Where are we with the ‘Aspects of Engagement’?

On the 22nd November 2018 the School Standards Minister, Nick Gibb announced ‘Pioneering new approach to assessing pupils with complex disabilities to be introduced in schools’. What is this new approach you ask? That would be the approach recommended by the Rochford Review 25 months ago. The reason for the announcement? The Government has published ‘Piloting the 7 aspects of engagement for summative assessment: qualitative evaluation’. This report summarises the feedback from the trial using this new approach which took place between January and July of this year. We might be making slow progress towards the final guidance from the DfE, but it is progress and that should be celebrated.

The approach the minister is referring to was designed as an ongoing formative assessment process to evaluate engagement, higher levels of engagement should improve educational outcomes. During the pilot schools used the Engagement Scale, a process of scoring each of the 7 areas between 0 and 4, to give a total score between 0 and 28. The higher the score, the more engaged the pupil is and this should lead to improved educational outcomes. There have been suggestions that this score would be used for reporting progress/attainment. I hope not.


“The Rochford Review recommended the adoption of the 7 aspects of engagement as a basis for statutory assessment. As it has never been used before as a summative assessment tool, DfE confirmed it would pilot the approach during 2018 before deciding on whether to introduce it on a statutory basis.”

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for summative assessment: qualitative evaluation

Instead of simply accepting the Rochford Review’s recommendation, the DfE sensibly decided to pilot the approach first. We can now find out how the 56 schools who took part in the trial felt about the new approach.

Not Enough Guidance

Overall it seems that the schools felt there was not enough guidance. Moving from assessing pupil progress in academic subjects using P Levels to the 7 areas of engagement is a complex process. The P Levels have been around for almost 20 years, they are well understood with lots of support and guidance available. The schools are now piloting a new system, looking at new areas of assessment with minimal guidance. Schools had to first identify and fully understand what the 7 aspects are and then what that would look like for their pupils. Once they had identified this, they then had to think about measuring and assessing engagement. Would they use the Engagement Scale? Scoring the engagement between 0 and 4 in each of the 7 areas. Is this a score individualised or is this a standard score across the school? What does the score mean? A lot of schools identified that the engagement scale had to be used alongside something else, it wouldn’t be their primary assessment system for these pupils. But what will they use if P Levels are being removed?

Another Burden on Time and Money

The pilot required schools to support each other, there was time involved in meetings as well as writing, reading and reviewing documents used to share information between schools. Schools spent time going back to the drawing board, thinking about the changes involved and then implementing these changes. If you are changing how you are assessing your pupils in such a drastic way, you are likely to look at your curriculum to ensure you are having learning activities that will help demonstrate the 7 aspects of engagement. The majority of the schools only trialled the system with a few pupils and it still took a considerable amount of time. To reduce workload one school reduced the number of pupils involved in the pilot, obviously not a suitable long-term solution.

Engage Pupils

The feedback in the report was very positive about how professionals should be looking at engagement as part of assessment. If a child isn’t engaging in an activity, will there be any learning?

“In these cases, schools reported that the 7 aspects allowed them to identify how well the pupils were engaged in their learning activities. Some teachers used the 7 aspects data to modify the environment to enhance pupil engagement and progress towards their learning outcomes”

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I think this is crucial and should be happening in every classroom. If children aren’t engaged, teachers should be adapting the approach to increase engagement. This is where the engagement profile works, it helps you think about engagement within a lesson and adapt future learning opportunities.

“Related to this, schools commented that the 7 aspects did not provide a learning outcome or aim for the pupil to work towards, but it did allow them to identify how well the pupils were working towards targets “

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How do I Implement the 7 Aspects and Does Engagement Mean Progress?

This is what caused a lot of discussion and confusion within the pilot:

  • What does the Engagement Scale (28 point scale) mean?
  • How do I use it?
  • What do I do if a child reaches 28 points? Does this mean I move them on to subject specific learning?
  • Do I use the 7 aspects of engagement with the other areas of need?
  • What are the learning outcomes?
  • Is this reliable?

I think the 7 areas of engagement are a good idea, especially when compared to using the P Levels for pupils with complex needs. At B Squared we had already identified that for pupils working below P4 assessing progress against academic areas was not best practice and we wanted to move away from this. We had already started our own project before the Rochford Review released their Final Report. The Engagement Scale (28 point scale) never made any sense to us as a summative end of key stage assessment or as the main assessment tool. It can be used to monitor engagement and help you modify learning opportunities to better suit pupils, but you need something else to help inform learning and to set learning outcomes.

The Engagement Scale Doesn’t Work

The 28 point scale simple doesn’t work as a summative assessment tool. It was obvious 2 years ago it wouldn’t work and lots of schools and LAs have shared with us their concerns about the scale and that it is not fit for purpose for summative assessment. The good news is that unanimously the feedback in the report is the scale doesn’t work.

“There’s variables of the time of day, whether the child’s hungry or not, whether the child’s not feeling well. All of those factors contribute to that [engagement] score, so it doesn’t mean to say if they get a higher [engagement] score that they’ve actually learnt anything.”

Feedback from a school involved in the pilot

The engagement scale needs to be used alongside something else, something that looks at learning outcomes. Professionals can then use their judgement on engagement when looking at progress and look at ways of increasing engagement to increase progress. Once you understand the scale, do teachers need to keep using it or can it be something teachers do in their head as an ongoing process and forget about the scoring?

We’ve used it [28-point scale] as a way to give us some data, because we knew we needed to report on it. But actually, it doesn’t really tell us anything.”

Feedback from a school involved in the pilot

Neither did the Engagement Profile

The Engagement Profile is a paper template from Engagement 4 Learning with a circle for each of the 7 aspects. Teachers would then use this to write down their observations on how the pupil demonstrated the different aspects within an activity.

“What we kind of thought was that you were writing things down for the sake of it and I’m not sure who the target audience is, because it’s certainly not the teacher, because any teacher who is worth their metal, they’re doing that in their head, all day, every day”

Feedback from a school involved in the pilot

It might be a good starting exercise to help you think about the 7 areas, but what would the purpose be long term? It just adds additional work. Teachers should be doing this in their head and adapting as they go, let’s reduce the workload.

Does this Approach Provide Any Useful Summative Information?

“Several schools drew the conclusion that the only way that they could use the 7 aspects for summative assessments was in combination with other tools, for example tools such as B Squared, that record a wider range of achievement steps, including social and physical characteristics, as well as engagement. They felt this way because in their opinion the 7 aspects approach did not cover all areas of pupil development, and because of their perception that assessments only reflected a ‘snapshot’.”

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“I think it is good as a method to help planning and development of new teachers as well as looking at these aspects of how a child engages and the importance of engagement of the child as opposed to going straight to what they are learning academically. In terms of assessing the child, I personally don’t think that would work because it is more of an assessment of how the teacher is teaching as opposed to how the child is learning.

Feedback from a school involved in the pilot

I have highlighted the last sentence as I think this is what engagement really measures. It is about the ability of the teacher to engage with their pupils. A teacher needs to be aware that pupils are not engaged and that they may need to adapt their approach, look at the relevance of the learning outcome and ensure that the level of challenge is appropriate. When a child isn’t engaged, do you change what the child is doing or do you change your approach?
This is what we identified 2 years ago. We started work on our Engagement Steps shortly after the ‘Rochford Review: Final Report’ was released. We agreed with Rochford Review’s recommendations to assess against the 7 aspects of engagement as an improvement over using P Levels, but we didn’t agree with the scoring system. It didn’t provide learning outcomes and it didn’t support teachers in identifying learning outcomes within the 7 aspects. Our Engagement Steps assessment framework took us over a year to develop, building on previous development work we had already completed. Engagement Steps contains a range of skills across the 7 aspects of engagement, split across 6 levels covering from P1 to P6 in terms of developmental level. It is designed so that teachers can record pupil progress across multiple levels to build up an individualised profile, to help schools develop pupil centred curriculums. Schools started using Engagement Steps in September 2017. Several of our schools were involved in the trial and as you can see from the above quote, they found the Engagement Steps incredibly useful as part of the assessment process. Teachers used our Engagement Steps to support them in identifying learning outcomes for pupils, they would then use their professional judgement to look at engagement and to adapt learning experiences to suit. Engagement Steps also covers the other 3 areas of need, supporting teachers to look at the whole child, not just cognition and learning.

“If it comes out that 7 aspects are the way forward, it’s okay for outstanding schools. They will use it as a teaching tool, and probably continue to use other forms of assessment, but schools that only use the 7 aspects, it could be ‘a retrograde step.’ If we go back 30 years, these children who were working at P1 to 4, there used to be a feeling, ‘As long as they’re happy.’ There wasn’t a focus on learning. With this, there is risk that it could lead to ‘As long as they’re engaged’.”

Feedback from an LA involved in the pilot

“If schools do not have to report there is a risk that schools may not be sufficiently challenging them or giving them the right learning opportunities.”

Feedback from LA involved in the pilot

I disagree with this point of view, I don’t think there is a need for schools to report attainment information for pupils not engaged in subject specific learning back to the DfE. It would sadly be used as a judgement by someone. Pupils working at these levels will have very individual profiles and any simplified number used for reporting would not reflect the pupil. Ofsted have already recognised this would not be an effective way of judging progress:
Schools will need to use something else as their main assessment tool, they will use the 7 aspects of engagement to look at teaching and engagement. What should the main assessment tool look like? What should pupils be working towards? Hopefully the DfE will provide some additional guidance around this. Schools will need to ensure they provide a balance between providing a broad but suitable curriculum, supporting the pupil to prepare for adulthood and supporting development towards their EHCP outcomes.

“(200) For groups of pupils whose cognitive ability is such that their attainment is unlikely ever to rise above ‘low’, the judgement on outcomes will be based on an evaluation of the pupils’ learning and progress relative to their starting points at particular ages and any assessment measures the school holds. Evaluations should not take account of their attainment compared with that of all other pupils.”

Ofsted Inspection Framework

When piloting this new approach, I think the pilot is really looking at these 4 things:
I think it should be that schools are required to be aspirational, but they should monitor and report progress to stakeholders in a format that suits their needs.

  • How important is it we look at engagement?
  • Do the 7 aspects of engagement provide a more relevant way of assessing pupil progress?
  • Can we use engagement as a way of judging progress/attainment at the end of a key stage?
  • Do the tools provided by Engagement for Learning support professionals?

I think it is vital schools look at engagement, but this is part of the wider assessment process and cannot be used as the only assessment process. The 7 aspects are a much better approach than the old P Levels, professionals had already recognised that the P Levels were not relevant for pupils with complex needs. However, should we only be looking at the question ‘are the 7 aspects more suitable than the P Levels?’ or should we be looking at what is the most suitable way of assessing pupils with complex needs? Are there more suitable areas we should be assessing?

Engagement is too variable to use as a measure of progress or attainment. There are also many factors that can affect a pupil’s engagement that cannot be overcome easily. There are also questions around should the scale be adapted and used within the context of an individual or is a score of 4 for initiation the same for every pupil? How is this defined? It is too individualised, too open for interpretation to be quantified in a consistent, meaningful, useful way, so let’s not.

The tools provided by Engagement for Learning are great for when a school is starting to look at engagement and using the 7 aspects of engagement. However, on their own they are very limited and provide no real long-term benefit. What is the benefit of recording the information on the templates or digitally over a period of time? It is adding to the teacher’s workload and unless the information is used, should it be collected? Once the teacher understands the concept of looking at and assessing engagement, this is something they can do in their head on an ongoing basis. They can use the language they have developed around engagement when assessing pupils’ progress towards outcomes e.g. Jack showed curiosity when Mrs Jones brought a large cardboard box into the classroom.

Getting Closer

The pilot is finished, the schools have responded and now we have to wait for the DfE to finalise their plans. I think the 7 aspects will stay as schools found them useful on an ongoing basis and they are helping schools change how they communicate pupil progress. The DfE may however reduce the emphasis on the aspects and advise schools to use the aspects as one of their basket of indicators when judging pupil progress. I don’t think the Engagement Scale or Profile will be widely used, it is too inconsistent. LAs prefer information around progress and attainment. I do think more guidance needs to be given to LAs around suitable outcomes for pupils with complex needs so that they focus less on numeracy and literacy and think more about pupil centred outcomes. The information schools provide to LAs around pupil progress and attainment could be quantitative or qualitative, provided it contained enough information. The DfE could (but I really hope they don’t) provide pre-pre-key stage standards for the 7 aspects of engagement. If they did, the focus would be too narrow and they wouldn’t be able to take into account all the different learning profiles for pupils with complex needs. Hopefully they will allow schools to choose an assessment system that suits their needs and their pupils.

What Have B Squared Developed?

Our Engagement Steps framework covers the 7 aspects of engagement and the other three areas of need. It is designed to support pupil development across all four areas of need, not just cognition and learning. It is a quantitative system, but it is designed to be used in a non-linear fashion, pupils can achieve skills on any level at any time. The system is not designed to generate a score, it is designed to use teacher observations to develop an individual profile and to celebrate what a child can do. The system will help identify skills the pupil hasn’t achieved, but this won’t stop a pupil progressing. We released Engagement Steps in 2017 and have received a huge amount of positive feedback from our schools. We are still waiting on the DfE’s final guidance on assessment for pupils not yet engaged in subject specific learning. If this requires any updates to Engagement Steps, these will be carried out free of charge for all customers who have purchased Engagement Steps.

Our evidence platform, Evisense is a great way of capturing, recording and sharing evidence of learning. Schools can use the evidence to show progress, engagement and achievements. The evidence can be shared with parents easily, our feedback has shown that parents have found the evidence to be more meaningful than a score or a percentage increase.

You can find the ‘Piloting the 7 aspects of engagement for summative assessment: qualitative evaluation report’ by clicking here.

If you have any questions about our products or approach to assessment for pupils not yet engaged in subject specific learning, please contact me via email – dale@bsquared.co.uk or you can arrange a FREE online meeting where we can discuss your requirements and how we can support your school to show the progress your pupils are making.