SEND and schools: Inclusive by design

Written by: Annamarie Hassall | Published:
Inclusive by design: Annamarie Hassall is the new CEO at special needs association Nasen

At a time when the SEND system is facing a raft of challenges, Annamarie Hassall is taking the helm at special needs association Nasen. She wants to see all schools become inclusive by design and all SENCOs properly resourced and supported

SEND issues are everyone’s concern. If we can achieve excellent education for children and young people with SEND and learning differences, we achieve excellent education for all.

At Nasen, our vision is for a fully inclusive and equitable education for every pupil with SEND and learning differences.

The latest data shows that some 1.4 million children and young people have been identified to have SEN in England alone (DfE, 2021) – an all-time high that equates to around three in 20 pupils. It is a significant proportion of the school population – and a proportion that needs attention and support.

Our three greatest challenges

The growing number of learners with SEND is not in itself the greatest challenge facing SENCOs and colleagues working in the SEND sector. In fact, I would suggest that our three greatest challenges lie in securing external school support services, navigating referral routes, and ensuring high-quality teaching for all.

Learners with SEND and/or learning differences may have a range of needs that require additional support and a multi-agency response. This is particularly the case for learners with Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs), those with more complex health needs, and those learners with social, emotional and mental health needs.

There is variation around the availability of, and access to, external support services with differences seen across local authority areas, and – subsequently – schools. One of the reasons for this is the thresholds for accessing services.

“Threshold” is a commonly understood term, but what is less well known is the variability of the level at which it applies. The threshold can change according to local budgets and vary further with the impact of staff turnover or recruitment challenges. In short, the rules are unpredictable and can be confusing for schools and families.

The challenge within schools is often the lack of influence over the deployment of staff from specialist services, alongside a lack of clarity about the right pathway to accessing support.

A typical “of-the-moment” experience includes that of multi-academy trusts which have schools located in different local authority and health areas. They are navigating the route to specialist services from health and social care, working this out for each and every area, while at the same time being puzzled as to why the system is so variable.

At the centre of this experience is the child or young person and their need to have support to access education.

Valuing the SENCO

For SENCOs, we have seen a mix of positive and challenging experiences working directly with families. Building trust at this challenging time can be tricky.

Through collaborative research with Bath Spa University in 2020, our National SENCO Workforce Survey (Boddison et al, 2021) found that almost three-quarters of SENCOs (72 per cent) felt their schools had experienced challenges in providing support to children with EHCPs during lockdown. The report also found that just two in five primary and one in five secondary SENCOs felt that their roles were manageable for one person.

Yet SENCOs have a drive to make an impact for children and young people, and commonly cite their enjoyment of their role as a primary reason for staying. SENCOs in schools are experienced teachers with additional qualifications – 87 per cent have completed or are in the process of completing the mandatory National Award for SEN Coordination.

However, from the survey we know that SENCOs do not feel sufficiently valued within schools nor are they accorded with senior status, with only 34 per cent of respondents reporting to be a member of the senior leadership team. Their time for CPD and planning and preparation is also limited. As such, we urge schools to consider:

  • Committing to including the SENCO in school leadership teams, regularly taking updates from them.
  • Budgeting for a full-time SENCO role.
  • Encouraging all staff to become a “teacher of SEND”, using staff training days to nurture a greater spirit of inclusion.

Every teacher a teacher of SEND

The government’s 2015 SEND Code of Practice outlined the requirement for “every teacher (to be) a teacher of SEND”, yet in our work with educators we see that there is far more to be done to make this a reality.

We can only achieve this ambition by reaching a universally good level of understanding about SEND and learning differences, accompanied by the right support services at the right time.

Ensuring that initial teacher training (ITT) provides a solid foundation for teaching and assessing children with SEND and learning differences is key, as is supporting early career teachers to be informed and effective in this area and recognising that SEND is the new ordinary.

In an ideal education system, we would start with an assumption that schools would be inclusive by design, as defined by an approach known as Universal Design for Learning (UDL) rather than inclusion on demand. The inherent variability in all learners would be accommodated and understood, increasing the sense of belonging.

This would mean not having to retrofit differentiation into the classroom, as this reconfirms that when the “main” lesson was being designed it was only being designed for some pupils. If we reached that point, most children and young people would not require anything additional to, or different from, that which is provided to others.

An example of where teachers have an almost embedded awareness of additional needs is around supporting children’s speech, language and communication needs (SLCN).

Recent DfE School Census Data (2021) identifies communication and interaction as the most frequently occurring need for a child in primary phase (41.9 per cent), with year-on-year increases being seen.

Teachers are being supported and equipped to spot where SLCN may not be on track. Likewise, the focus in the Early Years Foundation Stage, particularly at the key transition points of pre-reception to reception through to key stage 1, has influenced a language-rich classroom.

The early identification of SLCN has prominent awareness, although we face an on-going challenge around availability and access to specialist speech and language therapists and wider practitioners with expertise in this area.

A drive for understanding

In our experience, it is not that educators do not want to take time to learn about issues relating to SEND – far from it. But a collective effort is now needed to achieve equitable education for all children and young people who have SEND and learning differences. This simply cannot happen without the principle of a person-centred approach, strong communication, and multi-agency cooperation, along with co-production at every level.

Along with the rest of the sector, I await the findings of the government’s SEND review with a keen interest, for the collective effort cannot – and must not – stop at the school gates.

When no teacher, SENCO, teaching assistant or school leader is left feeling powerless to support those with SEND and learning differences, the sector will be well on its way to ensuring that no child or young person is left behind.

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