“Show me the evidence” Part 2: The questions parents should ask about SEND assessment and provision

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 pat 2": The questions parents should ask about SEN assessment and provision

In part one of this blog, we explained why parents are pivotal to driving the use of evidence-based practice in SEN. Our experience informs our view that parents should be empowered and equipped to ask questions about the effectiveness of the provision their child receives and the veracity of the assessments on which it is based. 

In this second part, we look in detail at SEND assessment and provision and set out some questions parents should ask professionals and practitioners about the evidence on which their judgements and decisions are made. 

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The Ed Psych assessment

For children with SEND affecting their learning, social development and behaviour, the primary source of information regarding the child’s specific difficulties is likely to come through the assessment of the educational psychologist (EP).

This detailed knowledge about the child’s individual strengths and weaknesses should form the basis of any specific interventions and provide the link between the child, the science of neurodevelopment and classroom practice. Without the first step being undertaken in line with contemporary scientific knowledge, there is potentially no evidence-base with which to apply interventions to the individual child’s needs.

Access to educational psychologists

Professional experience shows that parents’ access to educational psychologists’ time is usually managed by the school. Parents also report that LA educational psychologists themselves do not routinely provide the level of detailed assessment that is available to them; that is, even when a child is struggling with aspects of learning, EPs do not use full batteries of standardised measures (e.g. of memory, attention, executive functioning and language processing) that would potentially enable them to build up a clear profile of the child’s strengths and weaknesses. 

Such detailed batteries have been in existence for around 20 years and would enable psychologists to link the child’s needs to neurocognitive research in terms of what is more and less likely to help, and also contribute to the further development of scientific research in the area of learning based on individual differences. 

Once interventions are put in place, close monitoring of children’s progress is necessary for evaluating their effectiveness for that individual. But often parents lose direct EP input once the EHCP process is complete and/or support from a teaching assistant has been allocated. This, however, should be the point at which the EP’s involvement becomes active: overseeing the use of the resources in a dynamic way that follows the evolution of the underpinning base of scientific knowledge.

Making sure provision is equitable and effective

Logically, the quality of the provision depends on the thoroughness and accuracy of the assessment. We have, however, drifted towards a situation where, regardless of the specificity of the provision, the mechanism for delivering it is almost always the same: individualised support from a teaching assistant (TA). 

Our principal system of support for children with SEND in mainstream settings is now so dependent on TAs that we cannot envisage, let alone operationalise, provision without them. This matters, because the evidence that TAs are an effective model of inclusive educational support for pupils with SEND attending a mainstream school should give us pause for thought. The more teaching assistant support pupils receive, the less well they do in terms of their academic attainment and the development of their independence. 

A dispassionate appraisal of the evidence makes it hard to avoid the conclusion that the routine way in which TAs have become the ‘default setting’, in terms of how the provision outlined in an EHCP is facilitated and delivered, has unintended consequences: less time with the teacher; less time with peers; a lower quality pedagogical diet; and learned helplessness. 

If teaching wants to build its credentials as an evidence-based profession, its practitioners cannot be selective about the evidence they use to achieve this. It is vital that school leaders and teachers accept and respond to evidence that is challenging or inconvenient.

TAs are still essential in schools

We fully appreciate that many parents have a good relationship with the teaching assistant that supports their child. We recognise that this support is frequently the result of a hard-won EHCP process. So, let us be really clear. We are not personalising the issue, or casting TAs as ‘the problem’. Far from it. TAs are the mortar in the brickwork of our schools. It is hard to imagine the consequences of removing TAs from our schools as being anything other than catastrophic. 

If teaching wants to build its credentials as an evidence-based profession, its practitioners cannot be selective about the evidence they use to achieve this. It is vital that school leaders and teachers accept and respond to evidence that is challenging or inconvenient.

For parents, this means ensuring that the school does not over-rely on a well-meaning, but less-qualified teaching assistant, to act as their child’s primary educator, and to insist on an equitable balance between teacher time and other supports. And that where TA support forms part of the mix, the school’s practice is aligned with the best available evidence

Teachers and TAs need to be provided with detailed advice about the needs of the individual children they teach and support, so that their contributions develop each child’s broader cognitive skills in ways that enable them to generalise their learning and compensate for areas of specific weakness.  

Questions for should reasonably ask about provision

Our motivation for writing this blog is to empower parents to ask questions about how practitioners are using the best available evidence to design assessment processes and on-the-ground provision for their child. Here are some examples of questions to ask:

Questions to ask educational psychologists:

  • Have my child’s needs have been assessed in line with contemporary knowledge of cognitive development and its effects on their potential for learning? 
  • Is there a clear link between their strengths and difficulties and the evidence-base for intervention? 
  • Have the conclusions and recommendations been explicitly linked to assessment findings and research? 
  • Does this inform the expected outcome from each intervention, the timeframe and the next steps?

Questions to ask school staff:

  • How will you ensure that my child has fair access to as much time with their teacher as other children?
  • How will you monitor the quality of teaching my child receives, and what will you do to improve it, if required?
  • How will you ensure my child is not unnecessarily separated from the classroom or from opportunities to work and socialise with their peers?
  • How will you ensure my child develops their independent learning skills and avoids becoming dependent on adult support?
  • How do you ensure that all staff are confident and adequately skilled to teach or support my child’s profile of needs? 
  • How will you ensure and support the staff involved in my child’s education to make use of evidence-based approaches to deploying and preparing TAs?

SNJ Tip: If you think it will be difficult to approach the Ed Psych or your school with these questions, download the ebook at the end of this article containing both parts of this article and give it to them, politely explain you are asking as a result of advice from SEND experts in both educational psychology and teaching assistants.

The wider context 

We put forward these questions on the understanding that everyone involved in the education and development of children with SEND wants to do the best they can for those children, and wherever possible, to improve their own professional practice. Many of them will welcome opportunities for dialogue with parents about evidence. 

We recognise that practitioners can also feel that their ability to provide a service that is in line with their professional responsibility is undermined. For example, educational psychologists are perhaps not allowed sufficient time to assess children, or they do not have access to a contemporary assessment battery; or teaching assistants do not receive specific training from specialist services to provide the detailed, facilitative support described by the EP.

Under these circumstances, practitioners need to be honest about the limits of what they can accomplish and advise parents and colleagues in schools about other sources of support and advice for the good of the child. If you are concerned that your child’s assessment may have been affected by the limited availability of a comprehensive assessment battery or by the EP’s time, ask them if further referral is needed and to whom.

Lack of funding should not be used as an excuse

We know that sparse funding for SEN does not help, but this should not be used as a catch-all reason for inaction. As October’s Education Committee report on SEN highlighted, “...unless we see a culture change, within schools and local authorities and the Government, any additional money will be wasted and make little difference to [children’s] lives” [our emphasis].

This also requires practitioners to be empowered and to have the necessary processes to challenge their employers and professional bodies whose decisions and indecisions, in turn, impact on their ability to do the best possible job for families. The most effective and least contestable challenges will be those rooted in evidence.

We acknowledge too that there are processes relating to SEN Support, which precede statutory assessment. These, too, need to be challenged effectively and doing so may head off some of the issues we have raised here regarding EHCPs. 

Evidence-based practice has revolutionised healthcare – but the medics did not do it alone. Developments in neuroscience and psychology hint at the potential for a similar transformation of practice in SEN, but getting there requires a collaborative effort, and parents’ contribution to this is powerful and paramount. 

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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. She 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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Norman Perrin

Two interesting articles. Disappointingly, other than a rather airy nod to “health”, there is no discussion as to what the authors understand by “evidence” in “evidence-based practice”.