There are not many people working today who can honestly claim to have had over 60 years of experience working with children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). And there are not many people who have had a front-row seat for the various iterations of policy around SEND that began with the Warnock Report in 1978.
So the opinion of Klaus Wedell, emeritus professor of educational psychology and special educational needs at the UCL Institute of Education, about how we might begin to build a better system of education for those with SEND is certainly worth listening to. And, thankfully, it turns out he has a lot to say.
Wedell started work as an educational psychologist in the 1950s, when young people with SEND were treated in ways that are hard to believe several decades down the line. “The medical model was to give them a test and say that if they couldn’t talk to you, they must be stupid,” he recalls. “But those of us working in special needs then were already seeing things in a completely different way.”
Wedell’s first research project, in 1955, was concerned with children who had cerebral palsy and who had been deemed “ineducable”. He says that these young people were often placed into “subnormality” hospitals, where they were cared for but not given an education.
“I discovered that these children were perfectly able intellectually but their capacity to respond had not been realised in these institutions,” he continues. “For example, one of the children I was working with had very little motor control and couldn’t talk much. But she was absolutely brilliant at making multiple choices by pointing her toe at the right answer.”
That research was funded by the organisation Scope – known then as The Spastics Society – which had been set up by a group of parents of children with cerebral palsy in 1952. An increasing number of pressure groups were springing up at that time, Wedell explains, pushing back against the limited and damaging view that was held by the educational establishment.
“Parents were fully aware that these were children had very specific difficulties and couldn’t be categorised in any general ‘ineducable’ way,” he says. “We moved during that period towards a model of interaction between factors within the child and within the environment.
“We had to understand how these interacted with each other in order to understand exactly what they could and couldn’t do within their needs.”
'In the thick of it'
It was this shift in perception, combined with the steady pressure from parents and myriad bits of good work in the sector, that drove the Warnock Report, rather than the Warnock Report driving shifts in perception and creating parental pressure and that good work, Wedell argues.
For example, he explains that the report pushed towards a “continuum” definition of special needs, highlighting that 20 per cent of young people will experience a special need at some point in their education, and it did away with the stark “handicapped/not handicapped” view that had prevailed in legislation beforehand. This was hugely important, says Wedell, because it was an idea that many in education had been pushing for a while.
“Before the Warnock committee came into being, there had been a major epidemiological research project in England that recognised that about one in five [children] might have some learning difficulty over the course of their general education,” he says. “That reconceptualisation had been going on before the committee, and the committee members then came to accept it as being a way forward of thinking about special education in general.”
That’s not to say that he does not believe the report was an important step. It solidified and brought together many different strands in one place. And it prompted change. For example, another key finding was the need for better training for mainstream teachers; a topic that Wedell worked on when he took up his post as the first ever professor of special education at the University of London, a year after the report’s publication.
“I was in the thick of it,” he laughs.
But, he continues, it’s important to recognise that there was always good practice taking place around special needs, long before the Warnock Report.
“Up and down the country there were fantastic schools doing a fantastic job of being responsive to kids’ special needs in spite of the system,” he explains. “There was a huge amount of good practice going on as a result of the personal commitment of individual schools and the teachers in them to those children.”
So if we are to further our expertise and develop education for those with SEND for the better, would we be sensible to look to what is already happening that is good, rather than attempting to reinvent the wheel?
Wedell argues that the current system is far from perfect. He points to the new problems raised by the academies programme and funding changes, which he says are leaving many SEND students without the support they need. He highlights the increasingly common practice of “off-rolling” – schools removing pupils from their books in a bid to improve their exam results and league table position, which is four times more likely to affect those with SEND.
And although there have been great strides in understanding inclusive teaching practices, there is still further to go in terms of teacher training, Wedell says, especially around the use of teaching assistants. “Teaching assistants are good because they often have a better understanding of the individual child than a secondary teacher who sees 200 kids a week,” he says. “But that can mean that the teacher has a tendency to think, ‘Thank goodness I have a TA for you, so I don’t have to include you in the majority of my classroom work.’”
He says that curriculum planning is key, and that the trend towards prioritising test results rather than a rounded education presents particular problems for SEND students. “We need to ask ourselves if we have a curriculum that is sufficiently broad to be responsive to the great range of needs that these young people have,” he says.
“The curriculum should look at the whole child and acknowledge the progress made. I often hear teachers saying things like, ‘This kid may not have come much up on his Sats results but, my goodness, he is much more willing to stick a task.’”
The question, he continues, is how to create accountability criteria looking at the education system as a whole, assessing how well it supports everyone within it, including those with SEND.
Wedell says the latest SEND Code of Practice, released in 2015, made encouraging steps – including continuing support up to the age of 25, and repositioning educators as experimenters exploring how to meet the needs of their students. He acknowledges that there are no easy answers to the “dilemma” of inclusive education, but that there are solutions out there being trialled and tested and used successfully in schools or being looked at by researchers. We just need to find them, as Warnock did 40 years ago.
“We need to identify flexible teaching and learning processes, for example using ICT,” he says. “That’s just one example of a resource that’s not being systematically developed and used in as constructive a way as it can be. Similarly, flexible organisational structures in schools could be explored, to see how they can create continuity and a better learning experience. For example, secondary schools can take a more traditional primary approach and have flexible grouping and lesson duration. That’s just one example, but there are umpteen ways of doing it.”
We also need to learn from those schools where provision for children with SEND is excellent, he argues, and in those cases you find teachers asking themselves a question: “To what extent does the system gear itself to be supportive and responsive to the strengths and abilities these children have, quite apart from their disabilities?”
Zofia Niemtus is a freelance writer