cohort, the impact of each child’s data is statistically greater than in a larger group. We need to be ready to explain our data around this.

Further, there is a particularly odd element in the Handbook (paragraph 186) stating that inspectors should make comparisons of children in a resource based provision with similar children in the mainstream. Equality of provision would suggest that such children should not exist. If they have the same needs, they should receive the same provision. If their needs are not the same, the comparison is not valid. What is important for those with a resource based provision is that we are able to explain the role, purpose and impact of the provision. I had the ‘delight’ of trying to explain to an HMI the difference between a primary school nurture group and a secondary school exclusion room! Don’t assume the details of your provisions are obvious. This should be part of the preliminary conversation between the Head Teacher and the Lead Inspector. Ensure you make good use of it and have written documentation to support it.

Still we are left to consider each child’s starting points and how to document them in a clear and quickly assimilated form. Some form of baseline screening gives an indicator of progress from a starting point. But particularly for those with SEND, an academic baseline is only a very small part of the story. One of the keys to successful work with children with SEND is the identification, tracking and celebration of small step progress, including that which goes beyond the academic. This can be done through effective individual support plans and for those with EHCP/ statement annual reviews. But do we show and explain this for OFSTED?

In addition, what are its implications when we are discussing disadvantaged children? For these children academic progress and attainment are often only a very small part of their story. In many cases, the real story is about how schools support these children’s welfare, so that they are able to access learning. For vulnerable pupils, learning can only happen when their basic safety and welfare needs have been met. We need to be confident that this is key to the work of an outstanding school. Without it learning cannot be effective. The comparison and data story of similar starting points needs this to be explicitly explained as it can be difficult to show by simple raw data. A child’s academic progress and attainment does not necessarily explain their battles to achieve it or the difficulties they faced from their starting point. Further, how do explain progress or lack of it when circumstances change and events intervene impacting on children’s starting points: illness, accident and injury, family breakdown, crisis and bereavement all impact on children’s learning, welfare and progress. We need to be aware of children’s additional vulnerabilities, the impact of them on their learning and how we show the effectiveness of the school to support the child to overcome them. Case studies are vital, but OFSTED can only consider so many of them.

So we need something more. We need clear records showing progress in steps, percentages or whatever works for the setting, individuals and groups. But further, we need notes and explanations of this. How many children in a primary resource based provision are transitioning to a specialist secondary provision? How many vulnerable children have succeeded against the odds? What additional or different arrangements are being made for pupils? Are the school’s interventions appropriate and effective?  How have these impacted on progress? Work that accelerates progress and diminishes differences is the basis of an effective school. We need to be clear that we can explain how our schools do this.

Please note:

·         There is minimal change in the wording of the grade descriptors. Contact me for a copy of the grade descriptors which highlight the changes.

·         The Early years and 16-19 grade descriptors retain the language of closing gaps.

Contact me for information on vulnerability scales to support the identification of vulnerable pupils and the creation of an effective data story.

From the OFSTED Handbook

Pupils who have special educational needs and/or disabilities

185.                    Inspectors will consider the progress of pupils who have special educational needs and/or disabilities in relation to the progress of all pupils nationally with similar starting points. Inspectors will examine the impact of funded support for them on removing any differences in progress and attainment. The expectation is that the identification of special educational needs leads to additional or different arrangements being made and a consequent improvement in progress.

186.                    Inspectors will consider whether any differences exist between the progress and attainment of pupils in resource-based provision and those with similar starting points who have special educational needs and/or disabilities in the main school. Inspectors will report on any differences and the reasons. When considering any whole-school published data on progress and attainment, inspectors will take into account the impact that a large number of pupils in resource-based provision might have on these figures.

187.                    For groups of pupils whose cognitive ability is such that their attainment is unlikely ever to rise above ‘low’, the judgement on outcomes will be based on an evaluation of the pupils’ learning and progress relative to their starting points at particular ages and any assessment measures the school holds. Evaluations should not take account of their attainment compared with that of all other pupils.


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