Dear madam: letters to the editor 28/10/20

In this week's postbag of letters to the editor, Tes readers discuss the SEND support system and attachment disorder

Tes Editorial

Tes letters to the editor 28/10/20: SEND support, selective mutism, attachment disorder and adult education

Our SEND system is broken

A couple of years ago, after working as a Sendco in a mainstream primary school for a number of years, I became so frustrated with trying to work within a broken SEND system that I decided to go and see if I could change things from the “other side”.

When working as a Sendco, I had supported the local authority in a number of ways: sitting on the SEN resources and assessment panel, acting as a Sendco “champion”, volunteering time be part of working groups, etc. 

After leaving my job as a Sendco, I went to work for the local authority, leading on work following on from the high-needs review. As part of this work, I did a couple of pieces of project work around children whose statements of SEN hadn’t been converted to education, health and care plans following the deadline and children with EHCPs who were without a school place, along with many other things.

After this, I worked as Sendco for the virtual school, supporting children who are looked after by the local authority. I then moved on to work for the local education other than at school (alternative provision) service.

Through these varied roles, I have seen the worst in SEND provision, where children have repeatedly slipped through the cracks and been failed by services. Where children’s needs have been allowed to escalate to crisis point before any meaningful intervention and support is offered.

I have also seen the very best in SEND provision; many passionate, dedicated professionals working really hard within their own sphere of influence, putting everything they have into trying to change things for the better for children and young people.

I have also come to realise that I can’t really change things from the inside either. Our SEND system is so broken, underfunded and unfit for purpose that nothing is going to change until the government sits up and takes notice of the flood of information that it is being given to this fact: the Commons Education Select Committee report, the outcomes of Ofsted inspections of local authority SEND services, etc.

Not only does the government need to sit up and take notice of what it is being told, it also needs to consult with the people, at all levels, who know about the system, who work within it and use it every day, especially those on the ground. This will be vital for changes to be made, to introduce a system that works, is manageable and fit for purpose and genuinely supports children and young people with SEND to thrive and to fulfil their potential.

For any SEND system to work, there really needs to be a change in focus for the education system. The current “sausage factory” approach, where there is a narrow focus on what is important, limited to academic skills and where schools are held so accountable for this narrow focus, is never going to support inclusion or benefit children with SEND. There are many children for whom our current education system just does not work. Staff in schools know this and many would love this to change but are powerless to change things due to directives from government and the way schools’ performance is measured. In a different system, many children who are currently labelled as having SEND would not be deemed to have SEND.

I am passionate about advocating for children and young people with SEND and their families and about supporting them to live their "best lives". However, I am beginning to feel totally demoralised and disheartened about being able to do this within the current system. I know that many other professionals are feeling the same way as me.

The situation for schools and professionals trying to support these children is getting worse and many working within this system are losing the energy and will to keep going. Some of our most vulnerable children and families are being failed and the costs moving forwards will be huge in terms of the outcomes for children, the cost of social care, health, prisons, unemployment benefits, etc, needed due to children’s needs not being met.

An increasingly frustrated and disheartened Sendco

Trying to find a school for my autistic daughter is a nightmare

I'm having a complete nightmare trying to move from London to Bournemouth in terms of securing a secondary school place for my daughter, who has an education, health and care plan.

There are real gaps in the process. We are very likely to be forced to home-school, through no fault of our own, purely because of bureaucracy. The stress is considerable.

I have been researching a move to Bournemouth for two years. We wanted to move partly because we have good friends there, but mostly I knew that there was limited choice in terms of secondary schools near our London home and I have local advice about good schools in Dorset. 

My daughter is 10 years old, in Year 6, and on the autistic spectrum with learning difficulties. She attends a mainstream school with an ASD unit, and has been in special needs education for all of her school career. I have found two very good schools near Bournemouth, both independent. It's very hard to find an autism specialist school, for children with moderate learning difficulties, but there are two within reach of the area we're moving to that would be ideal. Her place will need to be funded by the local authority. 

I wanted to apply directly through the council but was turned away as we don't yet have a local address. I have now started the application process for secondary school with our current council in London. They have to consult on schools listed as parental preference as we have an EHCP. However, they have a statutory duty to say no to any school over a certain distance from our borough.

Their process will mean that even if the school agrees to offer a place, following an assessment, the council will offer a school close to our current address instead. We will then go through an appeal process, I will appeal against their local offer, as we're going to move.  I have just heard from my legal adviser that the council is under no obligation to offer a place in a school located outside the borough, and under no obligation to talk to Bournemouth to secure a place for my daughter once we move. Surely this can't be right? Even if we win the appeal and are offered funding for a year, we have to go through the whole process again as the council in Bournemouth will review the following year and my daughter could lose her place. It seems to me to be a massive waste of resources.

I thought the Children and Families Act was meant to keep the child with disabilities at the centre of every process? Any uncertainty, lack of structure or transitions are hugely stressful for my daughter. We are left with huge risks for every member of the family. I cannot look for work until she has a secure place and I cannot work if I have to home-school her. We can't buy a house with this uncertainty, and will be forced to rent, until Bournemouth has granted funds.

Schools for SEN children are hard to find, homeschooling is isolating and could seriously affect her social development, which is the main point of focus for her EHCP. I'm pulling my hair out. The options left open to us are to go through an appeal process, lose and move anyway and home-school until some school place can be found. Or we could take my daughter out of primary school now and hope Bournemouth picks up the application process in progress. It has no obligation to do that, which shocks me. Either way, she suffers. The whole process seems very discriminatory. 

How does one change the rules? How can a statutory duty conflict so strongly with government legislation?

The local authorities should have to consult each other. The paperwork should flow between them seamlessly. Bournemouth should be funding our first year, not the London council. We could have to sign some kind of indemnity so if we decided not to move they receive some kind of compensation. We should have the same chances as a child already living in Dorset. We should not be penalised for moving house. We should have enough warning in order to sell houses or buy a new home, and should not be left with a financial risk. We definitely shouldn't be hunting around for a barrister to help with a secondary school application just because our daughter has special needs.

If I were going through this process with a neurotypical child, it would still be a mess. We would have uncertainty and possibly an appeal. However, a neurotypical child has a far larger choice of schools to attend, wherever they are; they can handle the change and uncertainty better; you can explain things to them and they can express their concerns. Should the worst-case scenario happen and you are forced to home-school, a neurotypical child can attend clubs, Brownies, drama, dance, sports without a problem; she could play with neighbours' children, be babysat, join home-school groups and mix easily with other families. I can't do any of that. To leave me and my daughter to home-educate is to sentence us to isolation. She avoids other children unless the environment is structured, she needs help to understand and be understood. Other groups are not always welcoming. I'm determined to shout about this system as it feels completely unfair and impossible to navigate, and I'm in a privileged position to try. For anyone with less confidence, resources, time, language, it would be insurmountable. 

Miranda Duffy

The truth about selective mutism

It was encouraging to see Tes publish an article on selective mutism because, as a teacher myself, I feel that very few teachers are really aware of it ("I taught a selectively mute pupil – and he taught me", 24 October).

However, there are inaccuracies in this article. My son (funnily enough, called Daniel, like the boy in the article) suffered with selective mutism from the moment he started preschool and all the way through school. He really began to overcome it only after he had finished his A levels.

Over those 15 years, despite some very supportive adults, he was only ever able to speak to a handful of them. His selective mutism was due to high levels of anxiety around other people; nothing to do with any traumatic experience, just anxiety, which many people experience but with a variety of manifestations.

He certainly did not "choose" to remain silent, but he was just as frustrated as any teacher would be that he couldn't share his ideas. Imagine sitting in a GCSE physics lesson where all the people in your group are discussing how to do something and you can see it's not going to work and you aren’t able to share your own ideas, which you know will work.

Daniel usually knew exactly what he wanted to say on each occasion but the words just wouldn't come out; it was if they were stuck in his throat. When he was 16 he went on an 11-night school trip to Third Reich sites for his GCSE history course. During the whole time, he never spoke a word to anyone. He joined in conversations with nodding, smiling, etc, because everyone had learned how to include him in conversations, and had a fantastic time, but he never physically spoke. Would a child manage to keep that up out of choice?

There needs to be a lot more awareness for school staff (and health professionals) around selective mutism. If picked up early, a child has a much better chance of overcoming it. It can take a lot of patience and time but the results, and the avoidance of problems in later life, are well worth it.

Also, selective mutism is not just about speech; it can inhibit many forms of communication. The article says that the Daniel it refers to "often wasn't willing” to write his thoughts down. That's because thoughts are personal and a child with selective mutism will often find it hard to express anything personal. They would much rather write or speak (if they are able to) about facts and figures -- things where answers are black and white, and there's no opinion involved. This is where the Daniel in the article was able to excel with his webchat about space.

My Daniel was able to speak to his maths teacher at secondary school as they would often look at a maths problem after everyone else had left the class and discuss it side by side at the whiteboard, so the attention was on the maths problem and not Daniel. My Daniel struggled with any essay-type answers and yet now he is able to interview people and write magazine and website articles.  

If you have a child in your school who you suspect is more than just "shy", have a look at for some great resources from the Selective Mutism Information and Research Association (SMiRA), as well as recommended reading. And if anyone would like advice from a fellow teacher, trained in dealing with selective mutism, but who has also experienced it as a mum, please do get in touch. I am more than happy to share my experiences.

Catherine Bates
Lymington, Hampshire

Don't oversimplify attachment disorder

I read with increasing frustration and dismay the article “Fixating on attachment will improve behaviour”, (23 October 2020, free to subscribers), particularly as Tes is frequently read by trainee teachers.

Attachment disorder is a complex and lifelong condition, often arising as a result of early years lack of consistent, emotional support and love from a principal care giver; it is often the result of early years neglect or abuse. Neuroscience can now show that this lack of loving attachment results in an area of the brain being altered, as it is constantly subjected to stress hormones. A child may appear physically normal but behavioural problems in school may soon be apparent. In my view, such difficulties need investigation and perhaps referral to at least the Sendco and probably appropriate psychiatric and social workers.

As an experienced teacher, with five years of teaching young people deemed SEN, to oversimplify a complex issue such as attachment disorder and suggest that teachers "unconsciously adhere to a pattern that pupils seek out” seems to me to be blaming the teacher for behaviours that can be disruptive for all and result in the individual involved not getting the help they need.

The last bullet point is particularly unhelpful for inexperienced teachers or anyone training: “This will require a shift in how behaviour is managed that may not mean a word-for-word adherence to the behaviour policy”. What? Does the writer have any experience of teaching a group of older students? A common interview question for teachers relates to managing behaviour – I can imagine how an interview panel would react if a candidate replied that they expected “time to work through the challenges with the pupils”. Does the writer realise that all children in any setting (which includes the home) feel safe and therefore able to learn with consistent boundaries.

I realise this article was a talking point, but it is simply not practical nor helpful in any educational mainstream setting to suggest that teachers be given “time and space to reflect on the dynamic between pupils and themselves and, if issues are identified, they need the time to work through the challenges with the pupils”.

Lynne Askey
By email

The end of adult residential education?

Changes to government funding arrangements for adult residential education mean that already the iconic core residential provision at Ruskin College has been forced to temporarily cease and with it 120 years of training leaders in their fields, including prime ministers and presidents. Other extremely high-performing areas of adult education at the college with 99 per cent achievement rates continue.

An agreement between ministers and the Skills Funding Agency has been changed by the Department for Education in such a way as to make our specialist adult residential institutions less viable. 

This denies people who have missed out on education and want to transform their lives and give back to society the space needed to learn. The close learning support with the option of moving away from home to concentrate on this is transformative. The shift to online learning and the year zero work of universities is still not an option for hundreds of thousands.

The impact and significance, and indeed the tremendous cost-effectiveness and educational advantage, of the residential experience has been rigorously evidenced by academics, most recently in the report by professors Sharon Clancy and John Holford, of the University of Nottingham.

The Centenary Commission on Adult Education, which published its report last year, powerfully reminded us that since the first major report in 1919, adult education provision in all its forms, including the residential, is “a permanent national necessity”, critical to skills development, citizenship and social justice.

It no longer feels like it. Ruskin’s residential element makes highly skilled achievers of women and men, usually with no qualifications or post-school learning experience, and gives them much more than a Bodleian Library admission card to access the best ideas of the world, and quality degrees.

Ruskin has given generations life-changing knowledge, understanding and commitments developed in a supportive, internationally diverse learning environment normally reserved only for a few from the public schools. It made widening access a material reality for tens of thousands.

It did this as a national college to bring people from all over the country to one of our great university cities. The national funding to enable this ends in 2021.

In her 2019 review of college financial oversight, Dame Mary Ney, in recommendations supported by the government, called on the Education and Skills Funding Agency to “become active participants in nurturing college development”.

To nurture the specialist designated institutions (SDI) such as Ruskin, the new rules must be revised and colleges permitted to flourish at the time of greatest need. This would help us to build back better with a strong residential component to deepen learning among the increasing number denied it and boost the upskilling agenda.

These SDI colleges, like Ruskin, have been recognised as specialist because they led the way to widening access to higher education with their deep roots in civil society and innovative pedagogy. Long may they continue. The Department for Education and ministers must rethink.

Doug Nicholls, chair
Kevin Flanagan, vice-chair

Board of trustees, Ruskin College




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