Review by Sophie Scott

9 Nov 2015, 6:00

Rob Webster

Place of work: UCL Institute of Education, London
Subject of interest: Schools’ use and impact of teaching assistants; special educational needs
Current research topic: SEN in secondary education (SENSE) study

What are you working on currently?

I’m leading the second stage of an observational research project. The first stage was a 2012 study called Making a Statement (MAST), which provided an insight into the educational experiences of 48 pupils with statements of special educational needs (SEN) in mainstream primary schools.

We shadowed these pupils for a week and found they experienced a high degree of separation from the classroom, teachers and peers as a result of having almost constant support from a teaching assistant (TA).

We lack data on the extent to which these kinds of experiences endure when pupils progress from primary school.

In fact, little overall is known about their long-term experiences of education and their views on the provision their statements allow. The SENSE study, which has been funded by the Nuffield Foundation, will describe how these young people experience learning and life in secondary settings.

What is interesting about this research?

The SENSE study is effectively two studies in one. The cross-sectional component will provide a detailed picture of the educational experiences of about 50 year 9 pupils with a statement or education, health and care (EHC) plan attending mainstream schools.

We are collecting data on these pupils via minute-by-minute systematic observations and will compare these with similar observations of about 200 pupils without SEN.

We will then use the observation data from MAST and SENSE to create, for the first time, a longitudinal study of the experiences of a group of pupils at two points in their school career (ages 9-10 and 13-14).

About half the MAST cohort transitioned to a specialist setting, so we will be able to compare their experiences with those of pupils attending mainstream schools.

What do you hope its impact will be?

The SENSE study will provide new perspectives of the inclusiveness of provision for vulnerable learners following changes to the SEN system in 2014, and the quality of support arrangements that rely on the use of TAs.

Previous research I have conducted with Peter Blatchford [Institute of Education] has revealed that the effectiveness of TA support is problematic – but it is not their fault!

We hope our work will improve the understanding and use of evidence on effective classroom support among professionals involved in the EHC plan-writing process.

We are deploying about 60 trainee educational psychologists to collect observation and interview data, additionally providing them with a formative and immersive experience at the start of their career.

By giving a voice to parents, pupils and staff about teaching, support and transition from primary school, we will learn more about the best ways to facilitate the journey young people with SEN make through the school system.

Do you have any indication as to what early findings might show?

We are halfway through data collection, but the findings from the MAST study are suggestive of what could emerge in the new study.

We hypothesise that pupils in mainstream secondary schools who receive high amounts of TA support experience a similar “separation effect” as those in primary settings. We are intrigued by what the moment-by-moment data on pupils in special schools will reveal, as this is something we know little about.

Is there any other research you would recommend to our readers?

The MAST study is based on Paul Croll and Diana Moses’ landmark One in Five study from the early 1980s. I drew on this and similar work to provide an historical perspective on how the experiences of primary pupils with and without SEN have changed between then and now.

See the results here.

All the institute’s research papers are at:

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