The importance of being included

A teacher's attention helps children with SEN progress in leaps and bounds

If teachers give pupils with special educational needs (SEN) as much attention as their classmates, rather than leaving them under the watch of teaching assistants, it helps the whole class.

This was a finding from an evaluation of a major government programme to make support for pupils with SEN and disabilities more inclusive.

Academics found that the Achievement for All (AfA) pilot initiative resulted in children with SEN making "significantly greater progress" in English and maths compared with other children with SEN. The scheme encouraged teachers to take responsibility for teaching all the children in their classroom, rather than focusing on the majority and leaving children with SEN to teaching assistants or other professionals.

"Additionally, in several of the analyses the progress of the AfA cohort was also significantly greater than that made by pupils without SEN and disabilities nationally," the evaluation said. "In this sense, the AfA pilot proved to be very successful in narrowing the well-established achievement gap between pupils with and without SEN."

The researchers, a Manchester University team led by Professor Neil Humphrey, found that teachers used an "extraordinary" range of new strategies as part of the scheme, which resulted in a "paradigm shift" in their approach to those with extra needs. They also found those teachers did more to tackle poor attendance, behaviour and bullying, and tried to create more positive relationships between themselves, pupils and parents.

A total of 454 schools in 10 local authorities were selected by the former Labour government to participate, including primary and secondary mainstream schools, special schools and a small number of pupil referral units. The scheme was launched in 2009 and given #163;31 million of government funding over two years.

Teachers set targets for pupils and came up with "interventions" to support them - from standard approaches such as mentors to more unusual ones including a staff member dressing up as a crocodile to encourage "snappy" attendance.

Researchers surveyed the teachers and parents and looked at school attendance and attainment data, focusing on pupils in Years 1, 5, 7 and 10. They compared schools participating in AfA with those who were not involved, and results from pupils with and without SEN and disabilities.

They found attendance among those classified as persistent absentees improved significantly, by an average of about 10 per cent. Teachers reported an increased awareness of and focus on SEN, disability and inclusion issues throughout the whole school, and "a greater emphasis on understanding and addressing pupils' wider needs".

"Teachers began to take a more active role in the assessment and monitoring of the pupils with SEN in their classrooms," the researchers said.

They found that the improvement in relationships between teachers and parents "was one of the resounding successes of the project for schools and parents alike". Teachers held new "structured conversations" with families. One teacher told them researchers it had been "the most powerful part of the project" and "an absolute roaring success".

The proportion of schools reporting excellent relationships with parents increased from 12 per cent to 48 per cent, and conversely the proportion reporting "poor" relationships with parents fell from 11 per cent to 1.5 per cent.

But the researchers did find that AfA was viewed by teachers as "simply another new centrally launched educational initiative that they had to 'bolt on' to existing work" when it was first introduced.

"Participating schools began the project with an understandable feeling of trepidation. The AfA pilot set a high benchmark in terms of expectations placed upon schools within a short period of time, and this was reflected in early concerns expressed by many staff," the evaluation said.

"Nonetheless, schools felt positive about the project, and saw it as way to build upon good practice within their existing provision. The resources provided through project funding and training opportunities allowed them to put into practice ideas that they had previously not been able to bring to scale."

"Achievement for All: National Evaluation" is published by the Department for Education. Download it at http:bit.lyv0XQwC

What to do

The report's tips on using Achievement for All:

- AfA is most successful where it is seen as a means to extend or enhance existing good practice. It is important that it is promoted as such and not viewed as a bolt-on approach.

- Schools should communicate and share ideas.

- The AfA leader in a given school should be the headteacher or a member of the senior leadership team. School leadership for AfA gives it credibility and helps drive implementation forward.

- Schools should aim to conduct at least two conversations per year with parents where this is feasible and appropriate to individual needs and circumstances.

- Class teachers should help set individual targets, with the involvement of parents.

New strategies

- Buddies and mentors were used in the AfA scheme to build friendships during lunchtimes. They also carried out team-building exercises, social skills training and the Seal (social and emotional aspects of learning) programme.

- One school set up a group called Diversity, designed to raise the profile of children with SEN by "encouraging them to nurture their self-esteem by talking about the issues they come across and the barriers to learning that they have on a daily basis". It ran every week during lunchtime, and gave pupils opportunities for "tell time".

- Schools ran breakfast, maths and book clubs and encouraged parents to participate with their children.

- To improve attendance, teachers used rewards, had discussions with parents and enlisted the help of educational welfare officers.

- One school offered hairdressing lessons first thing in the morning to encourage children to be punctual.

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