I in our town, we have a reputation for being the school that deals with special educational needs and disability. We are a one-form entry primary school with 10 high-needs pupils below the age of seven. We have 14 high-needs pupils in school altogether. A significant number of these children come from outside our school catchment.
When a parent comes to our door and asks whether we can accommodate a pupil’s needs, we bend over backwards to do so. And parents knock on our door a lot. The nearest specialist provisions are an hour’s drive away.
Unsurprisingly, no parent wants to send their child on that journey in a taxi at the age of five. Neither should they. So they come to us.
Many of the children are not yet on an education, health and care plan (EHCP). This is mainly because, in our local authority, getting a plan for such young children can be incredibly difficult. The pupils’ needs cover a huge range, including Down’s syndrome, autism, Rett syndrome, visual impairment, hearing impairment, foetal alcohol syndrome, and a range of communication, speech and language difficulties.
If that seems challenging – if it sounds impossible to make the range of need, geographical isolation and lack of budget work – you are partly right. Creating a provision that effectively supports everyone is practically impossible, but that doesn’t mean we don’t try.
To make it work, first and foremost you have to have the right staff with the right skills and knowledge in the right place. Creating inclusive classrooms has been very difficult for teaching staff, particularly when we had a situation where, in some cases, our least experienced staff were working with the children with the greatest need. So we set about a process of restructuring our staff: we audited skills, we matched skill to need, identified staff training needs and set about plugging the gaps. Getting this right had an immediate effect on classrooms. Inclusive systems and routines were set up to support the pupils in a mainstream class.
Restructuring our staff had an immediate effect on classrooms
We also set up a high-needs space in school (fortunately, we do have the room to do that). This fulfilled sensory needs and also created a breakout space.
This was only half the job: the pupils needed specific, focused teaching. So we looked for common threads between the pupils’ needs which, for most of them, meant developing and improving communication skills. So, since September, specialist teaching for these children is planned and delivered in the mornings by our special educational needs and disabilities co-ordinator.
Is it working? On the whole, yes, but it requires constant adaptation and, owing to the diverse needs we are dealing with, we don’t always get it right.
What irks is that we are left on our own to develop this, both in terms of finance and local support. On the latter, there is no viable alternative for these children in our town.
In the primary sector, more and more schools seem to be saying that they can’t meet pupils’ needs. Some of our pupils are with us because the parents were told that their nearest school “couldn’t meet the need”.
On the former, financially supporting a child with high needs has become an increasing burden on schools. We have had to make huge compromises: we currently receive just over £2,500 extra per month to support all the high-needs pupils we have in school. That’s nowhere near enough to do the job we need to do.
Accessing funding is challenging, as getting an EHCP is challenging. Sometimes I just wish the people making the decisions would come and see the children in school. The system seems set up to put barriers in the way of us getting the funding the children need.
That said, I know full well we can’t hit all the specific needs of some of our pupils, however much we try. In some cases a truly specialist provision is required. Equally, as the children get older and the gap widens, addressing specific needs can become increasingly challenging
If this sounds like a moan, you could not be further from the truth: that we are an inclusive school is a source of huge pride. The benefits for us far outweigh the costs. To watch the pupils playing together is a huge confirmation of the positives of being inclusive. Our children are tolerant and understanding of others’ needs; they are supportive and caring.
Watching our high-needs pupils sing and sign “the rainbow song” to the rest of the school during our hope assembly was wonderful. That, by the end, the rest of the school was signing the song back to them, even though they had not heard it or seen it before, was magical. There was not a dry eye in the house.
For us, inclusion isn’t a choice, but even if it was, we wouldn’t have it any other way. We just need more help to make it work.
Simon Smith is headteacher at East Whitby Primary Academy, North Yorkshire