Writing the foreword for the 2016/17 of John Catt’s Which School? for Special Needs, Adam Boddison, chief executive of Nasen, gives his thoughts on developments in the SEND sector.
British education is the envy of the rest of the world, but despite that we have seen in recent times constant change across the sector. Perhaps this because we want an education system that remains up to date and relevant for our children and young people or perhaps it is a reflection of the fact that our education professionals see that the job is never done and they have a willingness for learning and improvement. In either case, the most recent changes and ambitions present a set of unique opportunities and challenges for improving the quality of education received by our children and young people with Special Educational Needs or Disabilities (SEND).
The government’s recent white paper, Educational Excellence Everywhere, set out the Department for Education’s strategic plans. There has been much attention and debate in relation to the plan for all schools to have converted, or be in the process of converting, to become academies by 2020, but there is relatively little information about what this means for schools offering specialist provision. One perspective might be that in an increasingly market-based system, special schools will be well placed to grow and expand or to further specialise as appropriate to their regional contexts. However, there is a risk that when all schools have full control over their own admissions, students with additional needs are less likely to be admitted into some mainstream settings, thereby increasing pressures in other parts of the school system. This is a risk that must be mitigated so that children and young people with SEND are embraced as part of an inclusive educational system. SEND provision should be built into the system from the outset and not a bolted-on afterthought.
The white paper discusses the need to replace Qualified Teacher Status and to redraft the Teachers’ Standards. This is an excellent opportunity for the professional SEND community to argue that what constitutes high quality teaching for children and young people with SEND constitutes high quality teaching for all children. Therefore, the revised standards could use this as their starting point putting inclusivity at the heart of classroom practice.
The past year has been a demanding time for SENCOs with many leading on the transition of children on statements to Education, Health and Care plans (EHCPs). Not only is the paperwork involved in this process vast and unwieldly, but for those schools with an intake spanning multiple Local Authorities, there are significant differences in process. Looking ahead, there may be good news for SENCOs since the High Needs Funding consultation is likely to identify gaps in funding, thereby encouraging the government to invest further in those children and young people with the highest levels of need. This builds on the additional £80m government investment made in January to support the implementation of the SEND reforms.
Whilst the 3% of children nationally who have EHCPs are generally well supported, a challenge facing both school leaders and parents is how to support the 12% of children who have a special education need that is not severe or complex enough to warrant an EHC plan. These children were formerly identified using the School Action and School Action Plus criteria, but where they are now identified as having special educational needs, SEN support will be provided based upon the effective use of the graduated approach. The responsibility for this process and for the progress and accountability of such children sits with the child’s teacher. The perceived wisdom is that high quality teaching and differentiation should be sufficient to cater for the needs of these students, but in order for this to work, further training and support is needed for existing teachers to both identify needs early and to develop research-informed practices. Once again, the positive news here is that government funding has been made available to support training and development in this area.
In this new and developing world of Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs), there will be significant opportunities to realise innovative approaches to effective SEND provision. Alliances of special schools are forming MATs offering complementary provision and building on specialist knowledge and expertise. Similarly, MATs are forming with a combination of mainstream schools, special schools and alternative provision with the aim of maximising potential and minimising exclusions. It is unclear yet whether there will be as few as 1000 MATs or as many as 4000, but what is clear is that SEND peer review will be a key factor both within and between MATs.
Looking towards Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, there are parallel journeys taking place in relation to SEND reforms. There are of course some differences, but many of the core principles are aligned, not least the re-emphasis of the class teacher’s responsibility for all children and young people, including those with SEND.
2016 will be a defining year in the history of SEND provision. The outcome of the European Referendum could have major implications for children and young people with SEND. In the event that Britain was to leave Europe, there are a number of European laws, for example the Human Rights Act, that may not apply any more. This would remove the legal levers that are currently used by a significant number of parents to get the necessary support for their children. We must also be mindful that law is an evolutionary concept, so even if an alternative to the lost legislation is put in place, it will take time for those laws to be tested in the courts and for precedents to be set.
Despite this rapidly changing educational landscape, there are more opportunities than threats. School leaders are well placed to shape the education system and move it forwards in a way that would not have been possible in the past. I hope that these opportunities are fully embraced and that the result is an improved educational experience for all children and young people.
For more information about Nasen, visit www.nasen.org.uk
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