Jason Wood describes a groundbreaking project in which two Cornish schools carried out research comparing the views of SEN students and their peers on ECM outcomes

A learning project in two Cornish comprehensive schools shows how the views of students with SEN can be listened to and acted on. The project shows both similarities in the positive and negative experiences of students with SEN in the two schools as well as institutional differences. The project involved SEN students acting as researchers to help improve their own learning experiences.

Project context There has been a growing interest in student voice internationally and nationally (UN, 1989; Ofsted, 2003; DfES, 2004; NICE, 2004). However, research into the links between student voice, learning and service delivery has been limited to emphasising the importance and effectiveness of consultation (Rudduck, 2005).

A review of the research studies shows an absence of systematic research processes driven by schools themselves (Halsey et al, 2006). At the same time there is a growing movement both to engage the underused research skills of teachers and of students themselves (Frost and Rogers, 2006) to improve the Every Child Matters (ECM) outcomes, which this project also sought. There is a growing interest in research that focuses on the previously unheard voices of students with SEN. Research reviews such as Gray’s (2002) showed few large-scale case studies of the educational experiences of young disabled people. More recent research has sought the views of disabled children and their families and recommended that schools ‘think through carefully and systematically the ways and frequency with which they hear those views and how they then respond.’ (Lewis, Parsons and Robertson, 2006).

The schools used a structured online survey (which had been previously developed with the support of Cornish schools) called Every Student Matters (ESM). The ESM name reflected the desire to listen to and value all student (five to 18) views of the five key outcomes in the ECM framework.

The ESM survey was piloted by conducting focus groups with over 1,000 students in two secondary schools and two primary schools. The focus groups used students’ views to define the ECM outcomes in the language of students. The online survey was then developed and revised through testing in five further secondary schools and 12 primary schools. The two Cornish comprehensive schools were the first to use the ESM survey to measure the differences and similarities between SEN students and their peers. The emerging research was outlined at two national conferences in November 2006. Interest in the ESM survey and use of the learning processes it involves has been growing nationally.

The purpose and process of the learning project The central aim of the learning project was to raise SEN students’ awareness that their views matter and improve SEN students’ ECM outcomes. The project also aimed to help improve SEN students’ and teachers’ research skills and to develop students as ‘active citizens’ by demonstrating that listening is meaningful and makes a difference.

In the two schools, SEN students with greater needs are identified by the student support teams including SENCOs and heads of year. Students with a wide variety of need from emotional and behavioural to autistic spectrum disorder are given extra support from teaching assistants in learning support units (LSUs). The two units work in similar ways, from facilitating support in mainstream lessons to providing specialist programmes. The majority of students in each school completed the ESM survey and the LSU students were asked to click a separate box during the survey. The views of LSU students were first compared with their peers in their own schools to identify similarities and differences in their views of the ECM outcomes. Then the views of LSU students were compared between the schools to help begin to answer a series of questions:

  • Are there similar differences in the views of SEN students and their peers in both schools?
  • these similarities in the SEN students’ views across the two schools a reflection of their educational needs?
  • Are the differences in student views a result of institutional differences in the LSUs and the type of SEN student supported?
  • How can the Every Child Matters outcomes be improved for SEN students?

Following the ESM survey, teachers in one school formulated a series of questions based on the survey findings and selected focus groups of students to explore the differences of views between SEN students and their peers. A group of SEN students then copied the process and asked the same questions to a further group of SEN students observed by teachers. The students and teachers research findings led to change designed to improve the learning experience of SEN students. The project will repeat the ESM survey and research yearly in order to see if the SEN students’ views of their learning have changed and led to improvements in the Every Child Matters outcomes.

Key findings

Are there similar differences in the views of SEN students and their peers in both schools?

EN student views were similar to their peers in the majority of questions. SEN students were generally more negative in their views in a number of key areas, for example ‘Stay safe’ and ‘Be healthy’. There were a large number of institutional differences in the views of SEN students

Stay safe

SEN students felt more isolated than their peers in both schools. SEN students felt students treated each other in a more negative way than their peers, fewer students recognised their abilities and students encouraged each other less. This section showed the most common similarities between the schools. Are these similarities in the SEN students’ views across the two schools a reflection of their educational needs?

Both schools identify SEN students who need greater support therefore it would be logical to expect differences in views and educational needs. The differences in views in both schools suggest key areas of SEN students’ social and emotional aspects of learning. How can the Every Child Matters’ outcomes be improved for SEN students?

In terms of staying safe, schools were left with further areas to investigate: How could SEN students be made to feel more inclusive? What could both peer and SEN students do to improve each others learning? Were SEN students more negative inclusion a reflection of the use of teaching assistants or of the type of learning in the LSU?

Be healthy

Both schools had a large number of negative differences in the views of SEN students and their peers within their own schools. Under ‘Be healthy’, SEN students were more negative in their own attitudes towards their own health. In both schools, SEN students felt more stressed and depressed. Are these similarities in the SEN students’ views across the two schools a reflection of their educational needs?

These findings raised some interesting thoughts and further questions. Were SEN students’ less healthy views and knowledge significant in causing differences in educational attainment? Could educational attainment be improved through improving the quality of health education for SEN students and their families? Are the differences in student views a result of institutional differences in the LSUs and the type of SEN student supported?

The schools had different systems for identifying SEN students and supported different types of students. The school which supported greater numbers of Key Stage 4 students for emotional and behavioural reasons showed more negative differences in the views of students than the school which supported mainly students with other learning needs identified at primary level. Institutional differences were therefore felt to be significant.

Gender differences

In one school there were opposite findings for male and female SEN students under many headings. In general the female SEN students were more positive than both male SEN students and their female peers. For example, the SEN female students felt they had much higher leadership skills than their peers and felt more connected and positive about the support that students gave each other. In contrast, the male SEN students felt more isolated and less connected than their peers. This finding led to further research which is reported on below.

Learning from the research One school was concerned at the findings which suggested that its SEN male students had more negative views than their peers whereas the female SEN students were more positive than mainstream students. It seemed that the LSU worked much better for female SEN students. SEN students were divided into two gender groups and asked a series of questions. In turn, some SEN students then ran similar focus groups with other students. The questions concentrated on male and female role models and the activities that they were asked to do in the LSU. The research concluded that in unstructured time the female SEN students sought the support of other female SEN students and the all-female teaching assistants. In contrast, the male SEN students preferred to be engaged in activities (play) or be on their own. The male students could not identify as many significant male role models and asked for more joint activities.

As a result of these findings the school’s director of student support recruited male teaching assistants. Former students of the learning support unit were also encouraged to return and share their successes since leaving school with male SEN students. The school will continue to monitor the outcome of these changes by repeating the research process.


The ESM survey and research that followed formed part of a wider learning project driven by the two schools and provides additional data to inform schools’ self-evaluation of SEN rather than to make judgements about the quality of provision. In other words, the learning project aims are formative rather than summative. One of the schools recently gained an ‘outstanding’ from Ofsted for student support with inspectors commenting that they were impressed by the learning project. This article has shown how schools can lead their own research into the quality of teaching and learning for their SEN students. The research found in most cases that SEN students had similar views of their education which was seen as a positive reflection on teaching and learning. SEN students were more likely to have negative attitudes than there peers particularly in terms of being healthy and staying safe. Through conducting the research and involving SEN students, the schools demonstrated that action is taken as a result of listening to the views of their SEN students. The research found interesting differences between the schools in particular under gender attitudes. This suggests that schools have a great deal to learn from reflecting on their own unique culture of support for SEN students. It is hoped that more schools will repeat this learning process and help build a larger scale case study in order to improve schools’ understanding of the final question: How can the Every Child Matters outcomes be improved for SEN students?


  • DfES (2004) Working Together.
  • Gray, P, (2002) Disability Discrimination in Education: A Review of the Literature on Discrimination Across the 0-19 Age Range. London: Disability Rights Commission.
  • Frost, B, and Rogers, J (2006) Every Child Matters: Empowering the Student Voice. Online: National Teacher Research Panel.
  • Halsey et al (2006) The Voice of Young People: An Engine for Improvement? Scoping the Evidence. London: CfBT.
  • Lewis, A, Parsons, S, Robertson, C (2007) My College, My Family, My Life: Telling it Like it is – A Study Detailing the Experiences of Disabled Children, Young People and their Families in Great Britain in 2006. London: Disability Rights Commission.
  • LSDA (2006) Developing the Learner Voice.
  • NICE (2004) Promoting Children and Young People’s Participation through the National Healthy College Standard. Yorkshire: Health Development.
  • Rudduck, J (2005) Pupil Voice is Here to Stay. Online publication: QCA.
  • United Nations (1989) Convention on the Rights of the Child.