The Knowledge

Remembering special schools in education policy: ‘bookends’ and ‘addendums’?

Lauran Doak sets out the findings of in-depth interviews with special school leaders about the impact of policy on them and their settings

Lauran Doak sets out the findings of in-depth interviews with special school leaders about the impact of policy on them and their settings

6 Dec 2023, 17:00

Social media and anecdotal evidence suggest considerable frustration around the lack of ‘fit’ between the operational context of a special school and the wording of national education policy which often seems to centre the needs and experiences of non-disabled mainstream learners. However, there is little recent research exploring this issue, so back in May 2023 I published this article in Schools Week recruiting special school headteachers to share their views. The resulting research report has been published this week.

The research conducted in-depth interviews with five special school headteachers from different and geographically dispersed local authorities in England, four community special schools (local authority) and one which formed part of a multi-academy trust (MAT).

Participating headteachers expressed deep frustration across a broad range of policy areas including curriculum, financial administration and Covid guidance, describing their schools as ‘bookends to this policy’, an ‘addendum’ and ‘the Cinderella of education’.

Often, identified problems related to the content of a policy document itself: for example, the post-Covid national tutoring programme, which assumes that all students can access and derive benefit from online verbal tutoring, or a careers curriculum which assumes all students are on a trajectory to paid employment.

One of the most acutely felt instances of being forgotten in national policy was Covid guidance, which promised on-site education for all learners with education, health and care plans (EHCPs) during the pandemic, apparently without realising that this meant almost every student in a special school. This was clearly an operational impossibility, and was described by one participant as a ‘disgraceful abdication of responsibility’.

Responses to problematic policy ranged from full implementation to outright refusal

However, participants also expressed concerns about what precedes the introduction of the policy, such as unresolved issues in the specialist sector including the current funding crisis which will render even well-written policy impossible to implement. Concerns were also raised about what followsthe policy, including a lack of meaningful advice from central government and a perceived lack of contribution from health and social care colleagues whose input is needed for the successful enactment of many education policies where the young person is disabled.

Headteacher responses to problematic policy ranged from full implementation despite misgivings, to relatively rare outright refusal to engage with the policy, to a performative middle ground crafting an external-facing narrative of compliance which was at odds with everyday practice. Many expressed anxiety around Ofsted inspections, with one describing them as a high-stakes ‘roulette wheel’: the allocation of an inspector who truly understood the extent of the disjuncture between national education policy and special school practice was seen as the luck of the draw.

The task of making mainstream-centric policy ‘fit’ was reported to generate significant additional workload for headteachers. This included compensating for the unfulfilled roles of health and social care, managing staff and family expectations engendered by policy promises which the headteacher considered undeliverable, proactively engaging with policymakers either for clarification or to influence change, and undertaking research on alternative non-governmental perspectives on the policy topic to build a case for non/partial compliance.

There were also emotional consequences for headteachers working at the interface of ill-fitting policy and practice: this included a sense of overwhelm, precarity, anger and frustration, abandonment, disengagement, guilt, and conversely pride in continuing to function despite the policy landscape.

Moving forwards, headteachers indicated that they would welcome more policymaker consultation with special school stakeholders, increased policy draft scrutiny within government for inclusive wording, and more agile policy feedback mechanisms to enable communication between policymakers and practitioners.

Participants generally indicated resistance to the possibility of separate policies for special schools, noting that this could further entrench the perceived peripheral status of special schools. Instead, there was a preference for flexibly written policies with choice points and opt-in/out options informed by stakeholder consultation.

This report therefore provides a starting point for further necessary conversations about the inclusion of special schools (and other non-mainstream settings such as alternative provision schools) in national education policymaking processes.

As several participants noted, it is likely that taking time to craft inclusive and flexible policy which can accommodate the diverse settings that make up the English education system will ultimately benefit all learners.

To read the full report, ‘Understanding the challenges of enacting national education policy for special school headteachers in England‘, click here.

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