'The government's latest policy paper is called Schools that Work for Everyone, but it doesn't mention SEND once'

Surely children with SEND should be central to educational policy. But it is now quite clear that they are not, writes one heads' leader

James Bowen

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A document entitled Schools That Work for Everyone that doesn’t mention children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), as is the case of government's Green Paper published last month, is difficult to take seriously.

Children with SEND should be at the heart of all educational policy. How can we claim to have schools that work for all when SEND fails to even get a mention?

Recent reforms have given the strong impression that children with SEND are, at best, an afterthought and in the case of the recent Green Paper, not even that. There have been serious concerns for the educational welfare of children with SEND regarding all the government’s recent flagship policies.

Grammar schools

We know that in current selective systems, SEND pupils are grossly underrepresented. Grammar schools are far less likely to admit SEND pupils, with just 0.1 per cent of statemented pupils in grammar schools (compared with 2.4 per cent in secondary moderns) and 4.2 per cent of SEND pupils without statements (compared with 13.5 per cent in secondary moderns).

We have yet to see any evidence that suggests this will be any different in a new selective world.

Separating children by their ability to pass the 11-plus is inherently flawed as the test is not a true indication of potential – nor can it ever capture the wide-ranging talents children have. The attainment gap between children with SEND starts at key stage 1 and only widens by age 11 (the same is true for children on free school meals). Many types of SEND are likely to affect a pupil’s ability to pass an entrance exam – how can we allow such an exclusionary practice?

The truth is that grammar schools are very far from aiding social mobility for SEND learners.


The assessment arrangements for this year disadvantaged those pupils with SEND, especially those with specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia.

At the moment, to be judged as "working at the expected standard" in the KS2 writing framework, children must meet all the government’s 18 criteria, including spelling. Children who are clearly excellent writers have been incorrectly labelled as working below the expected standard simply because teachers are not permitted to use their own judgement about their balance of abilities. 

How can it be right that a child could write the equivalent of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations yet be labelled failing just because they have difficulties with spelling?

The reading test was so badly designed that many pupils with SEND struggled to access the paper. We have also seen an increase in the number of pupils not being entered for the tests in the first place. What will this do for the self-esteem of those children?

We need a system that recognises the talents, skills and ultimately the progress that all learners with SEND make. Telling a child who has made excellent progress over their time in primary school that despite this they still have "not met the expected standard" is demoralising and unfair.

The government defends the new, more demanding Sats tests on the basis that not enough children are functionally literate or numerate by the age of 15. The problem is that although many children over time may well rise to the new level of challenge, there’s a real danger the same group who didn’t achieve the old standard won’t reach the new one. Why would we expect the 20 per cent of children who struggled to meet the old standard to reach the new much higher one just because we have a new test?

I worry a great deal about those children, including those with SEND, who were already struggling to reach the previous "expected standard". They will now be faced with an even greater challenge. I’m also concerned about a potential group of children being told they’re "working below the expected standard" at the end of each key stage despite making some significant progress during this time.

We are currently awaiting the findings of the Rochford review, considering the assessment of the group of pupils who fall in the gap between the top of P scales and the level of the tests at KS1 – a high proportion of whom have SEND. It is not acceptable that we have had to wait for the Rochford review findings. If the assessment system wasn't ready for every child in our schools, then it shouldn't have been launched.

While the aims of the SEND Code of Practice are laudable, without joined-up policy thinking and a real commitment from government there is a real danger that they will go unrealised.

James Bowen is director of NAHT Edge, a teaching union for middle leaders. He tweets at @JamesJkbowen

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