When a child with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) decides to come to my school, the first thing the parent wants to offload is the battles they have fought to obtain any form of educational support package. This makes me wonder to what extent schools properly evaluate and assess the provision for their most vulnerable pupils.
It appears parents tend to encounter a half-hearted process, similar to society’s approach to fad diets: those weight-loss plans promising dramatic results, but that typically don't result in long-term weight loss and that are usually quite dangerous to your health.
Here is how it seems to works in SEND.
The personal trainer
The first call those wishing to lose weight usually make is not to a highly skilled personal trainer, but to the local gym for a quick induction.
Similarly, rather than someone highly skilled in SEND teaching, trained in the latest techniques and with excellent professional learning, on the average SEND plan those with the greatest need – SEND registered pupils – spend the majority of time with the best-willed and incredibly hard-working teaching assistants who often haven't had the right professional development. We know that substituting teaching assistants for teachers doesn’t work, so why do we always try this option first?
The quick-win diets are the most popular, because you can buy the latest best-selling book and feel like you are achieving something, even though the diet in question may be completely unsuitable for you.
In the same way, schools tend to offer the "off the shelf" intervention rather than one more suited to the child in question (blaming lack of resources and the child not quite fulfilling all the criteria). Usually, and inevitably, this doesn’t work. Indeed, we have all the research at our fingertips to prove it does not work. So why do we do it?
All children deserve access to the right "diet" of learning experiences and this shouldn’t be limited because "it’s not what we do here".
When we've finally given up on dieting, it’s OK because we create a tenuous label for ourselves that excuses our lack of visible progress.
Similarly in SEND provision, we tend to fall back on labels as an excuse. What we should do is ask why this group of children have failed, why they have not made great progress? The answer is almost always not because they have SEND, but because no one has put together the right programme that fits their needs.
How do we ensure we get off the fad diets and start giving children with SEND the learning experience they deserve and require? It needs system change. And that starts with Ofsted: if the inspectorate enforced a rule that no school could be classed as truly great unless its provision and outcomes for children really changed lives, rather than just ticked boxes, it would make school leaders consider the diet they were serving their most vulnerable pupils.
Jeremy Thompson is a headteacher of an urban primary school in South Wales