It’s time to get SEND off the sidelines

Research shows that pupils with SEND need good-quality teaching in a mixed-ability setting – and a curriculum geared towards their needs, says Margaret Mulholland
18th December 2020, 12:00am
It’s Time To Get Send Off The Sidelines
Margaret Mulholland

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It’s time to get SEND off the sidelines

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/its-time-get-send-sidelines

In 2008, researcher David Mitchell conducted a meta-study of inclusion, asking what really works in special and inclusive education. His recommendation? "Adapt the mainstream to suit all pupils."

It's a powerful comment on an education system that quite frankly fails to consider pupils who struggle to learn as a central concern.

How can that be? Surely that's the job - to help those who struggle, not just to support those who will make progress whether they have a great teacher in front of them or not?

In my experience, teachers start their career believing that they can help everybody but soon recognise that the expectations, systems and processes schools operate within can default the progress of struggling pupils to the periphery.

In 2017, Rob Webster and his team undertook a large study called Sense (Special Educational Needs in Secondary Education), which looked at students with education, health and care plans.

After 1,340 hours of classroom observation and 490 interviews with school staff, his findings concurred with Mitchell's: learners with special educational needs and disability experience far more segregation than their peers, and a consequent feeling of exclusion. This is because students with EHCPs in mainstream secondary schools experience a form of "streaming" and "teaching by ability", as well as the allocation of additional adult support to classes for students with SEND rather than access to good teaching.

The Sense research positions leaders as change agents and recommends three steps to change: inclusivity through high-quality teaching; a much wider use of mixed-ability grouping; and continuing to review the role of the teaching assistant as an effective part of (not the entire solution to) SEND provision.

I would argue that we must work on hearts and minds, too. Attitudes to pupils who struggle in school are shaped by determinism, the unintended consequence of an education system funded and judged based on labelling by need, exacerbated by silos of provision and an exam system that maintains that some have to fail in order for others to succeed.

Leaders can be agents of change for greater inclusion. System change is slow and challenging but there is no better time to look forward. I suggest three drivers for improvement that can be influential now.

First, use the research to inform next steps. The recent Education Endowment Foundation guidance report supports SEND as a priority, not an afterthought, and emphasises the role of quality teaching for all, particularly for those with SEND.

The second driver is professional learning and the new frameworks that will shape educational priorities. The Early Career Framework, the Initial Teacher Training Core Content Framework and the National Professional Qualification ladder of qualifications all adopt the view that SEND should be central to curriculum development, not a well-intentioned addition. Our task as a profession is to use the evidence to exemplify what that looks like in practice.

Third, the feedback from the Department for Education's SEND review is expected shortly. It must surely reflect the latest research evidence and recognise that it is improving the quality of learner experience that impacts on successful outcomes for young people, not the quantity of hours they spend with a TA.

This review could provide a vehicle with which to galvanise the systemic changes required. Change is urgently needed, and the system is aligning. Let's make it happen.

Margaret Mulholland is the special educational needs and inclusion specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders

This article originally appeared in the 18/25 December 2020 issue under the headline "It's time to get struggling students off the sidelines"

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