I will soon be running a workshop exploring education for students with special educational needs and disability (SEND), from the early years through to FE. After discussing the parameters with a friend who is a deputy head at a special school in the North West, I started to think back to the time I spent caring for children and young people with SEND in residential and childcare settings.
I’ve had the privilege to support some amazingly resilient young people who, for one reason or another, could no longer live with their families. During this time, I experienced the attitudinal barriers they encountered. These ranged from looks of disgust when I was helping a young woman to eat in a restaurant to pitying comments about a young man when I was helping him to choose a birthday card for his brother. As the carer and advocate for these young people, whose profound disabilities meant that they had very minimal communication skills, I had to deal with these situations on their behalf.
I am now entering my eighth year of teaching in FE, and I find myself wondering: have things improved for young people with SEND? When they leave the security of their special school (or support within mainstream education), how much of a leap of faith must it be to enter a new educational arena such as FE? Not only will they be encountering a totally different learning environment but they will also be dealing with the awkward transition from childhood to adulthood.
No matter their age, children can be cruel to others who seem different. For teachers, this becomes harder to deal with as students get older, because you assume that by now they should have a better understanding of right and wrong. We can teach British values and give students opportunities to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, but if they are going home to negative attitudes towards those with SEND, will we ever break that cycle?
In 2009, I was fortunate to be given the chance to teach adults with SEND for a local council. The community courses were based around developing independent living skills and understanding relationships. This isn’t an easy subject to teach, because the best learning often takes place through experiences outside the classroom. However, through looking at key areas and issues, discussions arose and heartbreaking disclosures were made. My students told me of the challenges they faced, such as dealing with negative attitudes, being taken advantage of and struggling to find employment.
Several participants spoke of the concerns they’d had when they first entered FE. They found it a daunting and stressful experience, primarily because of the size of the setting and the variety of students they encountered. And they felt that they had not been fully prepared for the change of educational environment.
Often the students who required support had to decide every week whether their assistant would come with them to my session or help them with another activity. Sadly, as you can probably guess, this was down to government cutbacks and funding shortages. I also learned to make sure that my lessons didn’t clash with school finishing times. Some students used public transport and were keen to avoid being on the same bus as school pupils because of the way that they were treated.
This was only in 2009, and I don’t believe for one minute that things have changed drastically since then. So thinking back to my experiences in the care sector and adult learning community, I wonder whether we are doing enough to remove these attitudinal barriers. We need more cooperation between educational phases – not everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet.
So here are three ways to help improve outcomes for our SEND students.
1 Start from the beginning
Some primary settings local to me have worked in partnership with special schools so that children can mingle and swap classrooms. However, although children are happy to participate in initiatives like this, families are often the ones with issues. I’ve overheard parents discussing why they were refusing to let their children take part in the project and coming out with the phrase: “They might catch something!” So, although it is a good idea to enable young children to explore each other’s learning environments and break down those barriers, we need to educate their parents and carers, too.
2 Liaise with all feeder schools
From an FE point of view, I think we need a more consistent approach to working with all local schools. We need to understand the educational environment that learners are used to and they need to understand what education is like in an FE environment. Without doing this, how can we improve outcomes?
3 Zero tolerance from the start
All colleges carefully plan their induction week to be a positive introduction to FE. And we don’t want to bombard students with a list of “dos and don’ts”. However, a greater emphasis needs to be given to students’ attitudes towards one another, right from the start. The focus in FE has been based round British values and the Prevent anti-terrorism agenda, but maybe we need to go back to basics. By this I mean helping our students not to judge people by the way they look or behave. We might not be able to change everyone’s attitudes, but unless we focus more on this, we’ll never make progress.
It is time to stop thinking of each education sector separately. We need to make all children and young people more aware of learners with SEND and the struggles they face.
Carolyn O’Connor is a teacher at Blackpool and the Fylde College @clyn40