How the Government’s SEN reforms will impact on schools, and what it all means for teachers
Whatever is happening in the world of education policy, schools are busy fulfilling their role of educating children and young people, providing an environment which allows and supports each pupil’s achievement of their full learning potential. Schools strive to provide teaching which ensures high-quality learning opportunities for all pupils, involving parents and carers in supporting that learning, building networks with other schools to ensure breadth and efficiency of their education offer, and working with other agencies to support the whole child.
It’s a rich role, which encompasses all pupils, whatever needs they have. However, even before one considers the impact of the Government’s forthcoming SEN reforms, the fulfilment of schools’ role is already being challenged by severe financial cuts across all public services.
The environment that schools can provide, including the facilities they can offer, has been challenged by the loss of Building Schools for the Future funding and real losses in budgets. We know that this has negatively impacted on what the pupil premium can achieve, resulting in what should be extra funding for those with additional needs being used to plug holes in existing budgets in order to maintain an essential level of service.
The quality of teaching is central to the role of schools, yet this summer saw the Secretary of State’s announcement that the Government will no longer require teachers to have qualified teacher status in our schools, subject expertise now seemingly trumping knowledge of pedagogy or child development.
Reductions in staff, particularly in support staff, have resulted in the loss of pivotal staff roles that many schools had developed in order to build strong relationships with parents and carers, to ensure their support of their child’s learning and in supporting the “whole child”.
The weakening of the local authority (LA) model, alongside funding cuts, has challenged LA-based across-school partnerships, with the cuts having a devastating effect on the accessibility and capacity of external agencies, such as health and social care, to schools.
We must be clear that schools are already facing some tough challenges in ensuring that no pupil gets less than the high-quality learning experience and support they need and deserve, challenges that are particularly acute for those with SEN.
It is in this context that the SEN reforms are being trialled and introduced. There is also a pervading political assumption that schools currently over-identify SEN in their pupils. Correct and early identification of SEN in schools is an area in need of review. However, I believe it is simplistic, and serving of a funding cuts agenda, to base reforms on a view that schools over-identify SEN in their pupils and that a narrow medical model of SEN is sufficient upon which to build a new system.
An uncertain future
The current system of statements is far from perfect; whilst being the Holy Grail for many parents and young people with SEN themselves, a statement isn’t seen as a package of support focused on meeting the needs of that child or young person, and they frequently follow long and frustrating waiting times. Statements often add little significant new information from schools about those needs, and are not strong or clear enough on required provision from services outside of education.
Against this backdrop, the education, health and care plan (EHCP) is a positive step forward, promoting a single (and one would assume, faster) assessment process, bringing together the different agencies involved.
However, the recent report from the pathfinder projects highlights the scale of the challenge. The development of the plan has to jump the multi-agency hurdles of competing priorities, different eligibility criteria, different assessment processes, different care/support pathways, different terminology and professional language, and even incompatible IT systems. While the pathfinders have reported that there is no lack of desire for the professionals to work together, their efforts are stymied by lack of resources and capacity. So far, the initiative has not resulted in one joined-up process but rather the bringing together of the different processes, which seems hardly conducive to the shortening of the process from the users’ perspective or to the reduction of bureaucracy.
There are also fears that it is those in education who will end up having to take the lead in these partnerships, as has happened previously. While the principle of cross-agency ownership of the plans is welcome, it is by no means a guarantee, particularly as education is the only sector which will have a statutory obligation in relation to provision.
Staff in schools, as well as pupils with SEN and their families, will be greatly helped by the key worker role. In some LA areas, this role will be in its infancy and decisions still need to be made about the appropriate boundaries of the role and the resulting skills and experience which best fit with it. However, how will this role play out against the harsh reality of fewer educational psychologists and reduced social care teams at local level, and fewer support staff in schools? It is to be hoped that the key worker role will not suffer from the pupil premium effect, making up for shortfalls elsewhere rather than bringing something new and vital to the table.
The capacity of the sectors involved and the available funding for provision are crucial to the ability of schools and other agencies to meet the challenges set by the SEN reforms, just as they are to the ability of these partners to meet the needs of children and young people with SEN in their area at any time. Moving from what is seen as the current supply-led culture, where a child or young person is fitted to the provision the service provider has available, to one based on their needs is a goal which must be met. However, the reforms’ answer, in the form of the personal budget offered to parents and young people with a plan, poses a huge logistical challenge, one which is currently being side-stepped by many of the areas within the pathfinders.
The personal budget will not only be difficult to implement and monitor on a local level but also provides schools and key workers with a significant challenge in managing the expectations of parents and carers, and in ensuring provision of up-to-date, comprehensive and relevant information. Against the background of service cuts, this challenge is likely to be acute.
The SEN reforms place local voluntary and community sector (VCS) organisations at their heart, particularly in relation to coordination of across-sector working. The Government seems reluctant to consider the capacity of the voluntary and community sector (VCS) to take on this type of role. Currently, the pathfinders are addressing the issue of capacity by providing additional resources to ensure the ability of the VCS sector to contribute, but the sustainability of that funding beyond the life of the pathfinder is by no means assured. Schools already rely on and make good use of dedicated and often extremely well-qualified volunteers, but the Government seems to treat the VCS as a cheap substitute for expensive resources rather than as a valuable human asset.
Developing teaching expertise
Bringing it all back to schools, there’s no doubt that the level of expertise and experience amongst staff in relation to SEN is a key factor in ensuring the quality of learning experience for pupils with SEN, and I welcome the reform programme’s intention to ensure a greater focus on SEN in initial teacher education, continuing professional development (CPD) and leadership programmes.
However, any programme around initial teacher education or CPD must build on evidence and on what is already available, ensuring that sufficient funding is provided for meaningful professional learning activities. Reform proposals include development of online training materials in relation to CPD for practitioners, despite a wealth of online materials already available. The proposed scholarship fund for “the most able” teaching assistants and other support staff to enable them to build on their SEN support roles is welcome, but it is hardly a substitute for a proper system of funding and support for high-quality CPD, particularly in relation to SEN, across the workforce.
Development of SEN professional development options must also allow for the impact of other government initiatives. The growth in classroom-based learning at initial teacher education stages will challenge schools to make meaningful partnerships with local special schools or higher education institutions to ensure that the quality of training opportunities and understanding around SEN is high for all staff. If the number of those working as teachers without qualified teacher status increases significantly, then that SEN training will need to build on different foundations, as assumptions regarding a particular level of professional knowledge around pedagogy, differentiation and child development may not apply.
The development of a more highly SEN-educated workforce cannot be a cheap alternative to specialist expertise. Research has found that teachers see increased access to specialist teachers, educational psychologists, external agency support and additional adult support as even more important than additional training.
Indeed, general awareness of SEN will continue to rise with increased levels of specific training, and this, in turn, will result in a corresponding rise in demand for specialist services. For example, teachers’ awareness of pupils’ speech, language and communication needs has improved over the last few years, leading to increased requests for assessments by speech and language therapists, specialist teachers’ services and educational psychologists. This professional training is likely to stimulate further demand, and it must not take the place of expert support provided by SENCOs and other SEN specialists.
Supporting school staff
The support that school staff will need to face these challenges is significant and complex. It must involve a high-quality and comprehensive SEN focus in initial teacher education and in continuing professional development. It also has to include access to specialist expertise (both internally and externally), timely access to resources, access to local networks and strong school leadership to support inclusive approaches despite the narrowing pressures of league tables.
The education unions will continue to play a key role in providing this support through the professional development, publications and guidance they offer, the support they provide for local partnerships (including the local authority model) and the research they commission and disseminate. Unions must continue, as always, to defend vigorously their members’ interests and question government policy on behalf of members and the pupils they serve, using member and research evidence to highlight problems and to propose solutions.
The challenge set by the SEN reforms is great in the context of funding cuts and complex local relationships. Schools will continue to fulfil their role of providing an excellent education to all their pupils to the best of their ability and capacity. Where possible, they will build on their achievements; pre-schools settings will continue to engage with early years/intervention services to develop the skills of their workforce and participate in team-around-the-child (TAC) approaches, and schools will continue to cluster together to commission their own services to support children with SEN.
Schools will play a key role in delivering these SEN reforms and in ensuring that pupils with SEN can receive and participate in an education offer that meets their needs. However, they cannot be responsible alone for that provision; it is to be hoped that the lessons of the initial pathfinder trials, previous reviews and the voice of the profession will play a big role in how these proposals are taken forward and how their rightly ambitious aims are realised.
Alison Ryan is Education Policy Adviser at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), a UK union for education professionals: