Fight Club must end, collaboration is the way forward: a SEND Director’s perspective

Earlier in the year I went with Angela to the London Leadership Strategy conference where I was speaking on a panel about SEN reform, along with a number of experienced education professionals. I deliberately don't dwell on these events too much beforehand in case I start to feel a bit intimidated, which would be no good for anyone, least of all SEND parents on whose behalf I am supposed to be speaking.

One of my fellow panellists was Malcolm Reeve, with whom I was familiar via Twitter, as he is an active and influential tweeter. Malcolm is Executive Director for SEND & Inclusion at Academies Enterprise Trust (AET) - the UK’s largest academy chain. He has worked in the field of SEND for 30 years and in that time has worked in adult provision, mainstream schools and special schools. He has worked in with children throughout the age range and with learning difficulties ranging from moderate to profound.

Malcolm has been a Headteacher of three schools and one federation. He is a National Leader of Education, Chair of the Federation of Leaders in Special Education and a Member of the National SEND Forum.

In his exclusive SNJ guest post, Malcolm Reeve reflects on what it means to be child and family-focused and why it is time to close the battle lines between families and professionals.

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Malcolm Reeve
Malcolm Reeve
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A SEND Director's Perspective

It should be a given that every parent only wants the best for their child. It should also be a given that schools want their children to learn, succeed and thrive ensuring that children have access to provision that meets their needs.

If we were to use a retail analogy – teachers and school leaders are ‘providers’ and it is our job to ensure that children and families – our ‘customers’ are happy and served quickly and efficiently.

Yet despite this, the history around special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) has often been described as a ‘battlefield’ between parents’ desire to get the best for their child and the school’s ability and capacity to put provision and support in place.

The fighting needs to stop and collaboration between schools and families needs to increase. If there is a problem, school leaders need to work with families to solve it.

The new SEN reforms are our opportunity to take forward this collaborative approach in practice. However, for many this is new territory and given the pace of the reforms, parents need to remember that teachers, SENCOs and school leaders are only just starting to get to grips with the changes themselves.

Teaching a child with SEND can be challenging at times but it is also immensely rewarding when as a parent, your child, or as a teacher, your pupil, flourishes under the right support, guidance and care.

Schools need to remember the challenges and strains that families face and that the current changes will be a whirlwind for parents – a range of technical governmental language, and at times jargon and with lots of questions about what this all means for their child.  It might not be the smoothest of paths to start with, but there are things that parents and teachers can do to make this process as positive as possible.

5 Top Tips

 Honesty

Honesty is key and things can quickly unravel if this is not in place between parents and schools. Schools need to work hard to ensure parents are on board and the basis is trust. Be honest about what you can and can’t deliver on and if the child needs more then join with the parent in attempting to secure it.

Both parties share a common goal – use this, harness it and you will achieve much more for a child than you would as a parent fighting or a school pushing back. No one is the enemy and when we join together there is a strength in partnership which gains the best possible outcomes for children and young people.

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Remember who is at the centre

Everybody wants the best for children with SEND and this person is a unique human being – not child X who is at the centre of lots of heated and strained discussions.

We need to ‘cut through’ endless paperwork, allocated hours of provision, reduced budgets and resources and remember the child at the centre and deliver what’s best for them. It is amazing how it’s possible to lose sight of that little boy or girl, or young adult, who really needs the support, and turn it into an on-going struggle. I have always operated a simple philosophy; ‘If it’s not good enough for my child then it’s not good enough for this child’.

Welcome the involvement of outside parties

You are not alone as a parent or school; it can sometimes feel like it when you are trying to negotiate a maze of provisions and legalities but just like Special Needs Jungle, there are places to go and people to turn to.

Parental advocates, legal advisors and a myriad of organisations such as The Council for Disabled Children, Families in Focus, IPSEA and Network 81 are available. Go to them, speak to them, use their expertise. Schools should see them as supporters in getting the right service and advocating for the child.

It is also worth remembering there is likely to be support closer at hand, other parents, who could be dealing with the same school or obstacles. It can be exhausting ‘going it alone’ and just speaking to other parents and sharing experiences can make a huge difference. Schools should offer coffee mornings or social events which are focused not on paperwork or policy but on the simple act of sharing.

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Know the law

The more parents and schools know the law, the more likely they are to achieve their shared goals for the child or young person.

Look for information online and ask your school for information on their policies and offered provisions. Knowledge of the law ‘is power’ and this can’t be truer when it comes to breaking down some of the barriers which children and schools face. It can be really helpful in ‘cutting through’ unhelpful systems and processes.

Focus on what children can do

Children with SEND and their families face many challenges and it is up to schools to support and encourage them in any way they can. Sometimes the highest performing child in a school can be a child with SEND because there is a massive difference between attainment and progress. I was in a secondary academy the other day where a child had entered unable to read in Year 7. By the end of year 8 he was a fluent reader – far below the attainment of others of his age but what a massive achievement and what fantastic progress – he deserved a special award. Sometimes the greatest achievements of children with SEND are in social skills and communication and like all of us they blossom through praise for what they can do rather than being told what they can’t.

At the end of the day, children and young people with SEND are, like all human beings, travelling on a journey of self-discovery. I feel privileged to have spent my career serving children with SEND and their families. Like many others, I have tried hard to make a positive impact but I have taken away much more from each and every experience than I have ever given.

Follow Malcolm on Twitter @Malcolm_Reeve

We are delighted that Malcolm Reeve has agreed to join us as one of our Special Needs Jungle columnists. Don't miss his future posts by signing up for email post alerts

Malcolm Reeve

SEND & Inclusion expert at Whole School SEND
Malcolm is a National Leader of Education and Chair of Programme Board for Whole School SEND. He's former Executive Director for SEND & Inclusion at Academies Enterprise Trust (AET) - the UK’s largest academy chain and now runs his own education consultancy, Firmament Education. He's worked in the field of SEND for over 30 years and in that time has worked in adult provision, mainstream schools and special schools. He has worked in with children throughout the age range and with learning difficulties ranging from moderate to profound.
Malcolm has been a Headteacher of three schools and one federation. He is a Member of the National SEND Forum and Patron of the Centre Algarve holiday centre for people with special needs.
Malcolm Reeve

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