An Action Research Project by Aleisha Woodley
Context and classroom development of differentiated approaches to assessment for those pupils operating well below their peers.
As line manager of the SEND team and in conjunction with the SENCO the need to research this topic was two-fold. After teaching staff Teaching Assistants (TAs) are the second biggest staffing cost in most schools, so deploying them in line with the latest research to maximise their impact on and in supporting pupil progress is vital in gaining value for money. Secondly, after establishing how they should be deployed the best practice from teachers in engaging, supporting and directing this valuable resource is essential. The research phase was undertaken as a combination of a literature review of current research on models of deployment and impact studies on pupil progress as a result. This led to a clear model in the context of St Bernadette’s for deployment of our TAs after observation of the current model and impact. With the following aims:
- Teachers should be more aware of their responsibilities towards low attaining and SEND pupils
- Increase quality of TA interactions with pupils
- Create quality teacher and TA liaison time
- TAs have a clearer understanding of lesson plans, objectives and how to support pupils in meeting them
- Increase TAs self-esteem, value and confidence with a more clearly defined role.
This work was written up in full by the SENCO and implemented at the beginning of 2016-17 academic year. The quality of dialogue and parallel research meant that on-going discussions in learning focus time (CPD time allocated to staff across the school year) and line management time was clearly understood and developed a joint understanding of what was needed to improve deployment of TAs in class and for interventions. The SENCOs project then focussed on developing the understanding for teachers and how they can best direct, support and deploy the TAs with the most advantage in their classroom to improve the progress of pupils.
My consideration for my own classroom practice then focussed on the targets in green (see exemplars below) and on classroom implications for those pupils that work well below the levels/grades of the rest of the class. In the academic year 2015-16 I taught a number of pupils operating well below the rest of the class academically who had a variety of learning difficulties preventing them from fully accessing and operating at the expected level of their peers. I interviewed pupils about their difficulties and how best to assess their understanding rather than their ability to record their understanding. This produced key questions that would assess pupils’ learning and bridging the gap between their understanding and that of their peers as a key assessment tool in class. The pupils’ preferences and recommendations were taken into consideration when developing and implementing these ideas.
Background & Literature Review of TA deployment
The school context:
The school is an 11-16 mainstream Catholic Comprehensive that has 750 pupils on roll with a wide ability range from pupils on P levels to working beyond A* at GCSE. 84 pupils were on the SEND register in the academic year 2015-16. This is 10.76% of the school population which is slightly below the national average. 8 pupils were covered by a statement of Special Educational Needs or an Educational Health Care Plan.
The primary need of each pupil is stated and shared with all teaching staff along with suggested strategies for meeting these needs in class. Specific strategies and external agency advice is sought and shared for those with complex needs or those pupils whose progress is very slow. These external agencies range from ASDOT who are the Autistic Spectrum Disorder Outreach Team; BIS Behaviour Improvement Service: Speech and Language Team; Hearing Impairment Service etc. The use of these additional agencies is identified according to the need of the pupil and their barriers to learning.
The SEN D code of practice states “Special educational provision is underpinned by high quality teaching and is compromised by anything less.” The school has for a number of years required teachers to publish ‘pen portraits’ for each class that highlights the needs of pupils in the class it highlights pupils on the SEND register; Pupil Premium or Disadvantaged; high ability; English as an additional language EAL. Teachers’ highlight the needs of pupils in each category as well as strategies they will employ in meeting those needs in the classroom. This has sharpened the focus on meeting the needs of different groups of pupils and has proven successful in helping to reduce gaps.
Teaching Assistant deployment in class
The 1981 Education Act was the first legislation that outlined the responsibilities of Local Authorities (LAs) and schools in meeting the needs of pupils with Special Educational Needs. (SEN) The right of parents to request a mainstream primary or secondary school educate their child rather than a special school with a population of all SEN children was enshrined in law. Hence the birth of inclusion of pupils with significant additional needs in mainstream schools often referred to as inclusion. Statutory statements were also introduced that set out for pupils with significant or complex needs what help and support should be provided for them. Other SEN pupils without statements were also recognised and the need for teachers to ensure that they make adequate progress made clear. This inclusion of SEN pupils into mainstream schools led to an increased workload for teachers and for former volunteers or helpers to be paid to support SEN pupils in the classroom. These early TAs were often unqualified and many of them were mothers, as school hours fitted around child care. Although the first survey of the impact of TAs was not undertaken until 2009 with the DISS project. (Deployment and Impact of Support Staff) It demonstrated that TAs often worked with the lowest attaining pupils to support and help them access their work. This conversely also meant that teachers spent the smallest amount of time with these pupils. TAs with the least specialist training were working closely with those that arguably, needed the most help. DISS also found that TA interaction with the teacher relieved the teacher’s stress, as they were able to complete administrative tasks and support but did not aid the progress of the pupils in their care as their training was not sufficient to develop their interaction with these pupils adequately. The (MAST) Making a Statement Project found that TAs often had “more responsibility for planning and teaching statemented pupils that teachers.” Pg2. TAs were expected to plan and differentiate on the spot once a lesson had started with little or no guidance from the teacher, (Webster and Blatchford 2013) concluded that one of the reasons was that teachers had/ have limited knowledge on how to meet the growing needs of the pupils in their classrooms, claiming that little or no additional training in their initial teacher training (ITT) courses (EEF 2015)
EEF 2015 showed that the more support an SEN pupil had from a TA the more likely that they would not make as much progress as someone similar with little or no support (Webster and Blatchford 2012) This was not the fault of the TA but how they were deployed and what additional training they had (Blatchford, Russell and Webster 2016). The DISS project had highlighted the lack of TA preparedness, they turned up to a lesson with no idea of what was being taught and how. The TA often had to respond as quickly as the pupils and support the SEN pupil to complete and record tasks often having to modify content as they worked. Using TAs in this way has been highlighted as poor Quality First Teaching in the Code of Practice 2014, which highlighted that the skills of the teacher are needed to focus on the SEN pupil. Blatchford 2012 highlighted the TAs lack of training hindering open questioning and not promoting higher order thinking skills. He went as far as to say that if this was not addressed then it would continue to hold back the progress of learning for those with SEN. Other studies have found that where TAs are trained and do know the content required then they can have a positive impact on progress and confidence of pupils with SEN. Education for Everybody 2015 found that TAs inspire confidence in children, encouraging them to take part and helping them feel safe to participate. Having an additional adult in the classroom also allows teachers to be risk takers, improvising creative ways and practical tasks rather than traditional seated work. (Alborz et al 2009)
Webster 2013 stated “TAs can only be as effective as teachers enable them to be. TAs need to ask what skills or knowledge the pupil they support should be developing and what learning teachers want them to achieve by the end of the lesson.”
The COP 2014 goes further by stating that “teachers are to be wholly responsible and accountable for SEN students in their classroom. Providing high quality teaching and differentiation for those requiring additional support in class; even with support staff in the classroom, and understanding the needs they have.” It is from this point that I considered how best to meet the needs of pupils in my classes and their individual preferences in types and timing of support in lessons.
Context and classroom development of differentiated approaches to assessment for those pupils operating well below their peers:
After completing the literature review and analysis of effective deployment of TAs, as well as the role of the teacher in Quality First Teaching I began to consider the effectiveness of my own practice in differentiating for and effectively assessing those pupils at Key Stage 3 and 4 that were operating at levels 1 to 3 in Key stage 3 and pre GCSE grades equivalent to levels 2 or 3 at Key stage 3 or grades G and F at GCSE. The Code of Practice for SEN states:
A pupil has a learning difficulty if:
- They have a significantly greater difficulty in learning than the majority of other pupils of the same age or;
- Have a disability which prevents or hinders them from making use of educational facilities of a kind generally provided for others of the same age in mainstream schools.
- Under the Equality Act 2010. Schools must not discriminate and they must make reasonable adjustments for disabled young persons.
- The definition of disability in the Equality Act includes children with long term health conditions such as; asthma, diabetes, epilepsy, and cancer. These children may not have Special Educational Needs, but there is a significant overlap between disabled children and young people with SEN.
It also states the school must:
- Be able to identify the young persons with Special Education Needs and assess their needs
- Adapt the curriculum, teaching and learning environment and access to ancillary aids and assistive technology
- Assess and review the young person’s progress towards outcomes
- Support the young person in moving towards phases of educations
- Enable the young person to prepare for adulthood.
- Secure expertise among teachers to support the young person with Special Educational Needs – This should include expertise at three levels; awareness, enhanced and specialist
- Assess and evaluate the effectiveness of the provision for the young person with Special Educational Needs
- Enable the young person with Special Educational Needs to access extra-curricular activities
- Supporting emotional and social development of the young person with Special Educational Needs
- Ensure the young person with Special Educational Needs takes part in actives with children who do not have Special Educational Needs as far as possible
Obviously some of these criteria have direct application in the classroom and must inform planning, teacher development and training to instil these skills and attributes in every classroom and teachers’ day to day practice.
The COP also spells out the direct responsibilities of the teacher in relation to pupils with SEN.
- Teachers are responsible and accountable for the progress and development of the pupils in their class, even if they have support staff or a Teaching Assistant present.
- Where a pupil is not making adequate progress teachers, SENCO and parents should collaborate.
- High quality teaching, differentiated for individual pupils with Special Educational Needs must be provided.
- Additional intervention and support cannot compensate for lack of good quality teaching.
- Schools should regularly and carefully review the quality of teaching for teaching for pupils at risk of under-achievement.
- Schools should regularly and carefully review teachers’ understanding of strategies to support vulnerable pupils and their knowledge of Special Educational Needs most frequently encountered.
- The quality of teaching for pupils with Special Educational Needs and the progress made by pupils should be a core part of Performance Management / Appraisal. Special Educational Needs should not be regarded as sufficient explanation for low achievement.
The COP goes on to spell out what adequate progress is for pupils on the SEN register especially if they have low starting points:
- Similar to that of peers with similar starting points or baselines
- Matches or betters the child’s previous rate of progress
- Closes the attainment gap between the child and their peers
- Prevents the attainment gap growing wider
The school system at St Bernadette’s for setting target levels or grades ensures that each pupil is intended or targeted to make at least expected progress even those with low starting points. The challenge for me in my teaching in a mixed ability class is accurately assessing and developing their progress to the next level or grade when the majority of peers are working at a higher level. Targeted oral questioning is one way it has been addressed as well as assessing written tasks of all pupils against success criteria. The use of TAs in some cases to support pupils has also traditionally been used to gauge pupil progress. TA support is not always possible and is often targeted at those pupils with a statement or EHCP as their support is statutory. Concerns in many of the studies have also been raised including this one. “The most vulnerable and disadvantaged pupils receive less educational input from teachers than other pupils” (Blatchford, Russell and Webster 2016 P18). To maximise the time spent and the impact with these pupils and to accurately assess their lesson by lesson progress was a real priority. In order to establish current practice and the actions to be undertaken I interviewed the pupils I taught in 2015-16 who were operating below the average range of their peers. All of the pupils I taught were also on the SEN register that were in this category. All of them were receiving additional literacy support outside of the classroom.
To focus on the pupil perceptions of their progress and strategies that supported them to do well. I have summarised the most useful comments below each question.
“What do you like that teachers’ do in class to help you?”
- Come and check if I have understood the instructions
- Always have the same routine in class at the beginning and end of lessons
- Come and sit with me
- Give me time to think of an answer
- Read through worksheets or information together
- Point to where you are on the screen
- Make reading simple.
- Help me with presentation
“What don’t you like that teachers’ do to try and help you?”
- Give me different work
- Ask me a question I cannot answer
- Tell me off if I’m asking someone for help because I’m stuck
- Tell me in front of everyone just do this bit
- Give me different worksheets
- Never ask me questions in class on my opinion
- Move on too quickly if I don’t know
“What do you find the most difficult in class to do or try?”
- Lots of writing
- Answer questions in front of everyone I am not prepared for
- Read out loud without help
- Read on my own
- Write simplified information without help
- Complete lots of written questions.
- Answer yellow stickers
- Read teacher’s handwriting on the board or in our book
“What makes you feel successful or happy in your work?”
- Teacher praise
- If I’m asked for my opinion
- Leading something I’m good at
- Completing a task well
- The teacher checking on me and saying good stuff
As a result of the unscientific but helpful discussion with 6 of my pupils I decided to focus on the beginning and end of my lessons. All 6 pupils were working below the average range of the their peers for age related expectations, were all on the SEN register for mild learning difficulties and had received or were in receipt of literacy intervention outside of the classroom. Pupils were all really clear they never wanted to be given a different worksheet or work to do. They were quite happy to start on easy questions that got harder and try to do the more difficult ones if they could. They also did not want to do lots and lots of writing every lesson. Three boys in Year 8 all stated that thinking about writing as well as the question slowed them down. The school expectation is that a lesson objective is shared with pupils for every lesson as well as success criteria and these are used a benchmarks of success at the end of the lesson.
Figure 1. This is the type of slide used at the start of every lesson that highlights the objective as well as the success criteria. These are referenced to new GCSE measures.
Figure 2. These pre-planned or targeted questions have become part of my routine planning to assess the pupils in my class that would normally be operating below the age related expectations. Although I now have a TA for this class I sit with the pupils and assess their knowledge and am able to push their understanding further if they have grasped the basic concepts. I then note progress towards the success criteria. Pupils said they found writing plenaries quite difficult.
Figure 3. This is in addition to above in the application of the required knowledge. Again, verbal questioning and recording by me as the teacher ensures an accurate picture of the pupil’s assessment level in that lesson. It is described and written in this manner so a TA would be familiar with it and could use it if necessary. This planning takes little time, max 10 minutes per lesson and when it has been done it can be used again for different classes. This has become their routine and allows me time to correct really fundamental flaws but also to celebrate their successes.
Figure 4. Success criteria used with the whole class. This is still used with SEN pupils and they can tick where they have succeeded i.e. identifying bulbs or battery in a circuit is possible for them.
Figure 5. These key questions and exemplars break down for the TA or remind the teacher what can the pupil do and what does this mean in relation to the success criteria. It also helps the TA during the lesson to ask relevant questions to help the pupil access the learning.
Figure 6. These three plenary slides have also been used for summative capture at the end of the module etc. The pupils reported fatigue by the end of a lesson so they want to use simple but effective strategies to summarise their learning.
Impact & conclusion
The strategies for questioning at the correct level, developing TAs expertise in questioning and the plenary approaches are all simple tools that have been effective. Some of the pupils I am teaching for the second year will select their own plenary tool or ask for more direct help than they used to if it is not public. A barrier to recording their understanding does not mean they do not understand and their verbal responses can demonstrate their higher understanding. Spending more time with these pupils during the lesson means they become less frustrated and will engage more as evidenced with one pupil that I have taught for two years. He has not received any negative referrals as his level of engagement have risen using these techniques. I have a full record for all of these pupils of how they have performed in each lesson via verbal questioning as well as written assessments produced independently which measure their ability to capture this information.
I routinely use this planning and plenary tasks and this certainty helps the pupils to demonstrate their learning more effectively. Previously, I would have relied on the few verbal questions they do answer in class and their written work.
Alborz, A, Farrell. P, Howes, A., Pearson. D, (2009) The impact of adult support staff on pupils and mainstream schools. London HMSO
Black. P and Williams. D (1998) Inside the black box: raising standards through classroom assessment. London GL Assessment Ltd
Bland. K and Sleightholme. S (2012) Researching the pupil voice: what makes a good teaching assistant? British Journal of Learning Support Nasen
Blatchford P., Russell A., Webster R.(2012) Reassessing the Impact of Teaching Assistants. How research challenges practice and policy. Routeledge
DFE: (January 2015) Special educational needs and disability code of practice: 0 to 25 years – Statutory guidance for organisations which work with and support children and young people who have special educational needs or disabilities
(Featured image: GotCredit, Education key keyboard, CC BY 2.0)