Assessment: Life after levels for SEN pupils

Written by: Daniel Sobel | Published:
Image: iStock

A recent day of discussions between school leaders from across England focused on the impact that the move to assessment without levels might have on vulnerable pupils, especially those with SEN. Daniel Sobel reports on some of the challenges, solutions and conclusions

At the end of January, I directed an event for 65 heads and school leaders from across the country to discuss what “life after levels” means for SEN or vulnerable students. I have summarised the findings in this article in three sections:

  1. What are the challenges that schools are experiencing with life after levels?
  2. What best practices were shared?
  3. What issues do the Department for Education (DfE), Ofsted and related agencies need to address?

The event took place over 24 hours and many interesting ideas came out. Notably, we spent a lot of time discussing what “rapid and sustained progress” actually means for this cohort of students.

What are the challenges that schools are experiencing with life after levels?

There is a lack of clarity as to what alternative systems are available, what schools have been trying and what they have found to have worked. A repository of information about what schools across the country are doing, with successes and failures, would be very useful.

Before the practicalities, there are some key questions that are not clear. For SEN and vulnerable students, what exactly are we trying to achieve in our assessments? What are we assessing – the success of the curriculum or the success of the student? And what do we mean by success for a student operating at P levels?

Perhaps this is why the heads expressed concerns that those children who are not ready to perform at “age-related expectations” leave us with a complicated problem because they do not fit in a standardised model – and there is a distinct danger of them being disadvantaged because of a lack of clarity and subsequent rigour.

One challenge became apparent very early in the discussion – there is no standardised language. All school leaders expressed that they would like to moderate with other schools even more broadly than they already do, and yet how do you compare with other schools? What is it we are trying to check with moderation? Can we moderate with schools using different systems?

For the sake of training and national discussions, we need a common language – not for verification purposes but for the purpose of comparing and collaborating between schools.

Questions were raised about how we ensure parents understand what is going on and whether their child is making real progress. A significant challenge for parents of SEN students is how to engage them fully with the curriculum, as opposed to simply prioritising their socialisation and life-skills.

Other challenges raised include ensuring that new systems do not drive teaching, but are based on teaching and the curriculum. Furthermore, the need to ensure there is room for creativity and to embrace individuality and support “spiky profiles” – such as seen in those on the autism spectrum – were important issues. This means something that enables students to experience achievement even if not always linear progress.

There was an agreement that the quality of evidence and clarity of criteria of whatever system is key and that we need to develop a much more nuanced understanding of SEN pupil development and perhaps even in micro steps.

The inherent problem with this is that small step progress for all pupils creates an overwhelming amount of evidence.

All agreed that, especially with vulnerable pupils, readiness to learn has to be a key priority. Again, the question was raised of how you map this? Traditionally with this cohort there has been a gap between the curriculum needs and goals for the pupil.

What would assessment look like if it was not driven by the curriculum but rather the pupil? Related to this is the challenge of coordinating between a lot of staff and ensuring each stakeholder knows their role in the new curriculum.

Ultimately the discussion of the challenges faced by schools can perhaps be summed up by one headteacher’s comment: “As a group of schools we all share visions related to students leading independent fulfilling lives, but how do we know if we have achieved this? What is a measure of this? Do we measure on an individual basis or are there standardised measures?”

What best practices were shared?

The headteachers discussed a range of approaches that seem to be having a positive impact. I have attempted to list some of these here:

  • A “What if I?” document for every child, who is profiled against these what ifs. For example: “What if I arrive late every day? What if I have EAL?” This is a standard formula that can be applied to all students and helps both them and the school to focus on the affirmative. Similarly, “can-do” statements are very useful.
  • Pre and post-assessments to inform teaching and learning and also assess against what has specifically been taught.
  • Flight paths or trajectories are useful for all categories of SEN as they bypass the traditional summative model that assumes that all pupils should be making adequate progress linearly. Trajectories show how students could be making progress across a range of skills specific to their make up.
  • Something that measures holistic, personal progress as well as interventions and therapies.
  • Parallel curriculums allow for more specialised learning and freeing the teacher to explore more relevant learning.
  • Developing school partnerships for moderation (and wider than just verifying judgements).

Furthermore, the following assessment advice was shared by the participants:

  • Look in the mirror: when a pupil is not performing, look to yourself as a teacher first and how you have affected that individual’s day before looking at the child’s lack of performance.
  • Demonstrate an understanding of the impact of anxiety and life events on how progress can vary and how a linear trajectory doesn’t make sense for many pupils.
  • Remember, it’s not “what does it look like?” but “have they got it?”.
  • Identify barriers to learning – especially social and family factors.
  • Develop an ethos of getting it right for every child – regardless of where they are and what their barriers to learning may be.
  • Teacher judgements and the conversations the teachers are having, video evidence and work scrutiny are also important progress information alongside progress over time (as opposed to per-lesson).
  • Impress upon Ofsted that they need to recognise our expertise with these pupils. Ask them to listen to the story and see how we fashioned the plan to meet their needs.
  • Be confident in what we do – strategically plan with the best interests of the children at heart and put on a brave face to Ofsted – stand your ground!
  • Levels need to be relevant for parents. Ask them if they understand your system.
  • It is important for Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) to accurately link to target-setting.

What issues do the DfE, Ofsted and related agencies need to address?

Data is still too much of a focus for external judgements and inspectors need to look at the wider story. Often judgements are a result of the data person in the school being good at talking about the results and do not really reflect what real progress and attainment means for the bottom 15 per cent of pupils.

Ofsted needs to rethink in terms of “progress information” rather than “progress data” (Jean Gross). Possibly think more in terms of mapping the curriculum half-term by half-term and constructing what each child should know, do and understand in a broad approach that captures the journey of learning.

  • Many SEN and vulnerable pupils are being forced to engage with learning which is not suitable or appropriate. Ofsted/DfE currently seek a “best fit for all” model, whereas we need to move towards an individual mastery model which encourages personalised, bespoke and creative learning.
  • As with most areas of SEN and vulnerable students, there needs to be a considerable focus on professional development for the average teacher to fully understand the nuanced developmental factors of SEN. Progress measures are only as good as the people applying them.
  • There is a need for quality time to assess and demonstrate deep learning, learning over time, and to work out what to assess and when.
  • It is important to recognise the expertise of our schools – trust and recognition that we are teaching what the child needs.
  • Key stage 5 remains untouched by the life after levels investigations and this is an area that urgently needs thinking about.
  • How individual schools deal with the more complex cases needs to be brought higher up the agenda so that schools are able to share their expertise and concerns.
  • There needs to be greater clarity from local authorities about EHCP targets – how to present the evidence, what evidence is required, and the expectations around evaluation.


We know that life after levels is more of a process then a quick change and any school that is convinced they have it all sorted is probably missing something. The cohort that has always presented the greatest challenges might just help shove us more in the direction that we need to be in for all pupils. This is a potential epoch change and I feel strongly it would be a wasted opportunity if we did not address the key points recorded in this article.

  • Daniel Sobel is founder of Inclusion Expert which provides SEND and Pupil Premium reviews, training and support with all forms of inclusion. Visit

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