Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner enhanced her personal approval rating with teachers this week by claiming that Ofsted was “not fit for purpose” and promising it would look “completely different” under a Labour government.
Rayner singled out the inspectorate for its approach to children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), drawing on her own experience as a mother of a child with SEND.
“My Charlie doesn’t do you any favours with the current Ofsted regime”, she told the Education Britain Summit in Manchester. “He would probably make his school a failure and you would probably want to wheedle him out, and that’s why it [Ofsted] would be completely different, because it doesn’t celebrate the differences and the abilities of all children at the moment.”
Rayner’s comments reflect wider concerns many of us have about how SEND is undervalued and poorly reflected in the processes and measures of accountability. Exam results that determine league table positions – and the Ofsted judgments that tend to flow from these – inform sharp practices, especially where SEND is concerned.
Last year, Education Datalab exposed the prevalence and scale of ‘off-rolling’. More anecdotally, there are reports of headteachers suggesting to parents and carers of a prospective pupil with SEND that the “school down the road” is much better resourced to support their child’s needs. Got SEND? Not today, thank you.
Ofsted, it should be said, reject Ms Rayner’s claims, and this month raised its own concerns about schools using unofficial exclusions as a way of managing with pupils with SEND.
The reality is that these alarming and dispiriting practices are unsustainable. According to the Department of Education’s own projections, 17,000 additional children and young people requiring some form of specialist education or alternative provision will enter the system in the next nine years. That’s right: 17,000.
As things stand, mainstream schools will be required to play a key role in local approaches to including and educating pupils with SEND of varying complexity. Some have interpreted Ms Rayner’s comments about reforming Ofsted as making provision and outcomes for pupils with SEND a grade-limiting judgement. In other words, a school’s overall Ofsted rating cannot exceed its rating for SEND. But we already know that using the accountability system as a mechanism for school improvement produces unintended consequences. This idea would require very careful thought and trialling.
There are, however, other ways of holding schools to account for SEND. Here are two alternative ideas.
First, individual schools and multi-academy trusts (MATs) could institute career progression systems for teachers and leaders that are contingent on evidencing practice that improves experiences and outcomes for pupils with SEND. Teachers going into middle leadership, heads of department destined for SLT, deputies progressing to headship and headteachers vying for an executive position would have to demonstrate how their classroom practice or school leadership has improved the lives and learning of the most vulnerable members of their school community. I’m grateful to Tes columnist Simon Knight, who suggested this.
Hard-wiring excellence for SEND into performance management and promotion means schools would have to provide quality CPD to support staff development and practice.
Second, enhance local schools’ accountability to one another, as well as to parents and pupils. I recently heard of a small local authority where headteachers decided on SEND admissions. All heads attend a monthly panel – convened by the local authority – to agree which pupils they take. There’s no displacing admissions to the school down the road, vastly fewer exclusions, less friction with families and no hiding place for heads that don’t meet their responsibilities.
There’s also the potential for schools to develop specialisms and attract funding. This ensures SEND has a high priority in these schools. An absence of leadership for SEND was a big concern raised in our recent research.
While not a replacement for independent scrutiny, these promising ideas could form part of the local accountability procedures required in a school-led, self-improving system. It would also go some way to enhancing inclusive practices and ensuring we have more schools “falling over themselves” to take pupils like Charlie.
Rob Webster is co-director of the SEN in Secondary Education study, and director of the Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants project. He works at the Centre for Inclusive Education, UCL Institute of Education, and tweets @maximisingTAs