Leading from the top


The impact of the Government’s flagship Achievement for All programme on school leadership in SEN

Years spent in education have led me to one inexorable conclusion: what matters most for children’s achievement and wellbeing is the quality of school leadership. Without good leadership, the most successful and evidence-based initiatives will falter. With outstanding leadership, almost anything can work.

The top-level leadership of SEN, however, has always been problematic. For many headteachers, SEN is something of a secret garden, best left to the SENCO who understands the apparent complexity of the processes involved, with their quasi-legalistic overtones and quasi-medical approach to diagnosing need and prescribing remedies.

Recognising this problem, the National College for School Leadership  (NCSL) asked researchers from the University of Manchester to identify how school leaders can help the forms of school leadershipdevelop  that promote the achievement of for students with SEN or disabilities. This research, published in December 2011, involved a literature review and visits to 26 schools where outcomes for children with SEN were particularly good (Leadership that promotes the achievement of students with special educational needs and disabilities, Chapman et al., 2011, Nottingham: NCSL).

Good schools plus

The study found that “something extra goes on in these schools that enables them to achieve more with vulnerable groups of learners. In this sense, these are ‘good schools plus’, where the ‘plus’ is an extra dimension promoting an ethos and sense of purpose to support the learning of all children, irrespective of their personal characteristics or circumstances.”
The “something extra” is described under four headings: culture and ethos, practice, structure and systems, leadership and management.

Culture and ethos
Senior leaders in the schools visited were persistent in focusing the attention of staff on every student’s progress, and – for vulnerable learners – on families too. As one headteacher said, “We are always trying to find ways of getting through the barriers – that’s what inclusion is about.”

Classroom environments were designed to engage all members of the class, as in one school where a voice amplification system was installed to improve listening conditions. Teachers were proficient at good  at thinking on their feet, adapting lesson plans to meet the needs of individuals, and made good use of child-to-child support. Good use was also made of intervention programmes outside class; withdrawal was seen as a key part of the process of meeting individual needs.

Structure and systems
The report notes that teachers were held to account for the progress of all children through performance management systems. Tracking systems (for vulnerable pupils, at levels “well above the norm”) were in place to check regularly on pupil progress. Teamwork and a strong commitment to professional learning activities were noted; the schools were proactive in drawing on external resources, particularly from other schools through networks, and from organisations offering students wider opportunities beyond the school.

Effective leadership takes account of the needs of all pupils.Leadership and management
Headteachers in the successful schools communicated a personal commitment to equality of opportunity, and believed strongly in distributed leadership – empowering other staff to make decisions and encouraging staff at all levels to help move the school forward. In one school, for example, teaching assistants were paid for an extra half hour per week to “provide written feedback to the headteacher, who in turn responded to their ideas by annotating the form”.

Good schools minus

Interestingly, the researchers also note that as well as “good schools plus’, there are also in our education system many “good schools minus”, who do well for most of their students but where some children are marginalised.
How, then, can these schools make the changes that will lead to good progress for all pupils?

Achievement for All

One model for providing this practical, hands-on support comes from the national Achievement for All (AfA) initiative. Trialled in 2009-11 in 450 schools, AfA is now available to other schools in partnership with NCSL and with some DfE funding. The programme has an overt focus on leadership. If a school wants to take part, the headteacher must sign up personally and identify a member of the senior leadership team to coordinate the programme in school. The leadership team are asked to put in place the detailed, frequent tracking of the progress of students with SEN which the Manchester University report noted as important, to shift the responsibility for the progress of pupils with SEN from the SENCO to class and subject teachers and form tutors, and to structure performance management systems accordingly. A coach, often a serving senior leader previously involved with AfA in their own school, works with the school coordinator through regular visits.

Linked to this is a relentless focus on identifying the barriers to progress for each and every targeted pupil, engaging with the family as well as the child, and seeking out resources beyond the school to enable students to use their talents, experience success and increase their engagement with learning.

Involving families
Class and subject teachers in schools involved in AfA take part in a half day’s training in how to hold a structured conversation with parents of targeted pupils. These “conversations” take place two to three times a year. Staff learn how to use basic counselling skills – active listening, paraphrasing and summarising, how to ask open rather than closed questions, how to agree targets with parents and develop a plan of action, and how to summarise the discussion and clarify next steps.

The aim of the conversation is to really listen to the parent’s point of view, to understand what they see as the key barriers to their child’s learning, what they think has worked well in the past, their aspirations for their child and the provision they would like to see in place.

The impact
The AfA initiative as a whole has been highly successful. An external evaluation (Humphreys et al., 2011) found that 37 per cent of the 28,000 primary and secondary aged children with SEN or disabilities involved in the pilot scheme made progress as great as or greater than that made by all pupils nationally in English, and 42 per cent in maths. Persistent absence reduced by ten per cent, and the percentage of schools reporting excellent relationships with parents increased over the two years of the pilot from 12 per cent to 48 per cent.

Predictably, success was greatest where senior school leaders were most engaged. The external evaluation found, for example, that where the person leading AfA in the school was the headteacherHeadteacher, parent participation in a full three structured conversations per year was on average 55 per cent, compared to 32 per cent where the lead was the SENCO and 30 per cent where it was a class teacher.

What can we learn?
I think what we can learn from the experience of schools involved in AfA is that the top-level leadership of SEN need not be overly complicated. As I argued back in 2003 in my book SEN and school improvement, senior leaders need only to apply to SEN what they already know about raising standards in general senior leaders need only to apply to SEN what they already know about raising standards in general (targeting, tracking, holding class and subject teachers to account for pupil progress, investing in professional learning, involving parents and providing enriching out-of-school opportunities for pupils), rather than side-lining pupils with SEN to separate systems and processes.

So it’s not rocket science, but somehow we have to get heads to believe this by seeing it for themselves whilst receiving a nudge from a coach and networking with other schools engaged in a similar change process. That’s the type of support that any headteacher with an eye to the new Ofsted framework and the focus on the progress of vulnerable pupils will want to look for in the future, I think, whether from AfA or any other source.

AfA in action

Torriano Junior School is a two-form entry school in the London Borough of Camden where 42 per cent of children are eligible for free school meals and 31 different languages are spoken. Judged outstanding by Ofsted at their last inspection in 2009, the school had nevertheless identified that children at School Action and School Action+ were not making sufficient progress, and wanted SEN to be a strategic priority in the school improvement plan. As a junior school where parents “drop and go”, parental engagement was another key issue.

The AfA programme matched these priorities, so the school opted to take part. Distributed leadership is strong in the school; the dDeputy headHead/inclusion leader and SENCO worked together on the programme, with the full and knowledgeable backing of the Hheadteacher and the governing body. Management structures were changed so that the dDeputy head’s Head’s team now includes a pastoral care leader, a school-home support worker and the SENCO.

Performance management targets and classroom observations for teachers were linked to the AfA programme, whilst staff had support through a variety of professional learning opportunities. A number of staff, for example, exchanged visits with a local special school to look at pedagogy. They introduced new strategies such as signalling a change of topic when talking, visually mapping what children will be learning, and the use of computer tablets as a multisensory tool to support the learning of children on the autistic spectrum.

Class teachers were trained in structured conversations with parents and held these three times a year for every pupil with SEN. From these conversations came one curricular and one personal “wider outcomes” target for the child. Linked to these targets, children took part in drumming, sports coaching, canoeing and residential outdoor programmes.

Parents were surveyed to ask them what support they would  like from the school; they identified maths, reading , transition  and ICT as their  priorities, so the school organised workshops for them –  for example, on what NC levels mean, and how to use the Accelerated Reader programme that is part of the school’s provision.

Finally, the school reviewed its provision map, slimming down the range of interventions offered to the few that had the greatest impact.

According to the Head, a shift in mindset has been achieved. Whilst formerly staff might say: “This child is not achieving because …” they now say: “This child will achieve because we can…” Teachers are observed to spend much more time sitting with lower-achieving groups than they did previously.

The results speak for themselves. Despite their SEN, AfA pupils have made good or outstanding progress in English (four to five average points score gain over a year) and good progress in maths (four points gain over a year). Best of all, in a 2011 Year 6 cohort in which a quarter of pupils were on the SEN register, every single child achieved Level 4 or above in English.

Further information

Jean Gross CBE, the former Communication Champion, has written widely about SEN and frequently provides advice to government on SEN policy and practice. She is a consultant for the Achievement for All programme:

Jean Gross CBE
Author: Jean Gross CBE

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