Life in the special sector is always busy. Like a true equilibrium, there are remarkable moments where staff unlock the potential in their students in the most creative ways, but there can also be profound lows. This year, the challenges have been particularly acute, especially around recruitment and retention.
Rising up the charts
2023 has seen inclusion and SEND rise back up the political agenda, with the publication in March of the SEND and AP improvement plan, following exactly 12 months after the green paper, Right support, right place, right time. Since then, the DfE have announced a £70 million change programme, begun piloting new ways of working to strengthen parent and pupil voice, and released the first phase of SEND capacity reviews in response to issues being highlighted across the sector. There has also been progress around the SEND and AP free school rounds, where finally it feels that if local need is justified, further school places will be created.
While this has all felt very positive, for professionals working in the sector there remain a multitude of questions. For instance, what are the expectations around the new SEND qualification and how will the funding be developed so it is fair? So far, we have not received enough clarity from the department to reassure us. In addition, while I was pleased to see that the new trust descriptors published in July feature the word ‘inclusion’, many professionals do not yet feel there is an adequate definition from the department around what it actually means.
Place and space
This year, the state and capacity of school buildings has been a particular challenge, but the way in which trusts and school leaders are working to tackle space issues within buildings has been incredible. We have all faced pressures from the rising number of consultations for places in special schools, and I have been impressed with the way in which some local authorities are using innovative approaches to address SEND sufficiency.
At TEAM, we have worked closely and creatively with Nottinghamshire local authority to provide satellite provisions and integrated hubs, using mainstream settings to deliver specialist provision. These arrangements bring trusts together to work in partnership with each other and LAs to address place and space capacity. This is a demonstration of true, collaborative inclusion in action, and we look forward to beginning this work with other local authorities in 2024.
Ever more with ever less
Many of these issues directly affect our teachers and support staff. Since the pandemic, our workforce has been forced to become more agile. They are constantly being asked to respond to a wider range of issues and challenges, many of which arise from issues outside of education itself, such as increasing child poverty, and reductions in social services.
In the special sector, our staff are also responding to increasing complexity in the needs of our children and young people. Education is doing what it has always done, and is staffed by exceptional individuals who provide support for young people in the ‘here and now’, when they need it the most. However, as a result our staff feel like they are under greater pressure, working harder with fewer resources at their disposal.
I am continually inspired by the teachers and support staff who work tirelessly to meet the needs of our children, families and communities. Every day, they provide stability and security for people whose futures are unclear. We owe it to them to acknowledge that they are our biggest asset and top priority and we must be creative with the resources we have immediately available to us and explore how we can work differently to support them.
As we move into 2024, there is hope for the sector that its place at the heart of an effective education system is being recognised. If we continue to work collaboratively, share our expertise and think bigger than our own school or trust, I believe we will continue to find elegant solutions to the wicked problems we are faced with today.