In a departure from his role as Law commentator, Douglas Silas looks at recent research from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on educational experiences of young people with SEND in England.
The ONS report is entitled ‘Educational experiences of young people with SEND in England: February to May 2022’, and its contents are important as they may influence forthcoming developments in the law relating to special education.
Previous research had highlighted evidential gaps about young people with SEND, often only reflecting proxy views, rather than their direct views. Research was particularly needed because the Department for Education (DfE) was undertaking the SEND Review, which needed to understand direct experiences. It was based on a qualitative approach, with researchers speaking to young people attending different educational settings, including mainstream, special and residential schools, alternative provision and those in home education, with ‘SEN Support’ or an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP).
The report found that young people with SEND described strategies they used to manage their learning and emotional wellbeing, which included wearing headphones or sunglasses, fidgeting, doodling and accessing sensory spaces. Other educational support was said to result in many young people reacting by feeling angry or frustrated and potentially distracting others, but this was sometimes treated as ‘naughty behaviour’, with punishments such as isolation and exclusion. It was important to highlight the need to consult with individuals to understand them better and find appropriate ways to accommodate their needs, without them feeling labelled as ‘different’. The report identified that schools needed to be more responsive to young people’s needs by providing more training to staff on how to understand these better by meeting them and ensuring that support plans were appropriate, up to date and updated as needed. There need to be flexibility around issues, such as coursework, uniforms, access to safe spaces and ensuring that teaching methods considered a range of learning styles and preferences.
The research also found the need for good communication and relationships between staff and pupils and families and staff. Staff who displayed empathy, respect and care also encouraged young people to ask for help and had a positive impact, as they were better able to understand individual needs and adapt lessons appropriately.
In addition, both young people and their parents/carers indicated how schools could promote more inclusion, through school clubs or ‘buddy’ systems’ and by recognising that there could be a range of achievements beyond academic grades, including raising awareness about understanding of needs and differences.
Parents and carers highlighted difficulties with navigating systems to ensure that their child’s support needs were met; describing stressful, lengthy, complex and inconsistent processes to access appropriate schools and support plans. They also called for greater accountability by Local Authorities (LAs).
Young people suggested that to manage learning, they needed both resilience and self-reliance. Some preferred not to be identified as ‘different’, to avoid social judgement and assist them with ‘belonging’. This was not only about other pupils, but also about teachers, who did not acknowledge their needs or preferences. Additionally, young people reported a need for ‘self-management’, to manage emotional well-being at school and to avoid negative emotions, such as anger, frustration, anxiety and aggression, which in some cases was experienced every day as their emotional needs were not always recognised or responded to appropriately. Some young people said that ‘fidgeting’, using tactile objects, was a helpful strategy for improving concentration and maintaining calm, although some teachers saw this as ‘distracting’ or ‘disruptive’. They also expressed that their emotional needs would be managed better if teachers and support staff listened and understood them more.
The researchers identified the main strengths of the report. In particular, the research enabled a more detailed understanding of how young people with SEND experienced their education and what is important to them—it also showed what could be improved to help them in the future. The inclusion of parents, carers and staff in the research ensured a better understanding of the broader contexts, which meant that they could provide views and experiences of processes that were not necessarily part of young people’s direct experiences, but had a bearing on their education. Interview approaches were tailored creatively, to maximise accessibility and comfort.
But: the researchers also conceded that there were some ‘limitations’ of this research. There were only limited opportunities for some young people with sensory or physical disabilities to engage in some of the creative methods (such as drawing or building Lego). Difficulties and challenges involving those young people with Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulties (PMLD), or those who were minimally verbal—the researchers recognised issues around greater accessibility. The process was also highly reliant on ‘gatekeepers’, such as schools and other networks, to identify and recruit eligible participants, which meant that they could potentially have excluded some young people from participating properly.