There is an entire cohort of children who are ignored by our education, health and social care systems.
They are the pupils whose needs aren’t recognised until it’s too late, until they appear on front pages as the latest perpetrators or victims of knife crime.
So why are they being missed?
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In 24 years of working in mainstream and alternative provision (AP), I’ve seen time and again how a combination of trauma, learning needs and mental health issues can lead to challenging behaviour and school exclusion.
Knife crime and youth violence
While these needs are profound, they often fall below the threshold for intervention, leaving vulnerable children, their families and schools unsupported.
Access to additional resources is determined by high-threshold front doors to discrete education, health and social care services.
This threshold model is an effective way to manage budgets, but what if you have significant needs across all areas, and don’t meet the threshold for any?
Criminal exploitation and knife crime are not straightforward issues and neither are the causes that lead children there.
But, over the course of my career, I have witnessed the destructive impact that three conditions can have on a child, especially if they are co-occurring:
1. Exposure to neglect, abuse, violence and loss in the home;
2. Chronic distress from undiagnosed and unsupported special educational needs;
3. Social communication conditions, such as autistic spectrum disorder and attention deficit disorder.
Just one of these can result in a chronic trauma response, causing long-term brain damage. But when more than one co-occurs, the level of trauma and its impact is compounded and opportunities to develop resilience are reduced.
Adolescents with these experiences often withdraw because they can’t manage or communicate their feelings.
They may struggle to regulate in a mainstream setting, be very difficult to engage in interventions and be resistant to empathetic messages about the impact of harmful actions.
When home and school feel unsafe, and you struggle to develop secure relationships with your peers, you become vulnerable to grooming, exploitation and abuse; unable to read harmful situations.
SEND and the risk of exclusion
Understanding these experiences is vital because, contrary to the opinion of some commentators, exclusion does not catapult children into a life of crime. Instead, their co-occurring needs predispose them to vulnerabilities which increase the risk of becoming excluded, gang-associated, criminally exploited or involved in knife crime.
Schools are the only places where interrelated learning, wel-being and safeguarding needs can be effectively recognised.
However, school systems often reflect the siloed working of the local agencies which support them. This siloing is also mirrored in the structure of the Department for Education and the Ofsted Education Inspection Framework.
So, how can we create a more inclusive system?
Learn from alternative provision
I’ve seen first-hand how APs use comprehensive and holistic assessments on entry to understand the complex needs of their students and integrate multi-agency workers to support them.
The new draft Ofsted education inspection framework actively encourages AP to work in this way; this opportunity needs to be extended to mainstream schools supporting students at risk of exclusion.
We need to acknowledge the compound impact of co-occurring needs and enable schools to effectively support these students in mainstream settings.
In particular, educational, health and social care (EHC) plans must recognise the impact of trauma on access to learning and make provision for children whose needs are co-occurring. Redefining our understanding of need would empower schools to prevent these children from slipping through the cracks.
Promote inclusion through Ofsted
The new draft Ofsted framework takes significant steps in bringing inclusion to the fore, but it could go further. Evaluation of schools’ SEND, mental health and safeguarding provision still sit in separate judgement areas. There is no part of the framework that looks at how these different types of need are drawn together within the school.
We need to be bold. There is an opportunity here for Ofsted to use the framework to reshape how schools structure inclusion and demonstrate their integrated recognition and support for learning, wellbeing and safeguarding needs.
Improving life chances for children is everybody’s business. If we don’t want to go on reading about the lives lost to knife crime, exploitation or harm, we must draw the most vulnerable from out of the shadows and shine a light on what a truly inclusive system looks like in practice.
Shaun Brown is head of programme at The Difference, an organisation that exists to improve the outcomes of vulnerable children by raising the status and expertise of those who educate them