'Call me Sarah': the day the minister for SEN dropped by
"Call me Sarah; everyone does," the minister said to the nervous children ushered in to meet her.
They may not know it, but pupils at Lyng Hall School, in Coventry, could help to revolutionise the way teachers deal with special educational needs (SEN).
The meeting between Sarah Teather and the pupils is informal. But, along with other school visits, it will help her to form the basis of new legal guidance for SEN.
Ms Teather has been travelling the country collecting evidence for her green paper, due for publication at the beginning of March. It will suggest changes to the way SEN pupils are assessed and supported, and a new role for educational psychologists.
Possible reforms include a SEN pupil premium and a "less adversarial" system of parental appeals.
Experts are hopeful that Ms Teather's work could have the biggest impact on the SEN system for decades. But in the "age of austerity", she has to focus on new ideas rather than extra spending.
The TES was invited to join her fact-finding visit to Lyng Hall, where she was particularly impressed by its Achievement for All (AfA) scheme, which aims to help teachers move away from merely "labelling" their pupils. Instead, they are encouraged to support all pupils rather than single out those with SEN.
The two-year scheme is running in 455 schools in 10 local authorities and is due to end in 2011, despite having a track record of improving attendance and cutting exclusion rates. Absentee levels among the 19,000 pupils at these primary and secondary schools have already fallen by 8 per cent in the past two terms.
Lyng Hall head Paul Green (pictured left with Ms Teather) has embraced AfA wholeheartedly and explains it to Ms Teather at length. Half of all pupils used to be on the SEN register. Now, among 16-year-olds, the figure is 32 per cent. The proportion getting five good GCSE results has risen from 25 per cent four years ago to 80 per cent in 2010.
Children who need extra support are taught separately in groups of 15 or smaller, Mr Green adds.
Tayyib Khan and Tom Jepsom, two of those who met Ms Teather, were statemented as SEN when they arrived at Lyng Hall as Year 7 pupils. Now they are in the sixth-form and hope to become PE teachers. The pair, together with fellow sixth-form student Cihan Ordu, were given extra English and maths lessons. None of the three now has a statement of special needs.
"I couldn't speak any English when I came to this school in Year 9 from Turkey, and now I'm doing A-levels, so the extra help made a really big difference to me," Cihan explains to Ms Teather.
"We were given the help at lunchtimes and after school. My behaviour wasn't great then. Because I wasn't involved in lessons I had the energy to spare. I didn't want to work."
Teachers go on to tell Ms Teather that the individual attention children receive can have unexpected benefits; for example, one Year 8 was diagnosed as having epilepsy because teachers were able to provide doctors with evidence of his regular fits.
Ms Teather also meets Rebecca Mason, a Year 8 pupil with severe dyslexia, who excitedly tells the minister that she wants to become a marine biologist. The minister asks about the career aspirations of every child and is enthusiastic about all their choices - from nurse to beauty therapist.
"I love your nails - I can never get mine to look like that," Ms Teather tells one child.
She is also impressed by Mr Green's efforts to transform the role of teaching assistants at the school. The new "associate teachers" act as mentors, support workers and cover supervisors. This way, he says, the school saves some #163;100,000 a year by not employing supply teachers. Associate teachers do one-to-one work with children and their families, he explains. They call on parents in the evenings and before school to talk through issues.
"We try to remove any barriers to learning," says lead associate teacher Pat Grainger. This can include things as simple as giving a child a lift to school, or unknotting their hair, to helping them move into a flat by themselves."
Ms Teather is clearly touched by what she sees.
"This is an obvious example of good work," she tells The TES afterwards. "I'm very impressed with the focus on individual achievement, without the need for teachers to have to label children.
"We need to have high expectations of children. This also comes from inspirational leadership and, unfortunately, that's difficult to legislate for. It's the quality of people which really makes a school a success. They should believe every child can succeed. I want to see a 'can do' approach."
Ms Teather may not have finished writing the green paper, but she is clearly enjoying her own lessons in the world of SEN.
Department for Education officials believe too many children with SEN and disabilities are being "failed" by services.
Ms Teather's review will ensure that the SEN system can cope with "limited resources" during a period of public spending cuts.
She wants to get the "best value" from the millions spent by the Labour government, as well as "greater transparency" for parents, and for families to have a role as "partners in the system".
She says there will be less bureaucracy, freeing up professionals to spend more time with children and families.
Ms Teather also wants higher expectations of participation in society and the economy for young people with SEN and disabilities.
There will be more "local solutions". Schools and local authorities will be encouraged to develop provision that makes the "best use of staff and specialist resources".