One of the best parts of my job is meeting prospective parents. Usually they visit us when their child is in Year 5 and they have yet to make the decision about whether to opt for a mainstream secondary or a special school.
This week, I met a parent who told me that one secondary school had dismissed them out of hand when they made their initial enquiry. As their child had an education, health and care plan (EHCP), they would need to approach a special school, they were told.
“Besides, we don’t take children with behavioural issues,” the school added.
The parent hadn’t actually said that their child had social, emotional or mental health needs that would affect behaviour, but the school had made an assumption based on the fact that the child had an EHCP.
I see the terms "special educational needs and disability" (SEND) and "behaviour" used interchangeably and erroneously all the time. Do some children with SEND sometimes present with challenging behaviour? Yes. But do they present with more challenging behaviour more often than children without SEND? That’s harder to say.
Challenging the narrative
The last time I looked, 54 per cent of all special schools had an outstanding judgement for behaviour and safety, compared with 33 per cent of all other schools and 27 per cent of pupil referral units. This seems to suggest that special schools may be better at dealing with and improving the behaviour of children with SEND.
Does it take more resource to get these good outcomes? Children with SEND are too often seen as a drain on resources. But so is every child if you want to look at it that way. I don’t hear the “drain on resources” complaint about the additional hours of GCSE revision classes or the extra work teachers put in to get students a place at Oxford or Cambridge. Instead, these are considered positive investments that reflect well on the school, presumably because the results can be squeezed into the corner of the banner that is outside the gates.
The thing that irks me the most about this narrative is the subtext that without children with SEND and all their behaviour problems, the lives of teachers and other students would be improved. I reject this. It’s high time we heard teachers proclaim for everyone to hear that teaching kids with SEND has made them better teachers. Stick that on a banner outside your school instead.
Jarlath O’Brien is headteacher of Carwarden House Community School in Surrey. He tweets as @JarlathOBrien