Schools need support to implement vital lessons about better SEND teaching, learned from Covid

with Sharon Smith, SEN Policy Research Forum

The pandemic illuminated the yawning gap between schools that put high value on supporting their learners with SEND and those who have little interest.

Ofsted found that those areas and school that generally did a good job, offered good support during lockdowns, and vice versa. We've covered a number of research reports into SEND during lockdowns but what we want to know is how can this research be used to create lasting policy to improve SEND teaching in the future?

Step forward the SEN Policy Research Forum. The Forum contributes "intelligent analysis and the use of knowledge and experience to promote the development of policy and practice for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities." One of its researchers is long-time parent advocate, Sharon Smith, who is the parent of a young woman who has Down syndrome. Sharon is also a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham, undertaking research with parents of disabled children. She's written for us today about the Forum's work.

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Covid-19 - Lessons for schools for the teaching of pupils with SEND by Sharon Smith

Last year, the SEN Policy Research Forum ran two online policy seminars relating to Covid-19. The first focused on Learning from the Covid crisis for educating children and young people with SEN/disabilities, including presentations from provider and parents’ perspectives. The second policy seminar*, How are schools coping with the impact of Covid-19 on the teaching of pupils with SEN: lessons for schools specifically aimed to address the following questions: 

  • How have teachers, SENCos and head teachers been supported to cope with the teaching of pupils with SEND? 
  • What lessons have been learned for the future provision for children and young people with SEND?

Several themes were identified of the issues that arose during lockdowns, many of which will be familiar to readers of Special Needs Jungle. For instance, the lack of a consistent approach that resulted in significant variation in the support provided both within schools and to families; the difficulties some schools and families had in switching to crisis home-schooling; and the sudden removal of vital support and therapies.

The positives

However, it was also recognised that many schools and school leaders responded well to the situation, which might offer lessons for SEND policy and practice. Examples here included:

  • the opportunities arising from blended learning;
  • the removal of narrow accountability measures;
  • a greater focus on wellbeing; 
  • innovative and personalised teaching approaches and
  • the importance of communication and the recognition that relationships matter.

There was a concern, though, that these lessons might be lost in the rush to return to ‘business as usual’ as quickly as possible. The rupture in education as we know it only appears to offer a slim window of opportunity to rethink the nature and purpose of education in schools for children with SEND. 

Sharon Smitih

Gathering the positive evidence

We wanted to find out whether the discussion points and themes identified in the seminar correlated more widely across the country. We surveyed 100 parents, SENCOs, school leaders, and teachers and have published an initial summary of the survey results on our website. We are currently undertaking further analysis of the additional comments that respondents were able to submit.

Key highlights from the initial survey findings included:

Innovation and flexibility in teaching, assessment and accountability

  • 93% of respondents agreed they had a renewed appreciation of the need for a diversity of teaching approaches, as it is clear that no one strategy will fit all pupils.
  • 68% agreed that blended learning opportunities can enable learning outside the classroom, including at home where some children are able to learn better. 
  • 95% agreed that there should be a shift in approaches to assessment to what it is important to learn, rather than just what can be measured
  • 98% of respondents wanted to see success measured in terms of individual starting points.
  • 90% of respondents wanted schools to be supported to lead on lessons to be learnt from the pandemic for future provision.
  • However, 97% respondents felt it is very difficult for schools to do something different if they are judged by conventional results and
  • 78% agreed that schools need permission to be more innovative.
  • Accordingly, 89% respondents wanted the Ofsted framework to be changed to allow more flexible local practice and
  • 85% wanted to see moderation of curriculum and assessment pressures on schools. 

Relationships

  • Crisis home-schooling was difficult for some children, young people and their families, with more support needed to access the online learning on offer. 
  • However, 65% of respondents agreed that the move to online communications had resulted in a positive impact on relationships between home and school. 

Focus on wellbeing

  • Fewer than 50% of respondents felt there had been strong mental health and wellbeing support during the pandemic, and a similar number felt that positive ways have been developed by schools for addressing mental health issues. 
  • Only 42% respondents agreed that teachers had access to enough support in the pandemic
  • Nearly 60% of respondents also reported greater difficulties accessing mental health therapies for children and young people than before the pandemic.
  • Given the impact of the pandemic on everyday lives and the difficulties in accessing respite and support services, it is unsurprising that an overwhelming 96% of respondents agreed that wellbeing and academic learning should be given equal priority in schools.

A slim window for moving forward with innovative learning

While many participants believe greater funding and more resources are required to transform provision for pupils with SEND, there is also a clear message that this isn't everything. Bold and innovative school leadership, a whole school approach, positive partnership with parents, and flexible and personalised approaches within individual settings can make a considerable difference to how children and young people with SEND experience education – and can have a positive impact on their peers too.

The concern, however, is that the window for change is slim. It is always easier to revert to old ways of working unless sufficient time and focus is given to learn from schools’ pandemic experiences. While 41% of respondents felt that it was probable that the lessons from the pandemic would influence policy and practice in their own setting, only 20% felt it would affect local policy and practice, and as few as 10% felt the lessons would be reflected in national policy and practice.

One respondent described feeling ‘cynical’ that the Government would learn from the pandemic, even though it is evident there are lessons from the past two years that can be drawn on. Another said

I fear that current education policy (and other policy) will see practitioners revert to old ways. It takes time & bravery to personalise approaches. Whilst that was the aim of the [Children & Families] Act, the reality is that many will still follow one size fits nobody approaches’

Survey respondent

Help needed to avoid slipping back to "business as usual"

The survey was carried out at a time when there were some hopes that the experience could lead to some adjustment in education priorities. There is, however, anecdotal advice that suggests that not only is there a desire to return to normal, but also that some pupils are at greater disadvantage now than before. The challenges include increased mental health difficulties, greater anxiety, increases in exclusions, challenges surrounding assessment, services struggling to deliver support, and teachers who are facing difficulties in the classroom with both pupils and colleagues having to self-isolate.

As the SEND Review edges nearer to publication, it is vital that sufficient time is taken to reflect on the opportunities identified during the last two years, and that the opportunities identified for rethinking SEND in policy, cultures and practice are not ignored. 

*Presentations for the seminar were led by Dr Amelia Roberts (Centre for Inclusive Education, Institute of Education), Dr Beate Hellawell (Lewisham LA), and Tricia Mahoney (Assistant Head and Inclusion Lead, Oakwood Primary School).

About Sharon Smith

Sharon Smith is a parent of a young lady who has Down syndrome. She is also a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham, undertaking research with parents of disabled children. Her research interests include risk/vulnerability, belonging, co-production, inclusion and philosophy of education. She is a member of the SEN Policy Research Forum lead group.

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About The SEN policy research forum

This Forum contributes intelligent analysis and the use of knowledge and experience to promote the development of policy and practice for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities.

The Forum is concerned with children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities from pre-school to post 16 (0-25 years). It will cover the whole of the UK and aims to:

  1. provide timely policy review and critique through policy seminars, policy papers and a website blog,
  2. promote debate,
  3. set longer term agendas – acting like a think-tank,
  4. deliberate and examine policy options in the field,
  5. inform research and development work in the field,
  6. promote learning on knowledge transfer between academic, policy and professionals.
  7. establish robust routes to media outlets.

See https://senpolicyresearchforum.co.uk for policy and other papers and to join the Forum. 

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