In her inaugural speech, the new chief inspector for Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, came out strongly against schools which move students off certain courses in order to achieve better league table results. Speaking at the annual conference of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), Spielman cited Sean Harford HMI’s March 2017 school inspection update, saying “we know that there are some schools that are narrowing the curriculum, using qualifications inappropriately, and moving out pupils who would drag down results. That is nothing short of a scandal where it happens”.
This should be an encouraging message for students with special educational needs and disability (SEND). After all, they suffer disproportionately at the hands of schools which game the system in search of better league table results.
Last year, special school head Jarlath O’Brien noted the stark overrepresentation of students with SEND in exclusion figures: in 2014/-5 students with an education, health and care plan (EHCP) or a statement of SEND were almost seven times more likely to receive a fixed-period exclusion than pupils with no SEND.
And then there’s indirect exclusion, by failing to prioritise SEND provision and training, redirecting students to special schools, language like “zero tolerance on bad behaviour”, or failing to represent SEND in school photos and promotional material.
When questioned on this at the Whole School SEND Summit in February, the minister for vulnerable children and families, Edward Timpson, condemned the exclusion of students with SEND and pledged a comprehensive review of SEND provision in the UK.
And it’s about time, too. As Mr O’Brien pointed out, the prognosis for students with SEND is critical. So what can be done to change this situation?
'A more holistic approach to success'
As I see it, there are two approaches to be taken.
The first is a reactive approach, in which we identify schools which are gaming the system and hold them to account. This will require Ofsted and the government to step up to the task, and for us to empower students, parents and Sendcos to whistleblow where unfair exclusion of students with SEND is occurring.
The second is proactive, generating a cultural shift in which schools have a more holistic approach to success, beyond league tables. Organisations like the Whole School SEND Consortium are beginning to do this, bringing together schools, charities, parents, carers and young people to share and develop inclusive practice that celebrates diversity and individual wellbeing.
You could be forgiven for thinking that talk of a cultural shift, away from exam results and league tables, is a bit idealistic.
Yet in her speech at the ASCL conference, Ms Spielman identified the curriculum as the focus of Ofsted’s next thematic review, saying: “There is more to a good education than league tables. Vitally important though a school’s examination results are, we must not allow curricula to be driven just by Sats, GCSEs and A levels. It is the substance of education that ultimately creates and changes life chances, not grade stickers from exams.”
This is a big step. Ofsted wants to change the rules so that there is no incentive to game the system; so that a school’s success will measured by the substance of its education and the life chances of its students rather than percentage of core-subject A-C grades.
The message of organisations like the Whole School SEND Consortium finally seems to be hitting home. We must keep building communities of advocacy; keep driving the movement forward and spreading the message that a more diverse, inclusive curriculum will be of benefit to all students. Our education system will be the better for it.
The Department for Education has opened a consultation on revisions to its exclusion guidance. You can read the guidelines and give feedback here.
Jack Davies is project executive for London Leadership Strategy