While the Government ponders over the responses to its Green Paper on SEN, it is a good time to look at how policies have been moving ahead as a result of the intense debate around SEN over the last year. It is easy to forget that while the architecture of the system is being reviewed, there are a number of practical steps already being taken to improve the system as a result of recent reports.
The Lamb Inquiry into Parental Confidence in Special Education Needs (DCSF, 2009) reflected that we were still living with the legacy of a time when children with SEN where seen as uneducable. Talking to parents and teachers, it was clear that children with SEN where often side-lined rather than challenged to improve to become the best that they could be. The Inquiry concluded that we needed to change the culture of low expectations for children with SEN in our schools. It also argued that we had to get away from specifying provision and look harder at what intended outcomes that provision was intended to achieve.
These conclusions where more than backed up by the Government’s own figures at the time and since. Despite growing investment in SEN in recent years, attainment stays stubbornly low, and below what could be justified even taking account of the difficulties faced by some children. While the latest figures from the Department for Education (DfE) show some modest improvements, it is still the case that only 33.4 per cent of all pupils with SEN achieved level 4 or above in both English and mathematics in 2010; this compares to 87.2 per cent of pupils with no identified SEN. The attainment gap between pupils with SEN and those without is 53.8 percentage points. Some pupils with SEN do better than that, but even the best performers lag far behind the national averages. As the Coalition Government’s Green Paper noted, they are also four times less likely to participate in higher education, and pupils at School Action Plus are 20 times more likely to receive a permanent exclusion and seven times more likely to receive a fixed period exclusion than pupils with no identified SEN.
I saw a system where parent’s satisfaction plummeted in exact proportion to the lack of specialist support and understanding of their child’s needs, and where their voices where not taken account of and brought into the conversation about support their child needed. However, I also saw enough outstanding examples of good practice from the best schools and teachers to convince me that change was possible, that if we could find ways of changing the culture in schools, whatever the overarching system of entitlements, we could bring about radical change in outcomes irrespective of what legislation was to follow. Indeed, that legislation could only set a framework for change but would not, on its own, bring about the cultural change that our schools need on SEN.
In short, the message from my Inquiry was that the system needed a relentless focus on improving outcomes and better means to bring parents more into the conversation with schools about their children.
From the early stages of the Inquiry, one of the overriding aims became to find a way of ensuring that schools would be able to focus more on outcomes and involve parents better. The focus turned to what could be done now to make a dramatic difference almost irrespective of what other changes took place to the system further down the tracks. From this strategic aim, the pilot programme Achievement for All (AfA) was born. The aim of the programme was to test out ensuring a greater focus on outcomes by using the best available teaching practice and meld this with putting parent’s views at the heart of the programme.
Achievement for All rests on three approaches to improving outcomes and involvement. First, a focus on improving the aspirations, progress and achievement of all children and young people through high expectations, effective use of assessment and target setting. Second, this is supported and informed by improved engagement with parents of children and young people through structured conversations, where parents have the time to explore what would help their children and teachers can get parents on board with what the school is trying to do. Third, this in turn helps to improve achievement, access and aspiration of children and young people and provides a wide range of learning opportunities in the classroom and beyond. The whole programme is based on a vision – a core set of values and beliefs, shared by all staff – that all children and young people have the right to opportunities to develop their learning.
The pilots, started in 2009, have been rolled out in over 450 schools in ten local authorities, and the programme has so far reached over 20,000 children covering different year groups (1-2, 5-7, 7-8, 10-11). The interim results (evaluated by Neil Humphrey and Garry Squires of the University of Manchester, 2011) have already demonstrated a huge impact on attainment, with children with high functioning autism, Asperger’s, dyslexia and other developmental problems progressing, on average, three to four assessment point scores within an academic year in reading, writing and maths. What surprised those involved with the project was that for year five the gains were higher than for all pupils of the same year group, including those without SEN, nationally in English. This level of impact on attainment has not been seen in interventions for children with SEN before.
However, this is only part of the story. As children have become more confident learners, they have become more positive towards their education. The pilot has shown that exclusions have been reduced and attendance improved as children’s behaviour improves with the additional progress they are making. In addition, the desire to come into school increases, supported by greater parental understanding and commitment to what the school is trying to achieve. The evaluation also notes that the children’s self-esteem improves, better relationships are established with other children and there is greater participation in other schools events. There has also been a fall in the number of SEN registered pupils, which decreased by ten per cent as better assessment and support of children’s needs resulted in improved performance.
The improved communication and collaboration with parents, carers, teachers, and children has also led to schools rethinking their approach, with the programme being used as a whole school improvement framework. Schools have more inclusive practices and create an ethos of high achievement for all children. Schools have also found that the flexibility involved, where the approach is tailored to make a bespoke programme for each school, means that it is not a one-size-fits-all model and builds on the particular strengths and approach of each school.
The success of the approach had been also been attested to by those involved in the pilot. This comment from a teacher testifies to the galvanising effect of the programme on parental confidence and those parents who have been hard to reach:
“There was one set of parents that have never turned up to any meetings and I think that is a real success that they have come to every single AfA meeting.… and they seem to have taken a lot more interest in their child because of it. I think that’s had a massive impact on that child and that child’s experience of school is going to be much more positive” (Key Teacher, Year 5).
Another teacher noted that this helps across the whole of the educational experience:
“The fact that parents are coming into school, and students know they are coming in for this meeting, that is not only building a relationship with the student in school, but with the parents of the student and with the Year Manager. So it has a knock on effect to everything because it is not just about their academic levels – it is about the whole student and whole picture (School AfA Lead).”
The enthusiasm shown by both parents and teachers led the interim evaluation to call this element of the programme a resounding success. While parents collectively need more chances to input to the approach of the whole school and the strategy being pursued by the local authority on SEN provision, something promised in the Green Paper on SEN (DfE, 2011), the parental conversation is already showing what a difference parental involvement can make for individual parents and children in schools.
It is therefore really good news that the Green Paper announced the roll out of the Achievement for All programme with another £15m of funding over the next three years. A new charity has been created to deliver Achievement for All as a new national programme based on the learning from the evaluation. Led by Professor Sonia Blandford, and backed by the DfE it aims to recruit half the schools in England to achieve a newly created quality mark in school improvement around outcomes. Over 300 schools have already signed up in the first month of the programme going live, before any national promotional activity. With the Green Paper promising a greater focus on the lowest 20 per cent of attainment, new requirements for schools to measure the progress of this group are promised and it is expected that schools will need to have a greater focus on this group of children. The new Ofsted framework makes significant reference to leadership, pupil progress, identification of need and support for all SEN pupils, each of the elements within the Achievement for All framework; inspectors will be advised as to the value of the Achievement for All Quality Mark.
Achievement for All does not exist in a vacuum and it cannot be the whole of the answer for what needs to happen for children with SEN. It is crucial over the coming years to ensure that assessment mechanisms improve, that specialist support is available to those who need it and that parents do not have to fight to get the support they need for their child. However, Achievement for All has already shown that it can make a profound difference for children and bring parents much more into a relationship with schools, and give them more insight into how to support their children. Schools do not have to wait for the rest of the system to change; the means to change lives is already here and it works.
Brian Lamb OBE was chair of the Lamb Inquiry into Parental Confidence in Special Education Needs. He is now an Independent Consultant on SEN Policy and Chair of Achievement for All: