In a world of testing, targets and league tables, heads find it increasingly tough to strike the right balance between achievement and inclusion, writes Fiona Leney
The revelation that some of the 638 schools branded as "failing" by the Government last month were among the top schools in the country on value-added data painfully highlighted one of the toughest issues for heads today: how to reconcile inclusiveness with hard results in Sats and league tables.
More than 20 per cent of children in the UK have special educational needs (SEN), and as the incidence of autism and behavioural issues continues to rise and more special schools close, it is inevitable that more children with special needs will be looking for places in mainstream schools.
At the same time, some heads say Sats and league table placings are penalising schools with high numbers of special needs children who cannot "perform" in formal exams.
This leaves schools with a harsh dilemma: do they boost special needs resources to do their best for children who stand little chance of enhancing league table positions, thus attracting even more of them, or do they throw themselves into the drive for exam excellence and quietly discourage SEN pupils from coming to their school at all?
Anecdotal evidence suggests some schools with good academic records are already reluctant to accept SEN pupils. Often this leads to a concentration of these pupils in schools that are less sought after, making it even harder for those schools to improve.
"This is an inversion of social justice," says Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT).
"Schools that make good special needs provision find that their results drop as more SEN pupils are attracted by their reputation. That triggers an Ofsted inspection, and a school that was `outstanding' ends up with a `satisfactory'. Schools are being kicked to death by politicians for taking on hard-to-teach children."
Surveys show the attainment of SEN pupils tends to drop as they get older, the demands of the curriculum grow and the pressure mounts to perform in exams.
A TES survey in 2005 showed that although teachers strongly believed in the benefits of inclusion, many believed SEN pupils would be better off in special schools because the mainstream lacked adequate resources and expertise.
Tony Shaw agrees. He is head of Mary Hare Grammar, a specialist secondary for deaf children which uses oralaural teaching and achieves GCSE results consistently above the national average.
"Our children range across the ability spectrum, but while many have been on the periphery in the mainstream - not rejected, but not chosen either - here they are no longer different and can access the curriculum fully themselves, not via the medium of a teaching assistant, because each subject teacher is also a teacher of the deaf," he says.
"They feel valued and engage with a curriculum delivered to their language needs. That enables them to reach their full potential."
It is easy to see how a school with no special expertise but a reputation for a caring ethos and good results can attract children with special needs who, while gaining a good education, will be unable to score above average in Sats tests.
Critics argue that while contextual value added (CVA) figures are supposed to take into account factors such as deprivation and special needs, the figures are open to different interpretations and are not as headline- grabbing as simple placings in a performance league. Some also point out that the incidence of the 638 "failing" schools suggests that the Government itself does not consider CVA performance to be a valid marker.
"CVA has been torpedoed by this massive Government own-goal," says Clarissa Williams, NAHT president and head of Tolworth Girls' School in Kingston upon Thames.
Ms Williams, whose school achieves outstanding results despite a relatively high number of SEN pupils, believes there could be a simple answer to the problem, if only the political will existed.
She suggests that if the Government insists on keeping league tables, it should pay more attention to the number of SEN pupils attending particular schools and the quality of education and care they receive. A special weighting for schools doing a good job with SEN pupils to boost league table rankings would be a start, she says. And financial bonuses for those who take more SEN children than neighbouring schools could be another incentive.
"It would be a huge help if SEN pupils were not concentrated in any one school," Ms Williams says. "A handful of children with special needs will not depress figures in large schools. But obviously, if they are concentrated in one place because the others are not welcoming, it can have an impact on that school's results.
"The system is punitive to schools that care. If the Government is serious about mainstream education for SEN pupils, it would be more effective to use reward to bring this about."
A further problem in a system that relies on standardised grades for measuring progress is the way many SEN children learn. They may plateau, or even appear to go backwards for long periods between learning new skills, which makes it difficult to show the kind of smooth upward curve that looks impressive in school results.
"The `P' scales (used to assess the progress of children not attaining the standard Sats levels) are not a fine enough measure for all special needs - many autistic children make very spiky progress," says Linda Redford, director for development at Treehouse, an autism education charity which offers training and outreach, as well as running its own school. "Behavioural difficulties and autism are the two pinch areas in special needs, and mainstream schools need access to good training."
Ms Redford welcomes the fact that the importance of special needs training for teachers has been recognised by the launch of SEN modules in initial teacher training as of this year. But she points out that it will be some time before this new expertise reaches the classroom.
"Mainstream schools can cope in many cases if they have the right leadership support, ethos and training," she says. "Some autistic children require just sensitive input, but others need specialist intervention."
Funding complexities do little to help schools with little previous experience of special needs pupils. SEN funding is contained within the budget delegated to schools by local authorities, and with no ring-fencing around the cash it can be all too tempting for a school to use it for other things.
Lorraine Petersen, chief executive officer of Nasen, the organisation that promotes the education, training and development of people with special needs and disabilities, says: "There is a dilemma between using resources to raise existing standards or taking in and providing for youngsters who will never be at - let alone above - the national average."
She believes there is a statistical dishonesty at the heart of the problem. "We know that 20 per cent of youngsters have a special need or disability, so we will never get more than 80 per cent attaining above the national average," she says.
"That is the nature of averages. There are simply youngsters who will always be below the national average. That doesn't mean they are getting a bad education. Schools are being penalised, despite doing a damn good job with them."
HOW TO HELP SEN PUPILS IN YOUR SCHOOL
Funding for special educational needs is complex. One problem lies in putting a value on what you need to deliver for a special needs pupil. Try to build in flexibility so that a teaching assistant hired for one child can sometimes work with a small group. This helps to make the child more independent and benefits other children who need support.
Conversely, reverse integration - whereby a small group of very capable children are taken out together with one or two SEN children to work with a teacher or specialist teaching assistant - can be hugely beneficial for both groups, stretching the less able and giving the more able some personal attention.
In Ofsted inspections, draw particular attention to your special needs provision and successes. Point out the hard work of staff and their achievements with SEN pupils.
Give a central role to the special needs co-ordinator, who should be at the heart of the school, and certainly part of the leadership team. He or she can co-ordinate resources.
EVEN THE OLD HANDS FEEL THE SQUEEZE
Mike Kent is one of the most experienced heads in the country. He has led Comber Grove Primary School in Southwark in south London for the past 27 years and is well known for his wisdom and common sense, as imparted in his regular columns in The TES.
He is proud of his school's record on special needs children, but says he can understand that the pressures that come from being "SEN-friendly" are enough to discourage any head from taking on such children.
"In 2000, we had a very difficult inspection because Sats results reflected the fact that 25 per cent of one cohort were very needy indeed," he says.
Mr Kent believes that value-added scores help to redress the balance somewhat, but says the requirement to perform in Sats and other benchmark exams can be extremely pressurising, particularly for young heads. "It's easy to see how they can be discouraged from taking SEN children," he says.
Even for an experienced head who has the confidence to fight his corner and believes in inclusion, inadequate funding is another disincentive, says Mr Kent. He cites the case of a severely disabled child he has been asked to take who has not been allocated enough funding for a full-time carer.
"Schools are having to find the resources themselves," he says. "And unless you are prepared to stand fast and have a real row with the local authority about it, you get steam-rollered."
He believes heads survive the pressures by learning to play the system - a distraction from concentrating on the needs of their pupils. "If you get poor results for key stage 1 and better ones at key stage 2, it's a feather in your cap," he says. "The conclusions are obvious."