Sir Alan: determined to steer a clear path in SEN provision

13th February 2009 at 00:00
As the latest part of his pupil behaviour review is published, Sir Alan Steer says that school services for children with special needs still lack focus and consistency

The magic formula for tackling bad behaviour may well be high-quality training and teaching, but inconsistency across the country - the so-called "postcode lottery" - has led to serious problems that urgently need to be tackled, according to Sir Alan Steer.

The conclusion of the Government's behaviour tsar - that learning, teaching and the way pupils act in the classroom are inseparable - has been met with unanimous approval by education professionals.

But in the latest part of his wide-ranging review, Sir Alan concludes that many major issues - including illegal exclusions, failure to support children with special educational needs and a lack of training for teachers - have yet to be tackled.

Sir Alan says he found many examples of good practice, but also many problems caused by under- or over-identification of special needs, and many instances of schools finding it difficult to gain access to mental health services for children.

He wants all schools to have a written policy on teaching and learning to ensure that all teaching is of the same quality.

He also wants all secondary schools to be part of a behaviour and attendance partnership - a proposal which is also set out in the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill. Such partnerships are necessary, he says, to stop schools acting "without regard to the interests of the community" and to reduce the number of exclusions.

Sir Alan believes providing focused support for pupils with special needs and using assessment data properly will have a profound impact, but that more needs to be done to tackle the "low expectations" of teachers; to introduce earlier and more effective intervention; and to give special needs co-ordinators more time to do their job and involve parents.

The review states: "Children with SEN and disabilities should have a high profile within schools and within the education and supporting services. Too often these children can lack champions able to guide them and their families through what can be a confusing and complicated support system. As a result, their needs can be neglected."

Sir Alan's conclusions are the first of a series of reviews into the SEN system to be published this year. Two further reports will come from Brian Lamb, chair of the Special Educational Consortium, and Ofsted.

Lorraine Petersen, chief executive of Nasen, the professional association for special needs educators, says giving Sencos more time to do their jobs would have the biggest impact of all. "The system Sir Alan wants is already in place, but many of those responsible for SEN pupils don't even have time to come to training at the moment because they are working full-time in the classroom," she says.

Mrs Petersen also supports early intervention and extra training.

"We believe many issues with SEN start as children leave the foundation and reception stage, where they have been used to more support and play, to go to key stage 2, when they might start showing specialist needs," she says. "But by then, this might be reflected in their behaviour and they might have started to 'fail'. So we believe early intervention should really mean early intervention. Some Sencos don't have the skills to manage this behaviour, so obviously we support extra training."

She also calls on heads to spend their special needs funding more productively. "There is money in the system for SEN, but it goes to schools as part of their general budget, so we don't know how much actually gets spent on the children," she says. "This leads to an inconsistency in provision across the country; there are 150 local authorities all doing different things. It's really a postcode lottery."

Sir Alan is concerned about the high proportion of special needs pupils banned from class. Research by the National Autistic Society shows that the most common reason given to parents for exclusion was that teachers could not cope with a child's behaviour.

Mark Lever, the society's chief executive, says: "Many children with autism are excluded - often more than once - because schools say they can't cope with their behaviour, and so they miss out on valuable time in school."

He applauds Sir Alan's bid to tackle inconsistencies in special needs provision. "When a child does not get the right support, it can have a significant negative impact on their behaviour and mental health," he says. "Even when their needs are recognised, many parents have told us it took over a year for their child to actually start receiving the support they needed. This is simply unacceptable."

Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT teachers' union, believes Sir Alan's suggestions will not do enough to end the postcode lottery.

"Sir Alan is right to identify that schools need more help in relation to pupils with SEN," she says. "However, there is a danger that his recommendations may over-simplify a complex issue. Essentially, he is recommending more monitoring, more evaluation and more progress. What's missing is the recognition that teachers need more support, more training and more resources.

"Sir Alan recognises the important role other services need to play in supporting schools - schools cannot address these needs alone. What he does not emphasise, however, is the variation across the country in provision for supporting children and young people with special needs. These inequalities will not be solved by Sir Alan's strategy."

Ms Keates calls for a countrywide agreement. "A national framework of SEN provision with a clear entitlement for every child - regardless of where they live or go to school - is the answer," she says. "This is why the current review of SEN provision is so critically important."

While Sir Alan recommends that all teachers are trained to deal with special needs pupils before they start the job, Graham Holley, chief executive of the Training and Development Agency for Schools, calls on staff to continue training throughout their career.

Sir Alan says it "should be beyond question" that schools need to work together and with other organisations.

"This principle is supported by all parts of the education community, though practice is more problematic," he says. "If the needs of children are the moral force driving education, institutional isolationism has no place."

He believes encouraging schools to work together will enable better management of the movement of pupils with particular behavioural difficulties between schools, and give a "clear message" that schools are working together to promote improved behaviour and school safety.

"Schools know that maintaining a high standard of behaviour requires that they work with the community and are sensitive to the pressures and stresses within their community," he writes. "Where there are specific problems arising from the presence of gangs, or from drug abuse, this is particularly important, and in these cases the police should consider a more intensive level of support."

Sir Alan says that while it is "unrealistic" to expect there to be a police officer based at every school, there should be one for each behaviour and attendance partnership.

Ms Keates welcomes the idea, saying it would "make it clear" that managing behaviour is a community responsibility.

But she warns: "It is critical that the relationship between the police and the school is one of genuine joint decision-making, including about the deployment of the police resource."

In answer to those who oppose a police presence, she says: "Having the police on the school site is not about enforcement - it's about building relationships and promoting understanding and joint working. In order to ensure the widespread adoption of this strategy, an awareness-raising campaign is required to dispel the view, still held by some, that police involvement will stigmatise the school in the eyes of the community and prospective parents."

Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, has praised the latest Steer report (Sir Alan has already submitted three reviews of behaviour in schools). "I'm grateful to Sir Alan for this review, which is about preventing bad behaviour before it happens," he says. "We want to make sure that every child, including those with special educational needs, should have the opportunity to reach their full potential, and that we intervene early to tackle the barriers to progress so we can keep young people on the right track.

Steer recommendations


- School leaders to be trained to ensure good SEN practice.

- Adopt Ofsted's training proposals for new teachers working with SEN pupils.

- Appropriate training for early years and primary staff to identify SEN children.

- Train school improvement partners to ensure appropriate attention is given to SEN and disabilities.


- Schools to monitor work with SEN pupils and review it if it is unsuccessful.

- Heads to work with school improvement partners to decide how they identify SEN.

- The review of the dedicated schools grant to consider how best early intervention can be funded.

- Each Children's Trust to identify how it will ensure it provides the full range of mental health and psychological wellbeing services.

- Schools to consider how, in partnership with others, they could extend the range of support offered to pupils.


- Families to have a clear description of the services that are available locally.

- Government guidance to schools on best practice needs to be issued regularly.

Bad practice

- Schools should not use informal or unofficial exclusions, which are unlawful and particularly damaging to SEN pupils.

- All school building needs urgently to heed new legislation. Sir Alan says not enough notice has been taken on his previous recommendations on the links between the built environment and pupil behaviour.

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