How do we fix mainstream SEND provision?

In this week’s Tes Podagogy, SEND expert Rob Webster explains his research into the educational experiences of children with SEND in mainstream schools, and what can be done to improve them
13th July 2022, 1:08pm


How do we fix mainstream SEND provision?

The SEND Green Paper, published in March, sets out three challenges that urgently need to be tackled: children and young people with special educational needs or disabilities have poor outcomes; navigating the SEND system isn’t a positive experience and, despite investment, it’s not delivering value for money. 

Part of the solution, the paper says, is for mainstream schools to admit more students with SEND, rather than have them attend overcrowded, oversubscribed special schools. 

Since the publication of the paper, there have been major personnel changes at the Department for Education - but the challenges facing the system remain the same. So how can they be addressed?

Rob Webster, director of the Education Research, Innovation and Consultancy (ERIC) Unit at the University of Portsmouth, has been studying our SEND system intensively and believes he can offer some insight. 

In this week’s Tes Podagogy podcast, he explains the findings of his research into the quality of SEND education in mainstream schools and shares what he thinks needs to change.

The ‘inclusion illusion’ 

Between 2011 and 2017, Webster led a team of researchers in two projects: MAST (Making a Statement), which observed pupils with Statements or education, health and care plans (EHCPs) in mainstream primary schools, and SENSE (Special Educational Needs in Secondary Education), which tracked these students into secondary school, replicating MAST in these settings. 

It was the largest classroom observation study ever conducted in the UK with students with SEND - and the results, Webster says, weren’t initially surprising. 

The team found that children with an EHCP in primary school spent most of their time in a mixed-attaining classroom, with peers, a teacher and a teaching assistant. 

“On the face of it, this looks quite normal,” Webster says. “But the systematic observation allowed us to burrow a little bit deeper into the moment-by-moment experiences for children who have special needs. 

“It was really surprising how little time they spent in the classroom compared to their peers. It might be five or 10 minutes there, and half an hour or an hour here, but it adds up to just over a day a week,” he explains. 

And when they are in the classroom, they are mostly interacting with the teaching assistant one-on-one, which means the lesson often goes on around them, without really involving them.

“In the classroom, the high amount of support they have from teaching assistants actually tends to cut across the kinds of experience that students get if they don’t have SEND, and aren’t supported by the teaching assistant,” says Webster. 

For example, the teaching assistant might be talking to the child while the teacher is talking, or when it comes to group work, they might work with the TA, rather than their peers. 

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At secondary school, students with EHCPs also received a very different education from their peers. 

“Rather than having time out of the classroom, secondary schools tend to split the children out on the basis of attainment and put them into sets. Rather than being outside the classroom, you’re just in a different classroom,” Webster explains.  

Class sizes, the researchers found, also differed massively: the average class size for average-attaining children was 21. But in three-quarters of the observations in classes with children with EHCPs, there were 16 children or fewer. In 55 per cent of the observations, there were 12 or fewer.

On the face of it, Webster says, that’s not a bad thing. But interviews with students, parents and school staff revealed that the pedagogical diet of children with EHCPs experience was lower in quality and expectation than their peers. 

The educational experience that children with EHCPs have, then, is very different to the experience their peers have: both in primary and secondary school. 

In the podcast, Webster explains what he thinks is driving this discrepancy, and what schools and policymakers need to do to ensure that every child with SEND has access to high-quality mainstream provision.

The Inclusion Illusion by Rob Webster is available to download for free here

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