'Complexity and emotion underpin SEND in education and that can be both a good and a bad thing'

We need to find a way to negotiate the problems caused by the complexity and heightened emotions of SEND, so that we can utilise the benefits those two things can bring, says TES commissioning editor Jon Severs

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SEND, as an area, is both complex and emotional. And that combination is both to its benefit and its detriment.

I spent the day at the Whole School SEND conference in London the other week, and this mix was clearly evident. Through the inspiring presentations and fantastic roundtable discussions it always came back to those two things – complexity and emotion – just as it always does when I talk to teachers about SEND on my weekly visits to schools and when I discuss SEND with the vibrant SEND community on Twitter.

Benefits of complexity

From a teaching perspective, it seems to me that complexity and emotion can be positive. Teachers are problem solvers and they enjoy the process of working out how individual children can be guided to be the best they can be. That process can be particularly challenging with children with SEND and so the process should be incredibly rewarding.

On top of that you have the deeply emotional side of SEND: these are sometimes very vulnerable children; sometimes children that have not had the best school experience prior to being in your class. You then have parents or carers who have had a (sometimes very) rough time of it in the school system, too. The potential to make a hugely positive impact on the lives of those in that family is substantial and so the emotional reward for the teacher can be equally great.

And yet there is a downside of this complexity and emotion, too.

Entrenched positions

The complexity of SEND presents a challenge when as a teacher you are accountable for the performance of your whole class and you spend an average of 54 hours per week doing just enough to make ends meet for as many of them as possible. Finding not just the time but the brain power to negotiate every hidden corner of SEND is not just a big ask, it is almost impossible. The Sendco should help, but as Nancy Gedge, TES SEND columnist, wrote last year, the Sendco is only as effective as the school they work in lets them be. And often, the role is severely limited.

And the emotional side can make things harder, not easier. The parent or carer of that child knows every aspect – every shadow – of their child's SEND. The teacher can never match that. And so because it is emotional – because the teachers and the parent both know the teacher does not know enough – relationships get scarred with frustration, embarrassment, and fear, from both sides. You get situations like that Jarlath O'Brien, headteacher at Carwarden House Community School, wrote about last week, and survey results like that reported in TES two weeks ago.

Accountability pressure heightens the issues. As Jarlath said to me recently: “It can feel that children with SEND will be far more likely to underperform, as defined by floor standards, Progress 8, phonics screening check, etc, so class teachers can feel like they’re failing as a professional, and failing the child, and the parent may be led to believe that the teacher and school are failing their child, even if that child is doing extremely well (without reference to the arbitrary benchmark that is the mainstream cohort they find themselves in).”

A route forwards?

Watching as a journalist, from the side, I am heartened by the great work many teachers and parents do that shows complexity and emotion can be useful, not detrimental. Nancy is a fantastic mediator, straddling the line between parent and teacher as she does.

My own view, as someone who has written about and commissioned articles about SEND for four years now, is that there are three things that would help keep that emotion and complexity as a useful tool:

  1. If teachers imagined every child with SEND was their own, they would much better understand the position of parents and carers of children with SEND. Understanding the emotion in the situation is the keystone of a relationship that can break down complexity, that can utilise parent knowledge for good (to make the impossible possible) rather than to weaponise it.
  2. On that latter point, as I said at the Whole School SEND conference to a rather muted reaction, parents need to better understand the constraints on teachers. Too often I have seen relationships begin from a stance of suspicion and accusation based on previous experience. The teacher cannot know everything, and they need your help. If they ask a question, do not instantly raise hell because they 'should' know it. Help them understand. If they are not willing to listen, then yes, you can begin to protest. But remember they have other children in their classes - being too busy one day probably does not mean they do not care about your child, it usually means they are actually too busy. Too often this is seen as a slight it really is not. If it does prove to be one, though, of course, then raise your protest.
  3. But training is the real missing piece in the jigsaw. As Nancy will be detailing in a forthcoming issue of TES, training around SEND is, as always in SEND, patchy, characterised by pockets of excellence. By that I don't just mean training in how to teach children with SEND, but also in how to negotiate the horrifyingly complex beaurocracy around SEND and also in how to construct productive relationships with parents. If we got the foundations right in this regard, I do think points one and two would follow naturally.

As a journalist, I am indebted to the SEND community of teachers, parents and consultants that helps me out and calls out any mistakes. We're a long way from being as good as we should be, but I hope that in following my own advice I can help TES be a real source of knowledge and assistance when it comes to SEND. And that we will one day tread that line of complexity and emotion as deftly as that great French high-wire walker Phillipe Petit.

Jon Severs is commissioning editor at TES

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