This Education Policy Institute research proves why every teacher MUST be a teacher of SEND

The thing about SEND research, is that to the families it's about, it's not news at all.

Of course, decision-makers like data. They like to pore over it and tut and shake their heads. But what changes for children? Ah, yes, this is where the Department for Education says something like "We're conducting an in-depth review of the SEND system, that will be published in due course." Which they've been saying since September 2019 (but the pandemic!!)

Why am I wearily banging on about this? Because today, a report by none other than the Education Policy Institute is published, trailed as a "landmark" study, entitled, Identifying children with special educational needs and disabilities revealing that the special educational needs assessment system is a “roll of the dice” as families seeking support face (that old chestnut), "a postcode lottery".

Yeah, well, no shit Sherlock. They could have popped along to a few of the many Facebook groups of parents desperately seeking support to find this out.

The EPI research is "the first-ever study to fully quantify how SEND support varies nationally." It shows that in primary school, the chances of being identified as a pupil with SEND largely depend on the school that a child attends, rather than their individual circumstances. It doesn’t touch Secondary, which would be even more of a horror story.

Look, I'm sorry for being so cynical, really I am. It's excellent data and thorough research. I'm just so tired of report after report after report detailing systemic awfulness, when gazillions of pounds have been spent on the SEND reforms. Money that might have been better spent improving the accessibility of every school in the country and ensuring every teacher has a thorough grounding in special educational needs.

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The EPI research's aim

The research's core aim was to assess how fairly and effectively SEND needs are identified in England. Which groups of children are most likely to access SEND support? Where and in what circumstances children more or less likely to be identified with SEND? Do children from poorer homes have an even chance of of getting support?

So, while we all know the answers already, solid research data is important, because anecdotal evidence of thousands of parents is just too soft and squishy to be analysed. However, the core data that underpins this research is from 2017 at the latest. 

One of the more worrying things about the last year is how many children with emerging SEND needs will have been missed because they haven't been in school. A teacher will not properly have been able to observe a child's progress or behaviour changes. What is down to missing school that can be caught up along with the rest of the class, and what is down to the (as yet unidentified) needs of a child having amplified as a result of being out of view? These are children who may have been picked up and placed on SEN Support (I say may, because "postcode lottery" as this report illustrates)

And what this research shows is this: It's all about the school. If every teacher really is a teacher of SEND and trained as such, from the senior leadership down, a positive difference can be made to EVERY child. If the ethos of the school is that every child really matters, whatever their background, and they are treated as such, that child can reach their true potential.

It's really nothing to do with laws and policy - it's everything to do with caring, best practice and understanding SEND. Because what's good for a child with SEND is good for every child.

"At the lower level of support, differences between schools account for 69 per cent of the total variation, leaving just 29 per cent explained by differences between individual children, and 2 per cent explained by differences between local authorities. Which school a pupil attends dominates their chances of being identified with SEND to a greater extent than any combination of factors specific to that child."

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The EPI research headlines

Anyway, let's look at the research's headlines:

  • In primary, identification of SEND is largely determined by the school a child attends, rather than their individual circumstances, their experiences or what local authority they live in. More than half of the differences in identification are explained by the school attended. "This is most unusual in education research and in stark contrast to school attainment, where between-school differences explain only a small minority of the differences in pupil test results. Which school a child goes to matters an awful lot to whether they receive SEND support at both the lower (i.e. non-statutory SEN Support) and higher (EHCP) levels. 
  • The system of assessment is inconsistent and not well adapted to children’s individual needs. There is a mismatch between what schools focus on in assessing SEND needs and what local authorities focus on at the higher level of (statutory) assessment. "Unsurprisingly, Early Years Foundation Stage Profile assessments at age five have large effects on the chances of an individual child being identified with SEND. But whereas schools focus mostly on communication, language and literacy skills, local authorities make decisions that are more aligned with personal, social and emotional development."
  • Academy schools are associated with fewer chances of being identified with SEND.  It's also the case that in LAs with a bigger percentage of academy primaries, pupils have only a tenth of the chance of being identified with SEND at the higher level than those LAs with the fewest academies. "This is not explained by deprivation levels, ethnic mix or a range of other factors."
  • At school level, children in academies have less chances of being identified with SEND. A third less at SEN Support level and half as likely at statutory assessment level. "These are short-term effects over two years following conversion and we do not know if they will persist, but given the range of controlled factors at individual and school level, they are likely to indicate under-identification."
  • Children in poorer areas are more likely to be identified with SEND. But on the scale of disadvantage, if you're very, very poor, you're less likely to be identified than if you are "just" disadvantaged. (I'm paraphrasing, but the implication is children with literally nothing are just written off). And, if your particular school is in a disadvantaged area you are less likely to be identified with SEND, than children from similar backgrounds in more affluent areas. Translated, disadvantaged areas have a low and downwards sliding scale of expectation of their children, relative to level of poverty. So a very poor child must have very severe needs for them to be noticed. If a poorer child is in a better-off area, their needs are more likely to be noticed.
  • If a child moves areas in early childhood or misses a lot of school, they are less likely to have their SEND spotted. Though this does seem to be fairly obvious.
  • Children with child protection plans or who have just been taken into care had reduced chances of being identified with SEND. "The system is not adapted to the lives of children; it requires them to remain in one place and stay visible over long periods of time to access support." This is completely contrary to the Children and Families Act.

It's a sorry mess, really, isn't it? If you're in a school that doesn't expect much of their disadvantaged pupils and you have dyslexia, or ADHD, or dyscalculia, who is going to notice? Chances are, no one.

Commenting on the research, Jo Hutchinson, Director of Social Mobility and Vulnerable Learners at the Education Policy Institute (EPI), said:

“For many years families have highlighted flaws and inconsistencies in the system of identifying children with special educational needs. Now, for the first time, through analysis of national data, we have provided evidence to show that there is a lottery for support.

“We find that the level of support for children with SEND is highly variable across the country and is very much dependent on which school a child goes to, rather than actual need.

“While access to SEND support was already very unequal, the pandemic is very likely to have resulted in more children falling through the cracks or facing long waits for support. We need to significantly improve how we identify pupils with special educational needs and disabilities, so that we can deliver consistently for families and ensure that no child is denied the support that they need.”

Jo Hutchinson, Director of Social Mobility and Vulnerable Learners at the Education Policy Institute (EPI)

The EPI's recommendations

The research identifies school practice and "improving the allocation of SEND support to the children who need it." I am concerned about this phrase as it echoes the "sharp-elbowed parents taking all the resources" narrative, so I wish it had been worded differently. Rather than "improving the allocation", it should say "properly identifying"

Here are the main recommendations, with my thoughts in italics:

  • Provision of specialist SEND training for all current and prospective school leaders - AGREED - this is why Whole School SEND is SO IMPORTANT to continue supporting and needs greater funding for publicity and dissemination to get the training into the schools that obviously sorely need it but are less likely to actively seek it out.
  • Increased access to educational psychologists in schools when providing early support or making a case for support at the higher level. AGREED - But Ed Psychs take years to train. The problem is many say that they spend their time assessing for EHCPs instead of putting in the support early - and this is the fault of schools and LAs for not concentrating on early identification in the first place. Educational Psychologists need to be incentivised to come into the role to relieve the bottle-neck, or LAs should consider contracting in independent Ed Psychs so parents don't have to spend their own money getting reliable reports.
  • Greater use of age-standardised assessments...to increase consistency in assessment. The problem with this, however, is the spiky profile of many neurodivergent children who may be above age expectations in some areas but way below in others - so discernment needs to be used to ensure the deficits are not brushed over because they are strong in other areas.
  • The development of a framework of national expectations defining the kinds of adjustment and support that any mainstream school should make available as a matter of course;
  • The framework should be developed in consultation with parent groups, with costing and feasibility planning undertaken by school leaders’ representative bodies AGREE completely with a co-productive approach
  • Curriculum and teaching designed to foster secure and equal personal, social and emotional development for all children. AGREED The use of nurture groups, social and life skills is especially important at all levels in schools. Having a degree is one thing, being able to function in society is another.
  • The report acknowledges the difficulties presented by the pandemic. However, it has identified several groups of children who are "either plausibly or most likely under-identified with SEND and therefore access SEND support less readily than other children." Therefore, in my view, it provides a roadmap for those local authorities to act as soon as possible.
  • Responses consistent with greater equality and accessibility include:
    • Development of services and assessments capable of engaging with children at home, both in response to the covid pandemic, and for children who miss school for other reasons;
    • Further research to unpick whether the ethnic disparities they report represent real deficits in support, why and where they come from
    • Making sure the most disadvantaged children and those who move around are monitored and safeguarded.
  • SEND support suffers from a lack of accountability to those families who are not able to manage an appeal (for whatever reason). The report recommends
    • Using inspections to gather evidence of compliance with [the recommendation for a framework of] national expectations and recognise best practices that exceed the expectations (Which is fine if Ofsted has the remit and funding for it)
    • Balancing school progress and attainment accountability models with the level of risk and challenge of its pupils.
  • The unexplained inequalities described in the research results "suggest that there are differential thresholds being applied. Our results can be used to inform better use of resources in the following ways":
    • Rationalising high needs funding across local authorities according to the risk factors we have identified - the risks of reducing funding can be avoided by providing additional funds to top up those areas that are under-funded relative to their risk profile. There is already a High Needs Funding Consultation underway, so we hope the researchers will input their ideas into this. It closes on 24th March
    • The needs assessment function of local authorities conflicts with their role as budget holder for SEND support. Separating these two functions would open up the opportunity for more outcome and quality-focused practices in local authorities HOLY COW YES!
    • Evaluating the possibility of class sizes of 20 or fewer in reception in the most deprived neighbourhoods, alongside better training and clearer expectations for SEND support. An intervention on this scale should be evaluated, and with specific reference to the outcomes and long-term costs of support for children with SEND. This should be the case in EVERY school. Investing in education is a cost that will be repaid many times over in future years in a more skilled and productive society, fewer people in the criminal justice system, and a happier population with a stronger sense of wellbeing. Short-termism is a disease of every government. We need a government that puts the Wellbeing of all its citizens at its heart, with everything stemming from there and every decision taken to enhance the wellbeing of the population and the planet. Why is this so hard?

There is a lot more to this research than I have space for here so if data's your thing, plough on through the full report  here.

I expect this research report will be thrown onto the teetering pile in front of the SEND Review team (whoever they are) as they attempt to come up with some recommendations that will be worthy of having spent 18 months figuring out. A word of warning though - if you're thinking of raising the bar for Statutory Assessment (which I'm sure local authorities are praying for) - you're going to be in for a fight.

Also read:

Tania Tirraoro
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