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All pupils must be allowed to have their say in their own education, writes Pearl Barnes

Fourteen years ago, the then revised SEN Code of Practice (2001) introduced the notion of pupil participation, supporting the idea that children have a right to receive information, to express an opinion and to have that opinion considered when making decisions that matter to them. It recognised the UN International Rights of the Child (Article 12), where all children have a right to be part of the decisions which influence their lives – to therefore be freely involved in making decisions regarding their educational provision. It additionally placed a duty upon professionals to make “every reasonable endeavour” to obtain these views and hence a variety of modes of communication should be utilised to gain the views of pupils with a diverse range of SEN and disabilities.  

The revised SEN Code of Practice and the Children and Families Act (2014) further reinforce these views by placing children at the very heart of provision, supporting the ongoing importance of listening to the views of children and young people whilst providing them with opportunities to participate in the development of their educational provision. Moreover, the Code of Practice goes a step further than previous regulations, saying that local authorities also have a duty to ensure children and young people are involved in discussions and decisions about their individual support and local provision. Whilst children are often caught up in an adversarial system, their feelings and preferences should be taken into account and responded to, when considering their educational provision and planning for future outcomes. 

The Code of Practice and the revised Ofsted Inspection Framework (2014) are now closely aligned, with the Inspection Framework outlining the importance of schools involving pupils alongside inspectors listening to the views of pupils from a range of backgrounds, including those with SEN and disabilities. It advocates that the views of pupils should be thoroughly explored both formally and informally, in order to paint the child’s perspective of the educational provision available to them. 

It is therefore enshrined in national and international law that all children and young people, including those with SEN and disabilities, should have a regular involvement in, resulting in a tangible impact upon, the development of their educational provision. 

The purpose of including pupils in the development of their education is founded upon sound research which shows that children are more likely to achieve when motivated, engaged and happy. Moreover, assessment for learning (AfL) promotes the positive impact of involving pupils in sharing learning objectives, setting goals and targets and sharing feedback with pupils. Best practice provides pupils with opportunities to develop a deeper understanding and insight into learning how to learn (metacognition) and develops learning objectives in collaboration with the child. By being involved in the development of provision, children and young people are much more likely to take ownership of it and strive towards the joint targets set.

Obtaining the views of children and young people

Children and young people with SEN experience a spectrum of conditions and developmental needs and it can be a challenge to engage with, and obtain information from, pupils with such a diverse range of communication and social interaction needs. When a well-meaning system is put in place, it cannot always compensate for the variability in individual human features. Only by seeking the views of the child or young person themselves can a true picture of what is in their best interests be developed. However, children’s own experiences may be extremely limited, restricting their ability to comment upon what is in their best interests. Some children may struggle to make choices or to reflect and evaluate. Nevertheless, by providing information for pupils which is meaningful and accessible and subsequently allowing them to be an active participant, they are much more likely to view it in a positive light as enabling and empowering.

The challenge is facilitating the ability to obtain the views of all children and young people at every level, irrespective of their need, and participate in the decisions which impact upon their lives. In order to provide a platform for pupil participation, it is imperative that best practice is shared across regions. 

What is the best practice responsibility of the local authority?

Children and young people should be:

  • able to have a say in their educational placement and provision
  • involved in case reviews
  • involved with the shaping of local provision by talking with local authority (LA) representatives regularly
  • known to the LA personnel who make the decisions about their education
  • involved in the shaping and development of the local offer
  • able to have an independent advocate/representative to provide support and advice for the child and family.

What is best practice for schools?

Schools should:

  • run independent or anonymous satisfaction surveys
  • conduct pupil walks or shadow a pupil to obtain their experiences of a whole day
  • allow the opportunity for pupils to interview staff
  • conduct regular interviews with individual pupils, building rapport and trust
  • allow pupils to make a video of their life at school and discuss the pros and cons of the school day
  • allow pupils to be involved in the development of school-wide policies and provision, such as the behavioural policy and what the school can offer
  • provide a forum, such as a student forum/council (led by children), with SEN representatives, for their views to be regularly heard school-wide.

Hearing the voices of pupils with SEN

Many teachers often struggle to gain the views of children and young people with SEN because of the difficulties in communication and social interaction, and the belief that they do not have the experience of what it is that they need. However, a recent study by the Children’s Commissioner’s Office found that children and young people in residential settings do feel strongly about their educational provision and want to have their views heard and acted upon. Many continue to find that they are not able to participate in the key decisions which shape their lives, often compounding their wellbeing. 

Quality first teaching

All teachers are teachers of pupils with SEN and teachers should involve all pupils within their lessons. The following are examples of good practice which could be implemented across the whole setting:

  • allow children the opportunity to record their work in a variety of ways, including the use of film, pictures, mind-maps, and be flexible to the individual learning style of the pupil
  • provide regular feedback to individual pupils to enable them to feel secure in knowing what they can do well, and what they need to do next to improve to the next stage
  • set goals and targets jointly with pupils for joint ownership of them – ask them for their own long-term goal and determine the small stages to achieve this goal
  • provide a time for self-reflection and evaluation; did the learning opportunity enable them to improve? If not, what would help them engage and improve further?
  • do not put children under pressure; allow them time to think and consider the options
  • ensure children understand what they are learning and why it is important
  • use traffic lights during a lesson to gauge the level of understanding and engagement: red =  too hard/do not understand; yellow = about right, some challenges, but fairly secure; green = very secure knowledge and understanding.
  • when using questionnaires, ask children why they answered in the way they did
  • promote readiness to learn by contextualising learning, linking to prior knowledge and how the learning relates to the key concepts and skills they are developing
  • observe pupils’ engagement in learning and discuss their level of understanding with them
  • provide children with opportunities to talk about their learning to advance their critical thinking
  • allow children to be involved in the shaping of the lesson to develop an enquiring mind
  • consider the extent to which the adult fosters and respects the child’s independence.

Good practice for children and young people with SEN:

  • ensure pupils are involved in the development of their annual reviews
  • build in choice as a life skill; use visual clues, objects of reference, photographs and symbols for developing the ability to make choices
  • use a trusted adult/keyworker who is able to understand the pupil’s body language, eye gaze and method of communication
  • provide support around key transition points from year-to-year and from one school to the next; visit new settings regularly and use photographs, pictures and social stories to ensure the pupil fully understands the reason for the change
  • get to know the children, how they convey their needs and desires, what they like and don’t like, through facial expressions, body language, sounds, posture and alertness
  • create the opportunity for pupils to be able to escape; teach children to recognise their signs of anxiety and take ownership of their behaviour
  • use peer support to discuss views
  • use role play to explore options and choices
  • use two different coloured post-it notes for obtaining information about what the children “like” and “don’t like” (thumbs up/thumbs down); show pictures/photographs as memory aids of different activities to determine what they like and don’t like
  • provide pictures and statements and allow children to rank them in order from most important to least important
  • ensure children are aware there are no right or wrong answers when seeking their views
  • match picture activity cards with a range of pictures of emotions to determine what they enjoy and do not enjoy 
  • discuss the notion that “you can’t always get what you want”.

Children and young people are empowered and their learning experiences are enriched when they are able to participate in forming them. Educational provision at all levels should strive to listen to the views of all children and young people, including those with SEN and disabilities, in order to develop educational provision which meets their individual needs and to reduce the adversarial nature of decisions that have a direct impact upon their lives. Involving children and young people right from the start ensures they feel valued as active participants in influencing and shaping their future. This, in turn, helps improve their motivation, level of engagement and self-esteem and thereby provides far greater opportunities for making long-term improvements to their life chances as adults. 

Further information

Pearl Barnes, a former President of nasen, is an SEN consultant and specialist teacher: www.pearlstraining.co.uk

Pearl would like to acknowledge the work of the Office of the Children’s Commissioner in providing information essential to the formulation of this article.


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