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Be careful what you wish for: parents, professionals and the new SEN system

Blog Editor, IOE Digital19 March 2014

 Rob Webster
The long-awaited Children and Families Bill has now achieved Royal Assent, paving the way for new reforms that will overhaul how the needs of children and young people with special educational needs (SEN) are assessed and met.
In September, a new accompanying Code of Practice comes into force, initiating a three-year process of replacing SEN Statements for those with the highest level of need with more comprehensive Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs).
Families deserve a responsive and efficient SEN system. The changes to statutory assessment (the process leading to an EHCP), which expressly places the child at the centre of consultations with local authorities (LAs), were prompted by, and are designed to address, long-standing concerns relating to parents’ expectations and confidence in the SEN system.
However, parents are still likely to enter the assessment process in the hope of securing one-to-one support from a teaching assistant (TA) – particularly when their child’s needs can be met in a mainstream school. Under the outgoing system, support is quantified in  TA hours. Many agree ‘TA hours’ are the accepted currency of Statements, and as things stand, are likely to feature in the new EHCPs.
With the best of intentions, schools have sustained arrangements heavily reliant on TAs in the name of inclusive practice. The new Code of Practice, however, suggests a move away from the widespread ‘default model’ of one-to-one TA support. It emphasises the significance of ‘high quality teaching’ and gives a coded warning about how ‘special education provision…is compromised by anything less’.
Behind this warning appear to be findings from the recent Making a Statement study (which I co-directed with Peter Blatchford) on the day-to-day teaching and support for pupils with high-level SEN. We tracked 48 Statemented pupils in mainstream primary schools and found they had a qualitatively different educational experience compared with their non-SEN peers, characterised by having fewer interactions with teachers and classmates, and almost constant and lower quality support from a TA.
Put together with results from our previous research, which found that pupils with high-level SEN receiving the most TA support made significantly less academic progress than similar pupils who received little or no TA support (even after controlling for SEN), we see a worrying trend: pupils with Statements are negatively affected by the very intervention intended to help them.
The new Code is encouraging, as it reinforces how every teacher is responsible and accountable for the development and progress of every pupil in their class. TAs have a very useful role to play in making this work in practice, but it also requires a fundamental rethink about how schools manage teaching and provision for vulnerable learners, and how they ‘do’ inclusion.
For me, more needs to be done to manage expectations when families – hoping for the magic bullet of TA hours – start the statutory assessment process. SENCos, educational psychologists and new SEN ‘champions’ (among others) have a crucial role to play here, as these are the people with whom families tend to deal with first when a request for assessment is sought.
Their work and training must reflect the research evidence that provides a clear warning of persisting with the dominant, TA-heavy model of provision, and (depending on the professional) provide alternative guidance in the form of appropriate and effective pedagogical techniques.
None of this is to say that parents should ‘get real’ and accept whatever cash-strapped LAs can afford; nor that most parents have unreasonable expectations of the SEN system. The key issue is that, from the very start, those working in the best interests of the child need to do more to help parents understand that the quality of support their child receives really is more important than the quantity, and propose arrangements that follow this principle.
Statutory assessment is a rigorous and evidence-based process. The new SEN reforms make it incumbent on educationalists to approach SEN provision in the same manner.
For more on the research, visit www.teachingassistantresearch.co.uk.