Five principles to begin transforming our broken SEND system

Tom Rees and Ben Newmark set out five principles to begin articulating what a good life is and should be for all our children

Tom Rees and Ben Newmark set out five principles to begin articulating what a good life is and should be for all our children

5 Jul 2023, 12:11

Education does not work well enough for children who find learning difficult.

This isn’t new. Since the beginning of mass schooling, our education system has struggled with the challenge of including all children in a positive and meaningful way.

Today, previous efforts by society to address this seem shocking to us. Even in the last 50 years, some children were placed in asylums or institutions instead of schools.

Over time, through changes to law and movements of inclusion, the right of all children to a high-quality education until at least the age of 16 has been established. Things should now be better than ever.

Notwithstanding this obvious progress, our national system of special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) is in crisis. There is no alternative way of describing a part of our education system which, despite unprecedented funding, is not working for children, families or schools.

Those of us in positions of influence must accept that our schools are not supportive enough to those who find learning hardest, and that the status quo is neither effective nor sustainable.

There has been increased debate on SEND provision since the department for education published its green paper last year and its national improvement plan in March. These were refreshing in their honesty about the level of dissatisfaction with the current system. We should welcome the government’s attention to these issues and support reform that helps improve the efficiency, effectiveness and experiences of the SEND system.

But there is a more fundamental challenge to address: SEND remains framed within a deficit narrative, and conceptualises greater difficulty in learning as something broken that needs to be fixed.

If we are to take this opportunity as society to think again about the place for those who find learning harder, we have to be able to make a fuller and more inclusive articulation of what a good life is, and what it could be.

Since publishing a paper on this topic last year, with the support of the Confederation of School Trusts and Ambition Institute, we’ve worked with specialists, schools and trusts to develop five principles we hope can underpin better inclusion in schools.

We chose principles over policy suggestions because top-down changes can take years to decide and – as those familiar with the law around SEND will know – they do not guarantee improvements to children’s experiences.

But we can all start, even in small ways, by being the change we want to see.

Dignity, not deficit

Difference and disability are normal aspects of humanity. Children who find learning difficult should have an education characterised by dignity and high expectation, not deficit and medicalisation.

Different, but not apart

Encountering difference builds an inclusive society. Children with different learning needs should grow up together. 

Success in all its forms

Success does not look the same for all children. We should value and celebrate a wide range of achievements and experiences, including different ways of participating in society.

Rights, not charity

Education is a right, not just an act of kindness. All children deserve a high-quality education from expert professionals trained to meet their needs.

Action at all levels

Change isn’t only the responsibility of government or system leaders. Everyone has the agency and a responsibility to act.

We’ve spent the past year seeking out places of high standards and hope, where it is good to be a child who finds learning harder. We will be publishing a second paper sharing examples of what these principles look like in practice.

This work aims to give leaders who want their schools to be more inclusive somewhere to start, to help teachers better support pupils for whom learning can often feel a battle, and lead to more children and families feeling positive about education and their lives beyond school. 

None of this is easy; there are tensions within the system that can incentivise exclusionary practice. League tables, accountability regimes and lack of funding can make it feel hard for schools to be the organisations they really want to be. But these principles, and those who exemplify them, show us that better is already happening.

If it’s possible for some, then it’s possible for more. Maybe even possible for all.

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One comment

  1. sarah le-good

    A great article – deficit perception does need to be challenged and the principles are wonderful!

    The social model of disability gives us a powerful lens to consider education. I believe in linguistic determinism – the language we use in education shapes and often limits expectations, reinforces deficit and is almost always directed by policy not people.

    So “children who find learning hard / difficulty” through a social model lens becomes children who are not being taught well enough. The child / their impairment isn’t the problem – society and norms are!

    SEND children or more lately EHCP children should always be children first.

    And the word mainstream should be banned!