How the ‘glossy objectives’ of SEND reforms have lost their shine

14th August 2016 at 10:00
Children in care
Ambitious changes have left the sector with a raft of new responsibilities but little help to fulfil them

Further education is, and has always been, committed to providing exceptional opportunities for young people and adults to realise their potential. We’re not the poor relation in education; there is a genuine commitment to wanting all students, including those with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), to lead fulfilled lives.

The changes in the 2014 Children and Families Act were described as the biggest SEND reforms in 30 years. The legislation was supported by a new code of practice outlining duties for local authorities and those working with children and young people with SEND. But three months later, a House of Lords scrutiny committee warned of the “real risk” that the programme of change would “imperfectly achieve its glossy objectives”. So did the changes over-promise and under-deliver? What impact has there been in FE?

The aspirations outlined within the act and the code of practice were ambitious. When they were published, most professionals were somewhat sceptical as to how things would play out in reality.

School-centric approach

Without doubt, FE was the sector where the SEND reforms would have the biggest impact. But despite waves of support resulting from the Department for Education’s implementation and reform grants, I sat time and time again listening to training that was totally school-centric and which failed to acknowledge that it was, in fact, FE for which the whole framework and expectation was new.

The true extent of this ignorance became clear when someone from the schools sector told me that they didn’t know what all the fuss was about – “schools had been doing it for years” and it was their “bread and butter”, they said.

Let’s consider the reality of what the SEND reforms have meant for FE. The code is clear that transition planning and preparation for adulthood must begin from at least Year 9 and many local authorities have included this in their annual review templates. While these discussions may take place, there has been no impetus from the government or pressure on schools to actually engage with post-16 providers; the robust impartiality of careers advice is a myth and has long been criticised.

Given the extent to which the multi-academy trust brigade are sweeping the education system, what incentive is there for schools to engage with FE?

Landscape little understood

For schools with sixth-form provision attached, why wouldn’t it be in their best interests to retain students and diversify course offerings at post-16 to encourage internal progression for those who wouldn’t have traditionally been able to access A levels? Schools already have a captive audience and many parents value the routine, familiarity and continuity that progressing to post-16 within a secondary setting offers. The code of practice explicitly recognises the diverse landscape of FE, but the extent to which this is truly understood is questionable.

Vocational pathways within FE are delivered by incredibly knowledgeable and skilled specialists, who have spent considerable time learning their trade in industry.

Having a number of teachers across their timetable will be a familiar experience for students, making communication and consistency challenging. Vocational practitioners can feel overwhelmed by the teaching, learning and assessment requirements placed on them, as well as the shift of expectations and focus that can often be experienced as priorities and performance measures change.

Students with SEND – particularly those with high needs and education, health and care plans (EHCP) – present an additional requirement for staff to further differentiate and personalise delivery, learning and assessment, yet these skills are not routinely explored or developed through initial teacher training.

Overwhelming challenges

It’s not viable to release teaching staff to attend an EHCP annual review, yet their input in reviewing and setting new outcomes within an EHCP to support progression and development is essential. Ensuring these outcomes are consistently shared and worked towards, across a diverse team of staff, is challenging and can feel overwhelming. At a time when colleges continue to seek ways to improve efficiencies in order to remain viable and sustainable, the SEND reforms have stretched resources and capacity to untenable limits.

Colleges have had to grapple with their first cohort of students for whom they have statutory responsibility, as well as communicating needs and sharing information with diverse staff members who are not SEND specialists. Then there has been the planning, chairing and facilitating of EHCP annual review meetings, ceasing EHCP plans and the transfer requests of students with learning difficulties assessments before they end on 1 September.

This is all new work for the FE sector – and there has been no acknowledgement of the additional resource and capacity that has been required to deliver it.

Joe Baldwin is head of learning support and SEND strategic lead at Gloucestershire College

How to successfully support SEND learners

Choose three quick wins to implement when planning and delivering sessions that will help all learners, not just those with SEND. Some ideas might include providing handouts and slides prior to your classes, using visuals to support written text, changing the background colour of handouts or slides and “chunking” activities into shorter, bite-sized sections.

Make sure you know the outcomes for those students who have an EHCP: how are your session objectives and targets supporting them?

Use one-page profiles or class profiles to summarise key needs, any access arrangements and learning needs. More importantly, make sure you demonstrate how you are meeting these.

Develop relationships with the local authorities you work with – don’t just assume that they will be uncooperative. Instead, help them to understand FE and the pinch points within the academic calendar.

Identify how you can provide information in a clear, concise and usable way for busy teaching staff. Cut the waffle: give practical applications and real-time solutions.

Never lose sight of what is at the heart of the bureaucracy and paperwork – meeting the needs of the student.

Make sure there is someone named with responsibility for SEND within your college, who understands the requirements of the code of practice, EHCPs and funding.

Evaluate your provision for high-needs students. This forms part of the Ofsted common inspection framework. It is important that you assess current provision, your local offer, and the extent to which you effectively meet the needs of young people with SEND and enable them to progress.

This is an article from the 12 August edition of TES. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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