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Is the battle for SEND inclusion won?

    Categories: Experts

We’re making small steps on many fronts, explains Anita Kerwin-Nye, and may even have reached the end of the beginning in the struggle for inclusion

It’s 30 years since I started work on including children with SEND, 10 since I founded the Communication Trust, three since we started Whole School SEND and 18 months since I wrote ‘Is inclusion over?’, my essay on the state of affairs in England. During that time, we parents, students and schools have acutely felt the shift from “how to include” to “should we include”.

“Exclusive” is, as a term in the media or retail, often seen as positive, something nobody else can get.

While grammar schools may be dead, for now the notion of exclusivity, that some parts of education are only for the bright, the able, for kids “like ours”, sits as a festering sore in the centre of our school system. For children with SEND this exclusion is even more sharply felt; I’ve heard parents describe it as a war.

Nobody doubts that a child, with or without SEND, who is violent or presents a risk to themselves or others should be reasonably excluded from a school. There are systems to do this fairly. But exclusion – exclusivity – is more than that.

The attack of inclusion has been hidden in plain sight and captured in great reports like ‘Always someone else’s problem’, in which the Office of the Children’s Commissioner addressed illegal exclusions, and LKMCo/Inclusion Trust’s “What now for pushed out learners?”

Special school leaders and campaigners such as Jarlath O’Brien and Malcolm Reeve, and parent advocates such as Matt Keer and Starlight McKenzie, have been highlighting the challenges of exclusive practice.

Maybe there are signs that the burden of the battle is being shared

This exclusivity is encoded in the messages that “the school down the road will be better for your son”, that “we haven’t got enough staff to manage your daughter on the school trip”, and in the cuts to support for children with SEND as the first response to slashed school budgets. It’s in the off-rolling, the parking, the loss of kids to the system.

Any debate on why this happens sees school leaders blaming Ofsted and accountability frameworks, the DfE pointing the finger at schools, schools fingering local authorities, and everyone ultimately blasting pushy parents.

For those of us campaigning it’s been a long haul, but maybe there are signs that the burden of the battle is being shared. When we set up Whole School SEND, we deliberately built a model of positivity and collaboration, finding the best of what works in schools and working with charities, parents and the school system. We work with over 3,000 schools, which is a step.

Important voices like Sonia Blandford of Achievement for All and Adam Boddison of NASEN are being heard in the mainstream media, pushing beyond trade press. The BBC ran a week-long primetime series on services and outcomes for children with SEND. The absence of the minister was noticeable, but even still it’s another step.

In November, the Association of School and College Leaders’ president highlighted alongside the children’s commissioner that exclusion in its broadest sense is wrong. Another step. Education Datalab publicised the figures; a step.

And after the previous Ofsted boss managed not to mention SEND in his last annual report, his successor pulled no punches: “Some parents reported that they had been asked to keep their children at home because leaders said they could not meet their children’s needs. This is unacceptable.” A step.

Then there’s the potential action tucked away in ‘Unlocking talent fulfilling potential’, the recent social mobility report. It was this commitment from the Secretary of State: “We will also carry out an externally-led review into school exclusion.” There’s a step.

So maybe our small band of SEND agitators have progressed, and there’s now a chance to shape the peace. It may not yet be victory in the battle for inclusion, but, to quote Churchill, perhaps “it is the end of the beginning”.

Anita Kerwin-Nye is the founder of Whole School SEND