Ofsted and ONS offer further evidence that lack of funding, training and specialists damages children with SEND

With Matt Keer

Post title with image of sad boy

Ofsted has found increasing numbers of primary school children with SEND are being referred to alternative provision, because of a lack of access to specialist help. Around 7,000 primary-age children in England are currently known to be in AP which, while a small proportion of all primary pupils, has risen by over a quarter in the last five years. Ofsted’s new research shows while most primary-age pupils only stayed in AP for a few weeks or months, usually attending part time, some of the most vulnerable children end up being left in AP for years until a special school placement can be organised. In the meantime, their specialist needs may not be fully met, with potentially long-term consequences.

Primary school staff told Ofsted that, as we reported last week, the national strain on specialist services, exacerbated by the pandemic, has made it more difficult to support pupils with SEND. Ofsted found this difficulty in accessing speech and language therapists and educational psychology services may be leading to the increased AP referrals and possibly, more permanent exclusions. Quelle surprise….

Anecdotally, we know only too well that this has been the case for a long time. Many children arrive in AP without ever having had a statutory assessment to understand what their SEND needs are. They are instead labelled as having Social, Emotional and Mental Health (SEMH) needs, which isn’t a medical diagnosis, just a handy way to categorise children without bothering to find out where exactly the problem stems from. In January 2021, 69% of the primary-age pupils in AP had SEMH as their primary area of need.

Unmet need leads to unhappy children

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) also published a report yesterday on the educational experiences of young people aged 11-16 with SEND. It found “unmet educational support needs were reported to result in a range of reactions from young people, including feeling angry or frustrated, and potentially distracting others, which was sometimes treated as "naughty" behaviour and met with punishment, such as isolation and exclusion.” So if you weren’t already sure, this is two clear reports that unidentified, ignored or under-supported needs are a big driver in negative behavioural responses. And whose fault is that? Not the child’s…

Some young participants felt their schools helped them to manage their emotions and feel more comfortable. When they felt teachers or support staff listened and understood their strategies to cope or self-regulate, this was seen to make a positive difference to their learning and well-being. It also made them more comfortable sharing their feelings and asking for help. Additionally, being able to access safe environments, such as sensory rooms, appeared particularly important for some young people. Such spaces helped them to relax and unwind, avoid noisy or busy breaktimes, and enabled them to study without distraction…

… “They described negative emotional and behavioural consequences of young people not having their needs understood or met, which included "messing around", distracting others, shouting or ignoring teachers. They described some staff as focusing on these symptoms, labelling pupils with SEND as "bad" or "naughty", rather than trying to understand the underlying problem. Focusing on the behaviour rather than the issue causing it was seen as exacerbating emotional and behavioural difficulties, creating a vicious cycle.

“Young participants felt the onus was more on them to change their behaviour or face being punished with isolation or exclusion, rather than on schools to identify and address individual needs. While young participants acknowledged the need to remove disruptive pupils, this also excluded them from learning, hindering their progress. Young participants also described how feeling branded as "naughty" could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Educational experiences of young people with special educational needs and disabilities in England: February to May 2022

Why are young children being increasingly sent to AP?

The Ofsted study found that pupils were referred to AP when “mainstream school support strategies” (presumably at SEN Support level) had not worked. Most pupils were referred because of violent physical or verbal behaviour that school staff felt they could not safely manage, and that was having a negative effect on other pupils and staff. Staff also referred to AP when they weren’t able to meet pupils’ additional needs because of a lack of funding, training or facilities. This is something we may well be seeing even more of in the months to come.

Staff in schools, APs and in LAs believed the children’s violent behaviour came from difficult home lives or, as mentioned, previously undiagnosed SEND. However, Ofsted says inspections show that inadequately designed curriculums or poor teaching in the early years and key stage 1 were often the root cause of children being labelled as SEMH or SEND.

Whatever the reason, what is clear to me is that it is the fault of responsible adults from goverment on down, not the child. But children are the ones being removed from friends, familiarilty and mainstream education, demonised and traumatised.

Ofsted’s report says staff must consider each pupil’s needs carefully when deciding what measures to put in place, with a high-quality curriculum and high-quality teaching crucial for preventing needs from developing, worsening or leading to avoidable AP referrals. It also says staff need to be aware of pupils’ circumstances and develop good relationships with their parents and carers. All very well, but with teachers and TAs facing redundancy or jumping ship at an alarming rate, and those left being underpaid and overwhelmed, how does Ofsted expect this to happen?

Why are school strategies ineffective?

As well as the aforementioned lack of funding, training and facilities, the research found school support strategies became ineffective and AP referrals were made when relationships between parents and school staff had broken down. An AP referral was then sometimes used as a ‘circuit breaker’ to repair relationships, with the AP acting as a mediator between the school and parents, while supporting the child.

Ofsted recommends building “…effective and close relationships with parents from the start, through regular, clear and balanced conversations. This reduces the likelihood that pupils will be referred to AP, and allows staff to allocate extra resources to them in good time. Many parents may themselves be in need of support. An awareness of this, along with signposting them to relevant sources of help and expertise, can help staff to build strong relationships with parents.”

The 2014 SEND reforms told schools to involve parents from the moment they suspect an additional need. But way too often, parents are not told until an advanced stage and are never invited to become partners on “Team Child”, which is what, by law, should happen. Why has this been one of the biggest failures of the reforms? Why are too many schools too often unwilling to work as equals alongside parents? One reason is obviously the overwhelm and overwork issues, but another may be that some find the parents “difficult” so don’t feel able to work with them, or maybe an approach is rebuffed (because we all know when an approach isn’t geniune, and of course, not all parents are willing for many reasons). Maybe a teacher has never read the SEND Code of Practice, or has had very little SEND training. And whose fault is this? I think we all know who… the ones who wrote laws without ensuring teachers are trained to deliver it…

Meanwhile, the ONS Educational Experiences report found that children themselves felt,

“Good communication and relationships between staff and pupils and their families were said to have a positive impact on young people's experiences at school; staff who displayed empathy, respect and care were described as encouraging young people to feel comfortable about asking for help, as well as being better able to understand their individual needs and adapt lessons appropriately.” Meanwhile, parents and carers spoke of difficulties navigating support systems, describing “stressful, lengthy, complex and inconsistent processes to access appropriate schools and support plans, and calling for greater accountability to ensure guidelines are followed by local authorities.

“Parents and carers, especially those whose children have less visible disabilities, also spoke about feeling branded as "difficult", having to "fight" for their child to be supported at school and needing to contest decisions. There was also a sense that as well as children being punished for behaviour that may arise from unmet needs, parents and carers can be penalised, such as being fined for their low attendance.”

ONS Educational Experiences report

What settings are classed as “Alternative provision”— and why are some unregistered?

For their study, Ofsted looked at a variety of services including:

  • off-site provision for pupils with additional needs (part time or full time)
  • outreach work carried out in mainstream schools by staff from APs or local authorities (LAs)
  • specialist provision in some mainstream schools

However, although Ofsted seems to know the definition, its research found no consensus among staff on what AP is. Staff in both schools and AP variously considered alternative provision to be outreach work, any sufficiently differentiated curriculum, or an off-site placement. Others thought pupil referral units were short-stay schools rather than AP. Ofsted puts this down to the way AP is currently defined in the statutory guidance; when arranged by LAs, AP is ‘education’ for excluded pupils. When arranged by schools, it is classed as ‘off-site provision to improve their behaviour’.

74% of pupils in state-funded AP are aged 8-10. Of all pupils who are known to be in independent and unregistered AP, 71% are aged 8-10. So these young—and vulnerable—children are in settings that no authority has oversight over or knows what kind of education they are receiving. Ofsted says it visited settings that should have been registered and found a range of concerns, including:

  • inappropriate or unsafe accommodation
  • staff being recruited without suitable checks
  • staff not having the necessary skills to support vulnerable pupils
  • pupils not receiving a suitable education

This is completly unacceptable.

SEND Review proposals

Reforming the role of Alternative Provision is one of the main thrusts of the proposals of the current SEND Review Green Paper. The DfE (which has finally confirmed Claire Coutinho as SEND Minister) wants the role of AP to be expanded to offer support and coaching to mainstream schools staff as well as taking children mainstream has deemed unsuitable. How this will be funded or staffed has yet to be revealed.

This is underlined by Ofsted’s report saying schools see AP outreach work to be important for the early identification of children’s needs, preventing an escalation in behaviour and helping keep pupils in mainstream. But AP staff themselves say that funding arrangements affect the amount of outreach work they can do— and who will backfill them at their own school while they’re doing the outreach work? I’m also concerned about AP staff being used for early identification—how early can it be if a need isn’t recognised until AP outreach comes in? Why hasn’t the school already noticed and investigated? And why isn’t the DfE tackling this first instead of trying to bring in a raft of expensive systemic changes without first tackling training needs? Let’s do that first, because everyone and their dog can see that’s what’s going wrong.

Boomerang children?

The study found mainstream staff had “high expectations for pupils’ progress and outcomes” with most expected to return to school. However, the parents involved said while their child’s behaviour and academic work had improved since joining an AP, some weren’t sure if AP could substantially ‘change’ their child’s behaviour or lead to them have a happy and full life after leaving alternative provision. This is an issue we raised in our SEND Review response of the prospect of children being bounced back and forth between mainstream and AP because, once back in the same environment they couldn’t cope with, the same response happens again because their needs are no longer being addressed.

Mainstream a hostile environment

The ONS report found:

“A primary focus on academic attainment can undermine perceived inclusiveness. Some young participants attending mainstream schools reported feeling unwelcome because they achieved lower grades, and perceptions that the school's academic reputation was prioritised over needs-based support. Participants felt it should be recognised that achievement looks different for everyone.” 

Educational experiences of young people with special educational needs and disabilities in England: February to May 2022

But it can be done, as the ONS report also shows that some mainstream schools were described by parents and carers as having an open, accepting attitude towards SEND, with all staff members considering themselves to be part of SEND provision. Parents, carers and staff felt that open discussions around SEND encouraged an inclusive culture by raising awareness among all pupils and staff, and building understanding of individual differences and needs as part of the curriculum.

“They have a good understanding and all of the staff are involved, if that makes sense. They are all teachers of SEND in a way. So, it's not 'the SEND department looks after children with autism and then I'm his class teacher', everybody is aware.”

Parent or carer of 11- to 13-year-old, SEN support, mainstream school (ONS)

I urge school staff to read the ONS report as it contains many important quotes from young people, parents and from school staff that I don’t have space for here. There is also a version for young people. Reading their thoughts is hugely enightening and this, I believe, should be included in training packages.

We must put an urgent focus on training because without that no amount of changes to the SEND system will work. Good SEND training, regularly updated, across schools, LAs, further education and higher education is where it starts to make a difference for everyone, most importantly for children and young people.

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Tania Tirraoro

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