Pupils with statements of special educational needs are being routinely segregated from their teachers and classmates, prompting fears that many of the most vulnerable children are receiving a poor education.
On average, children with SEN statements spend more than a quarter of their time away from a qualified teacher, instead being entrusted to teaching assistants (TAs), a major new study has revealed.
Academics have voiced concerns about the "high degree of separation" in mainstream primary schools, which means that pupils receive a "less appropriate and lower quality" education.
Children with statements were also found to have "roughly half" as much contact with their peers, according to the study led by Professor Peter Blatchford of the University of London's Institute of Education.
It is believed to be the first time researchers have calculated how much time pupils with statements spend away from the normal teaching environment and builds on a previous study that questioned the value of TAs in promoting academic achievement.
The research, published today, comes in the week that the parliamentary process began to fundamentally overhaul the SEN system. The reforms will provide children with joint education, health and care plans for the first time and give parents more power over how money is spent (see below).
But the Institute of Education report raises concerns that current practice does not meet the needs of SEN children. "Compared to their average attaining peers, pupils with statements received a less appropriate and lower quality pedagogical experience," the report says. "The support provided for these pupils - particularly by TAs - was clearly well intentioned but seemed unlikely to be sufficient to close the attainment gap between them and their peers."
Researchers interviewed almost 200 teachers, TAs, SEN coordinators and parents. They also carried out detailed observations of 48 pupils with statements and 151 other pupils for comparison.
The report said there was "little evidence of an effective and theoretically grounded pedagogy for statemented pupils" and that the practice of specifying the number of hours of support children receive "seemed to get in the way of schools' thinking through appropriate approaches for pupils with pronounced learning difficulties in mainstream primary schools".
Teachers and TAs "felt underprepared for dealing with the challenges and complex difficulties posed by pupils with statements", it added. "As TAs held valuable knowledge about the pupils they supported, teachers often positioned them as the `expert', despite TAs' having similar weaknesses in their knowledge and training."
The study builds on previous research by Professor Blatchford that showed that day-to-day support for SEN pupils was often carried out by TAs. It found that pupils who received intensive help from assistants made less academic progress than their peers in the core subjects of English, maths and science, calling into question the rapid expansion in TA numbers: there were 79,000 full-time equivalents in 2000, rising to almost 220,000 in November 2011.
Lorraine Petersen, chief executive of SEN organisation Nasen, agreed that teaching assistants were not being properly used in schools.
"We have built up a culture of SEN support being about the number of teaching assistant hours given to the child. That is how schools have interpreted what they are supposed to do and what parents now expect," she said.
"But this means one-to-one support is given by the least qualified adult, and outcomes for the pupil's progress are very poor. We cannot blame the teaching assistants: teachers are responsible for children's learning."
Ms Petersen said teachers had become used to having TA support, but in the future they would have to "use what resources they have been given in more effective ways" because the same level of funding would not be available.
Professor Blatchford said the proposed SEN reforms might help to change the culture in schools, which focuses on the amount of TA support given to children. "It might bring something more pedagogically appropriate for children," he said. "The status quo is not going to be an option any more. We need something more deliberately planned to get the best out of the pupil.
"This is not an attack on teaching assistants. We are only asking questions about their use. We know they do have an important role and help pupils make immense strides."
Paul Williams, head of Shaftesbury High, a special school in Harrow, northwest London, said teachers and TAs needed to be better trained. He said the new combined care plans could help if they were more explicit about "what support is given and by whom".
Out with the old
The government's planned SEN reforms are designed to reduce the number of assessments children have to go through and to enable doctors, teachers and social workers to cooperate to help pupils for the first time.
It means the system to support children with special needs will run from birth to the age of 25 and will give parents a greater role when their children's education, health and care plans are being written. Parents will also get new personal budgets to give them control over the services offered to their family.
The current SEN categories of School Action and School Action Plus will be replaced with a single category. The Department for Education has not yet provided details of the transition process between the old and new systems.
Photo credit: Alamy
Original headline: Pupils with special needs `separated' from teachers and peers