Ofsted’s 2017/18 annual report was unusual in that it not only mentioned SEND provision in schools, but did so extensively. There have been times when it’s almost as though this group of children with the most need have barely existed in reports and policy announcements, aside from a cursory nod – and despite those in the SEND world waving, trying not to drown.
While it’s encouraging to know that the inspectorate is focusing on those children who can find education most challenging, it’s also concerning – though no surprise to those who have worked on the mainstream SEND frontline – just how neglected Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman has found these children to be.
Ofsted has now recognised that children with SEND are being disproportionately excluded and offrolled, which is refreshing, but for those who have been campaigning on the issue for some time, the regulator has come to this realisation a little late in the day. I also worry that Ofsted is laying the blame on schools, when it’s actually an ongoing funding crisis and increased accountability measures that have created a perfect storm of problems.
Nowhere does the report mention poverty, asset-stripped LAs and a fragmented school system that’s become so complicated, even Einstein would have struggled to understand it. It feels like we’re playing a game of Jenga, and that the tower could collapse at any moment.
Doing more with less
Despite continuing hardship, there’s a lot of excellent practice out there and many leaders who are creating a culture of support and putting endless energy into meeting the needs of SEND children in the best way possible.
What schools tell me, however, is that things are becoming more and more of a struggle. Their budgets are being squeezed dry, and while they’re adamant that they’ll remain inclusive, they know on a business level that it’s ultimately expensive to educate children who require specialist support to thrive, and that the available funding no longer matches the provision required.
Recent research by the NAHT found that 94% of schools now find it harder to secure funding for children with SEND compared with two years ago. Many schools will tell you that they’re being expected to do more and more using their budgets for complex children, but with less money and with external support mechanisms thin on the ground.
Schools that welcome all children also feel a sense of injustice that other establishments ‘down the road’ are telling parents that they can’t meet the needs of their child. I recently heard of one school that told a parent, whose child had SEND and was also a wheelchair user, that some of their lessons were timetabled upstairs, and that the school was therefore not appropriate for them. This practice should be challenged – but as a parent, would you even know this is illegal? And in any case, who would want their child to attend a school where they weren’t welcome? It should be the job of Ofsted, regional schools commissioners and the DfE to fight this battle, not parents.
Ultimately, however, the main positive takeaway from Ofsted’s report is that it’s taking notice, and that leaders who are confidently overseeing an inclusive culture have nothing to fear from inspections. That aside, there’s a need for Ofsted to be more aware of schools’ varying contexts and value those which, against the odds, are doing the right thing.
In the absence of enough money, what does the ‘right thing’ look like – and what can be changed at a policy level to move national SEND provision in the right direction?
A zero tolerance approach should be directed at the minority of schools that actively don’t welcome children with SEND, as it’s both illegal and shameful. Ofsted needs to get a handle on this by rewarding the many schools that do include all children in their communities, but more importantly, by also identifying the comparative lack of children with SEND in certain settings.
Instead of giving them an Outstanding tag, they should be highlighting any instances where there are markedly fewer children with EHCPs or receiving SEN support attending a school compared with its neighbours. This could include analysing a school’s use of isolation, detentions, off-rolling and fixed term or permanent exclusions. Do children with SEND seem disproportionately affected?
Ofsted must be clearer in its myth busting that progress for children with SEND can be measured in different ways. What should it look like for children with SEND? What does Ofsted expect to see? Schools that have succeeded in Ofsted’s eyes will have a deep understanding of how SEND children make progress, and will use individualised programmes with high expectations based on knowledge of the child and their capacity to learn. Case studies will be presented to inspectors that show how they value children who don’t meet inappropriate national markers and recognise their achievements – no matter how small the steps.
3. Professional learning
All staff should receive SEND training, whether they be classroom-based or not. Leaders must ensure SEND is embedded within the curriculum, ideally through a process in which teachers are coached in inclusive pedagogy by experts in the field. There’s much untapped expertise among experienced teachers, SENCOs and specialists that schools aren’t currently making the most of. Existing in-house talent could be utilised via a ‘reflective practitioner’ system, which would enable teachers to become skilled in the teaching and learning of children with SEND and give them the agency to make informed decisions.
5. Parent partnerships
Inclusive schools work with parents and carers. Parents are the experts in their child, but also in the relevant SEND, having often spent hours researching and speaking to paediatricians and other experts in the field. A school that recognises this will benefit hugely in terms of staff training and its ability to build knowledge and expertise.
6. Teaching assistants
If you haven’t already, read Rob Webster’s Maximising TAs research. He has shown how, when used well, TAs can benefit children with SEND in many different ways and help close the gap (though not, it should noted, as substitute teachers).
7. Awareness of the law
This is fundamental if leaders are to understand the rights of the child. If a child has SEND (and especially if they have an EHCP) they must receive the support they need. LAs ought to be monitoring this, and schools must adhere to their statutory duties. What interests me, however, are those leaders who can do this brilliantly while being creative and innovative in their approaches. Rather than having just one TA take sole responsibility for the child, there should be a whole school structure in place where everyone feels ownership for all children.
Concerns over funding to meet a child’s needs should never be communicated to parents, and it’s a leader’s duty to ensure LAs don’t make parents feel guilty. Any battles should be fought behind closed doors, with the expectation for parent and child that their needs will be met regardless.
‘We have to do better for pupils with send’
The SEND-specific concerns highlighted in Ofsted’s 2017/18 annual report included:
- Parents having to go to ‘extreme lengths’ to obtain EHCPs
- Gaps in outcomes for children with SEND continuing to widen
- Disproportionate exclusion rates of SEND pupils
- Off-rolling of SEND pupils
- Fewer high need SEN units within mainstream schools
- Refusals by LAs to agree statutory assessments rising by a third
Jules Daulby is an education consultant specialising in inclusion and literacy.