School staff are going to need a huge amount of support to meet the challenge of SEN and other education reforms
Autumn is a time of new beginnings, with the start of the school or college year. This year, those new beginnings included the launch of significant reforms in SEN – reforms which encompass high hopes and expectations. Teachers, support staff and leaders share these high hopes but, tasked with implementing the reforms, they are also facing huge challenges.
The principles within the reforms are the culmination of concerns raised by pupils, their families and education professionals for a long time. These are concerns around the usefulness of statements, the lack of pupil and family voice within the process, the inequities in responsibility between education, health and social care sectors, and the cliff edge for young people with SEN at 18 years in terms of available support. These reforms, if implemented as hoped, will answer many of these concerns and better meet the needs of children and young people with SEN.
However, as always, context is all and it is vital that existing and future challenges are recognised; to do otherwise is, ostrich-like, to stick one’s head in the sand.
Narrowing SEN and funding cuts
What is considered SEN has become increasingly narrow and medicalised, a direction of travel set from the inception of these reforms and aided by a highly political review by Ofsted of SEN in 2010. Ofsted’s broad statements of SEN over-identification created a fertile climate for the cutting of resources going into SEN. The Department for Education’s (DfE’s) reliance on this assertion surfaced again recently in its publication of falling SEN figures, with little reference to important factors such as reduced services and the impact of SEN funding changes.
The last few years have seen massive cuts to services at local authority level, both in terms of staff and available services. The second Pathfinders report, published in mid-August, reflected families reporting a decrease in existing services, and their increasing anxiety regarding the uncertain future of the services they use and need. These families also reported less access to clubs and activities, undercutting the inclusive drive of the reforms.
External services such as child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) and educational psychologists are amongst those who have fallen victim to the cuts and are struggling to meet the needs of children and young people, particularly within short timescales. These services are crucial to the support of the wellbeing and education of children and young people.
Cuts have not just affected the support services that schools need access to, but also schools themselves. Over the past year, there have been a large number of redundancies in SEN teaching and support staff roles. These are casualties, somewhat, of the new place plus funding system. This system, which requires schools to find funds from their additional support funding (ASF) of up to £6,000 per annum per pupil identified with SEN, has led to a reduction in services and in SEN posts. This doesn’t bode well for the ability of these schools and colleges to meet the spirit and letter of the SEN reforms.
While schools are losing SEN expertise, and facing reduced access to external support, school-based initial teacher education is increasing. The School Direct training route already faces the risk of reducing the level of professional education that students will receive around the theoretical underpinnings of teaching, including deep understanding of child development and of SEN. Within a context where SEN expertise within schools has been cut and/or will be substantially occupied with implementing the SEN reform changes, this will limit the level of SEN preparedness of some of the students who take this route. Yet these students will be a key part of the profession who need to take these SEN reforms forward.
Teacher expertise around pedagogy, child development and SEN has been undervalued and undermined by government policy which emphasises subject expertise over knowledge about teaching and learning. Removing the requirement for teachers in many state-funded schools to have qualified teacher status further weakens the capacity of the workforce to identify SEN and to plan suitable provision for pupils with those needs.
Education staff are also now facing a new National Curriculum. Further on the horizon are changes to the assessment and qualifications systems, including use of the Progress 8 measure in a couple of years. The curriculum and the qualifications system are putting evermore hurdles in the way of staff adapting their teaching and support to the diverse needs of their pupils and students. There is some wonderful practice, led by strong and confident leaders who have vision untainted by the fear of Ofsted, around curriculum and assessment for learning which focuses on the needs of pupils. However, the pressures on schools to implement such a wide range of changes are substantial.
A key principle of these reforms is the support for transition to adulthood for young people with SEN. Schools will need to support transition planning for students with SEN from Year 9 at the latest, ensuring the availability of sufficient information for them to make informed choices, including guidance on the full range of 16 to 18 education or training options, and further education and apprenticeships. Yet, the current state of career guidance is not a happy one.
Since September 2012, schools have not had access to a publicly funded careers guidance service and have had no dedicated government funding to commission the independent and impartial careers guidance for which they have a statutory duty. In a recent ATL survey (summer 2014), 40 per cent of respondents said pupils were not currently served well by the amount of careers education, information, advice and guidance (CEIAG) they receive. Amongst the aspects of CEIAG identified in the survey as particularly weak were its suitability and effectiveness for a diverse range of people. If improved transition to adulthood for students with SEN is to be achieved, then this weakness in the careers guidance that schools and colleges offer will need to be addressed.
What schools and colleges will have to do
Schools and colleges will need to embark on their key role of educating children and young people within this changed policy context. It is vital that staff and governors are prepared, that they are familiar with the new SEN Code of Practice and that they are aware of their respective responsibilities. This is especially important for classroom teachers as they bear increased responsibility, particularly around the processes relating to the new category of SEN Support, with support from the SENCO and others. The DfE has provided guidance documentation, although there was little available before the summer holidays.
The biggest proportion of children and young people with SEN are on School Action (SA) and School Action Plus (SA+) and these will need to be put on SEN support, a graduated approach built around steps of assessment, planning, implementation and review. Schools will need to record their pupils who are on SEN support, converting existing SA and SA+ pupils to SEN support by the spring 2015 census.
Schools will need to build on their current practice to ensure that pupils with SEN and their parents or carers are engaged as fully as possible. Many schools, particularly those with vulnerable pupils and families, already prioritise this through roles such as the parent support worker and through regular communications with parents. The new SEN Code requires schools to collaborate and communicate with pupils and parents when drawing up policies and procedures, to report to parents on school SEN policy and implementation and to notify them of any decisions being made. This support may include working with parents around the use of their personal budget, should that be an option that parents have taken.
Sharing of information to inform decision-making is at the heart of the reforms. Schools will need to provide annual progress reports to parents and provide information to feed into the local offer being co-ordinated by the local authority. They’ll also need to publish an SEN information report, on their approaches to identifying and supporting pupils with SEN, on the school website to be updated at least annually.
Schools will need to review their support for transition to adulthood for pupils with SEN and disabilities, including the provision of transition planning from Year 9. This will include their careers guidance offer and ensuring that pupils have access to the right education, information and guidance, whether internally or externally.
Schools also need to review their arrangements for supporting pupils with medical conditions, following new statutory guidance.
The level of work and change that schools face to achieve the principles on which these reforms are built is substantial. This will be exacerbated by any failure to acknowledge the extent of the challenge and the need for approaches that go far beyond any one setting. Staff in schools and colleges will continue to work hard to ensure that every pupil has access to a first-rate education that meets their needs, and they need to be heard when they raise their concerns and share their experiences of the difficulties experienced. We need a political context that doesn’t see a conflict between celebrating successes and highlighting problems and concerns.
Staff in education, and indeed in the health and social care sectors, will need a huge amount of support in terms of time, information and CPD to ensure that they have the appropriate levels of expertise and resources to meet the demands being made of them. And there are no cheap options. To fail to invest more fully now will be costly in terms of the pupils with unmet needs which prove a barrier to their and others’ progress with implications for the rest of their lives, of the parents who struggle to get the support their children need, of professionals who suffer issues of frustrated professionalism, stress and challenging behaviour, and of a profession whose expertise is undermined and which loses members through burnout.
The education unions continue to play a key part in providing support through professional development, publications and guidance. Also, vitally, unions provide a voice for members’ concerns, questioning government policy on their behalf and on behalf of the pupils they serve, using member and research evidence to highlight problems and to propose solutions.
The SEN reforms promise much and we all hope that these aspirations will be realised. However, we must start with realistic expectations which recognise the full context from which we are setting forth, and which provide some idea of the strategies needed to improve the chances of real and positive change towards inclusion and the meeting of SEN needs.
Alison Ryan is Senior Policy Adviser at the union the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL):