When my son started school in 2005, I was concerned, as were my teaching colleagues, that there should be enough money in his Statement (as it was then). Like many, I equated special educational needs and disability (SEND) provision with money – and this connection is still strong in the common mind. Blame for the rise in exclusions, as well as the lack of school places and support for the most vulnerable of students, can be laid at the door of a funding shortfall.
Of course, not having enough money in the pot to pay for the right kind of specialist support at the right time is, indeed, a problem. It stores up difficulties for the future, such as high levels of support needed in adult social care and worries about health – and nobody wants that. If my son were starting school this year, I’d be worried. Very worried indeed.
But as the story and the coverage of cuts has grown, and as more and more people have become aware of the very real crisis in funding (read John Tomsett’s 2016 Tes article “How my school is losing the battle with funding cuts” at bit.ly/LosingBattle), I have become increasingly uncomfortable.
I’ve been closely connected to education in one way or another for a long time, through the bad times and the good, financially speaking, and my experience tells me to be careful: money is a big part of the problem, but it isn’t the root of all educational evil, not by a long chalk, and it certainly isn’t the answer to every SEND prayer.
Cuts are not the only reason why we’re in the inclusion mess we’re in. They are possibly not even the most important reason.
“I do a lot of follow-the-money stuff here and there,” says Matt Keer, from Special Needs Jungle, “but I’m under no illusion that the problems SEND is battling with will magically disappear with a big dollop of cash.”
Mark East, inclusion lead in a school federation in Devon, agrees. “The problem is, as always, that people are always looking for a simple solution to a very complicated problem,” he says. “The system has forgotten that education is about people. And it has put so much pressure on those on the front line that they too have forgotten that we do what we do to make a difference, not to hit government-led agendas.”
There can be little doubt that he is right. League tables and accountability measures, such as Ofsted, put education professionals – from class teachers to heads – under pressure to limit what they do for SEND. And to be honest, they have done so since years before the advent of performance-related pay and Progress 8. The moment that academic results became the measure of the success of a school, it was there; accountability became a millstone with the capability of grinding inclusion into dust. Academics have long been warning that the accountability regime would ultimately lead to schools and school groups making immoral choices about who they should include – although it must be said that it has taken a while for the media to do the same.
It’s easy to point judgemental fingers and blame individual schools for a lack of commitment to inclusive principles rather than the whole construct of the school system.
Not that individuals and individual schools can absolve themselves by blaming the system. The stories of how one teacher, or one powerful professional, can make a difference, for good or ill, are legion. “My son is 10 and was diagnosed with Asperger’s aged 5,” says Lilian Hickling, a parent in London. “He coped well at mainstream school with little support until Year 3, aged 7. Up to that point, he had two knowledgeable, understanding teachers who supported him well. When he went into Year 3, that all changed,”
Individuals influence outcomes
Teachers and teaching assistants – in fact, everyone who works in a school, including the caretaker and lunchtime supervisors – have an influence on outcomes for all students, and on the wellbeing of their families.
Individuals at every level of education have a part to play. That’s where training inevitably comes in: any discussion of “what’s really going on in SEND” always ends up with training for school staff (usually initial teacher training), which, of course, costs money. But it’s not all about the money.
“The essence of the problem is understanding and awareness,” says Joanna Grace, founder of the Sensory Projects. “The risk is that people economise on knowledge and we end up worse off. I meet schools who no longer pay for external training. ‘We do it all in-house’ is a very scary statement, as no matter how knowledgeable you are, the belief that you know it all is alarming.”
Autism specialist Lynn McCann, from Reachout ASC, agrees. “I find it works better if I’ve done whole-school training, and I prefer to work in a school over a period of time rather than as a one-off visit,” she says.
Without a whole-school understanding of SEND, colleagues can unwittingly undermine each other or, worse still, judge – which, in a profession conditioned to judgement, is a trap that it is frighteningly easy to fall into.
This brings us inevitably to the role of SEND coordinator. Given a chance to lead on teaching and learning for SEND, they can be hugely effective. Tied up in paperwork and attempting to squeeze their role into a hefty teaching load, they can’t.
It would be easy to blame the training and attitudes of school staff and leave it at that. But, as ever, the real story is far more complex. That’s where we inevitably stumble across the attitudes too often found in local authorities. As Sue McMilllan, another parent of a child with SEND, says: “Delaying provision – making parents jump through numerous hoops and taking clear-cut cases to tribunal – helps LAs to drag their heels on giving provision because they fear it will open the floodgates.”
Fear of what the public might lawfully demand is seen as a longstanding and endemic attitude in local government: just ask anyone who has tried to get planning permission, or social care for their disabled child. And that’s before you enter the postcode lottery of who believes in which condition.
It’s easy to say that systems create problems, but, in the end, it is individuals who do so. And what problems are created, and how they are interpreted, reflects what individuals believe.
Provision on a shoestring
In so many ways, the story of SEND could be characterised as, ‘It ain’t what you spend, it’s the way that you spend it’. As Kelsa Rowlands-Evans from Gloucestershire puts it: “When I worked in Portage [a home-visiting educational service for preschool children with SEND and their families], in the early 2000s, I spent a lot of time making bespoke resources that cost next to nothing. I used to run courses for schools on how to make things like signing books that would support children in a personalised way for pennies.”
This is the rub. The price tag attached to any equipment designed for disabled children can be so high that it feels like a license to print money. But sensitive support, such as a simple visual timetables, costs little. Teacher behaviours, such as allowing an anxious young person to eat their dinner in the first sitting, is free. As is believing a diagnosis or listening without prejudice to parents.
Yes, it is a national disgrace that, yet again, we are seeing the negative effects of cuts to public services falling on the disabled. But I am pleased that the national, mainstream conversation is circling around SEND: this represents a real opportunity.
We have an opportunity to effect lasting change for the better, but only if we make the main thing the main thing. The way we do training has to change. The way we hold schools to account has to change. The way that LAs approach the service they provide to the public has to change. And, most of all, among teaching staff, headteachers and governors, attitudes to – and expectations of – disabled young people and their families need to change. Because without that change, even if we got a blank cheque from the chancellor tomorrow, we’d just be throwing good money after bad.
Nancy Gedge is coordinator of the Ormerod Resource Base at the Marlborough School, Oxfordshire and the Tes SEND specialist