Between the idea and the reality

1st November 1996 at 00:00
OK in principle, but does it mean good practice?

Julia Welding investigates how teachers are interpreting the Code.

Now that the dust has settled, it's time to evaluate the real impact of the Code of Practice on the nature and quality of special needs provision. In January this year it was the subject of a somewhat critical report from the Office for Standards in Education, and educational journals have been packed with varying responses to it. But what do those at the forefront of the profession - the teachers - think about it?

I write from the perspective of a learning support teacher, endeavouring to make the system work for children with special needs. Anxious to find out exactly what other colleagues thought, I carried out a small-scale survey within 10 schools across the lower, middle and upper school age range. The special educational needs co-ordinators (SENCOs) of these schools filled in a questionnaire and were given the opportunity to add any further comments of their own. Although the findings of such research are clearly limited, they do raise questions about the relationship between the principles of the Code and the realities of turning those principles into actual procedures. I have evaluated the findings under three headings: Reactions to the Code in principle

All the SENCOs had welcomed the Code in principle. They felt that it would help to raise the status and awareness of SEN; clarify rights and responsibilities; provide common standards and procedures and lead to greater continuity between phases. One upper school SENCO wrote at length about how it had forced the management team in her school to re-examine her role and had given her the impetus to bring about changes she had long been considering. Another emphasised its usefulness in making staff aware that they are all responsible for pupils with SEN. Most saw its principles as representing an extension of the best of their current practice, rather than a disruption to it.

Difficulties with implementation

On a practical level the reactions were very varied. For example, the ratings the Code was given in terms of its usefulness as a working document ranged from 2 to 8; 1 being "useless" and 10 being "excellent". Only two people responded wholly positively to it on a practical level. Of the remaining eight, five commented that a lack of resources (financial and human) had so far made it impossible to implement the Code effectively. Two reported that staff considered the demands too great and one felt strongly that the enormous amount of paperwork required meant that staff could not implement all the strategies properly. The most negative comment was that any sense of job satisfaction had disappeared under the mountain of paperwork.

The greatest source of frustration appeared to be a general lack of time for fulfilling the role of SENCO, particularly for those in lower schools where there is no non-contact time. All replies emphasised that more time was needed to communicate effectively with other staff and keep records up to date. Four referred to a lack of support from local education authorities in terms of awarding statements, providing learning support and support for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties (EBD).

Two SENCOs made the point that meeting with other staff and with parents is extremely time consuming and one said that the stress she felt came simply from having so many diverse things to do.

These difficulties were explicitly linked with the problems of budget limitation which often means that additional staff time cannot be afforded and only two of the SENCOs questioned had been able to employ additional staff. It was unanimously argued that more money was needed to implement the Code properly.

The OFSTED report highlighted exactly this point, stating that SENCOS are not receiving adequate training and that "less than half the LEAs provide appropriate training for their learning support staff". It does, however, conclude that standards achieved by SEN pupils in mainstream schools are "sound", although better at key stages 1 and 2 than at 3 and 4.

Another area of difficulty, identified by two SENCOs, is that the stages are not very clearly differentiated and the Code gives no guidance on placing pupils on different stages of the register. Again, the OFSTED report found that the number of pupils identified by various schools as having special needs ranged from 1.5 per cent to 53 per cent. It is natural for there to be some difference between schools, but such a huge discrepancy perhaps suggests that different standards are being applied.

Effectiveness in improving SEN provision

Almost all the questionnaires noted some improvements in their school's provision, but only half said the Code had promoted "good practice". Areas of improvement that were identified were better liaison within the school and with outside agencies; better knowledge of the "target" pupils and the nature of their difficulties; more effective targeting of resources and better liaison with parents.

It was generally agreed that all staff, not just SEN staff, had been affected by the Code and only two SENCOs described their reaction as negative. In those two cases the complaints were about the increased paperwork. In middle and upper schools, some subject departments have also had to re-examine their policies and practices with regard to SEN and this was considered to be a good thing.

What is interesting here is that some SENCOs see the Code as encouraging whole-school planning and provision, which has differentiation and individual need at its centre, and others see it as a force which is demanding that attention be increasingly centred on certain individual pupils, who are then treated differently from others. This polarisation reinforces the importance of having principles clearly defined. Such a dichotomy in the way the Code is being interpreted raises a fundamental question about the way we view pupils with special educational needs.

Although the Code advocates whole-school policies and practices, the bulk of the work being done centres on isolating individuals and encouraging them, through target setting meetings, to "own" their learning difficulties. In a sense, this is a backward step to a position where learning difficulties are located with the learner and the provision therefore emphasises their differences rather than integrating them.

Indeed, there were mixed reactions to the effect of Individual Education Plans (IEPs). Some SENCOs were in favour of them, saying they focus thinking and provide a valuable baseline. Some argued that they might be more appropriately used from stage 3 upwards, rather than stage 2, particularly in large schools, because of their resource implications. And one made the significant point that if in reality they know the resources are not available to follow a particular path, they simply cannot suggest that action.

This admission signals a potential danger of the Code in that the enormous demands of drawing up, monitoring and reviewing IEPs, however laudable they may be, might actually mean that less of the support staff time may be available for working with children and that the quality of the support they are receiving might therefore be diminished.

This reflects a concern that I have felt myself over the past year, that all the well-intentioned aims of the Code might not be making a measurable difference to the development of the pupils they are intended to help.

This is perhaps the most perilous pitfall and schools must take the greatest care to avoid it, since it would be easy to lose sight of the real purpose of all this change: namely, to provide more effective support for the pupils. If, in our struggle to administer the Code, we are drawn away from the pupils we are there to help, then it makes a mockery of the attempt to "promote good practice and benefit children" (Baroness Blatch, 1993).

The issue of funding remains the most critical. It impacts on staffing, training and the quality of the support services. Another pressure on the existing system is the rapidly increasing number of referrals for statutory assessment and although the Code initially clarified the balance of responsibility between schools and LEAs, this has been partially blurred again by the increased need to call on the funds for statement support by schools experiencing financial pressures.

It has been suggested that the only way forward in this respect is for LEAs to devolve all SEN funding to schools, including that presently held back for statementing. However, this might lead to even greater restriction on some schools and therefore a greater unevenness of provision.

These resourcing issues need urgently addressing if the potential benefits of the Code are to have any chance of materialising. These issues have been rather generously described as "challenges", but I would suggest that meeting substantially increased needs with little or no additional money will eventually become defeating rather than challenging.

Problems are clearly also evolving around the role of the SEN Tribunal, which extends parents' rights of appeal and takes on the task of considering "whether LEAs have reached the right decision in the particular circumstances". Critics of the new system had feared that it would be "legalistic and time-consuming" (The TES 27.11.95) and the intended timescale of half a day for each case has certainly proved to be over-optimistic: early cases were taking twice that amount of time. In fact, 235 cases were registered between September and December 1994, over half of which were on behalf of children with specific learning difficulties (dyslexia), so the scale of the task facing the tribunal is clearly enormous and raises further issues about the effectiveness of this new system.

In the first two years of its existence, the Code has undeniably had a positive impact on SEN provision. It has widened the focus of attention from the 2 per cent of pupils with statements, to include the theoretical other 18 per cent who also have SEN.

It also officially recognises specific learning difficulties (dyslexia) and EBD, two categories of SEN which have never previously been given such a high profile. For all these pupils specific targets must now be set and carefully monitored, involving close consultation with parents and other professionals.

The negative aspect, though, is that its implementation has been set against a background of insufficient funding, insufficient training and a lack of clarity about how its impact will be monitored. Perhaps, in such a context, there is less chance of it fulfilling its potential.

It will be the Secretary of State who will consider whether and when the Code should be revised, but if it is to succeed in being "a living document" which is "kept up-to-date in the light of experience", then the professional opinions of teachers will eventually have to be acknowledged and acted on.

Julia Welding is a learning support teacher

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