In addition to its specific recommendations concerning SENCOs, the Education Select Committee has outlined a future strategy on special educational needs. The government's response will have many implications for the work of SENCOs
Arguing for what it describes as a national delivery model for pupil-centred provision, the select committee report sets out an approach based on seven key features.
A national framework linked to minimum standards
There should be a statutory requirement placed on local authorities to maintain, or have access to, a wide range of provision, including a range of special schools, specialist units, and services for low- incidence special educational needs.
The report asks the government to clarify its position on SEN, and specifically on inclusion, with a clear overarching strategy for SEN and disability policy. It needs to provide a vision for the future that everyone involved in SEN can purposefully work towards.
The report claims that the government is moving forward towards seeking a ‘flexible continuum of provision’ being available in all local authorities to meet the needs of all children, including those with SEN, but in the report’s view that this is not the basis for the approach outlined in SENDA 2001, the SEN Code of Practice 2001, or the 2004 SEN strategy. The government should work harder to define what it means by inclusion. Because SEN policy continues to operate a separate system, as a result, SEN continues to be sidelined away from the mainstream agenda in education. The government needs to give greater priority to SEN and take full account of its need to have a central position in education.
A national framework of guidance should be put in place based on best practice of local authorities. It should ensure that:
- multi-agency panels make decisions regarding placement and are accountable for their decisions
- parents are kept well-informed at all stages of the process and involved in the decision-making process as much as possible
- there is a wide range of appropriate high-quality provision available to meet the needs of children.
Local flexibility within a national framework
Local flexibility must be maintained so that local authorities can plan provision to meet the needs of a local area. This will involve a new role for special schools where they are fully resourced to share both their expertise and their facilities. The aim should be to develop communities of schools working in collaboration – including special schools – where pupils feel they belong.
There is strong evidence that the existing presentation of performance data in league tables does not reflect well on many children with SEN and consequently acts as a disincentive for some schools to accept them.
The government should resolve apparent contradictions in its strategy outlined in the Education and Inspection Bill between, on the one hand, giving greater autonomy to individual schools, including a greater number of city academies, and, on the other, its SEN strategy that urges schools to be working in partnership to build collaboration to share resources and specialist knowledge.
To guard against the possibility that academies could discriminate against children with SEN the committee recommends that the government take the relatively simple step of changing the funding agreement so as to put academies on the same legal footing as all other schools with regard to children with SEN.
The report recommends that government should:
- provide specific funding to local authorities to increase the extent to which they are able to facilitate and encourage collaborative arrangements where communities of schools work together, sharing facilities and professional expertise, to improve the outcomes for children with SEN
- radically increase funding for SEN in order to achieve a range of appropriate, high-quality provision across every local authority with a fully equipped and resourced workforce
- stop and think before further increasing the level of delegated funding to schools without other necessary conditions first being in place and without improved accountability for school spending.
- require local authorities to maintain a proportion of SEN funding to resource specialist services and services to meet low-incidence needs.
- enable greater local flexibility at the school level. Funding arrangements for dual placements and other sharing of facilities, specialist resources and expertise should not be a barrier
- give more practical and financial incentives to encourage and reward local authorities and schools to cooperate in enabling children to attend both specialist and mainstream provision
- give careful consideration to the impact that key drivers such as league tables are having on admissions.
A pupil-centred approach with SEN at the heart of personalisation
The report argues that agendas for SEN and raising attainment sit very uncomfortably together at present. It is the standards agenda, not SEN, that is at the heart of the existing personalisation agenda. As a result the report concludes that it is difficult to see how personalisation can be the key to the government’s strategy on SEN as education minister Lord Adonis claimed in his evidence.
It is clear from the Education and Inspection Bill that the standards agenda still remains the much greater priority for the government.
Special educational needs exist across the whole spectrum of social classes and abilities. Some conditions which give rise to SEN, in particular along the autism spectrum and specifically Asperger’s syndrome, can defy an easy correlation between those conditions and social deprivation. It is important therefore that social deprivation is not seen as the only and automatic benchmark for addressing SEN issues. As there is no single category of children with SEN, the report suggests that all children should be considered on an individual basis with a sliding scale of additional resource to meet their needs.
However, a strong correlation exists between social deprivation and SEN. At secondary school level, children with statements of SEN are nearly twice as likely to be eligible for free school meals as the average school population. It is widely recognised that there is a strong correlation between exclusions and children with SEN, particularly those with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties and autistic behaviour. Schools need better guidance and staff training in dealing with disruptive behaviour.
Equipping the workforce: a major priority is to properly train and resource all staff
The report recommends that the government prioritises the training of its workforce (teachers, TAs, and early-years professionals), across a broad range of provision, to equip them with the skills and support they need to effectively teach children with SEN.
Based on evidence that demonstrates the level of need, and demand from teachers for training on SEN, initial teacher training and continuing professional development need to be radically improved. Teachers cannot be expected to properly fulfil requirements, such as differentiating the curriculum for all children, including those with SEN, without receiving the appropriate training to enable them to do so. The government should restart negotiations with TDA on these grounds and in conjunction with the three-fold strategy of SEN training as part of initial teacher training, induction and continued professional development, ensure that:
- SEN training becomes a core, compulsory part of initial teacher training for all teachers
- good-quality, appropriate continuing professional development available for all teachers and schools should be resourced to fund them
- compulsory in-service training includes SEN if it is to be given sufficient priority in schools
- SENCOs be given ongoing training opportunities to enable them to keep their knowledge up to date as well as sufficient non-teaching time to reflect the number of children with SEN in their school. These baseline standards for SENCOs to be given training both on and off the job should apply to all schools, including academies and trust schools. Schools should set out in their SEN policy action to ensure that all SENCOs are adequately monitored and supported in their vital roles.
The government should follow through the proposals of Every Child Matters to their logical conclusion and fully implement an assessment for learning for every child. The workforce must be equipped and resourced to achieve this. To achieve real progress in terms of early intervention the government needs to change the premise on which SEN is provided to one in which literally every child matters. This would mean a radically new approach to SEN provision where a system of assessment of learning and intervention takes place for every child on a spectrum of provision that can be geared up for children that require high levels of support.
This will be facilitated by local flexibility, fully equipping the workforce, and taking a pupil-centred approach. These are all required to improve existing difficulties experienced at key transition stages as well, along with collaborative working across schools and agencies.
Collaboration is essential to improve the outcomes for children with SEN – between schools, between agencies (health, social services, and education), with local authorities and with parents and local communities.
Collaborative working is required across schools and across agencies to achieve the sharing of provision, facilities, expertise, and support for the benefit of children with SEN. Communities or clusters of schools should be working together where all children feel they belong. These should include special schools, which have a great deal to offer to such collaborations with regard to specialist facilities and expertise.
A radical review of statementing
It is the responsibility of government to devise better processes for SEN – not necessarily in one statement – and to implement them. This should involve the early identification and assessment of needs, efficient and equitable allocation of resources, and the appropriate placement of pupils based on their needs and taking account of parental preference. The 2004 Ofsted and 2002 Audit Commission reviews identified serious flaws in the SEN system with regard to standards and consistency of provision, the statementing process, fair access to schools, and outcomes for children with SEN and disabilities.
The report finds it both surprising and highly concerning that these issues have still not been addressed. Evidence presented to this inquiry has further highlighted that there are significant failings in the system that need to be dealt with urgently. A fundamentally different approach is needed to ensure effective assessment of need, efficient and equitable allocation of resources, and appropriate placement to high-quality provision for children with SEN and disabilities.
It is better to seek to reduce reliance on statements by improving the skills and capacity of schools to meet a diverse range of needs, but this must be set in a system with much greater clarification and much stronger guidance on minimum standards of provision. Without such a system in place, guidance on ‘reducing reliance’ on statements has led to the inequity of provision and the ‘postcode lottery’ that exists. The government needs to:
- give local authorities clear national guidance on when to issue statements of SEN
- set an absolute deadline that a decision on whether to issue a statement in respect of any child should be made within the required 26 weeks (six months) of a written request being made with no exceptions
- consider how to make statements of SEN transferable between local authorities so that they can follow the child, as this would reduce administrative costs, allowing more resources to be devoted to SEN provision, and, more importantly, would prioritise the needs of the child.
Assessment of SEN should not be made directly by the bodies that fund the provision, and any revision of the system overall should take this principle on board. The lack of a ready-made alternative is not a good enough reason to keep a failing system of statementing. For example the Scottish reform to the statementing process demonstrates one way in which the 1978 Warnock framework might be reformed.