White Paper: How SEND is the Achilles' heel of mass academisation

17th March 2016 at 12:01
A special school head warns that vulnerable children will be worse off under government plans to make every school an academy

A teacher, looking exhausted and exasperated and on the verge of tears, enters the office of the special educational needs and disabilities coordinator (Sendco) clutching a sheaf of papers and sits down.

"I need some help," she says. "We’re trying everything, but Kieran’s progress is agonisingly slow and we’re all out of ideas. The class team feel like we’re failing him and the parents are starting to get really concerned.”

"OK, let me give the learning and language support service a call. They’ve really helped us in the past,” replies the Sendco.

The number you have dialled has not been recognised…

“That’s weird. I’ll try the behaviour support team. They’re great…”

The number you have dialled has not been recognised…

 “Uh, what about the autism support team? They’re always generous with their time and will offer some really helpful strategies…”

The number you have dialled has not been recognised…

“Let me make one more call. Hi, yes is that the borough special needs manager? Great. Look, I’m trying to get hold of your support teams and none of the numbers seem to be working. What? What do you mean they don’t exist any more? Where do I get our support from? We BUY it? From where?”

The new reality

Be prepared for this kind of conversation to occur up and down the country in the not too distant future. The flabby, bloated, inefficient local authority – that supposed millstone round the neck of progress – is going to shrink before your very eyes.

This is the future under Total Academisation (a Hollywood blockbuster starring the white cat-stroking Nick Gibb). Multi-academy trusts (MATs) or businesses or, more likely in the longer term, the trading arms of MATs, will run the back-office functions that were previously the preserve of the LA.

"Great!" says the market.

Yeah, great.

"HR? Payroll? Finance? No problem, ma’am. Step right this way."

"IT technical support? Gold, Platinum or Beyond Outstanding service, sir?"

But try asking for their physical and sensory support team, their specialist teachers for the hearing impaired or visually impaired, their autism specialists and you’ll think they’ve just driven through a tunnel as the line will go very quiet at the other end.

Where will this support come from?

Special school outreach teams, perhaps? We’re funded to deliver outreach support to our mainstream cousins (a free visit to a local academy today being a case in point), but it is hard to see an LA continuing to fund that service when all schools are academies. In any case, we’re tiny by comparison to what the LAs offer and today’s staff meeting, in which the heavy workload of my brilliant colleagues was front and centre, demonstrates how little slack we have to offer those services.

The vulnerable will suffer

The reality for Sendcos as they try to help their colleagues as best they can to put together evidence for children going through statutory assessment for an education, health and care (EHC) plan will be bleak. Up until now many professionals have, rightly, been involved, without cost to the school, in the assessment process in order to fully gauge the needs of the child and identify the best possible support for them in the future, whether through an EHC plan or not. But who among those will be left?

I hope educational psychologists – of which there is a shortage by the way – are prepared for the increase in their workload that will inevitably result. Expect an increase in the number of parents commissioning private assessments.

The parents who can’t afford it? Tough.

Will schools pay for these professional services from their ever-diminishing budgets? If you read the cover feature of TES on 11 March (article free to subscribers) you can see how impossible that would be.

My biggest fear is that conversations like the one at the start of this article end with the headteacher calling the LA colleagues responsible for SEND admissions (who’ll at least be delighted to talk to someone on the phone because there’s no one left in the office to chat to) to request an emergency review for Kieran so they can organise a change of placement as they can’t meet his needs any longer.

Where does he go? The choices will be slim. There is precedent here. As then children’s commissioner Maggie Atkinson found in her 2014 report on school admissions, too often these children are told "It might be best if you looked elsewhere." 

But when all schools are academies and support for SEND is reduced to almost nothing, the danger is there may be no mainstream places left to look.

Jarlath O'Brien is headteacher at Carwarden House Community School, a special school with academy status in Surrey. He tweets at @JarlathOBrien

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