Published on: 16 Nov 2017

Schools are under extreme pressure to perform – all too often, that means neglecting children with SEN, either accidentally or deliberately.

Accountability and inclusion: a hugely difficult balancing act

By Tom Guy, SEN Publisher, GL Assessment

Last week I had the honour of chairing our inaugural SEN Conference in Manchester, featuring some of the leading authorities in the sector. SENCos travelled from all over the North to benefit enormously from the deep wealth of expertise and enthusiasm of Michael Surr, Pat Hunt, Jules Daulby, Lorraine Petersen and Natasha Devon.

Much of what the speakers said was both inspirational and informative. However, it is sadly evident that the outlook remains bleak for an unnecessarily large proportion of our most vulnerable young people. If I were to pick one overriding theme, it would be the incompatibility of an accountability agenda with an inclusion agenda. Schools are under extreme pressure to perform – all too often, that means neglecting children with SEN, either accidentally or deliberately. To pick a couple of the more disturbing examples from the conference of how this manifests itself: the head of one school asked the parents of a child with SEN to keep him at home on the day of an Ofsted inspection while the head of another told a parent at an open day that they would be better off going to the school down the road.

Natasha Devon spoke convincingly about the fundamental needs of all human beings, one of which is to feel belonging. Tragically, many feel the system is set up so that schools are incentivised not to fulfil this need where it is most required. I don’t wish in any way to tar all school leaders with the same brush – Pat Hunt of the Academy Transformation Trust provided a wonderful example of how an enlightened and determined approach can yield fantastic results – but it often feels as if people like Pat are swimming against the tide, rather than with it.

It has been known for a long time that children with SEN are far more likely to be excluded from mainstream education than children without SEN. In Lorraine Petersen’s view, this is partly down to a failure to ‘peel back the layers of the onion’. Schools sometimes see only behaviour, rather than properly understanding the behaviour – and with all the other challenges faced by schools, it becomes too easy a decision to exclude. Again, I don’t seek to criticise the people on the ground making these incredibly tough choices; rather, I think we need to regain some balance in the system.  When combined with the fact that special schools are bursting, it can mean that some children with SEN are left out of education altogether. At the last count in England, there were 102 such children, which, in my humble opinion, is a national disgrace.

There seemed universal agreement in the room with the spirit of the most recent reforms; yet, as several speakers pointed out, that spirit has not fully translated into practice. Jules Daulby, who works closely with parents at the Driver Youth Trust, issued a damning verdict: most parents are finding it harder to get the best support for their children than they did before the reforms. The minister behind them is no longer in post: it’s obvious that urgent attention needs to be paid by his inheritor to their successful implementation.

I’d like to take this opportunity to suggest another small adjustment that would improve outcomes: SEN funding for schools should be changed from notional to non-notional. It should be tracked in the same way as pupil premium, so that impecunious schools cannot use it to plug other holes.

After so much anguish, I asked each speaker to wrap up the conference on a positive note. Michael Surr from nasen said that he is ‘very hopeful for the future of SEN provision, because it’s clear how hard people work and how much people care’. Happily, that much is impossible to find fault with.