02 Jun SEND IS Mainstream. But it's complicated.
Lately I’ve been thinking a great deal about SEND provision in my school – for several reasons.
a) It is at the forefront of our thinking as we plan our staffing and curriculum within the real-world context of declining financial resources – how best to deploy finite resources to meet the needs of every student? In common with other Heads I’ve spoken to, given the need to maximise the impact of every £, I’m keen to prioritise the quality of the mainstream provision – teachers, class size, loadings – because that is where SEND students spend most of their time. We need to know what we’re doing has impact so I also favour investment in specific learning and behaviour interventions (e.g. Thinking Reading, our BSC,) over the more nebulous benefits of in-class support. This can be important but it can also be wasteful. It’s a discussion we’re having.
b) I’ve had some insightful conversations with parents of SEND students at my school regarding the future of our nurture provision; they are anxious about the transition from the small class environment into mainstream lessons whilst recognising the need for it in time. At some point inclusion can become segregation – and that’s not healthy in the long run.
c) We’ve been looking closely at the interface between our behaviour system and our SEND provision to see where we can improve. This extends into consideration of the link between exclusions and SEND students – where the cause-effect discussion can become circular. We’ve examined our exclusions, recognising the need to explore underlying learning issues, balanced with an understanding of students’ capacity to self-regulate and the need for them to have clear boundaries. Our institutional view is that inclusion means supporting all students to meet the same high standard, not having lower standards for some.
d) Our teaching and learning agenda for next year has a major focus on supporting SEND students – from knowledge organisers to rhetoric to reading, they’ll be the winners. We’ve been planning to introduce units of work in every subject that lead to students producing special pieces of work, crafted and redrafted into something that represents excellence. I think SEND students stand to gain enormously because, too often, they bump along producing mediocre work, running out of time before things move on, not aiming high enough or, possibly, being underestimated. In fact, I would argue that where SEND students’ needs are met inadequately it is when our expectations are too low, not when they are too high.
e) We’ve been talking a lot about counselling, well-being and mental health. This overlaps with our SEND provision in a complex way. We’re looking to invest more in counselling services and CAMHS support. Again, it is hard to know where best to put each £. It’s no use talking as if money was no object; because it is. Do we get more impact from an extra LSA or the equivalent value in counselling hours? These are the decisions we need to make.
f) I have also been reading some interesting blogs about SEN issues, some of which have provoked emotive reactions, not always based on the arguments presented
Here are the blogs:
Firstly, one I read via a Tom Bennett tweet – click the image link below. This highlights the error of thinking about autism as a spectrum; the colour wheel model highlights how much more complicated autism is. I see this as a metaphor for the whole range of SEND issues and the need to consider each child as an individual with near-unique characteristics.Next, this powerful blog from Jarlath O’Brien in the TES: ‘Teachers must not assume that SEND always means challenging behaviour’. Basically, when Jarlath speaks, I listen. His piece ends with this:
“The thing that irks me the most about this narrative is the subtext that without children with SEND and all their behaviour problems, the lives of teachers and other students would be improved. I reject this. It’s high time we heard teachers proclaim for everyone to hear that teaching kids with SEND has made them better teachers. Stick that on a banner outside your school instead.”
The link in that quote is to another thought-provoking TES piece by Debbie Sayers: “We are failing all children by teaching them that “SEND kids” should be treated differently. …….. It all starts with accepting that SEND issues are the responsibility of all staff and not just of teaching assistants or Sends.” I hear this loud and clear.
Then, these blogs about the issue of behaviour and behaviour systems in the SEND context:
A post from anonymous tweeter @Bigkid4: Can a pupil (or small group of pupils) ruin the chances of the rest doing well? It’s an honest account of the challenge a teacher faces dealing with a disruptive student – with significant needs – working within a system over which they have no real control. This kind of ‘inclusion’ is inclusion going wrong.
And, finally, Greg Ashman: Excluding students with a disability. This also tackles the crucial subject of when we have to weigh up the needs of the many in a class context against the needs of an individual when that individual has a negative impact on the others. It’s an important debate; it’s real. Greg follows this up with another interesting post (with good comments) where he explores the issues of disorder diagnosis, behaviours and the extent to which children might have agency over their behaviour. It also got me thinking about Venn diagrams. Here’s one I made:
There are certainly students whose difficulties at school exist purely in one of these circles. However, very often they overlap. In terms of behaviour, the social context and home learning environment is a major factor. We need to be able to discuss parenting without it being taboo; it’s not ‘blaming the parents’. (I’ve already been shouted at on twitter for this reference.) Quite often it’s just that home and school are miles apart in terms of how we set and enforce everyday boundaries and, with SEND students it’s usually even more important to be consistent. Often low self-esteem through negative learning experiences is the root cause of a students’ behaviour issues but, from my experience, it is quite rare for this to happen in isolation from other social/family factors. A good friend of mine, an Ed Psych professor, is always telling me that social deprivation is the underlying issue in most of his cases. Despite what the CoP says, whilst we should aim to be neutral in respect of family context, my experience is that we ignore it at our peril.
The toughest discussion to have is around prioritising resources within a complicated school. Some students’ needs are clear – they need direct support every lesson to support them to access learning. In other cases we are in ‘how long is a piece of string’ territory and, not only are resources finite in terms of planning specific interventions, the demand is highly dynamic. We get new entrants with little previous schooling; some students will have massive mental health issues all of a sudden. We need to be responsive – which usually means redirecting resources from one area to another.
Another area I’m thinking about is the issue of labelling and categorisation and the extent to which this informs practice. I’ve seen it argued that labelling can be counterproductive because of the reverse Pygmalion effect; at the very least this is something to guard against. The labelling can get perverse – I’ve even been been lobbied by agencies promoting the cause of children held back by their left-handedness and colour-blindness. As someone who is both left-handed and profoundly colour blind, I feel comfortable in saying ‘no’ to that. We have enough on our plate and these are things kids can learn to cope with all by themselves. At the other end, with EAL students in large numbers, many groups of students have general needs around language and literacy in common that are better dealt with at whole-class level, informing the whole approach to planning and teaching, rather than focusing on individuals per se.
Quite commonly the dyslexia label can be hugely problematic because it doesn’t tell you much on its own; it’s more of an umbrella term stuck on all kinds of specific learning difficulties. The risk of lowering expectations is serious where labelling isn’t supported by specific information about actions to follow. There are also multiple label-free SEND students who appear to have low cognitive function without an identified learning difficulty; they find school difficult and we need to gauge our expectations, pitched to enable them rather than limit, demoralise or inhibit them. And, again, so much easier said than done.
As discussed here, we need to place more emphasis on planning what teachers can actually do with SEND students once we know what their needs are. Mainstream teaching is what SEND students experience most of the time and we need to tool-up our teachers so they know what works with students with a range of needs – including the whole range of issues related to autism, dyslexia, behaviour and, without crudely confusing this with SEND issues, mental heath. Again, our focus needs to be on what is mainstream rather than what is extra; that has to be the cornerstone of effective mainstream SEND provision.
PS: I recently blocked some twitter folk for making false and lazy assumptions about my school’s priorities, leading to critical judgements about it based on nothing more than a dodgy news report about school cuts. I think it’s best not to do that!