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How trust between a special school and Learning Ladders helped overcome challenging changes to their curriculum

Vikki Macrae
Oct 11, 2018

I am the Assistant Head for Teaching and Learning in a large, two-site Special School in Burgess Hill, West Sussex. We opened as a new school in 2012 and I have been here as Head of Primary and then Assistant Head since we began our journey as Woodlands Meed. I have responsibility for Teaching and Learning across phases, from Early Years to the end of Key Stage 3. We are a school with a huge range of needs, from PMLD (Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities) to high-functioning Asperger’s learners – so our work here is varied, to say the least.

special school curriculum changes

Our work with Learning Ladders began in 2014 when the new curriculum and “life without levels“ became a real challenge. We absolutely did not want to go back to the days when reported progress only showed “working towards,” which, for many of our learners, meant showing any progress across the year would be impossible. A return to all our learners being “W” for their school career was something we definitely did not want to repeat, so we started searching for a solution.

We attended a presentation at Hiltingbury Junior School and immediately saw that, with a few adaptations, Learning Ladders could be the tool we were looking for: it would be able to show small, incremental steps of progress made by our learners within the new curriculum. We decided to proceed with working with them and soon noticed several impressive things about how they worked:

  • They worked closely with us, maintaining clear communication throughout the process.
  • We were able to create a ten-step ladder system for P levels and early National Curriculum levels which would allow us to track progress.
  • The target-setting system they built meant we could show in real terms how children were progressing.
  • They helped us initially roll this out to Key Stages 1 and 2, and then Key Stage 3 came on board two years later once we were more established.
  • They helped us adapt the mainstream model to suit the Special School Curriculum needs and we are very grateful for their efficiency and support with this.

special school curriculum changes

Learning Ladders has worked very successfully at our school for the past three years and we now have a solid data base for the whole school for over two years; this data is invaluable.

It was all going swimmingly until the DfE announced that P levels were to be dumped – within the year! changes like this rock all schools, but in a Special School, where evidence of progress can be such a gradual thing, any assessment changes can be detrimental.

Fortunately, we were able to be part of the pilot scheme for the new pre-Key Stage Statements which would replace P levels for English and Maths. We trialled them with our Year 2s and 6s and fed back to the DfE. The draft statements were sent to us for comment in May and, although there were tweaks and changes (and the statements did look more workable) there are still some aspects that we don’t find helpful for learners with difficulties – these policy changes always come with growing pains. The final statements are now in place for this academic year and we will work with what we have.

special school curriculum changes

We feel better able to take on these challenges however, because of our work alongside Learning Ladders. The biggest task is now to recreate our P level ladders so that the pre-Key Stage Statements are reflected, while still retaining the original 10 steps we built for each ladder. We don’t want to lose the relevance of our previous data, so have had to map each new statement to our existing ladders for continuity.

The technical side of creating these new ladders, and the complexities of retaining our data so we can show similar progress to the “old” ladders, has been lovingly problem solved with the Learning Ladders team. We feel assured that any glitches will be ironed out quickly and that even though we are a little ‘off piste’ compared with the Learning ladders mainstream model, we are well taken care of. It’s reassuring that, despite not being their ‘typical’ school, we are treated just like everyone else and solutions are found for us, even when some adaptations have to be made.

We have now rewritten the ladders for English and Maths and these are being converted by the Learning Ladders team as we speak. Although there are no official pre-Key Stage Statements for Computing and Science yet, we are in the process of adding these to our ladders so we have relevant data for these subjects, too. it’s important for us to maintain a wide range of subjects for our students and use Learning Ladders to help us assess these, not just the subject requirements from the DfE.

special school curriculum changes

In terms of the future of special schools, we are excited that the demise of P levels actually gives us the opportunity to revisit our curriculum and allows us to create a more relevant offering for our learners. We are spearheading a project with other West Sussex special schools to use ‘key milestones’ for the purposes of moderating together. This large piece of work is being trialled this year and we have used the key milestones work in our ladder creation too. This is so that it reflects data collection and benefits students long term in illustrating the progress they’re making across their school careers, despite national changes to the curriculum.

We feel positive about the future of our school. Even with swift changes being introduced by the DfE, our confidence is high as we know the consistent, steady influence throughout it all, giving us the tools to cope with change, remains Learning Ladders.

By Vikki Macrae, Assistant Head for Teaching and Learning


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