Reading Chris Zarraga’s article in these pages last week detailing the scale of the challenge in meeting need for students in the north east left me with a certain sense of despair. It is clear that our most vulnerable learners are being put at risk by a system that is in need of change.
But there is hope too, notably in the recognition (in the article and across the system more broadly), that the solutions aren’t all to be found in specialist settings – that every school has a part to play in developing their practices to make the system as a whole more inclusive.
Yes, finding the right school place can and does make a world of difference. We see time and again how a setting where a pupil fits in, where their needs are recognised and met and where they can build positive relationships leads to strong progress, good qualifications and preparation for adulthood.
Some will make it back to mainstream schools armed with a better understanding of their needs and how to manage their emotions. Most will make a successful transition into education, employment or training at 16. And their families will feel better supported and more able to work together with school to help their children succeed too.
The AP and SEND sector is characterised by highly-trained staff who are dedicated to working with the most vulnerable learners. This expertise is invaluable to mainstream settings, and in the best examples of joined-up thinking these specialists deliver training and support to mainstream colleagues. This equips them to access mental health specialists, better manage behaviour, use adaptive teaching techniques and identify underlying SEND and other drivers of behaviour.
As a specialist multi-academy trust, this is some of our most important work. We invest heavily in building and retaining positive relationships with our commissioning local authorities. We work closely with them to find innovative solutions to meet the level of need within local areas. And our independence from any single local authority allows us to work creatively and to share resources and solutions that have the potential to change lives. Networks like those facilitated by Schools North East and the AP SEND CEO Network facilitate this important work.
First and foremost, our focus is on changing the narrative that learners who have SEND or who are permanently excluded from school do not or cannot achieve in line with expectations. There are often very good reasons for this, and interruptions to consistent and adaptive schooling do not help. Every PRU, AP setting, independent school and special school can draw on multiple examples to disprove that narrative. In most cases, the success for these learners who would not have been achieved within less specialist settings – but this doesn’t have to be the case.
The sector have broadly welcomed the national reforms to AP and SEND and see a focus on inclusion in mainstream schools as a positive. This, along with adequate funding within all settings, has to be part of the solution. But this will be most effective when specialist provisions can help and support inclusion through training and outreach as well as providing much-needed intervention places.
The challenge is to get enough capacity within the specialist sector to enable it to effectively deliver this upstream work. That so many provisions are already full is a seriously limiting factor, and this is the cycle that we must break.
It has perhaps been too easy for mainstream schools and local authorities to rely on specialist provisions to simply deliver places for learners. Our expertise is too seldom sought pre-emptively, before a move is considered necessary.
These are difficult times, and we need to look after the wellbeing of our workforce who are our greatest resource. But we are a sector that routinely goes the extra mile to help the most vulnerable learners and I am in no doubt that, called upon at the right time, we can help more of them stay in mainstream settings.