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Strategies for supporting SEND Education to unlock potential

“The system isn't working well for anyone involved: parents, children, teachers, special educational needs schools, and even local councils.” declared Gillian Keegan as she addressed the elephant in the room and confessed the need to improve England's Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) system.  

She isn't wrong. The repercussions of an inadequately supported education system can be extrapolated from the data from PISA and the Good Childhood report, which suggests lower life satisfaction, lower attendance and happiness rates among young people with SEND.

The Children and Families Act of 2014 sets out a logical framework, one that aims to assist children with SEND. This framework requires local authorities to collaborate with parents and pupils in evaluating needs. It offers an Education, Health, and Care Plan (EHCP) to outline pupil needs, required support and personalised outcomes. 

The most recent data from the Department for Education underscores the magnitude of the problem. A surge in EHCP requests during 2023, coupled with the percentage of pupils with SEN but no EHCP , has increased to 13.0%, from 12.6% in 2022. This highlights a system buckling under pressure. Nationally, local authorities struggle to meet the 20-week deadline, with only 51% of EHCPs issued on time. 

In September 2019, a major review of the support system for children and young people with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) was announced but later delayed due to the pandemic. Finally, a green paper consultation, the SEND Review: right support, right place, right time, was published in March 2022. In March 2023, the Government released its SEND and alternative provision improvement plan, outlining future initiatives. 

Notable changes include the proposal for a unified system for SEND and alternative provision, guided by new national standards and the introduction of the 3-tier alternative provision system. The plan advocates for local partnerships to commission provision. A significant investment of £2.6 billion between 2022 and 2025 has been promised.  

Meanwhile, the existing system continues to be strained by ongoing budget constraints, time limitations and shortages of teachers. So, as we wait for these commitments to materialise, here are five things Senior Leaders can do now to provide support for young people with SEND:

1) Build Capacity without overburdening teachers

Gillian Keegan emphasises the need to ‘build capacity’, acknowledging the importance of enlarging our current resources. It is important to highlight the most valuable resources in our education system: teachers and support staff. Excellent teaching is the number one best strategy for creating and sustaining more inclusive educational experiences. Gillian’s desire to increase capacity should not come at the expense of extending demands on teachers and support staff who routinely risk burnout. Ensuring more favourable working conditions in schools is the best way to build capacity and retain excellent staff in schools.

School leaders should prioritise protecting teacher workload. Mary Myatt's thought-provoking book, Back On Track, prompts a critical examination of outdated school processes and their alignment with the core mission of education. The teaching profession, marred by constant change driven by political forces, inspection pressures and salary battles, requires a focused effort to address the toll on educators' wellbeing. 

Acknowledge that inclusive classrooms are the results of ongoing efforts, not silver bullets; value psychological safety and supportive staff rooms; explore mentoring and coaching opportunities, along with rigorously evaluating the increasing demands placed on teachers. These actions play a pivotal role in cultivating a positive and effective culture for staff, which ultimately contributes to a better learning environment.   

2) Empower teachers with practical strategies

Typical EHCP plans may include the following: ‘Provide summary notes’, ‘repeat instructions back to ensure understanding’, ‘provide access to a visual timetable’ and ‘avoid visually overwhelming text’. All of these are routine features of good learning and teaching strategies. Providing time and support to enable quality teaching where wheels are not reinvented for the sake of it and learning and teaching strategies based on evidence-informed practices, not flawed gimmicks, will benefit the entire learning community and enable teachers to direct their efforts towards real solutions.  

Support your teachers to find their automatic doors. That is, the actions that are helpful for all, and essential for some. For example, during source analysis, or reading case studies, I instruct pupils of all ages to read line-by-line with the help of a ruler. For all pupils, this helps with word tracking and prevents skim reading but for pupils with dyslexia, this enables them to break down the text and gain a better chance of understanding it without working differently from their peers. The cognitive process of learning is rarely different for pupils; trust your teachers to use their professional expertise to create toolkits tailored to pupil needs.

Creating an inclusive learning environment is not a summit to conquer, but an ongoing endeavour which requires trust, time and commitment. All schools can take steps towards becoming more inclusive within their curriculum delivery and these efforts become significantly more effective when school leadership supports the creation of behavioural norms. Designing consistent, calm, predictable learning environments which feature routines is key to creating certainty that can help ameliorate the stresses and worries of pupils who, when presented with unfamiliarity, can struggle. This removes the cognitive burden of uncertainty on both the learners and teachers, giving teachers greater capacity to focus and respond to the vulnerabilities in their classrooms.

3) Help teachers and parents to navigate your system

Understanding the intricacies of the educational system is crucial for both teachers and parents. As noted by Robin Macpherson and Carl Hendrick in their book What Does This Look Like In The Classroom? “Even the best support systems can fail if users don't know how to navigate them”. Schools, councils, and educational institutions often have unique approaches, making it essential for school leaders to ensure their systems are transparent, easily understandable, and navigable. Convoluted bureaucratic processes create barriers for parents, pupils and staff who waste time and resources muddling through them. Clear guidance should be readily available to support teachers and parents. No one teacher or parent should feel alone in this.

4) Prioritise self-esteem for pupils

Gillian Keegan controversially urged pupils not to overly worry about achieving A Levels, suggesting success is not solely measured by grades. While they are not the only measuring stick of success, all school systems must be designed to create challenges and enable achievement for young people. Creating inclusive teaching environments can be done by providing specific feedback to learners to ensure they are empowered to work towards discrete goals. Positive reinforcement can help all children build their confidence and self-esteem. Praising effort and progress and providing constructive, actionable feedback can help to motivate children and encourage them to persist with challenging tasks. 

Protecting pupils' self-esteem is crucial in building a positive and supportive learning environment for all pupils as well as cultivating a strong sense of belonging and self-worth, both of which are critical components for preserving good mental health. 

5) Cost-effective professional development

One of the most cost-effective forms of teacher professional development is reading. Fortunately, publishers like John Catt Educational offer a diverse catalogue catering to the needs of every practitioner, making knowledge accessible and affordable for educators seeking to enhance their skills.

Gillian Keegan's emphasis on building capacity must not overshadow the importance of supporting educators. By valuing their expertise, promoting transparent systems, and prioritising holistic student development, schools work towards creating a more inclusive and equitable learning environment for all.

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