TSP Briefing
Issue 23
July 2018

The gaps and challenges in the SEND landscape

In this issue…


Daisy Christodoulou is the Director of Education at No More Marking, a provider of online comparative judgement. She works closely with schools on developing new approaches to assessment.

Before that, she was Head of Assessment at Ark Schools, a network of 35 academy schools. She has taught English in two London comprehensives and has been part of government commissions on the future of teacher training and assessment.

Daisy is the author of Seven Myths about Education and Making Good Progress? The future of Assessment for Learning, as well as the influential blog https://thewingtoheaven.wordpress.com.

You can also find her on Twitter.


In our latest issue of the newly-minted TSP briefing, Editor-at-Large Edward Farrow speaks with Daisy Christodoulou, Director of Education at No More Marking and former Head of Assessment at Ark Schools in a wide-ranging discussion about the gaps – and challenges – in assessment along with her view on the broader SEND landscape.

I hope you enjoy the new issue and that you will share it with your colleagues.

As always, please contact us if you have any thoughts on what topics you would like to see covered, or what we can do to improve the TSP Briefing further.

Kind regards,

Stuart Curry

Real Group

In this issue…

Since winning University Challenge (2006/2007) you’ve spent four years as a teacher and you’ve written two highly respected books. You’ve also been head of assessment at ARK and, most recently, become the director of education at No More Marking. You’ve been memorably described as ‘a heat-seeking missile aimed at the heart of the educational establishment’ and your outstanding books have fairly and squarely placed you at the heart of the debate.

As a former English teacher, what were the most challenging aspects of teaching children with SEN?

Well, SEN is a catch-all term, so pupils respond in different ways. But, as a former secondary-school English teacher, I suppose that children with reading difficulties can be a particular challenge. When I started out, I didn’t have much training on the things that primary teachers get taught as a matter of course – say phonics, decoding and learning to read. So, for me, when I was training, I kind of took it for granted that most pupils would be able to read. But, actually, that isn’t the case.

So, I think that, as a secondary-school teacher, that’s definitely one of the most challenging bits, particularly because a lot of the curriculum (particularly GCSE) is quite literature-heavy. So, you’re almost assuming a baseline of reading ability and when it’s not there (in Years 7 or 8), it can be really challenging for teachers and pupils. On the other hand, there are also those children with SEN who can decode fluently but have limited vocabularies. And that’s what I’m particularly interested in vocabulary development, how we learn vocabulary, and how you address those speech and language difficulties.

So, yes, as an English teacher, I found children with reading difficulties challenging. But it was these challenges that would be the most interesting to investigate.

What would you say makes a great assessment for students with SEN and how can comparative judgement approaches to SEN help SEND practitioners?

Again, while bearing in mind that SEN covers a wide range, there are a couple of areas where comparative judgement helps.

Comparative judgement gives you a finer grade for writing. So, at the minute (particularly at primary), you’ve got these three very big grade brackets: ‘working towards’, ‘expected standard’ and ‘greater depth’, although the ‘expected standard’ bracket is the biggest bracket. So, a pupil can make progress at writing and get better at writing but still be bracketed as ‘working towards’. And it can get very demoralising if they’re making progress. Why? Because you know that they’re making progress, they can feel that they’re making progress, and yet they’re constantly getting the same grade.

So, I think that the nice thing about comparative judgement is that it offers a finer grade. And the instant reaction that I get from teachers is that this is really interesting. One of them said to me: ‘what you can do is you can put Mohammed’s September work in the same judging pot as Mohammed’s June work and then you can see the progress that he’s made’. And, essentially, that’s what you can do.

But you do need to caveat this when you’re doing things that are finely graded. You don’t want to over-interpret small changes in an individual, but nevertheless one of the real potential impacts of comparative judgement is that when some pupils are making progress, that progress won’t always show up in the more traditional ‘blunt’ assessment methods that we have. In this way, comparative judgement can really show the way.

It’s also a very different and effective way of assessing writing. For while I think that multiple choice questions are very valuable, they clearly can’t cover everything and the problem that we’ve had with writing in the past is that the method of assessing actual writing reliably is very hard to come by. So, for example, at primary you have GPS tests, which are important, but they clearly don’t cover everything.

With this in mind, comparative judgement allows us to assess any subject that assesses through writing differently – and in a much more reliable manner. And what is allied to this, is that a subject like maths can be assessed using quite open questions – questions that are quite different from the typical maths questions that are part of the status quo. So, for some pupils, this approach might really help them in questions that they might otherwise find quite hard. For example, and in contrast, we might ask questions like my favourite maths question: ‘what rules do you know in maths that are always true?’ And this sort of question still assesses maths, but in a different and informal way.

So, in short, I think that it’s just a different way of assessing that can shed light on new aspects of thinking. And I think that it’s valuable for all pupils, but I think that it could be very valuable for SEN pupils.

And do you think that deliberate practice or direct instruction should be the dominant form of teaching for children with SEN? And if not dominant, what sort of mix should it be?

I think that deliberate practice is valuable for everybody – not just children but also adults. If you want to achieve key competencies in an area, deliberate practice is really useful. My favourite example is if you look at professional footballers: they still train and do passing drills at the start of each training session. In this way, they’re still doing the sort of things that seven-year-olds would do, which is fascinating. So, I think that deliberate practice for anyone who wants to improve at anything/hone their skills is particularly valuable. I also think that there’s value in it for SEN pupils.

As a broad approach, deliberate practice is very good; but as a dominant form, probably not. If you look at some of the research into this, deliberate practice requires thought and is hard work, so it isn’t something that you’d want to use for the whole of your teaching time. In this way, it’s one of those things that is best when it’s used in short, frequent bursts. So, I think, if it’s used at the start/end of every day then it can be quite powerful. In this way, deliberate practice – as an overall catch-all term – is particularly powerful for breaking things down, sequencing them, teaching individual elements and building them slowly.

On the direct instruction side, in some ways, it’s similar to deliberate practice but a bit more specific. In fact, there are lots of materials like that out there that embody many of these principles and, again, are good, for short, frequent bursts to achieve mastery.

Another reader asks how you do demonstrate that pupils with SEN are making good progress if they are judged against a school’s assessment performance indicators?

This is something that I write a lot about in my second book. I think that a lot of the ways that we assess (not just in SEN but in SEN too) is that we judge pupils with performance descriptors. And I think that performance descriptors aren’t as insightful or accurate as we would like them to be, so that makes it rather hard to measure someone’s progress.

I also think that there’s an issue about how helpful they are. The problem with a lot of advice based on a pupil’s performance descriptors is that a pupil might be told to be more systematic or infer insights. But does a pupil actually know what they actually need to do in response to such a description? No, because a real problem with a lot of performance descriptors is that they don’t offer the precision needed. They’re simply not as helpful for pupils as they should be, and I think that this is particularly the case for SEN pupils.

In fact, some of these statements just aren’t helpful for anyone, particularly for those pupils who have reading difficulties or limited vocabulary. And sometimes you can use more friendly descriptors and you can put some friendly descriptors for Year 2 into a reading age calculator and they require a reading age in excess of what those pupils have.

So, on balance, I think that there are some real limitations to the performance descriptor approach and one of the reasons that I believe in comparative judgement is because it’s a very different approach. I don’t think that comparative judgement can do everything, but I think that it has a strong part to play.

What do you think is the most effective way to assess in early years, especially Year 1?

So, this goes back to what I was saying before about performance descriptors. I do feel uneasy about assessment in any year group and on any age based on performance descriptors – for the reasons that I’ve already identified.

They don’t

  1. Give you a precise summative measure.
  2. Offer helpful information – and that’s something that I’ve written about extensively.

When you look at the early years, the major forms of assessment used there are based on performance descriptors. And, as I’ve already said, I think that that’s problematic. I think that another issue for that year group is separating pupils into three broad-brush categories – working towards, expected, etc. In early years, you have similar categories.

And the problem with that is that pupils don’t fall neatly into these categories – because it’s actually a continuum. And that might seem like a trivial thing, but it actually leads to distortions in the way we think – especially when we label them (in terms of emerging, expected and exceeding). The problem is that pupils at the top of emerging will have more in common with the pupils at the bottom of exceeding than they will with the other pupils in emerging. But the label ‘emerging’ and the label ‘exceeding’ don’t make that clear. So, I think that the tripartite performance descriptors cause a lot of problems.

In terms of better ways to assess in the early years, I think that you’ve got to look at a range of things but it’s particularly important to be aware of the limitations of performance descriptors.

One of our readers is an English teacher in a large secondary school. She says that although she tries to make her lessons fun and uses lots of different modes and methods of teaching in her classroom, she still finds herself with mountains of marking to do each week. How can she ensure that she can assess her students’ progress without having hours of marking to do each week?

A great question. I’ll say two things – a formative one and a summative one.

Be clear about the purpose of why you’re marking. I think that, sometimes, at the minute, we try to bundle the formative and the summative together. So, we’re trying to defeat that and upgrade our approach. So, I think that, sometimes, when you’re setting the task, it can be more helpful to think about ‘what is it that I want to get out of this task’. So, in short, it’s about thinking about purpose. That would be the first thing.

Secondly, for formative, try and set diagnostic tasks that can be quite easy to mark. I do like multiple choice questions, because I think that they tell you a lot about their thinking and about how their minds are working, and they can work for English, just as well as subjects like maths and science (where you think of them more often). They can be marked very quickly and they can be peer or self-assessed. You can actually use them as teaching tools. That’s one way of easing the formative marking burden.

So, I think that for summative assessment of English, that’s where I think that comparative judgement can offer real time savings. We’ve done quite a bit of work on this and we think that we can halve the amount of time that it takes to assess English – and this is something that we’re piloting at the moment.

So, I would say for formative purposes, short-answer/multiple choice questions and for summative purposes comparative judgement.

With the myths that you identify in your book, Seven Myths about Education, which myth would you say has had the greatest impact on pupils with SEND?

I think that I might go for ‘projects and activities are the best ways to learn’. Because I think that, sometimes, if you’ve got SEN pupils who are struggling with some aspects of the curriculum, it can be quite tempting to think that a project will be more engaging and will get their motivation going and certainly I’ve seen a bit of that. And, actually, it isn’t the case. Again, it’s one of those aspects that reflects on the fact that one of the really interesting things about SEN is that, as Sam Willingham puts it very well, good teaching for SEN pupils is, actually, good teaching for all pupils.

So, with SEN pupils there are differences, but there are similarities/commonalities as well. And one of them is the limitations to working memory. There might be SEN pupils with more limited working memories but essentially limitations to working memory are limitations that are common to all pupils. And that’s the reason why project-based learning is not an effective way for anyone to learn.

But if there are pupils who do have issues with working memory, then it’s going to be particularly ineffective. So, I think that the thing that I’ve always found interesting about SEN, is the tactics that I think that are most useful for SEN pupils are the tactics that would be appropriate for everyone. In the past, I’ve found it very interesting to talk to some SENCOs who have their deliberate practice that they like using and have found very effective for not just SEND pupils, but for all pupils.

So, on balance, I’d certainly earmark the ‘projects’ one. Because, although it can seem appealing and can help with motivation, in actual fact it’s just going to overload working memory. And, again, that will be an issue for everyone.

Finally, as we look to the future of education and assessment, where do you think that education and assessment will be in ten years’ time and what role do you think comparative judgement will play?

I think that technology will have a huge impact. I think that it’s already had a huge impact in the last ten years, but it will accelerate. And I think that it will accelerate in ways that classroom teachers will be more aware of.

With the formative/summative distinction. The thing that I think that’s going to be really big on the formative is what is called formative item bank – banks of questions/items that can be taken to different schools so that teachers can get really good data on how their pupils are performing nationally. It’s already fairly advanced in maths, but I think that this is something that will get bigger on the formative side of things.

And I think that on the summative side, comparative judgement will have a big role to play – I certainly hope that this will be the case. Although it requires the technology to work, when one has the technology in place it is so much more efficient.

So, on reflection, I think that technology’s going to be the big thing with banks of items on the formative side and comparative judgement on the summative side.


Daring to make mistakes

What should an educator do in times of pressure – take a safety-first approach, or see challenge as an opportunity to innovate? Stuart Curry, Head of Marketing at Real Group shares some thoughts – partly prompted by a news story about what is possible, and also by a hazy recollection of a quote from a GCSE history class some (many) years ago. 


Read more

Can OFSTED be a SENCO’s Best Friend?

This issue is a piece by renowned SEND influencer, Brian Lamb OBE. Past experience may cause many educators to throw their hands up in horror at the sentiment, but read to see how – and why – Brian thinks SENCOs can use this framework to their – and most importantly their students’ benefit.


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Matthew Barnes

A Q&A with Ofsted’s Matthew Barnes on SEND reforms

This issue is on the most challenging of topics –Ofsted inspections– with an exclusive interview by Editor-at-Large Edward Farrow, with Matthew Barnes, OFSTED’s special adviser on SEND.
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We launched new modules for Real Training’s Masters in SEND programme 


Keep up-to-date with the new JCQ regulations free of charge, with Real Training

Following a great deal of thought and debate, this year we have decided to do something quite different. We are going to be offering a free-to-access update, available to all qualified access arrangements professionals.



National Award for SEN Coordination (NASENCO)

  • Work with personal tutors who are experienced and qualified practitioner psychologists or specialist teachers.
  • Experience the National Award from the comfort of your own setting with Campus OnlineTM – the leading virtual learning environment for postgraduate SEND study.
  • Learn on the job and encounter a perfectly weighted practice-led study programme that doesn’t overload you with theory.
  • Take a course designed by leading educational and child psychologists.
  • Attain a Middlesex University-validated National Award for SEN Coordination Post Graduate Certificate – worth 60 M-level credits.



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