Tag Archives: assessment without levels

The Rochford Review : A Review

One of the things I get asked, every so often, is what Sam’s mental age is.  I understand the question, I really do.  It comes from a desire to understand him, to give the asker a framework upon which to build a relationship.  All of us have had contact with children, in one way or another, at some point in our lives.  When we talk about a three year old, we have an image in our collective imagination.  We think of Thomas the Tank Engine, or digging and making mud pies in the garden.  When we talk about our ten year old, we know it means Minecraft and stories, falling out of tress and a growing sense of the world around them, and their place in it.  To ask someone’s age is a way to understand a person, or an attempt at it, anyway.

But the thing is, when I am asked this question about Sam, I can’t really answer.  He is fifteen (not sure how that happened), and in many ways he is typical of his age group.  He plays terrible music far too loud.  He slams the bedroom door.  He is slowly and steadily eating us out of house and home.  He is that weird mix between independent and vulnerable.  He says, and does, things that are both annoying and endearing, thoughtless and hilarious all at the same time.

In many ways, though, he is anything but.  It is terribly easy, when one is engaged in a bit of Down’s syndrome advocacy, to infer that there are no real, no substantial differences between his development and that of his typical peers – but that wouldn’t, to be totally honest, be honest. It’s a complex and contradictory thing to try to explain (thank goodness I like a bit of nuance and paradox), but I’ll give it a try.

He likes loud music, but it could just as well be the musical times tables  he’s had for years, or Christmas tunes (I have to admit they get on my nerves a bit when they are blaring out over the July garden), as the latest pop tunes to strut the hit parade, by bands/artistes I don’t know, and have no desire to know either.

He is interests in cars, but he doesn’t want a poster of a red Ferrari on his wall.  He’d rather play with his collection of toy lorries and line them up in intricate patterns on the floor.  When you ask him what he wants to do when he grows up, or who he wants to be, when he says, ‘Eddie Stobart’, it isn’t clear whether he means he wants to be a lorry driver, or star in  YouTube video and sing the Eddie Stobart Twelve Days of Christmas.

That’s the funny thing about Down’s syndrome.  In many ways it’s a magnifier, a slow motion lens that allows you to see the details you would otherwise miss.  It throws the things you already half-knew, the thing you felt in your gut into to relief; you can get them out and examine them in detail.  When I look at my other children, my younger two, or I think about the classes I have taught over the (ahem) twenty or so years I have been a teacher, I can see that they, the typical and the not so ordinary, are not so different after all – but not in the way you might first think.

At first, when you meet them, the massed ranks of Year 4, you could reasonably assume that they are broadly similar.  For a start, they are roughly the same size.  They (usually) fit the furniture.  The stories we tell them appeal to their age group, the things we teach them fall into a similar patter, year on year.

And yet, when we get to know them, just like Sam and my younger two, you realise that the boxes you had assigned to them don’t quite fit.  Lego, and interested in girls.  Voracious reading, disappearing into the imagination, and an interest in the world that surrounds; endless chatter, but no capital letters or full stops when it is written down.  A desire for independence, with cuddly toys and bedtime stories.

I’ve been looking at the way we assess children in school for work, you see.  I’ve been thinking about how we have moved away from the broad brush description of development that the levels used to be and into an age of expected standards for year groups, regardless even, of the month of birth.

It’s a difficult thing to describe, a child’s journey through a national curriculum, in the same way that a mental age is an inadequate way to talk about my son, because despite their similarities (and yes, we are more alike than different), they don’t all meet developmental milestones all at the same time and all int he same way on one morning in the May when they are seven, or ten years old.  And the new descriptors in the Rochford Review, pushing the possible standard met in Year 6 to six, for me, rather begs the question of whether the expected standard is to be, well, expected.

And I suppose this is the thing.  It is all well and good to summarise, to quantify at the end of a school career (or at specified points within it – and for Sam, this is once a year at an Annual Review), what a child can do.  But, accountability aside, when we turn the language of progress into one of expectation related to age, and there is more to be said about what a child cannot do, about the way that they have not met expectations, I am disturbed.

I wrote about the removal of National Curriculum levels here: https://notsoordinarydiary.wordpress.com/2013/11/20/filling-in-forms/

I’ve written about assessment in my book, Inclusion for Primary School Teachers, available here : https://www.amazon.co.uk/Inclusion-Primary-Teachers-Outstanding-Teaching/dp/1472921143

I wrote about assessment and SEND here : http://www.specialneedsjungle.com/honest-and-useful-assessment-for-children-with-send-is-not-just-about-attainment/

Top of the Tree

I am regularly infected with what seem like Good Ideas at the Time.  Swimming lessons are a perfect example.  When Sam was a baby I got carried away by all the hype and took him to baby classes, where he proceeded to catch every bug going and regularly puke in the pool, much to everyone’s eternal delight, I’m sure.  Later, after I realised that it maybe wasn’t such a good idea, I transferred my enthusiasm to pre-school lessons at the local pool.  Swimming is great exercise, especially for those possessors of low muscle tone, and, living as I do in a town that is dominated by its situation at the confluence of two major English rivers, it forms an important part of life; to not sign your kids up and reserve them a place almost as soon as they are toddling is almost out of the question here.

The thing is, though, that mine never really took to them, not in the early days, anyway.  Sam was so little that his feet didn’t touch the bottom of the learner pool.  He was never warm enough, and I failed to take into consideration how distracting the pool environment is to a little boy with sensory issues.  All those Nemos on the ceiling, you know, the ones children look at when they are learning to swim on their backs, the echoes, the perennially shouty style of swimming teachers.  It wasn’t long before he wasn’t paying attention.

And A.  He wasn’t much better.  I have to admit, I signed him up with the sort of smug self-satisfaction that exudes from the parent of a child who has found everything easy so far.  He crawled at six months, was toddling at eleven. Physically forward, especially compared to his older brother, I had no doubt in my mind that swimming would be the same.  How wrong could I be?  It took me a little while to realise that the strange mooing noise of distress was coming from my child.

Swimming lessons are funny things.  Unlike school ones, that happen behind the mysterious doors of the classroom, far from the prying eyes of parents, swimming ones happen in full view of everyone.  Every week for a year I took them, and sat, slowly melting, waiting for their half hour in the water to end before wrestling sticky-wet boys back into their clothes for the journey home.  Every week for a year I chatted to friends and kept half an eye on what was going on in the pool.  Sometimes I kept both eyes glued; fascinated, disquieted.

It’s always interesting watching someone else teach your child.  For a start, there is the ‘I wouldn’t do it like that’ factor.  It’s so easy, when you are on the outside looking in, and when you have a good bank of years teaching primary aged children behind you, to see the little one daydreaming in the corner or the way that the initial explanation was glossed over.  It’s easy for you, who has not got the responsibility for a large group of children in your hands, to see how certain behaviours can be misinterpreted.

For me, it was a plain as the nose on my face that A’s bouncing around, his chatter and the constant looking the other way came from nervous anxiety, not a lack of discipline. The shock of that first lesson, which I blithely supposed my three year old would take in his stride, took a long time to subside.  After a year, when his progress towards swimming had gone in the backwards direction, we called it a day.  And Sam.  Why was I paying for someone else to call him naughty, to do him down?

You see, I think we automatically assume that our children won’t be the ones caught looking out of the window when they ought to be looking at the teacher.  It’s never our children sent quaking in their shoes to the head teacher’s office to answer for their childish crimes.  If we thought it was, if we knew that it was our baby’s name on the black cloud, missing precious minutes off their golden time each week, or enduring an undiluted diet of phonics and maths via intervention after intervention we might feel differently about the system.

Or progress.  The national curriculum levels are no more and we are currently mid-consultation about their replacement.  In an educational age of measures, how do we prove that children are getting better at doing the things we are teaching them?  Against which scale are we to measure them now?  Our Great Leaders seem to favour some sort of system whereby we compare the children to a national standard.  Which is fine if yours is the one achieving ‘mastery level’.

But what if they aren’t?  What if your child is told, year after year, that they aren’t an Acceptable National Standard Child?  What if, year after year, you open a report that, rather than celebrating what they can do, instead, tells you, yet again, that they are Below Expectations?  How does it feel then?  When, instead of being top of the tree it turns out that they are the bottom of the heap?

Because in a system of mastery and national standard children, where we rather unimaginatively give our children, as well as our schools, a mark out of four, only one of which is acceptable, the vast majority of them will be there, at the bottom, marked as failures, or defective, from their earliest years.

And you don’t have to have a child with Down syndrome for that to happen.

The swimming?

Well, for a short time I decided to teach them myself.  I bought a book and everything.  For a short time they valiantly, and successfully resisted my efforts.  In a very short time I gave up my attempts to teach and played with them; I stopped trying to force them before they were developmentally ready.

They are all good swimmers now.