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Recommendation 1 – Removal of P levels

The contents of this page are extracted from our Response to "Rochford Review: Final Report" that was first published in November 2016. The document can be downloaded in its entirety by clicking here.

As is often the case with big ideas that an important concept ends up being used differently to how it was originally intended. Everyone understands the idea in a slightly different way and takes from it what is important for their needs. They share their interpretation and the next person takes what is important for them. Every time the information is passed on, the original idea has changed.

The P scale was a set of levels designed to work with the National Curriculum for pupils working below level 1. It was not perfect, but it gave a structure and allowed schools to show progress. P levels also gave schools a common language to evaluate the progress for pupils with SEND. The jumps between levels was broad and the progress between levels often took a long time. Due the nature of the pupils, there was a lack of exemplar material. There were some projects designed to tackle this, the DfE produced a document and a number of local authorities produced their own moderation. However there was no consistent standard. Pupils in Primary and Secondary who are working towards SATs or GCSEs generally have exemplar material and guidance on the levels expected of the pupils. This was always missing for pupils with SEND.

The nature of pupils’ needs also made judgements difficult – what one pupil found easy, another pupil found difficult. Pupils didn’t learn in the linear way that the Government suggested. This lead to pupils appearing to make limited or no progress, yet they had often made good progress.

The challenge for schools and companies working with schools was to find a way to make assessing with the P levels work. The Government frequently talk about how important standardisation and moderation is for learning to be effective. Teachers must have the same understanding of what is required of pupils for specific attainment levels. Without this, teachers will not necessarily agree on judgements or what the next step is.

At B Squared, our method was to breakdown the P levels into Small Steps. This has a number of benefits:

  • Standardisation – Teachers have a better understanding of what is required for each level.
  • Non-linear learning – Skills can be achieved in any order, from any level.
  • Smaller steps of progress – Schools can show progress within levels, not just moving from one P level to the next.
  • Improved understanding of needs – By seeing a pupil’s strength and weaknesses, schools can understand the pupil better and tailor learning to suit.

There are a number of agencies/organisations who work between a teacher and the Government. This is often where a good idea gets diluted and sometimes skewed for their requirements. A number of the negatives of the P levels are not necessarily from the Government’s initial document, but how they have been implemented. As the P levels are a linear scale, expectations, targeting and performance judgements were introduced. Some people saw P levels as equal steps. Pupils were suddenly expected to make linear progress and schools and teachers were judged by their pupils’ linear progress. This lead to a number of issues. There were a lack of national standards for SEND pupils, so how can teachers and schools be held to account? Teachers felt pressured to push pupils up through the P levels. Once this started happening the P levels stopped being what they were initially intended to be.

At B Squared we have always used P levels slightly differently. We have broken down the P levels into smaller steps. Levels to us, are a group of similarly challenging skills that the Government deemed to be achievable for pupils operating at a similar ability. They are not intended to be used to teach to and they are not in a prescribed order of teaching. Pupils can achieve the skills in any order, they can make progress on any level and we report the pupil’s current level as this is the information that the Government wants. With our approach, schools can show progress for pupils who are “stuck”, i.e. pupils who cannot currently achieve all the skills required within their current level. Instead schools can look at the progress on the levels above or below where they may be making progress.

The Progression Guidance which was released in 2010, was a useful, powerful document from the Government. The document provided extremely useful information about progress, how it should be judged and that the Government understands (a) progress is not always linear, (b) P levels aren’t equal and (c) the amount of progress is individual to each pupil.

When the Progression Guidance was summarised or when people wanted to know what the focus of the document was, they often referred to the tables showing expected pupil outcomes. To some people, these tables became the sole purpose of the document and they used these tables exclusively to judge progress. This was probably the biggest issue with the document. The pages before the table contained a lot of useful information. At B Squared, we used this document regularly during training sessions when we talked about expected progress and the idea that schools shouldn’t chase level progress. The second big issue was that the data set used to show expected progress only contained a limited number of pupils. This meant that schools easily dismissed the tables containing expected outcomes. Sadly it was often this information that was used to judge schools. A great document showing that P level progress is not linear and that schools shouldn’t expect linear progress was ignored by a large number of professionals as the incorrect message about the document was shared.

The Progression Guidance talks about non-linear progress for some pupils and how progress for these pupils should be judged differently. The document also suggests that pupils’ progress should be judged against each student’s individual potential. Prior attainment and the Progression Guidance data should have been one of a basket of indicators for judging progress. The tables should not be used on their own.

Clearly, learners in the fourth quartile have made better progress than those in the first quartile, but it is important to remember that, depending on individual circumstances, a learner could be performing in the upper quartile and not have made good-enough progress, or could be in the lower quartile but still have made good progress. Intelligent use of data, other sources of information and professional judgement allow schools to ask the right questions and find the right answers about whether progress is good enough.

DfE, 2010. Progression 2010-11. Pg. 19. Crown Copyright


I wonder whether when people say that the P levels aren’t fit for purpose, they are referring to the P levels themselves or how the P levels have been used as a judgement of performance and progress?

Where the P levels are found lacking, is in their lack of breadth. The P levels were designed to be used with the National Curriculum. The National Curriculum dictates the curriculum, scope and breadth and the P levels provides the framework for the assessment of pupils working at lower attainment levels. The P levels are not always used this way, they are sometimes used on their own, the P levels defining the curriculum as well as the assessment - resulting in a lack of breadth. The P levels focus on academic development including subject-specific learning. However, the SEND Code of Practice: 0 to 25 years define four areas of need:

  • Cognition and Learning
  • Communication and Interaction
  • Social, Emotional and Mental Health
  • Sensory and/or Physical

The P levels concentrate on the Cognition and Learning aspect but it is widely recognised that schools should support development for pupils in all four areas.

So to summarise, the P levels themselves are a way show the academic attainment level for SEND pupils. The main issue is that the P levels have been used as a curriculum and they have been used to judge progress and performance. This was not their intended purpose.

The reason we need to move away from the P levels is due to the way P levels have been used, the need to assess a wider range of development, the need to show progress in a non-linear way and the need for more flexibility to suit the development and individual progress for pupils with SEND. The P levels could be updated and refreshed, but the incorrect understanding and poor use is unlikely to be resolved with a refresh. They may apply the same practices to the refresh resulting in misuse and not the outcome the Government intended.

This does not mean schools cannot use the P levels well and that the P levels cannot be modified to suit a school’s needs. It means that on their own, P levels are not a good way of judging pupils holistic progress and development. Good use of P levels is often part of a wider approach taking other areas of pupil development into consideration.

Over the last five years we have had an increased number of conversations with schools regarding assessment of the ‘soft skills’, the importance of non-academic skills and a more holistic approach. Many schools have already recognised the need for wider assessments than the P scale and the tools linked to it currently provide. We started developing a new way of assessing pupils with complex needs a few years ago and it is refreshing to see that the final report of The Rochford Review’s (the Report) recommendations are aligned with the work we have already done.


How Does this Affect B Squared?

We will be updating our formative assessment, moving away from P levels to a new structure that complements the new statutory assessment framework. There is a lot more freedom with the removal of P levels. This has an equal number of benefits and dangers. We will provide an assessment framework for Cognition and Learning that leads into the Primary Curriculum. We aim to provide a broad curriculum that enables schools to choose content to suit their needs. We will also be providing assessment frameworks for Communication and Interaction, Social, Emotional and Mental Health and Physical and/or Sensory so that schools are able to support pupils’ development fully across the four areas.

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