Should it be about SEN or Inclusion?


Should our schools, local authorities (LAs) and public policies focus so much on determining who has special educational needs (SEN), whether they have a diagnosis, and deciding how, who and where their needs can be met?

Too Much Focus on SEN Classification?

Recent figures released by the Department for Education (DfE) on the number of children in the UK classed as having SEN have hit the newspapers. The figures suggest a drop in the number of children who are classed as having SEN from 21% to fewer than 18% of children (around 200,000). What does this mean, and is it important?

As with most statistics, these numbers are open to interpretation and manipulation. The last time the numbers went down was in 2005. The National Association for Special Educational Needs put it down to the increased difficulty in securing a statement, as opposed to any change in the level of need amongst pupils although statemented pupils only make up around 3% of the total school population. Then in 2010, Ofsted lambasted schools, suggesting that SEN was being used to make excuses rather than to help children access the curriculum.

Funding Implications

When funding in schools is so dependent on the numbers of children who are classified as having SEN and subsequently on a specific diagnosis, there is a continual pressure on parents and educational professionals to give children that official label. In many cases, it is only by having this label that children get the help they need, which is even more distressing as we see our children as individuals not syndromes.

If your child has a recognised special educational need (SEN), you are likely to have spent a considerable amount of time negotiating assessments, meeting with experts and other professionals, discussing their diagnosis and support needs. You've also probably spent considerable time navigating your way through the school and local authority's SEN policies and practices and completing associated paperwork. If your child has significant special educational needs, which you don’t believe can be met through the school's own resources, you may have also had to fight to get them a statement, Learning Difficulty Assessment (s139a Report) or an Education Care and Health Plan (ECHP) and ensure it is kept up-to-date and properly enforced.

It is likely that you've also spent a lot of time worrying about whether they are in the right school.

The recent figures may become important as they may be used as an excuse by the government to make cuts to the budgets available to schools and local authorities on the basis that there is a reduced need for SEN provision, particularly if spending on education is not ring-fenced. This is of course deeply worrying as we know that in practice too many pupils are struggling to access the curriculum and are unable to achieve their potential, leaving school ill-prepared for adult life and lacking the qualifications, skills and experience they need to secure independence.

Inclusive Education – A Better Way Forward for Everyone?

Many parents rightly feel that instead of wrangling over statistics, SEN classification, EHC Plans or school places, it would be better if schools, LAs, parents, carers, professionals and experts invested this time, energy and resources into ensuring that all our schools and their staff - knew their pupils, understood their personal strengths and weaknesses, and had the skills and means to support them so that they could get proper access to curricular and extra-curricular activities.

Of course there are many children and parents who are aware that they thrive best in a more specialised environment. For many with autism, the bustle of a mainstream school, or even a special school for children with a range of difficulties, may simply be too overwhelming. Others thrive in special schools where their needs can be met as part of a whole group rather than as one individual with their own dedicated assistant or teacher. But this is a matter for parents and young people to consider together, bearing in mind their own individual circumstances and experiences of education.

For many others a good mainstream setting is clearly the answer and is what they are entitled to in most cases under the law. Ideally it would be great if all children and young people could benefit from accessing a more personalised education within mainstream settings. For some children it would also mean that they could get the right support without having to go through the labelling process, although we suspect that this would only be the case if the ideal system were actually in place.

We should aim to ensure that all our teachers, school leaders and support staff develop their knowledge, skills and resources so that they enable all their pupils, whatever their differing abilities, to access the curriculum and fulfil their potential.

If nothing else it would also mean that the next generation would grow up knowing how to support each other better throughout their lifetimes, enabling everyone to contribute actively to our communities and to appreciate the unique roles we can all play in our society.

There are some schools in the UK that provide a truly inclusive education. Unfortunately these are the exception and most of us, including those in the education profession, have only experienced a non-inclusive education system. A radical culture shift is therefore necessary to make this a reality for those pupils who want this in all schools across the country.

Can we ignore the latest statistics in the headlines and instead get to know all our children and young people better, recognise their individual support needs (and our own) and invest in our school leaders, teachers and support staff to ensure they have the skills, knowledge, experience and resources they need?

If you have concerns about your child and the support they receive in school please contact Simpson Millar and we will see whether we can do anything to help. We help parents achieve what they know is right for their child, regardless of whether this is a mainstream placement with the proper level of support, or a properly specialised environment.

If you would like to know more about inclusive education, there is information available on the Alliance for Inclusive Education website dedicated to campaigning on inclusion issues and sharing information.

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