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Using the Cherry Garden Branch Maps to Plan and Assess – A Practical Guide

by stephenk on July 21

The Cherry Garden Branch Maps were created by Cherry Garden School in order to improve the planning and assessment protocols that were previously in place at the school. The over-arching aim was to make the process much more child-centred as well to improve staff understanding of development in very young, typically developing children. It is important to add at this point that Cherry Garden are a school that embrace a play based approach across the board (from aged 2-11) – as they feel this is developmentally appropriate for their learners.

I coordinated the creation of the Branch Maps whilst I was the Deputy head teacher at the school, and in my current role as an SEND Advisor and Outreach teacher, I have been asked on a number of occasions how I would implement the Branch Maps in other settings. This article aims to provide a level of guidance – and is based on my personal opinions.

I think the first thing to say is that the methods I would advocate for using the Branch Maps need to be based on your current provision and the proficiency of your team. If you are a nursery or school who are using a fully play based approach, with a highly skilled team who all have a thorough grasp of typical development in young children, then I would advise differently to a school who are less experienced in working in this way. For this reason, I will offer two suggested strategies – I envisage that the majority of settings will be somewhere in between, so can tailor their approach based on the two extremes.


The less experienced setting:

The less experienced setting may be working with children with more significant learning needs than they are used to. They are likely to be a mainstream setting who don’t have a high proportion of children with additional needs. They may have staff who are very new to working with children with additional needs. It might also be a school that have traditionally had a more formal approach to planning and assessment and the staff team are learning new strategies.

Where possible with children who are functioning at a pre-formal level of learning (below Year 1), I would always advocate as much play-based provision as possible. This in itself can be challenging, especially if the child or children with additional needs are part of a larger group of typically developing children further up the school.

The first thing I would advise when meeting a child for the first time is a period of observation of a child’s interests and abilities. The key to getting the most out of any learner is to understand how they engage with learning and what they enjoy most – and conversely what they dislike. I would focus my attentions on building a fuller picture of the child’s learning level by initially using the four ‘core’ Branch Maps:

  • Communication, Language and Literacy
  • Mathematical Development (Cognition)
  • Physical Development
  • Personal, Social and Emotional Development

It is important that adults using the maps to ‘baseline’ a child also understand what the branches correspond to in terms of typical development:


I would advise using printed copies of the Branch Maps (can be downloaded for free here, preferably printed in A3) to scribble thoughts and notes about what you have observed.  It is fully expected that the assessments of a child will be ‘spiky’, there is no expectation of typical linear progress.

Once you have a more thorough picture of a child’s current learning level, you can consider what is important for them to learn next. I would advocate involving as many key people in this process as possible – parents, therapists, whole class team etc. What would be the most important (developmentally appropriate) thing for the child to learn next? The Branch Maps can be used as a guide here – if a child has been assessed as roughly working within a certain Branch for a particular strand, e.g reading, then look nearby on the map to see if there is anything that would be sensible to think about next. A sensible starting point might be to think of appropriate next steps in each of the four core Maps. This is not to say that other, preferably child-directed learning can’t be taking place every day. The purpose of these next steps is to provide the adults in the group with a common understanding of what is going to be important moving forward.

I would advise that it might be helpful to write down the next steps that have been agreed, and also note down various opportunities for how we can work on these skills. It would also be useful to have a place where staff can write notes about how a child is progressing towards their next steps. It is often most straight forward to do this in a table form, where the staff member isn’t expected to write a lot, and recordings can be made quickly.

Here’s a possible example:

You might notice that in this example, the next steps have been adapted from the milestones that feature in the Physical Development Branch Map so that they are personalised and as relevant as possible. This isn’t always necessary but should always be considered.

Next steps should be reviewed regularly (at least fortnightly) and discussions should take place amongst staff, family and professionals as to how well the child is progressing. At this stage it might be helpful to amend a next step if it is too tricky, or it might be that the strategies are the things that need to be amended. This process of ‘plan, do, review’ should be ongoing and always considered important.  It is vital that there is an agreement that a skill has been ‘generalised’ before considering that a child is ‘secure’ in a particular area. Can they do this confidently in a range of scenarios?  It isn’t possible to say how many times a child needs to practice a particular skill to say that it has been mastered, but you should rely on your professional judgement, preferably with the family’s opinion considered too.

As staff become more confident, and develop their own skillset, I would expect these procedures to become less structured, and be based more on natural connections between adult and child – backed up by a sound knowledge of typical development and high quality communications between home, school and therapy teams.

To ensure that the Branch Maps remain child-centred, I would not encourage too much focus on progress data. I personally feel that it is not necessary to calculate this information at all, but I am aware that some settings like to be able to show a concrete ‘measure’ of how a child has developed. I would much rather every adult involved with a child could confidently tell me the story of a child’s learning and explain what their input has been in this process. If they know the child well enough it should be clear if the child is struggling and needs additional support, or an adjustment in provision. Likewise, it should be obvious if they are doing well.


The most confident and skilled setting:

If I was leading a team within a nursery or school where SEND provision was consistently of a very high quality, then I would approach the use of the Branch Maps differently. In my opinion, settings who operate a full time play based approach work best when highly skilled practitioners plan in the moment and are not tied too rigidly to structured planning. If learning is most effective when a child is truly taking a lead, then we need to learn to be truly responsive to that play. It is also my opinion that this only works effectively if all staff have a deep routed understanding of typical development, and the ability to teach through play – it is not something that necessarily comes naturally, and high quality training is very important. The other aspect that is hugely important is an engaging, developmentally appropriate learning environment which provides children with a wealth of exploration opportunities

The basic principles would still revolve around high quality communications between families, staff and therapists, but I believe there would need to be less reliance on structured plans and next steps. I would expect all adults working with a child to be able to tell me the key messages about what a child is learning, and again crucially be able to tell me the story of their learning so far. If that is not possible, then I would advise that a setting bring in a level of structure to help any staff members who are unaware. The Branch Maps can be used throughout the process to help to look for gaps in learning that may have not been considered. Even in the most experienced settings, individual children will arrive with completely unique needs. It might be that even though a mainstream nursery or school has extensive experience in supporting children with additional needs, they may not have spent much time with children who would be considered to have Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulties, and so the very early developmental steps that the Branch Maps spell out should prove to be a helpful guide.



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.