Engaging The Learner With PMLD

This blog discusses the education of pupils with PMLD with particular reference to the Rochford Review (DfE 2016) recommendation that the statutory P level assessment for pupils working below the standard of subject specific learning should be removed. The pupils referred to in this particular recommendation are generally accepted as those working at P4 and below (ie., PMLD), but this is not exclusive because more able pupils occasionally have special educational needs (SEND) which inhibit their ability to engage in and acquire subject specific learning. The Review proposes their statutory assessment against seven aspects (or indicators) of engagement in the area of cognition and learning, using virtually identical terminology to that published in the DfE/SSAT’s “Complex Learning Difficulties and Disabilities Project 2011” (CLDD). Although not referred to specifically in the Review, the CLDD’s  Engagement for Learning Framework (ELF) is now widely accepted as being the most appropriate model for implementing this recommended change in statutory assessment. The Review, however, is not just about changing approaches to statutory assessment it is also about prompting schools to reappraise their specialist provision in an effort to make teaching, therapeutic care and learning more effective, and to better enable pupils to benefit from positive outcomes in the four domains of SEND as prescribed in the SEND Code of Practice (2014 & 2015) and often referred to in the wording of Education, Care and Health (EHC) plans.

PMLD is usually described as a variable range of multiple, profound impairments in the major areas of child development, with the profile of each pupil’s disability varying significantly in breadth and depth of impairment when compared to another pupil’s. Whilst some impairment might be associated with a specific genetic condition and be innate within a pupil, other impairments might be acquired as a result of birth trauma, accidental/non-accidental brain injury, illness and/or as a consequence of damaging environmental factors. Whatever the cause, the nature and impact of each pupil’s disability is entirely idiosyncratic; ie., no two pupils have the same SEND issues to cope with, no two pupils are able to engage in learning in exactly the same way and no two pupils are able to make use of their skills and knowledge in quite the same way as one another.

The DfE definition of PMLD states that all pupils with PMLD have an overarching cognitive impairment made more complicated by other impairments associated with their communication, sensory function, motor function and health. The DfE definition further defines these pupils as generally being unable to progress academically beyond P level 4 which is why these pupils can be immediately considered  as representing the majority of pupils working below the standard of subject specific learning as referred to in the Rochford Review. In place of the P levels, the Review recommends that the statutory assessment of these pupils should focus instead on their ability to engage in the earliest stages of cognition and learning, also recommending that any related reports about their performance in cognition and learning be enhanced by complementary information concerning their progress in the other domains of SEND, ie., physical and sensory; communication; and emotional, social and mental health. There is no requirement made in the recommendations for schools to submit data about pupil engagement in cognition and learning to the DfE, but there is an expectation that the ways in which schools undertake their statutory assessments need to be robust enough to satisfy scrutiny by parents/carers, OfSTED, local authorities and others.

The recommendation that statutory assessment by reference to the P levels should be removed and replaced with an observational framework such as the ELF ought to be applauded by practitioners and families alike. For the first time in a generation of pupils, the qualitative assessment of pupil outcomes in the SEND domains will have priority over the production of quantitative data in narrow bands of national curriculum attainment. Although it is often stated that P levels provide a “common language” with which to judge the standards of pupil attainment, attainment within the P levels can be awarded on a “best fit” basis, with no requirement that pupils are secure in all aspects of learning pertaining to a particular P level and this leads to ambiguity in what we believe pupils can actually do or know. Although P level assessment is only a tiny part of what schools should be assessing in terms of the holistic progress of pupils with PMLD, schools have invested a relatively overwhelming amount of time and expense to track and report P level progress when compared to that given to assessing and reporting holistic progress. On occasion the need to satisfy a perceived myth about an insatiable Ofsted hunger for P level performance data has compromised the requirement for schools to assess and report the impact their special provision has had upon the SEND issues of their pupils and how pupils with PMLD are being prepared for a participating adulthood.

The need for schools to reappraise their provision for PMLD has been long overdue. In 2006 the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT) advised that schools should “transform their responses to the learner from the largely standardised to the profoundly personalised” (Hargreaves). This blog suggests that the ELF is an ideal tool for securing “profoundly personalised” provision for pupils with PMLD, providing that ELF is used as an integral, common denominator within the design and delivery of the curriculum, the use of distinctive pedagogy and the use of combined summative/formative approaches in the holistic assessment of pupils. Educational provision for pupils with PMLD needs to be demonstrably different from what is usual; it needs to be personalised specifically to a specific pupil, organised to make a positive improvement in the standard of a pupil’s cognition and learning in tandem with facilitating improved outcomes in all of the EHC plan related domains.

As teachers of pupils with PMLD we have a duty to know and be able to demonstrate whether we are making a real improvement in the circumstances of the pupils we serve. A curriculum for pupils with PMLD is not about identifying and teaching generic, standardised measures of knowledge; it is about understanding what needs to happen in order to facilitate important improvements in the issues which pupils are confronted with in the four domains of SEND. When interpreted in this way, ‘what needs to happen’ is the production of a personalised learning pathway.

A personalised learning pathway respects a pupil’s abilities in all of the various developmental skills and concepts pertaining to each SEND domain in addition to respecting what issues a pupil may also have in each domain. Careful note a needs to be taken about the barriers posed by their specific issues and also what functional attributes a pupil has already developed in order that personalised teaching approaches can be as empathetic as possible and improvement targets selected that will bring about demonstrable, beneficial changes in a pupil’s circumstances. Curriculum matter has to be personalised not only to incorporate specific improvement targets, but also to motivate a pupil to participate in learning experiences. PMLD has a hugely negative impact on a pupil’s ability to perceive new information and this, in turn, can constrain the extent to which a pupil might be motivated to interact with the outside world. The nature of learning for pupils with PMLD is rarely linear or developmental, so it is essential that statutory assessment measures the learning of these pupils in other ways, and it is very fortunate that ELF is the most effective approach for fulfilling this requirement.

Even though some SEND issues fall into developmental areas that have traditionally been viewed as “health” related (eg., motor development and postural control), provision for PMLD should not be applied in a cold, clinical manner. Quite to the contrary, teaching and therapeutic care need to be fun, motivating and memorable, or else there is little prospect of a pupil being able to retain any memory of learning experiences, far less any concepts and skills being targeted. It is down to individual schools to create their specialist provision in respect to the pupils they have on role, but at the very basic level PMLD provision should include:

  • Specialist Curricula: The targeted development of functional skills and concepts in the EHC domains of SEND;
  • Informal (Thematic) Curricula: Inclusive teaching vehicles to motivate pupils and create enjoyable, memorable and predictable learning experiences;
  • Engagement for Learning: Personalised pedagogical approaches that can facilitate and measure evidence of both lateral and linear progress.

The ELF can be used to judge whether the use of personalised teaching approaches and strategic interventions are actually realising their intended impact and bringing about beneficial changes in a pupil’s learning and SEND issues. The responses which some pupils with PMLD demonstrate can be so subtle that they confound the ability of teachers to monitor whether their interventions are being successful or not. By routinely assessing teacher/pupil interactions in specific areas of provision, ELF can provide a wealth of performance data which can be used formatively to evaluate and refine a wide range of teacher/pupil interactions and ensure that the learning pathways being used are properly personalised and of an optimal standard in terms of their demonstrable impact.

In addition to being hugely useful as a tool for formative assessment, ELF is equally valuable for measuring pupil progress towards specific learning targets – particularly for providing summative evidence of lateral and incremental progress. Ofsted inspectors sometimes decline to inspect the quality of IEP targets claiming that a lack of quantitative data renders SEND related progression irrelevant, and this can be absolutely frustrating to practitioners who know that personalisation is of absolute importance to effective PMLD related teaching and learning. The ELF can readily provide the kind of quantitative data which Ofsted inspectors require to inform their judgements and ensure that the statutory assessment of pupils with PMLD is sufficiently robust. ELF can be used to provide summative evidence of pupil progress, beginning with the baseline assessment of a pupil’s engagement in activities relating to a specific improvement target and then gradually building to demonstrate incremental pupil improvement by reference to the seven aspects of engagement included within the ELF. The ELF has the added advantage of a numerical scoring system which can assist schools to exemplify the learning trajectory of its pupils, even when the standard of such learning is only of a lateral nature and a planned improvement target is still being worked on.

Richard Aird OBE – January 2017