Away from boarding schools and instead looking at SEN provision, Mark Baker discusses the challenges of budget cuts in schools attempting to meet new reforms

Children and young people with special educational needs (SEN), their parents and schools are currently facing huge changes. Quite rightly, parents have wanted more of a say in SEN provision, and schools have long wanted closer working between education, health and social service organisations to provide support for these pupils and students. However, the context of the government reforms is a difficult one. Teachers, support staff and leaders will share the high hopes of their pupils and their families but, tasked with implementing the changes, they also face huge challenges.

Local authorities have made massive cuts in the past few years in staff and services, particularly in health and social care. The second SEND Pathfinders report, published in mid-August, said families had reported a decrease in existing services and increased anxiety about the future of the services they use and need. These families also reported less access to clubs and activities, which undercuts the inclusive drive of the reforms.

Cuts have not just affected the support services that schools need access to, but also schools themselves. Over the past year, a large number of SEN teaching and support staff roles have become casualties to the new SEN “place plus” funding system. This doesn’t bode well for the ability of these schools to meet the spirit and letter of the SEN reforms.

To compound the situation, as well as the loss of SEN expertise and reduced access to external support, not enough teachers and support staff are getting the training they need to work with SEN pupils. Funding and, indeed, the time for staff professional development is often insufficient and SEN-specific CPD often loses out to other priorities.

The shortfall of staff with the right skills is exacerbated by the government’s rapid expansion of school-based teacher training. In weakening the role of higher education in initial teacher education, students are losing opportunities for deep and evidence-informed understanding of child development, pupil behaviour and SEN.

The government has made the situation worse by removing the requirement for teachers in academies and free schools to be qualified teachers, so staff who have not received any training in child development or how to teach, let alone in working with SEN pupils, are teaching in these schools, which is unfair to pupils and staff alike.

SEN teaching and support staff have become casualties of the new funding system

The SEN reforms place a much-needed emphasis on the transition from school to further and higher education, training and employment. Schools will need to support transition planning for students with SEN from year 9 at the latest, ensuring they have enough information to make informed choices about the full range of education or training options from 16 to 18, further education and apprenticeships.

Yet, since September 2012, schools have not had access to a publicly funded careers guidance service and have not had dedicated government funding to commission the independent and impartial careers guidance they are required to provide. In a survey this summer, ATL members told us that the careers education, information, advice and guidance currently available scored poorly in terms of suitability and effectiveness for a diverse range of young people. This weakness in careers guidance needs to be addressed to improve the transition to adulthood for students with SEN.

Following the reforms, school staff and governors need to familiarise themselves with the new SEN code of practice and their respective responsibilities under that.
This is especially important for classroom teachers as they have increased responsibility for the new category of SEN support, for identifying and supporting SEN and reviewing the provision for each pupil with SEN, with support from the special needs co-ordinator and others.

To comply with the principles behind these reforms, schools and colleges need to put in a substantial amount of work and changes. I know that staff in schools will continue to do everything they can to ensure that every pupil has access to a first-rate education that meets their needs. But they cannot do this alone; they will need support from, and to closely work with, their local authorities, health and social services to provide the help that SEN students need.

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 Mark Baker is President of the Assocation of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL)