SEND inclusion: High time some schools did some soul-searching

Everyone knows a school with a reputation for being ‘good with SEND’, write Caroline Barlow and Simon Smith, but there’s no excuse for any school not to be

Everyone knows a school with a reputation for being ‘good with SEND’, write Caroline Barlow and Simon Smith, but there’s no excuse for any school not to be

12 Nov 2022, 5:00

At the end of the school tour, they hang back, voices lowered and nervous expressions. “So, can we ask about our son? Do you have any spaces? He… he has some learning needs,” they say as if reporting SEND is disclosing a terrible secret.

It is a predictable story. The tale that follows involves paraphrased discussions, often with senior leaders or even SENDCos in their current or intended school. “They say they are not funded to meet his needs. They said they don’t have the skills and resources.” And then the follow-up, designed to flatter, guaranteed to incense: “They told us to come here because your reputation is so great and you have the expertise.”

It’s really simple to get a parent to look elsewhere. You just have to make them think that you don’t want their child. Do that and nine times out of ten they will do the rest. Would you send your child to a school that doesn’t want them?

There are layers of practice in this field: some are well-intentioned, some disingenuous and some downright unethical. But if our ambition is to ensure the “right support, right place, right time” as promised by the SEND green paper, we have to address the pernicious incentives and constraints at the heart of these conversations, and work out what to do about it.

These include accountability structures that prioritise reductive performance measures and create a climate that incentivises rejection or, at best, dissuasion of those with SEND, because demographics often make a substantial difference. As we return to more stifling high-stakes accountability after the breathing space afforded by the pandemic, those often most affected represent the greatest challenge for schools seeking to maximise their performance outcomes. The attainment and progress gaps between pupils with SEND and others have already widened in 2022.

Schools that are inclusive are punished for it

Next, after the spirit of collaboration that dominated the pandemic, the pressure or catch-up and the cost-of-living crisis have created a context of stress and isolation. Complaints and aggressive communications are on the rise. Organisational trust feels harder to build; leaders can feel vulnerable to unexpected and sometimes unsubstantiated attacks.  In this climate, decisions can be made that are protective rather than inclusive, risks are less likely to be taken and partnership working harder to retain.

A lack of support for disempowered parents means they feel they have to fight to achieve anything approaching a level playing field for their child: for identification or diagnosis; for recognition and resource; for opportunity and advocacy. The system is adversarial and frustrating, and this dynamic means that even relationships designed to support and help – increasingly only to be found in school – are hampered by fear and distrust.

We all understand that “difficult decisions” are about to be made about funding, but those decisions shouldn’t disadvantage those who need the greatest help. Unfortunately, some schools are already making their own “difficult decisions” by attempting to skew the playing field in their favour rather than raising the bar of expectation on themselves and training and resourcing their staff.

The fact is that in every catchment there is a school with a reputation for being the one that deals with SEND. And the truth is that these schools started with no more expertise, no more capacity, no other difference from their neighbours than their willingness to try.

But this isn’t sustainable; schools that are inclusive are punished for it, financially because of the cost of supporting these young people (almost always at the expense of their peers) and in terms of accountability. These schools should be celebrated, not chastised, yet they are on the defensive as soon as Ofsted walks through the door.

For us, being inclusive is a source of huge pride: our children are tolerant and understanding of others’ needs; they are supportive and caring. Being an inclusive school brings so much more than we lose.

The green paper offers hope, but truly changing things will involve a lot of soul-searching in a lot of schools. And it certainly won’t happen in a system that stacks the cards against those that choose to be inclusive.

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  1. Ros Lucas

    When mainstream schools are unable to employ lo g term staff, there is little confidence they will have trained SEND staff in place and little extra funding to upgrade premises and emotional staff in numbers required.

    Time for parents to demand special school places based on numbers requiring SEND to avoid large classes so unsuitable for their children.
    Unless more funding is allocated, nothing will change and children and parents will continue to suffer…. but do not keep silent…
    Makes it seem as though Government is forcing parents to keep their children at home, if so pay them to do the job of educating their children that many do very successfully, with happier children. Schools get funding why not parents?
    And why do children have to do all exams at same time when some are not ready? English Maths or Functional Skills good too, when numeracy is most important for majority in life.

  2. Hello
    In response to the article about schools being inclusive of SEND children or pupils, let’s not forget this would not be possible without teaching assistants supporting the class.

    I think it’s fair to say that schools cannot accommodate for all children with SEND.
    I recall supporting a child with cerebral palsy it affected her joints severely. She could not have access to complete in GCSE exams. So in view of the article about synd school being successful what would be your recommendation for the particular pupil who cannot access a full-blown curriculum leading up to their GCSEs?

    Furthermore, from first-hand observation, not all pupils should be classified as having SEND; they are wrongly labelled.

    In addition to that, I’m sorry to say, there is a lot of pressure on primary schools who has to deal with a large cohort of children, with some form of mindfulness trauma;and therefore can lead to and has led to, not diagnosing children from an early stage as to whether they have a SEND especially in the form of ADHD.

    And there are those coming into the system whose first language is not English? Because those pupils are not always taken out off English lessons to get support.

    I also often wonder how a British pupil or student would be treated in such a scenario if we went to their country.


  3. ray james

    This is a very honest description of what parents go through. All junior schools should strive to identify SEN in reception and secure funding to support the child. If they do not they are destroying that child’s education and life chances. Unless juniors schools step up, children are lost to school and senior schools do not stand a chance. OFTSED told me they see it everywhere. It’s a scandal.

  4. sarajaneporter

    Parents must be at the heart of this. I fought an incredible battle to get an ECHP and the next step will be brutal. We are already saving up for the solicitor and Im preparing to use any paid advocates. I am a former teacher and my child has Downs syndrome so its not a hidden disability. My daughter is brilliant so why should I have to do this. I will do it well and I will make as much noise as possible but it is unpleasant, unfair and what about those children with no voice ?

  5. As a parent the worst part is never being quite sure if the child really has extra needs in the first place.My son was put through so much bullying by his teacher at one school I no longer knew what his original problem was and what was the result of an absolutely terrible couple of years.CAMHS and EHCP’s are not reliable and can lead to the school limiting a child’s potential even more.The nice schools who agree to to take in the kids and ‘try’ often won’t accept responsibility and warn parents who( have no other recourse) that if they feel its not working for the school they will terminate the child’s time there.