'Our inequitable education system risks limiting the life chances of many children with SEND'

Simon Knight explains The Difference scheme and its aims for improving a systematic problem for pupils with SEND

Simon Knight

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During my time working across the SEND sector – in both specialist and mainstream schools – I have seen that schools respond to children with SEND in highly variable ways. As a result, such pupils are under-represented in positive datasets and overrepresented in negative datasets.

They are particularly over-represented in school exclusion data. This was highlighted in “Making The Difference: Breaking the Link Between School Exclusion and Social Exclusion” by Kiran Gill, Harry Quilter-Pinner and Danny Swift:

Nearly eight-in-ten children (77 per cent) in schools for excluded children have recognised special educational needs or disability (SEND) (DfE 2017c). Those with a recognised need are seven times more likely to be excluded than their peers without SEND, suggesting that their needs may be a causal factor in exclusion (DfE 2017a).

'Unable to' treated like 'unwilling to'

This is not a surprise. We have constructed a system that compels children to fit a narrow precondition and often spits them out when they are either unable or unwilling to comply. Furthermore, too often those who are as yet "unable to" are treated the same as those "unwilling to".

We risk failing to differentiate for the underlying reasons and needs behind bad behaviour, and reacting instead to the symptoms. We need to remember that behaviour is a subject with a developmental progression. A subject that for some still needs to be taught, rather than just a set of conditions to impose.

There is a lack of adjustability within our schools; this has led to the over-representation of more complex students in exclusion data. The result is an inequitable education system where those whose needs are complex are often the first to feel it.

So where does The Difference – a new campaign fighting to break the link between social exclusion and school exclusion – fit into this? I remember having conversations with Kiran Gill, its founder, who articulated a clear vision: she is seeking to address the challenge of lost potential and a life limited as a result of exclusion. The implementation of this vision has evolved over time, but the core principles are the same:

  1. Recruit exceptional teachers to work in alternative provision settings.
  2. Train these teachers through a two-year programme while in a leadership position.
  3. Secure leadership positions back within mainstream with a focus on leading inclusion.

Making The Difference

Importantly, there is support for this within the SEND sector, which, like so much of the specialist system, often lacks the sort of political attention that is afforded to mainstream education. (Although this may, of course, change with the recently announced inclusion of alternative provision to the Commons Education Select Committee’s list of priorities.)

There also appears to be demand from within the profession, with the IPPR commissioned YouGov poll identifying that:

"One in four said they were interested in exploring the outlined career route. One-in-ten teachers said that they were definitely interested in enrolling in the programme. In total, 36 per cent of surveyed teachers – a pool of 93,000 teachers nationally – would be interested in becoming specialist leaders through The Difference."

The Difference offers a contribution to resolving a systemic problem: the scant consideration of the needs of children with complexity at the heart of educational policy.

It looks to bring leaders into alternative provision to learn. This is before encouraging them to return to mainstream, with knowledge acquired through their placement. It has the potential to build expertise where it is needed most: in mainstream.

While The Difference aims to work on supporting the remediation of the damage done, it also focuses on enabling support for those who challenge us and the system.

This approach encourages the system to address the underlying causes of the challenges that both schools and young people face, rather than focusing solely on the characteristics that led to exclusion in the first place.

If successful, it has the opportunity to enable teachers and schools alike to see beyond their own responses to the challenges with which young people can present. At the same time, it begins to focus on the underlying causes of complexity in the classroom.

If it has the impact that I hope it does, The Difference may go some way to ensuring that fewer children are excluded from a future yet to be lived.

The full report can be downloaded here.

Simon Knight is the director of WholeSchool SEND

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