Target setting for children with special needs

You can’t get away from data these days. CATs, FFT, RaiseOnline, departmental targets, yearly targets – the list goes on and on. Working in a special school means that I only teach children who are statemented (hold a statement of special educational needs) and have a variety of needs. Until recently there wasn’t much of an emphasis on data and targets for special schools, they were always left to tell their story because they couldn’t be judged by the same standards as mainstream schools.

Colleagues who work in mainstream schools often complain about unrealistic targets and the constant drive to hit them. What about children with SEN? How do we set targets for these children? Well there is good news and bad news! The good news is that there is an additional data set, collated from children who have special needs across both mainstream and special schools. As part of these data sets are a set of matrices that give expected progress from a given starting point. For those who haven’t seen it before, it is a product of the National Strategies initiative and a download link is given at the bottom of the page. We now use progression guidance to set targets for our students, and we can use the data to compare progress with lower, median and upper quartiles within that data.

The bad news is that this data set is a crude tool and makes no account for individual needs (it is after all representative of many students with their collective results combined) so you’ll have to decide for yourself if a target is appropriate. Progression Guidance is also one of the main indicators that Ofsted have for inspecting special schools like my own – and the inspectors are well versed in its use. Worse of all is that to be a good school, we have to be setting targets (and without good reason, achieving results) in line with the upper quartile from this data set – aspirational targets. For those of you who are familiar with Fischer Family Trust data (FFT), the upper quartile targets are roughly in line with FFT A data (at least for the students in my school).

So where does this leave you? If you are in a mainstream school and teach students with SEN I’d recommend you download and flick through the Progression Guidance document for yourself, it might be useful for your target setting process (primarily for maths and English). If you are in a special school then I’m guessing you will already be familiar with Progression Guidance since the document was published a few years ago, but you might not have realised how much Ofsted come to rely on this document when inspecting special schools.

progression guidance document

Teaching science to SEN students – ideas and strategies from #ASEchat (on Twitter)

Tonight the focus of #ASEchat was on teaching science to SEN students.  (If you want to know more about #ASEchat on Twitter read this).  The full text of tonight’s chat on Twitter can be found here (in my unofficial archive) or on the ASE site here.

The chat session started off discussing the P-levels and the new guidance that had been issued earlier the same day by the DFE.  It was felt that the levels for P7 and P8 were harder than those for level 1 which is supposed to be more challenging.  @Cleverfiend explained that this was because the P-levels were added to the national curriculum as an afterthought.

The topic moved onto strategies to use when teaching SEN or lower attaining students.  I’ve included the twitter ID of those who mentioned each strategy so you can get in touch if you want further details:

  • Pictorial or symbolised instructions for use for practical work (also good for EAL learners) – @ejw232 @cleverfiend
  • Repetition using different tasks @ejw232
  • Use of digital photography to create the method and turning them into a digital photostory @Mallrat_uk
  • Use of low literacy activities with not much writing. Collaborative poster work, wipe clean surfaces, pictures instead @90_maz
  • For low literacy levels, lots of emphasis on key words, lots of practical, short notes, diagrams @13loki
  • A reminder that you may go back to previous key stages or select parts of the curriculum for students who have SEN.  However @cleverfiend reminded chatters that there is already plenty of repetition in the national curriculum as it is!
  • Use of symbol software like communicate in print @90_maz (@cleverfiend reminded purchasers to check their stringent copyright terms first)
  • Repetition of key words by the class @anhalf
  • Relevance to everyday lives. An example given was making speakers from cupcake cases @asober
  • An interesting debate broke out about writing on walls and desks (using appropriate pens). @mallrat_uk and @cleverfiend were in favour.
  • Use of Velcro to display key words and allow repositioning on wall @cardiffscience
  • Voicethread as an assessment tool @asober
  • Scaffolding or using writing frames. They allow students to focus on the content rather than the structure @biolady99 @cleverfiend
  • Use of random name picking like The Hat to select random pairs @cleverfiend
  • Use of special software on iPad to create comic strips @mallrat_uk
  • Clear learning objectives, use of WALT and WILF @biolady99

Accreditation at 16 was varied across the schools discussed, ranging from GCSE (AQA B) through BTEC to Entry level.  It was felt that the new format of linear assessment for GCSE wouldn’t suit children with SEN.  The final word however must go to @anhalf who reminded us that “defined learning outcomes, well-pitched lessons are no different for sen than mainstream!”

Useful links:

Differentiation–what does it look like in a mainstream classroom?

‘Differentiation is the process whereby teachers meet the need for progress through the curriculum by selecting appropriate teaching methods to match the individual student’s learning strategies within a group situation.’

Visser J, Differentiation and the Curriculum, Birmingham, 1993, University of Birmingham

Differentiation is the responsibility of each and every teacher and should be a routine part of planning. Only the teacher can differentiate their own lessons – it can not be delegated to the Learning Support department or simply copied out of a book.

Types of differentiation

Differentiation by outcome

Giving all students the same task (and any supporting resources) and letting students attempt it at their own level. E.g. create a poster to show…


For Against

•Easy for the time pressed teacher

•Can be controlled in lots of different ways (e.g. setting a restriction on number of words for more able students)

•Suits assessment activities – e.g. level assessed tasks in science

•Frowned upon since for many it’s the easy option

•Still needs careful planning to make sure those at the top of the ability range are stretched

•Can lead to behavioural problems as weaker students finish a task quickly (or perceive it as too hard)


Differentiation by support

Giving all students the same task and teacher directing more attention to specific students/groups of students. Could also be giving weaker students supporting materials for a task or specialist apparatus (e.g. a digital thermometer)


For Against

•Requires very little set up and planning time

•Can challenge and stretch students more than just differentiating by outcome

•Groups can be given less support rather than extra

•Can involve teaching assistants

•Can be hard to spread support or give where needed

•Can be used to avoid setting a suitable task in the first place


Differentiation by grouping

Putting students in groups chosen by the teacher. Could be grouping by ability, gender, interests, social/behavioural groups or mixed ability.


For Against

•Easy to organise

•Can promote behaviour and classroom management

•Mixed ability groups allow activities to take place that might not otherwise be possible (and more able students can benefit from this approach too).

•Need to know your group

•Need to set clear ground rules and promote a culture of cooperation in your class


Differentiation by resources

Giving all students a similar task but giving different resources. For example a students doing an experiment and then one group of students given a scaffold to support their investigation whilst another group might only get a list of equipment.


For Against

•Good for practical subjects where students may be working on the same task.

•Could be as simple as giving a number line to a group of students in maths

•Allows all students to achieve & progress.

•Takes more teacher time setting up than some techniques e.g. differentiation by outcome

•Can create a management problem where some groups perceive work as being different to/easier/harder than that of their peers

Differentiation by task

Giving students a different task to do based on their ability, interests or aptitude.

Could be as simple as getting each group to present the same information in different ways e.g. a scene in Shakespeare – a poster, a comic strip, a story, a play or an essay

Could be setting a different task for students – e.g. working on different sets of maths problems, working on different texts, reading different stories/plays etc.


For Against

•Can greatly reduce risk of failure for SEN students and challenge G&T students

•Allows all students to make progress

•Promotes engagement

•Can tailor lessons to strengths of individuals

•Much more teacher intensive

•Needs careful management to avoid students opting to do another groups work or seeing it as easier/more desirable than their own

•Assessment can be harder for the teacher

Where to start?

•Learning objectives – all/most/some or levelled objectives

•Knowing your students – subject assessment data, reading ages, CATS scores etc

•Be organised – teachers need a work-life balance. Throw in drama activities etc that require little marking, use peer marking & self assessment


This post is taken from a presentation I gave at a mainstream school recently.  Is there anything you’ve done that you’d like to add – if so I’d love to hear your comments below.