“Show me the evidence” Part 1: Why parents are pivotal to driving evidence-based practice in SEND

With Dr Jane Hood, Consultant Paediatric Neuropsychologist and Educational Psychologist & Rob Webster, Associate Professor, Centre for Inclusive Education, UCL Institute of Education

"Show me the Evidence" Part 1: Why parents are pivotal to driving evidence-based practice in SEND

Tania's note: Today we have the first of a two-parter from two distinguished practitioners and academics who are specialists in special educational needs, Jane Hood and Rob Webster of University College London. The first article covers the background and the second article, has the tips. We'll include both in a downloadable ebook. We hope you find it useful.

Why parents are pivotal to driving evidence-based practice in SEND 

Over the last two decades, governments have pledged to deliver better outcomes through ‘joined-up services’ and ‘intelligent systems’ across a range of public sector areas. Central to this has been identifying and doing ‘what works’ to measurably improve the lives and life chances of disadvantaged groups. 

‘Joined-up’ and ‘intelligent’ are not terms many SNJ readers would associate with the SEND system. From referral and assessment to provision-making, it is a system consumed by bureaucracy and litigation, starved of funding and perpetually at risk of collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions. 

The SEND system is part of a wider education system bedevilled by a long-standing culture that can appear, at best equivocal, and at worst hostile, to children and young people with SEND. It is not surprising then that the quality of education and outcomes for these youngsters persistently labours and languishes behind that of their typically-developing peers. 

Opportunities to improve have been missed

Though progress has been made, we are troubled by how far SEND has been left behind in the wider efforts to integrate evidence-based practices (EBP) into the processes of policymaking and delivery. What makes this lag particularly curious – and frustrating – is that SEND should have been the first area of education to benefit from EBP. The Warnock Inquiry* of 1978 concluded that greater collaboration and identifying and doing ‘what works’ would improve life and learning for those with SEND. Regrettably, the recommendations that could have catalysed this were not carried forward into policy. 

Perhaps one reason why the SEND system requires improvement is because the use of research evidence to inform provision and practice is in pretty much the same state. 

Our expertise and professional experience lie at different ends of the assessment–provision-making process. At both points, we see practitioners missing opportunities to make full use of research evidence. Let us be clear: these are hard-working, committed colleagues; we are not insinuating a lack of competence or professionalism. We recognise there are factors that urgently need addressing: chiefly, under-funding, under-staffing and the twin pressures of time and workload.

Yet the same restrictions beset health, where evidence-based practice thrives. If we are unwell or in pain, we expect health experts to give us the best, most rigorously-tested and clinically-proven treatments. We do not expect them to suggest interventions based on hunches or outcomes based on a tiny sample (i.e. the clients only they have seen). 

When their counterparts in education engage with the latest research and use it to inform their decision-making and approaches, the potential to bring about more meaningful experiences and better outcomes for children and young people with SEND improves.

The driving force for unlocking the potential of evidence-based practice in SEND might now be parents. 

Power imbalance must be addressed

The journey to statutory assessment is filled with apprehension. For what should be – and, to be fair, is for some families – a constructive, collaborative and positive experience, many more become quickly daunted by complex procedures and paperwork. 

Parents might worry that an assertive LA could exploit their weaker position, and offer a ‘take it or leave it’ placement or an EHCP that is low on aspiration and falls short of the provision they believe their child’s needs require. Small wonder that a sense of trepidation and disenchantment leads to feelings of powerlessness and vulnerability.

Despite parents being the undoubted authorities on their child, they can feel that they must match this with similarly detailed knowledge of the systems for referral and assessment, not to mention SEND law, in order to navigate their way to an EHCP successfully. In order to get the best provision for their child, parents should not need to be experts in SEND – but they do need to know how to engage with, and where appropriate, challenge those who conduct assessments and coordinate support.

Interventions must be evidence-based

Parents have a right to expect that professionals and practitioners involved in the learning and development of their child are basing their assessments and decisions on rigorously-tested approaches and the best available evidence. We believe that by empowering parents with techniques to hold them to account, they will be better positioned to make sense of the elements of the SEND process that tend to be ambiguous or cause uncertainty. Parents must feel able to ask questions about the effectiveness of provision and the veracity of the assessments and on which it is based.

In part two of this blog, we set out these questions. Essentially, the overarching question all parents should ask of those involved with their child: ‘what is the evidence on which this is based?’ 

The starting position for these interactions is one of trust, but for parents that should not mean blind faith. They are entitled to know on what empirical base assessments and decisions about their child are made; to say to practitioners: “show me the evidence”. 

Find part two of this article from Rob and Jane here, with top tips to help parents understand assessment reports and challenge provision

* SNJ is soon featuring an outstanding series focusing on 40 years of SEND post-Warnock. Sign up below to email alerts to make sure you don't miss out.

About the authors 

Dr Jane Hood is a Consultant Paediatric Neuropsychologist and Educational Psychologist. She has worked as a consultant at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospitals within Paediatric Neurosciences as well as previously working in a local education authority. Jane was Honorary Associate Professor at UCL, teaching on the Educational Psychology doctoral training programme. She now works as an expert witness providing reports for the Court in clinical negligence and personal injury cases.

Rob Webster is an Associate Professor at the Centre for Inclusive Education, UCL Institute of Education. He has conducted research on the experiences of children with Statements/EHCPs and is the Director of the Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants (MITA) programme. 

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  1. johnbald@talktalk.net

    Parents are often the best-informed people about their children, and closest to their behaviour outside school. This does not mean the parent is always right, any more than anyone else is always right. Opinions on evidence also vary greatly. We are seriously short of evidence in some areas, notably progress in pupils assessed as dyslexic and on the autistic spectrum. This is partly because of the focus on inclusion rather than academic progress in SEND provision.

  2. henry

    We have recently been through the tribunal process with our son Henry who is Autistic. We are seeking a residential placement at Ruskin Mill College Gloucestershire. Despite giving evidence through our solicitor and our own views of the amount of need Henry requires this was largely ignored by the court and the expert panel, in favour of the LA’S educational psychologist report. The problem we have with this is if the court are taking the psychologist report in preference over our report and views it should be properly recorded and presented to them as evidence, this was not done.
    The LA’S educational psychologist visited Henry at home for the report. We sat in and listened to what tasks were being set and how Henry responded to them. Some of the vital test evidence which showed the amount of NEED Henry requires was not documented the the report. We have objected and so far no one is in agreement that any wrong doing has happened!.
    So from this it looks like lots of parents views are not being taken into account and you are just banging your head against the LA’S brick wall.

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