A Holistic Approach to Assessment for Students with Severe Learning Difficulties

Smith, Elizabeth (2023). A Holistic Approach to Assessment for Students with Severe Learning Difficulties. EdD thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.00015d8d


This research explores assessment which captures the learning of students with severe learning difficulties (SLD), at a secondary special needs school in London. Since the removal of pre-National Curriculum Levels (P Levels) to assess students with SLD (Rochford, 2016; DfE, 2017) schools have the autonomy to develop their own assessment systems. However, there is little guidance on what areas of academic or non-academic learning to assess and no studies have been identified which assess academic and non-academic areas of learning holistically.

This research contains three phases, all within an Interpretivist paradigm that sought to create, trial, and evaluate a holistic approach to assessment. Phase One involved semi-structured interviews to understand the views of members of staff views with regards to what areas of learning are important to assess. The eight key themes identified through thematic analyses (Braun and Clarke, 2006) were: Academic progress; Adapting to new situations and environments; Behaviour; Communication; Community access; Emotional development and well-being; Independence and Life skills. These areas of learning led to the creation of a holistic assessment chart that also incorporated personalised outcomes from students EHCPs and individual targets. Phase Two involved a trial of the assessment chart before data collection was suspended due to the impact of COVID-19, and some initial evaluations were obtained from members of staff. Phase Three involved a further trial and evaluation of the assessment chart by members of staff through mini case studies, and reflections from students on their learning.

Findings indicate that the assessment charts demonstrated students’ progress in a variety of interrelated learning areas. Non-academic learning was captured through different academic subjects, enabling a fuller picture of the students’ progress. Members of staff gave feedback throughout the lessons linked to the students’ learning in both academic and non-academic areas and highlighted the usefulness of the assessment chart when planning. Interviews with students demonstrated that they could reflect on their learning in both academic and non-academic areas, with support.

Implications for current practice include developing how learning is planned and assessed in a holistic manner that is personalised to individual students. In addition, this research has highlighted the need for further empirical work into how this progress can be meaningfully communicated to students, parents/carers, members of staff and other stakeholders.

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