Horror stories: Recent SEND research for your summer reading

Dear reader, I am sorry, but I have failed you.

A clutch of research reports about SEND have been recently released and I would so love to be able to analyse them in depth and bring you a post about each of them. But I can't.

I'm still catching up with work after a truly wonderful break getting my Zen on at a meditation week in Spain, so badly needed - and so different - after a decade in SEND. If you ever get the chance (possibly you're laughing ironically now) I would recommend it. SEND has consumed me for so long at home and with SNJ and now I'm 50 (ffs) and my boys are young men, I need to see what else is out there for me as a human being. I am, of course, all too aware that this is a privilege and something that parents whose children have more profound disabilities may never get the chance to do.

At the moment, I'm also deep into arranging disability support for my younger son ahead of his university entrance in September. This has stirred many emotions: pride at his achievements and sadness that he's leaving, panic that I've forgotten something, stress with making sure I haven't and fear that he will forget to access the available support when he's there. So much for the Zen.

I'm also about to start helping Surrey out, starting up social media for its Local Offer site. Surrey parents deserve far better than they have had and, after heavily criticising my county's SEND, I am pleased to be have the chance to make an actual difference.

I had hoped that, post-reforms, SNJ would no longer be needed; like many of you, SEND was never supposed to be my career. However, it's clear that this website is needed more than ever, for parents and practitioners alike. It's bigger than ever too and has just been ranked the No1 UK Healthcare blog by influence measurers, Vuelio :-). We certainly don't want to abandon it, but it's very hard to keep up with everything, given my Ehlers Danlos syndrome and the other demands we are all under.

So, a specific call out: if you have WordPress skills AND top writing/editing skills AND crucially, a few spare, scattered hours a week, and would like to be part of our wonderful volunteer team, email me. Needless to say (but I'll say it anyway), you have to be involved in SEND in some capacity, ideally as a parent, but practitioners who are dedicated to our aims are welcome too. And, if you've got deep pockets or are a related company that would like to advertise here, or sponsor us in return for your logo being displayed, likewise give us a shout.

But back to my failings...

Horror stories- send research

We had our own SEND end of year report last week, and then the DfE dropped their own, virtually at the end of term (though it does say on two of them that the research is not an endorsement by DfE of any of the views expressed nor does it represent present or future Government policy). It would do well to heed them, however, as they all make very important reading.

As such, although I do not have time to do them justice here, I don't want to let them slide by without mention. So here they are, in brief with a bit of banging on as well as you would expect.

The wellbeing of secondary school pupils with special educational needs

This report, by Matt Barnes and Eric Harrison of the Department of Sociology, City University of London, explores whether having SEN remains an important factor associated with wellbeing, when other characteristics of children and their family are taken into account. And the answer is yes.

The wellbeing of children with SEND is a risky business, given the increased likelihood of being bullied, excluded or having absences from school, not to mention the challenges of learning with a disability in the first place.

This research seriously concerns me. It finds that children with SEN are more likely to have parents who are disadvantaged, less likely to be well-educated and more likely to qualify for free school meals. It's my assumption that these parents are less likely to understand how to navigate the SEND system and more likely to accept what they are told by schools and local authorities. And we know what that means. Advocacy services are absolutely CRUCIAL to help these families. I urge everyone working in schools to pass information to these (and all) SEND parents about IASS (post about them coming soon) and the Independent Supporter service as well as any local parent carer groups and forums. We all know that knowledge is power.

happiness rating
How the children rated their happiness levels

This wellbeing report shows that children with SEN tend to have lower levels of subjective (self-reported) wellbeing than children without SEN when talking about their school and their school work – and also with their friends. It's clear that children with SEND know very well where they "rank" against their school peers and it doesn't make them happy.

One in five children with SEN report being unhappy with their school, compared to just seven per cent of children without SEN. Yet children with SEN show relatively little difference to those without SEN when talking about their family and their appearance.

The report found that the SEN - wellbeing link is even more pronounced for psychological wellbeing. Around a quarter of SEND children (18-27%) are in the ‘high’ or ‘very high’ psychological difficulties range, significantly higher than the 12% (11-13%) children without SEN. Of course, poor psychological wellbeing is common to some types of SEND.

The analysis has suggested a potentially complex interaction between SEN and a number of other factors that can impact on children’s wellbeing, including their gender, family background, peer relationships (particularly bullying) and engagement with education. This, and other research, shows that children with SEN are disproportionately more likely to be boys, from more disadvantaged families, and to be bullied. Being bullied - both physical and non-physical bullying – is a consistent predictor of low wellbeing and we also know that children’s interaction with school, family members, and other children can have a strong influence on their wellbeing.

percent unhappy

This report is quite complex and a bit upsetting to be honest, showing as it does that children with SEND are more likely to be unhappy at school. Not that this is news, but seeing it there in black and white hurts.

And now this is fact, not just feeling, what are we going to do about it? Answer: in this era of cuts, TAs not being replaced and teachers at breaking point after years of relentless government policy initiatives, probably nothing. But for parents, it drives home that we need to ensure that our children are in the best environment possible for their happiness and learning ability and this, despite the reforms, is quite likely to mean a battle with their LA.

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SEN support: a survey of schools and colleges

This research was conducted by Helen Johnson, Julia Carroll & Louise Bradley at Coventry University.  It deserves a post by itself but at this moment in time (see top of post) it just isn't going to happen. I urge you to save the PDF and add it to your summer reading list, probably in the horror category.

This report has a number of very scary findings, especially considering that it looks, in particular, at children who do not benefit from the statutory protection of an Education, Health and Care plan. So what does it show?

  • Identification of SEN:  A third (33.8%) of staff in a range of job roles across primary, secondary and college settings said they did not have responsibility for identifying students with SEN. Staff who did report responsibility for identifying SEN used different methods for doing so, depending on whether they were SENCOs or other members of staff.

SNJ NOTE TO SCHOOLS: Let's change this "not my job, guv," thinking. Everyone has responsibility for identifying students with SEND and every class teacher is a teacher of children with SEND. You don't need it written into your contract before you think about helping a child experiencing a difficulty.  If you have even a tiny concern, pass it on to the SENCo. If you're the SENCo, take it seriously enough to at least look into it. 

  • Strategies: The report shows that a wide range of strategies are used when helping children with lower levels of SEND.  The question is though, are the right strategies being used? Are they evidence-based? Was the child concerned assessed as to what their difficulties were and why they might be experiencing them?

The report shows that a range of assessment methods were used across settings and some said that they would refer to Speech and Language Therapy services or Child Mental Health services (CAMHS). For anxiety, for example, the most frequent was to provide a ‘trusted’ or ‘key’ adult for the student to talk to when needed (presumably if they have the time!). Providing a safe space for the student when feeling overwhelmed and supporting the student to develop anxiety-management techniques such as meditation and breathing exercises were also reported, which is good to hear. Referrals to outside professionals such as Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) or Educational Psychology Services were also reported.

SNJ's advice? Teachers and SENCos MUST read this research; it isn't just a statistical report, it contains many intervention ideas that may be useful, however experienced you are in the classroom.

  • Issues and barriers that impact their ability to provide effective support for students with SEN. So this is where it gets really scary. Staffing issues, difficulty accessing outside professionals and problems matching programmes to students needs were listed as barriers to good support. So even if a child has a suspected SEN, they struggle with finding the staff to support them, and they find that (hey guess what?) children are all different and the interventions available don't match their needs. Added to this, schools find it difficult to get external support, such as perhaps an Ed Psych assessment, one of the key recommendations of early intervention in the SEND Code of Practice. And we wonder why the SEND reforms are failing. It's clear that it's often not for lack of trying, it's through lack of funding.
  • In colleges, one of the main barriers was that students were often disengaged by education by the time they arrived or were reluctant to receive support. Added to this, the report cited a lack of useful interventions and strategies for the post 16 age group.
  • Teaching Assistants: Teachers say that the biggest issue for them when using teaching assistants is the lack of time they have together away from the classroom to plan good strategies. So, it seems every day is fire-fighting and sometimes the other fire(wo)man is off dealing with another blaze elsewhere in the school.
  • SEND Information: Where do teachers and support staff get their information from? Of those who replied, more get their information from Special Needs Jungle than the Department for Education. Which is nice for us, but more than a little worrying that they are not accessing the horse's mouth, as it were.  Most, however, get their information from "other professionals" with more than 75% saying they asked their SENCo. (Read our 'all about the SENCo' post here)  Of course, if the SENCo isn't as clued up as they should be (and there is plenty of evidence that, as far as the law goes, they are not) then there is a cause for concern that the right information is getting through.

Please read this report for yourself as you may find it very helpful.

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SEN support: A rapid evidence assessment

This final report is by Julia Carroll, Louise Bradley, Hayley Crawford, Penny Hannant, Helen Johnson & Angela Thompson of Coventry University. It was referred to several times in the SEN Support study and is intended to review existing strategies for SEND support teaching in mainstream schools and colleges. As such, it should also be required summer reading for current and future teachers.
The report found good quality research evidence does exist about effective interventions in the areas of cognition and learning; social, emotional and mental health; and communication and interaction, three of the four broad areas of need outlined in the SEND Code of Practice 2015.  Of concern however, the report found that the existing evidence about high quality teaching and adaptations to support these needs is "significantly less extensive".

The key findings were:

  • Training: The important role of training for all education professionals. "Teaching assistants can provide good quality intervention if they are well trained, while even highly qualified professionals have less impact if they do not understand the principles and motivation behind the approach they are using." No shit, Sherlock, you might say, but clearly, it does need to be spelled out.
  • Graduated Approach: The importance of a detailed and graduated response and the Assess, Plan, Do, Review cycle was evidenced from this research. (See our SEN Support Flow chart here and our SEN Support infographic here)

The researchers said it was clear that detailed assessment of individual children is necessary to select the most appropriate approach, and progress should be monitored when using any intervention to assess whether it is effective for that particular child. So,  early intervention and the ADPR cycle in a nutshell, as detailed in the SEND CoP and we hope that it is being carried out in every school in the land.

  • Linking training to skills: The research says, "It can be tempting to assume that training to remediate a particular weakness will automatically improve the target academic skill (be it motor skills to improve handwriting, phonological skills to improve reading or memory skills to improve learning) – known as transfer. However, such transfer should not be assumed."

What it means is that you can't teach in isolation; the training needs to explicitly link the tasks being practised to an academic skill. For example, phonological training is most effective when explicitly linked to spelling and reading, and motor practise is most effective when explicitly linked to writing. This is imperative, especially when you are teaching children with autism.

  • The fourth area of need,  physical and sensory has a much smaller base of existing evidence, with most high quality research based at primary level. Of the research that is available, most provide compare a particular approach with a ‘no-treatment’ control, which makes it very difficult to compare two different methods. There is also very little research as to why some approaches work for some children and not for others. So there is a gap here for more research to be done.

In summary

Of all the reports, I think this last one is the most useful for teachers to read (although they are all pretty excellent studies and won't take a huge chunk out of the summer break to read them). Of course parents, who have skin in the game, will want to read them too. As I said earlier, knowledge is power and it is not, in my opinion, inappropriate to enquire if your school is aware of these reports or to pass them on.

So, many apologies to our loyal readers, I have let you down by not providing a separate post for each of these in-depth reports, as they surely deserved.  But that's what happens when you stick a load of important reports out at the end of term, as the government well knows.

Nevertheless, now you know where to find them,  so it's up to you do do a better job than me - and if you find a nugget you want to share, please leave it in the blog comments here (not on Facebook as no one else (including most SNJ fans on Facebook) will see it).
Find all three reports here.

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Tania Tirraoro
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Tania Tirraoro

Founder, CEO at Special Needs Jungle
Founder of Special Needs Jungle. Parent of two sons with Asperger Syndrome. Trustee, Genetic Alliance UK.
Journalist & author of two novels and a guide to SEN statementing. PR & social media expert. Rare Disease & chronic pain patient advocate.
Tania Tirraoro
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  • Wow, I thought you said you had no time?! Brilliant round-up, so helpful for everybody as always. I hope many read this, and I hope you take some time out to relax over summer. As you show, it is still a shocking SEND jungle out there 😔

    • Ha, well this just took a few hours rather than the time three separate posts would have! But at least I’ve put a pin in them so people can find them – esp if they look on SNJ before the DfE site… Maybe the DfE should make us a nice donation haha!

  • Jane

    Great article. One thought: training TAs in ABA techniques, both to offer differentiated teaching and redirecting of any challenging or disruptive behaviours, as is being pioneered in several LAs incl Leicestershire, could help avoid so many of the exclusions. I think the stats in another report out last week showed exclusions were 7 times more likely for kids with SEN.

  • Planet Autism

    So many things could be solved if only schools and LAs listened to parents…

  • Imi saylab

    I think what is also missing is support and training for parents that would involve assessment and assistance setting up a home programme. I have approached one org about funding something like this and they say it will meet the criteria but there is only funding allocated to one ten. This scenario is not new in terms of send education and the future for children with send as they transition to adults. It’s amiss for anyone to just blame austerity. It’s also ridiculous to expect a TA to be that highly qualified and experienced. They don’t pay for it. Teachers are expected to be educators, send , salt, sensory ot and mental health specialists whilst educating 30 kids, and in high school 30 new kids every hour. Neither job pays enough, one person can not do all that those things well, if they could we would all be able to do it all well for our kids and achieve