Wednesday 1 April 2015


Special Needs Provision is in Crisis, a crisis of Assessment, Provision and Leadership.
There must be something terribly wrong with the way we care for our children in Britain: 19.8% of our children have a special educational need. This is five times higher than across Europe. Sweden has 1.5%, Italy 2%. SEN kids make up 5% of the school population in Denmark and 6% in Germany. Could it possibly be that we are too ready to allocate one of the labels to explain behaviours that could be managed without recourse to meetings, paperwork and expert advice?

I know children who have low reading ages yet never read at home; children with “social and emotional difficulties” who have no boundaries at home. Is it sometimes the case that the label exonerates all involved from putting things right? An American DJ was picketed and hounded a few years back for proposing that many special needs may be specially in need of decent, reliable, caring and steady parenting.

I cannot fathom why we have had just 3 students in wheelchairs during my 16 years in a school with designated status for accessibility. I suspect there are children in special schools who would happily access the mainstream curriculum, indeed I have two such students in our 6th form who are off to university next year having spent years in special schools.

Because a child with special needs may qualify for extra time in exams, or a reader, or rest breaks there may have been a temptation for schools to register the children with special needs. My daughter’s school registered its brightest middle class girls as having dyslexic tendencies and this earned the girls extra time, and the school a number of A grades. The late, unlamented Michael Gove stated that much SEN provision was led by low school and teacher expectation.

There is no more committed, determined, knowledgeable and demanding parent than one who sees their child as having special needs. They come armed with test results, doctor’s advice, internet knowledge and their rights. If they have the money to pay for private assessments these are  likely to prove the special need that they have paid to be assessed. We have seen identical reports where only the name of the child is changed. I believe local authority SEN practitioners and their managers, collectively, rarely challenge determined parents even at very long, indecisive meetings.

Our inclusive school is overcome with applications and requests from parents for children with special needs. I strongly suspect that we are recommended by professionals whilst parents are actively discouraged from applying for other schools.

How is it that Ofsted “outstanding” schools have so few SEN kids? Evidence for this is visible on DfE School Performance tables. Alarmingly, the percentages on the Free School Meals Register, a measure of class, disadvantage and deprivation, show even more startling differences.

SEN people at the top of the hierarchy should be in active discussions with “outstanding” schools, calling on them to use their excellence to help kids with special needs. And, dead easy, Ofsted should go into their designated “outstanding” schools and ask why they do not help the children with most need. Then fail them. That’ll bring about greater access overnight.

I have written about this elsewhere reproducing Trevor Burton’s respected worrying academic research

Clearly, schools with a low average point score at age 11 really struggle to let Ofsted see them as Outstanding. Schools with the highest point score on entry, miraculously, seem to find it a matter of near certainty to be given an Outstanding Grade.
The brighter the intake the easier to show progress.
If progress is outstanding, teaching must be outstanding.
If progress and teaching are outstanding behaviour and management must be outstanding.

Ofsted Grade by Prior Attainment as of 30 April 2014

A few notes of explanation:
  • These are the 2,684 secondary schools in England with both a KS2 prior attainment score and a current Ofsted grade.
  • 85% of these schools have a KS2 average point score (APS) of higher than 26, but lower than 30 i.e. the four columns labelled 26, 27, 28, 29 in the chart.
  • The number of schools in each APS “bucket” is shown at the top of the bar so there are 748 schools with KS2 APS of 27 or higher, but less than 28.
SEN officers should be signposting outstanding schools to families because everyone wants the children to have the best education. I believe it is a legal requirement that schools provide for these children, but that sometimes translates into, “We are so good with gifted and talented students.”

Many schools can no longer cope with the numbers we are expected to manage. Perhaps another school with one tenth of our SEN numbers might do a wonderful job; especially if Ofsted claims they are an outstanding school.

Level 1 is the standard one’s children might be expected to meet by age 5; secondary schools start at age 11. Officers must stop suggesting that Level 1 students come to our schools because these officers are setting up the children to fail. We cannot teach Level 1 students, yet we have 7 such children and it is an act of cruelty to inflict humiliating failure on them.

In DfE figures students cannot be in secondary school on Level 1. The DfE marks them as level 2 and use this as the baseline to their progress. Schools with shese children are then shafted in the tables. It is a fallacy that having taken 6 years of education to make one level of progress these children will soar through the next six levels to GCSE success in 5 years.

In a cost cutting exercise, and cuts do need to be made, local authorities have stopped sending very disturbed children to secure accommodation that can cost more than £100,000 a year for one child. These children are put in LA Special Schools – themselves much reduced – and less needy, but still needy, children are sent to mainstream. The fantasy of integration for all becomes a tyranny for some of these children.

I have been “consulted” on admitting violent children who swear, spit, hit and bite When I oppose secondary transfer applications for children whose behaviour would ensure permanent exclusion my reasons are denigrated. I have been told on one recent occasion that my rejection will be referred to senior officers, presumably for a special slap. And yet the Children's Commissioner found that children with special educational needs were 9 times more likely to be permanently excluded than other students.

I have also had experience of an officer unfavourably reporting to parents my rejection of a child who would not cope. This is not helpful nor professional and hints at officer cowardice.

We receive bulky documents for statemented children and now for those with EHCPs. (A massively expensive initiative: Education and Health Care Plans, supposedly to support children up to their 25th birthday). The advice to schools on what we should do is invariably expensive and unfunded, unrealistic and misleading. I once had a physio who treated all injuries the same regardless of the nature of the problem. It seems to me that there are incredible similarities in the advice to schools regardless of the child’s precise problems. And, of course, parents are misled by this advice as everyone knows that schools cannot deliver on unfunded additional needs. Why present the fantasy to parents? I am not alone in telling parents that we will not be providing the specialist, one-to-one support an SEN report has declared appropriate.

The advice to classroom teachers often discredits the report writer in that they suggest the individual child will receive lots of repeated instruction, individually broken down tasks, praise for everything, frequent rest breaks one to one support, a guide around the school corridors and supervised quiet rooms at lessons Perhaps more frequent classroom observation will evidence class size greater than one, perhaps even 30.

The bureaucracy of SEN means that schools can meet and decide between them at democratic, “cluster meetings” which children have exceptional needs. Their decisions are passed on to another meeting of SEN professionals who often reverse these decisions. One boy needs 34 hours a week one to one support from a Teaching Assistant because others might have been hospitalised without this level of support. However the wise SEN team knew that his needs were not “exceptional.” At least there were lots of meetings, reports and discussions. Oh, and we took the funding to support him from the education of other children.

And the leadership on all this?

Dennis O’Sullivan
Headteacher Chauncy School
Wednesday 1st April 2015

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