SEND education ‘too dependent on teaching assistants’, researchers say

Pupils with special needs are not getting enough interaction with teachers and their peers, researchers from the UCL Institute of Education argue

Will Hazell

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Secondary SEND education is too reliant on under-skilled teaching assistants and school staff are not well trained enough to meet the special needs of pupils, according to a new study.

Researchers from the UCL Institute of Education said that, despite attempts to ensure pupils with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) receive more high quality teaching, a significant proportion of their teaching is still done by TAs.

With TA numbers being cut, the researchers said their findings also “raise doubts over the sustainability of inclusive education for pupils with SEND”.

The Special Educational Needs in Secondary Education (SENSE) research was funded by the Nuffield Foundation and is the largest ever classroom observation study in the UK to look at children with special needs.

Despite generally being taught in smaller classes, the research found that pupils with education, health and care plans (EHCPs) did not get more time with teachers overall compared to other pupils.

Pupils with EHCPs spent 15 per cent of lesson time interacting with TAs, compared to only 1 per cent for other pupils, and only 16 per cent of their time interacting with classmates, compared to 27 per cent for others.

The researchers said that high amounts of TA support came at the expense of interaction with peers and teachers – 34 per cent of EHCP pupils’ classroom interactions were with teachers, compared to 43 per cent for non-EHCP students.

The study also found that in 84 per cent of observations in English, maths and science lessons, pupils with EHCP were taught in separate classes for “low ability” pupils and those with SEND.

Rob Webster, who co-authored the study with Professor Peter Blatchford, said: “What concerns us is that schools tend to address teaching for pupils with SEND by organising teaching groups by ‘ability’, and by allocating additional adult support, rather than concentrating on improving the quality and accessibility of teaching.”

He said that while TAs were currently “holding the system together”, it was “unclear how schools will respond to meeting the needs of pupils with special needs if TA numbers decrease further, as expected.”

According to Department for Education workforce statistics published last week, the number of full-time equivalent TAs in state-funded secondary schools has fallen from 54,400 in 2013 to 50,100 in 2016 – a 7.9 per cent decline.

In an exclusive feature on the “inclusion illusion” in this week’s Tes magazine, Mr Webster argues that the journey of many SEND pupils through mainstream education is “pockmarked with separation, segregation and unintentional outcomes”.

He says overreliance on TAs “fosters dependency and learned helplessness” and “the more TA support pupils with SEND receive, the less well they perform academically”.

Mr Webster says it is not the case that “TAs aren’t doing a good enough job”, but he argues “school leaders should rigorously define the role and contribution of TAs as an effective part of – not the sole solution to – SEND provision”.

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