SEN: It’s goodbye to P scales

Written by: Suzanne O'Connell | Published:
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So now the pre key stage standards have been released, what are we to use to track progress for ...

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They were never flawless, but P scales have become the accepted currency of SEN attainment. Now they are set to go, Suzanne O’Connell looks at what’s replacing them and what schools think about it

In October 2016 a group led by Diane Rochford published their final report looking at the statutory assessment for pupils working below the standard of national curriculum tests. A consultation on the recommendations from the report closed on June 22 earlier this year.

Now, the government has issued its response to the Rochford Review recommendations and, finally, it can be confirmed that P scales are set to go. In their place teachers will be able to use what are currently the interim pre-key stage 1 and 2 standards for pupils working below the level of the test.

Within a system driven by accountability, any group or subject that cannot be assessed is likely to lose out. The use of P scales to provide a method of marking progress was not without its problems. However it at least provided some tools for those keen to keep the needs of pupils working below the level expected on the radar. Teachers and SENCOs, in particular, will be anxious to ensure that their replacement does the same.

The review’s recommendations are divided into assessment for two groups of learners with SEND:

  • Those engaged in subject-specific learning.
  • Those not engaged in subject-specific learning.

It is the first group that mainstream schools are most likely to cater for. The second group refers to those pupils who have the greatest needs.

Pupils engaged in subject-specific learning

  • Replacement of P scales with pre-key stage standards.
  • Review of the interim pre-key stage standards.
  • Introduction of two new standards – “emerging” and “entry”

Following the introduction of the new curriculum in 2014, amendments to the P scales were long overdue. They no longer coincided with the entry to the standards expected, making it more difficult for teachers to establish a bridge between the two. However, the P scales are part of a common language and consultation results reflect this.

In the Rochford Review, many people (40 per cent) did feel that there would be important information that they could no longer access if P scales are removed. Fifty-five per cent disagreed. What people seemed most concerned about missing was a shared language that they have grown accustomed to using, even though this no longer synchronised well with the new curriculum.

It will be the reviewed pre-key stage standards that will replace them. Overall, most respondents (65 per cent) believed that these are clear and easy to understand, although occasionally it was felt that they would benefit from being broken down into smaller steps.

The DfE has decided to support the use of the pre-key stage standards as opposed to P scales and believes that people will become used to the new shared language in time. To address some of the concerns raised, the interim pre-key stage standards in writing have already been revised and will be ready to use in the 2017/18 academic year.

A whole scale review of the interim standards are planned and two additional standards are intended – “emerging” and “entry”. Their introduction is to ensure that all pupils will be covered who are engaged in subject-specific learning. To help teachers understand and apply the standards, exemplification materials will be produced. These will be available to use alongside the final pre-key stage standards from 2018 onwards.

Dr Rona Tutt was involved in tweaking some of the pre-key stage standards with the aim of giving greater recognition to children who may not communicate through speech or learn to read through phonics. She agrees with their rise in status from temporary to permanent markers for pupils with SEND.

She told Headteacher Update: “Most people were in agreement with making the interim pre-key stage standards permanent and including the finer gradings suggested in Rochford’s second report. I think the main reason why this is a good idea is that it gives these pupils a direct route into the key stage standards, so, where possible, they can progress to the main system.”

However, Dr Tutt recognises there is still work to be done on them and is pleased that the opportunity to do this is being given.

Pupils not engaged in subject-specific learning

  • Pilot the proposal that pupils not engaged in subject-specific learning will be assessed primarily on cognition and learning using the seven areas of engagement.
  • Pilot the proposal that schools will be free to choose the approach to assessment that suits their school and pupils.
  • Give further consideration to whether assessment data will be collected by the DfE.

For those pupils with severe or profound and multiple learning difficulties there will be a focus on cognition and learning for statutory assessment purposes. This should not undermine the provision of other areas of need but should cover the seven areas of engagement for learning: responsiveness, curiosity, discovery, anticipation, persistence, initiation, and investigation.

The areas of engagement are considered to be the ones that are pre-requisites to subject-specific learning. The type of assessment applied by schools is to be left to them: “Schools should be free to assess pupils against these seven areas in a way that best reflects the needs of the individual pupil and the curriculum that they follow.”

Dr Tutt is supportive of the distinction for special needs children: “I agree with Rochford’s decision to divide those previously on P scales into those engaged in subject-specific teaching and those who aren’t. For the latter, I agree with using the seven areas of engagement and the P scales becoming non-statutory, as the latter are hierarchical whereas the seven areas of engagement better represent the way children at this level are more idiosyncratic in their learning and the order in which they pick up skills.”

However, the results of the conclusion were split perhaps more than we would like. Fifty-four per cent of respondents agreed that statutory assessment should focus on cognition and learning in comparison to 40 per cent of respondents who disagreed.

“Given the split, I think the DfE is wise to go for a pilot. Also this will be a new area for schools,” Dr Tutt noted.

If schools are allowed to develop their own forms of assessment then it becomes difficult to collect and use this data in any meaningful way. The Rochford Review recommendations will only come into practice from the 2019/20 academic year onwards. In the meantime, P scales will continue to be used for this group of learners.

Staff training

  • Development of detailed “toolkits” for initial teacher training providers to use alongside the framework.
  • Development of specific SEND resources for teacher training.
  • Piloting of a peer-to-peer approach to moderation.

The training of teachers and support staff in implementing the new standards will be key and Rochford recognised this. As local authorities no longer have the capacity to play as much of a leading role in CPD, it will be down to schools themselves and their clusters and chains to deliver some of the training.

One area that is still relatively unexplored is the collaboration between mainstream and special schools. This will be particularly important in the case of the use of the seven areas of engagement. Peer-to-peer moderation and support is currently being promoted across a number of DfE proposals. In theory this could work well but also needs support and guidance.


The results of the consultation might not have been conclusive but the general feeling is that P scales were no longer fit-for-purpose and a change was needed. It will take time, training and support to ensure that teachers feel sufficiently skilled to use the new assessment measures correctly. 

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and a former primary school headteacher.

Further information

Primary School Pupil Assessment: Rochford Review recommendations including the government response, Department for Education, September 2017:

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So now the pre key stage standards have been released, what are we to use to track progress for children working at these lower standards? The document clearly states that these are for end of term assessments only. At least p scales were developmental in their approach.
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