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The Engagement Model

by stephenk on June 3

In 2016, after many months of speculation, the Rochford Review was published by the government. Contained within were recommendations for how the assessment of children with special educational needs should take place. The ‘headline’ of the piece was that ‘P Scales’ should no longer be used to report on the progress children were making. To those of us who worked in specialist settings, this was no surprise, and something that had been rumoured for a long time. Almost five years on from the commission of the review, schools are readying themselves for the introduction of ‘The Engagement Model’, which from September 2020, they will be obliged to use when assessing children in the P1-P4 range.

In the new model there are 5 areas of engagement, these are:

  • exploration – whether a child can build on their initial response to a new stimulus or activity
  • realisation – how the pupil interacts with a new stimulus or activity or discovers a new aspect of a familiar stimulus or activity
  • anticipation – how much the pupil predicts, expects or associates a stimulus or activity with an event.
  • persistence – whether the pupil can sustain their attention in a stimulus or activity for long enough that they can actively try to find out more and interact with it.
  • initiation – how much, and the different ways, a pupil investigates a stimulus or activity in order to bring about a desired outcome.

(from the guidance) Each of the 5 areas are interrelated and should be used when assessing pupils who are not engaged in subject-specific study. Each area can provide a focus on how well pupils are achieving a specific outcome or individual development target as set out in their EHC plans or high-needs funding agreements. The 5 areas are not hierarchical, so there is no expectation that pupils need to demonstrate progress in all 5 areas. Instead, each of the areas represent what is necessary for pupils to fully engage in their development and reach their full potential. The areas also provide the scaffolding to enable pupils to become independent in developing a new skill or concept.

The Engagement Model is an adapted version of a tool called ‘The Engagement Profile and Scale’ which was devised by Professor Barry Carpenter in 2011 as part of a project with The Specialist Schools and Academies Trust. Since its inception, the 2011 piece has been well received and considered a useful resource when monitoring the learning of children with complex learning needs. When it was suggested in the Rochford Review as a recommended statutory tool for assessing, some senior figures in UK special needs feared that schools would start using the Engagement Scale in an inappropriate way – to produce progress ‘data’. One of the biggest issues with the P Scales, is that they had become a checklist, from which schools calculated percentage scores and produced impressive charts – invariably with one aim – to satisfy Ofsted. The best bit was that this data needed to follow a certain path to validate the quality of provision for children with additional needs – The ‘Progression Guidance’ document released in 2009 stated its intention was to ‘Improve data to raise attainment’. Thankfully after thousands of wasted hours of analysis by senior leaders in specialist settings, the thought process has shifted significantly. As of September 2019, Ofsted no longer wish to see or hear about data when visiting your school.

I thought it would be useful to suggest the way in which I would expect a school to use the new Engagement Model guidance. To set the scene, I was a Deputy Head teacher in a school for children with severe and complex learning needs for seven years and went through my most recent Ofsted inspection in June 2019 (whilst officially on paternity leave a week after my daughter was born!!). This inspection was wholly different from the previous one that had taken place in 2015 – we weren’t asked to share any data – which was great because we hadn’t been analysing any! In the previous 12 months we had introduced new systems based on our own bespoke assessment model. The inspectors were obviously very interested in the systems that were in place for monitoring progress, but the experience was a world away from 4 years previously when I’d been sat at my computer with an inspector, showing him the all important numbers that proved we were ‘Outstanding’. The 2019 visit felt a much richer validation of our efforts.

I mentioned earlier about concerns with the Engagement Model in regard to data collection. Many specialist schools have moved away from intense data analysis, but there are still a significant number who feel it is presently their only way to effectively communicate the progress of their children. In mainstream settings who cater for children with complex needs, I think the reliance on data is likely to be more prevalent, based on my experiences as a SEND Advisor over the last eight months. I have concerns about how the Engagement Model will be interpreted, and what SENCOs and senior leaders will do with the information that it provides. The key thing for me is that the guidance released by the government clearly states that The Engagement Model ‘should not replace a school’s existing planning, assessment and reporting system’. Schools should also be safe in the knowledge that although it is statutory from September to use the approach, there is no need to report on its use. In fact the document places a lot of emphasis on the fact that schools can take ownership over how it is implemented. My own thoughts on working with a child with complex needs (or any child for that matter) can be summarised in the following simple graphics:


In my opinion, The Engagement Model sits very neatly into image 2. It is a handy addition to your observational toolkit. I’d consider using the guidance in the same way as an Early Years practitioner might make a ‘long observation’. Every day we should be observing and considering a child’s learning, but every now and again it is useful to take a more detailed look into what is happening. I feel it is helpful in this scenario, where possible to be entirely focused on the observation, and not engaging in the activity or interaction with the child. I would use the terminology and definitions in the Engagement Model to guide my observation and the language that I use. The length of the observation would be entirely dependent on the individual child and what ‘engagement’ looks like for them, and how long it lasts. It would be sensible to consider staffing capacity and also how much the process is benefiting your practice when deciding how often these longer observations should take place – I think once each half term is a realistic starting point. It should not be a case of carrying out an observation of this nature just to satisfy a requirement. As with anything we do in schools we should be asking ourselves ‘what is the point?’ and ‘how is it helping?’.

The outcome of these observations should help the staff who are working with a child to understand more about the child’s current learning level. This information should in turn enable them to plan their provision more appropriately. It is my belief that every adult who works closely with a child should have a good understanding of their progress – and so be able to tell the story of what has happened since they became involved. One key thing I think practitioners should be aware of is what the impact of their input has been – ‘I have enabled learning by….’

In terms of the monitoring of progress for a leadership team or SENCO, I would advocate regular ‘progress meetings’ between a member of the leadership team and class teachers to discuss what is going well in the different curriculum areas for each child, and where a child might be struggling. The information gathered in these discussions should inform next steps – does a child/teacher need additional support? Could we be doing anything more to support the child? In my opinion, it is reasonable to ask for some supporting evidence at this stage ‘can you show me an example of this?’.

Regarding the often discussed (but rarely asked) question ‘how do you know the children make outstanding progress?’ – my response would be based on my judgement of the quality of the provision. ‘The children make outstanding progress because the teaching and learning is outstanding’, but then that’s for another discussion altogether!

In summary, if used in the correct way, the Engagement Model should be a positive resource that should enhance the provision for our children with the most significant needs. I just hope that schools don’t turn it into another method of creating data.

For more information about using the Engagement Model on Tapestry, you can read this article.


SEND Advisor and Outreach Teacher

Stephen worked in mainstream for the first four years of his career before moving to Cherry Garden School in London where he was Early Years lead and Deputy Headteacher. Cherry Garden is a school for children with severe and complex support needs, and Stephen was based there for 11 years before joining the FSF in September 2019 as our SEND Advisor. He now lives in the North East where he visits nurseries and schools to offer free support, and he shares the Branch Maps that he worked on developing at Cherry Garden. These are now part of the Tapestry assessment system. Stephen has two young children who contribute hugely to his sleep deprivation and generally ‘tired’ look.