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Which schools are best for students with additional needs? Post number 2....


In my last post I looked at secondary schools in my local area and highlighted the wide discrepancies in the numbers of students on the SEN register between the schools. I also identified 3 key issues with these discrepancies - money, league table position and Ofsted grading. We have created a system which means that students with additional needs are seen as a burden and provides incentives for schools to reduce their numbers of students with SEND.


At the heart of this is the idea of the SEN Register. This is something that is not mentioned in the SEN Code of Practice, but which all schools keep as they have to report in the school census how many students they have with Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) and how many students are on "SEN Support". They are then accountable for the academic progress of these students - they are reported on as a group in the school's performance figures and form part of an Ofsted inspection. Likewise, those students are the subject of support, be that universal, targeted or specialist, following the graduated approach which is usually laid out in some form as part of a SEND toolkit provided by the local authority (Lancashire's version is here).


Now EHCPs, while far from perfect, are carefully allocated, often hard-won by application and subject to regular review. Typically the numbers of students with an EHCP is far lower than those on SEN Support. It is the SEN Support category that is my real cause for concern in this post.


Sara Alston has written an excellent article which identifies the main issues with the designation of SEN Support. She identifies the principles of SEN identification as....


"If individual children require provision ‘different from or additional to’ that of their peers in any of these areas [communication and interaction; cognition and learning; social, emotional and mental health; physical and sensory needs] to access learning or engage in school, they should be identified with SEN."


She says


"The issue of SEN identification is complex and needs to focus on an individual’s needs, including their ability to engage in and access learning and the social and physical environments of school. We need to focus on the child’s need for provision ‘different from or additional to’ that provided to their peers."


There is no nationally standard way of identifying students as requiring SEN support - local authorities provide toolkits outlining graduated responses: universal support (sometimes referred to as Quality-First teaching), targeted support and specialist support and schools implement this how they wish. I have heard it said that putting a child on the SEN register is "at the headteacher's discretion".


Why does all this matter? Good schools look at the individual child's needs and place them on the SEN register with a SEN Support (K) code, follow the local authority's guidance on graduated response, implement, review and discuss provision with the family. Following intervention, at whatever level, the student might be able to be removed from the SEN Register if they are making good progress and no longer need any different or additional provision. Or they may stay on the register, receiving additional or different provision as required.


This is how it is meant to work, but there is a huge incentive to misuse the system. If you reduce the numbers of students on SEND support then you can reduce the resourcing and staffing in the SEND provision across the school. Your income for SEND - the "notional SEN budget" as discussed in my last post, will not be affected - it is not a headcount of students with additional needs. So you have additional money to spend how you wish. What is more, you are no longer held to account for the provision that you make, because the child doesn't have SEND according to you, is doing ok in lessons according to you, and, according to you, does not need any additional provision. Your excellent "Quality First" teaching and learning will address all learning needs. Your strict behaviour policies will deal with any resulting issues, for example because a child with social and emotional health issues can't cope in a formal mainstream classroom for 5 hours a day. If the family complains then, with any luck the parents or carers will remove the child from the school so your progress figures will be improved. So you will look like a really successful school, but it is an illusion, because those who need you most are being let down.


This happens.. A lot. Maybe less blatantly than I have described, but the system rewards those schools who see students with SEND as a burden and reduce their numbers. If you are successful in Ofsted and league table terms then you are likely to be over-subscribed. Students with EHCPs can gain admission as a priority, but those with lower-level needs have no such right of access and so, by positioning yourself as a high-performing school you can reinforce the message that students with individual needs would be better off going somewhere else.


The best way to describe the current system would be as structurally immoral. Individual teachers, leaders and other school staff are individually moral, caring and want to do the best for their students, but the incentives built into our system disadvantage the very families and young people who need us most.


So how does a parent choose a school for their child with individual needs? In the next post I look at the value of Ofsted reports, consider other possible indicators and consider the importance of culture and ethos....


As always I am happy to discuss any of the issues raised - see www.findingcommonground.org.uk or get in touch via james@findingcommonground.or.uk or advice@findingcommonground.org.uk. It matters.

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