How teachers feel they are coping with the SEN system
Two academic years have now passed since the introduction of the 2014 SEN and disabilities Code of Practice (CoP) for most schools in England – three for local areas involved in the Pathfinder implementation programme. At its 2016 conference, members of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) debated the question “Are SEND students being let down?” They passed a resolution asking the union to “investigate if there is a decrease is specialised identification and support for special educational needs and disability (SEND) students within education”.
The fact that the question needs to be asked at all suggests that there may be issues with the quality of educational provision for learners with SEN and disabilities.
To explore the issue, the ATL recently undertook a survey of 600 of its members. The findings were stark. Only nine per cent of respondents agreed with the following statement: “I believe that the current system in England enables all children with special educational needs to be supported appropriately”.
So what’s going wrong? Anecdotally, the same concerns emerged time and again in the survey:
Pupils missing out
There is a significant cohort of learners who appear to have SEN but are not eligible for recognition as such in the system.
Between 2010 and 2016, the percentage of learners identified as having SEN nationally has fallen from just over 20 per cent to just below 15 per cent. The Department for Education (DfE) has claimed that this is due to better processes for identifying SEN and differing categories. However, the fact is that hundreds of thousands of children and young people who were at one time deemed to require additional or different provision to achieve their potential are now not entitled to support. These learners are now impossible to identify in national statistics, which means that it is also impossible to identify the impact of removing such provision on a national scale. There is no structural mechanism for ensuring that children or young people deemed to no longer have SEN are achieving their potential.
Education staff, especially classroom teachers, do not feel confident in identifying and supporting SEN in the classroom; this is particularly concerning given the leading role that classroom teachers have in assessing children and young people for SEN and supporting them. Furthermore, identification procedures were not yet workable for children who could potentially fall into the new “social, emotional and mental health needs” category. The known challenges with accessing child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) services were often mentioned. Whilst the introduction of this new SEN category is welcome, without ensuring that the necessary structures are in place, these vulnerable learners are undoubtedly being let down. This particular area highlighted an ongoing concern that despite the promises made in the CoP about joining up different services, health provision remains difficult to access and unable to meet demand. This places a significant additional burden on schools to support learners, despite inadequate resources.
Education professionals do not have the time required to complete assessments of SEN and put necessary support provision in place. SENCOs, in particular, reported that they did not have the capacity to complete education, health and care (EHC ) plan applications for every learner that might benefit from one, and classroom teachers did not have the time to meet with colleagues to plan the best provision for their students with SEN. For classroom staff, the time needed to complete the “assess-plan-do” review process is simply not available due to other significant workload drivers and timetables that do not provide structured opportunities for teachers and support staff to meet.
There is a lack of quality assurance for identification processes and support provision for learners identified at SEN Support level. Whilst Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission have introduced local area inspections for SEN and disabilities, respondents to the survey who have experienced them have highlighted that the inspectors focused mainly on EHC plans and SEN Support received little attention. For this cohort, poor practice and provision can go unchecked. Local authorities can at least, in theory, provide support and intervention to improve SEN Support practice; the current cuts to LA funding and inability to compel all local schools to comply means that at best the quality of SEN Support provision is a lottery.
The notional SEN and disabilities budget is not working as a funding mechanism for learners at the SEN Support level. Due to whole-school budget funding restraints it is often a huge challenge for school leaders to free up the entire notional budget and too often SENCOs were not given the opportunity to decide how this money could best be spent. Securing sufficient funds to pay for educational physiologists and other vital professionals, such as mental health specialists, was also extremely difficult.
The accessibility of the national curriculum, statutory assessments and qualifications was also an enormous concern for those surveyed. The perception that an increasingly narrow curriculum offer, combined with the fixed age-related expectations in end of key stage assessments, are leading to failure for many learners with SEN and disabilities.
The combined pressures of reduced budgets in real terms, high stakes accountability, staff shortages and rapid policy education change across a range of areas has seriously undermined the capacity of many school leaders to implement genuinely inclusive practice.
Ideas for change
It is clear from the detailed responses of many of those surveyed that in spite of the challenges they face, teachers are doing the best that they can. Often, staff are spending their own money on training and specialist resources, enduring unsustainable workloads to ensure that all learners get the support that they need, and working hard to make the national curriculum, statutory assessments and qualifications as accessible as they can.
Unfortunately, it appears that many students with SEN and disabilities are being let down. In response to the recent call for evidence for the Labour Party review into SEN and disabilities, the ATL made the following recommendations:
- The Department for Education must carry out a full and open-minded evaluation of how to support learners at the SEN Support level and ensure all those with additional needs are recognised by the system
- The notional SEN budget must be protected in schools and guidance should be issued on the allocation of financial resources to support children with SEN
- High-quality SEN training should be an entitlement for all education professionals throughout their careers and form a core part of initial teacher education
- SENCOs need more protected time to complete their responsibilities; teachers and support staff need sufficient allocated time to plan for the individual needs of learners
- Accountability should be reformed so that it does not serve as a disincentive to inclusive practice, and the current over-emphasis on test and exam results should be reformed to ensure a greater focus on meeting individual learners’ needs.
For the sake of all our students with SEN and disabilities, I can only hope these recommendations are listened to.
Anne Heavey is Education Policy Advisor at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL):