I'll never forget the day that I became deputy head of English in a school with an inclusion unit for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). These were children with a wide range of physical disabilities and learning disabilities; some of whom were physically and emotionally fragile; all who needed support and were educated with their peers in a mainstream comprehensive school.
The school was adapted so that wheelchair access was enabled in nearly all areas (this was the late 1980s, so the building was dilapidated, damp and dingy, but every effort was made, with scarce resources, to accommodate the needs of pupils with reduced mobility).
To be honest, I had worried about how I would accommodate the needs of SEND pupils, on this scale, in my classroom. But I soon learned that with the right support and the will to make it work, the school benefited hugely by being so inclusive.
This realisation hit home one day when chatting to a very able Year 11 girl. I asked her what she would most miss about the school when she went on to sixth form. She told me that it would be her science lessons, where her work partner was a boy who had multiple sclerosis. He could not walk. Nor could he lift objects. She worked with him in science practical experiments. The most valuable life lesson she had learned was to become attuned to her science partner’s needs – what he could do for himself and what he needed help with in order to complete practical science experiments. Both achieved a grade A at GCSE double science.
That was then. This is now.
SEND parents fight for support
This week I listened to Matt Keer, a parent with two deaf children, giving evidence to the Commons Education Select Committee, telling MPs that parents’ experience of navigating the SEND funding system was “framed through struggle” – a struggle to ascertain entitlements, with, in his words, “an inbuilt tension of funding where responsibility to the public purse dominates over children’s needs, and rights, to educational opportunities”.
That struggle is being played out in the rise in legal disputes between parents of children with SEND and councils that are seeing an exponential rise in demand for SEND provision at the same time as a huge decrease in their budgets to cope with this demand.
Parents turn in despair to SEN and disability tribunals: the number has doubled in the past two years. They are winning 89 per cent of their cases.
Schools, meanwhile, are left to struggle on, with an 8 per cent cut in their budgets since 2010.
I was talking this week to a group of teaching assistants working in a large Welsh comprehensive school of 900 students in a deprived area. Some 31 per cent of the students qualify for free school meals. Nearly half, 414 students, are on the SEND register – all require the equivalent of a statement.
The teaching assistants told me that they are under enormous pressure, working in classes to support groups of students with SEND.
In other conversations with teachers, I have been told of the services previously being provided by the local authority – speech and language services, educational psychologist assessments, home-school transport – being cut to the bone because the local authority spending grant has been so savagely cut, so that these services are available, now, only for the few in the greatest need.
Desperate times too often result in desperate measures. It should surely concern all of us that pupils with SEND are almost seven times more likely to be permanently excluded than their peers. Many of these children arrive in the alternative provision sector with unidentifiable and unmet needs.
I agreed with Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman when she criticised school leaders who “game” the system by off-rolling youngsters who they fear may drag down the school's league table ranking. I agree with her statement that practices like these mean that some have, in her words, “lost sight of the purpose of education”.
But I wonder if this behaviour by some has not been the end result of an inspection system that has, in Spielman's own words, “looked hardest at outcomes, placing too much on test and exam results, when it considers the overall effectiveness of schools”.
The narrowing of the curriculum, the teaching to the test, the obsession with (often spurious and inaccurate) data – all of these pressures on schools have been the result of an inspection framework that has driven school leaders and teachers from the profession and incentivised the off-rolling of SEND pupils from mainstream schools.
Remarkably, Ofsted, in what must surely be the greatest Damascene conversion ever, has now declared that the current inspection framework must be scrapped and replaced, lest another 8.5 million pupil years be lost under the current, harmful inspection regime. (This leads to a whole host of other questions – but they are for another blog.)
Schools should be places where pupils learn to be members of a good society – one that is inclusive, tolerant and kind. A society that recognises that all citizens (and in schools, pupils) have something to offer and in which the mark of a good society, and a good school, is how it treats those who need special help and greater resources.
My time in a school with high numbers of SEND pupils taught me a great deal. In particular, the wonderful example so many of these pupils gave to their peers, and to the adults who worked with them, of perseverance and small and large triumphs over adversity. These are invaluable life lessons for every one of us, and children and young people benefit hugely if these lessons are learned early on in their lives, in their schools.
Mary Bousted is joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union. She tweets @MaryBoustedNEU