Around 1.4 million pupils in English schools have an identified special educational need (SEN).[footnote 1] These range from the most severe to comparatively minor. Identified numbers have increased for the fourth consecutive year, from 14.4% of all pupils in 2016 to 15.5% in 2020.[footnote 2] Many of these pupils are in mainstream primary and secondary schools.[footnote 3] Research suggests that there are varying interpretations and practices across professionals, schools and local authorities in both SEN identification and provision.[footnote 4]
Although recent reports by Ofsted and others[footnote 5] have highlighted some strengths in the special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND) system, there are also significant weaknesses. These include:
• gaps in external provision and training
• lack of coordination between services
• lack of accountability
• weak co-production
This study was developed to explore how the needs of children and young people are met in mainstream schools and how approaches vary between providers.
We carried out this qualitative case study before the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic with 21 pupils in 7 mainstream schools. These schools are in 2 different local authorities. We asked the schools to select the children who participated, mainly so that those who took part felt confident and comfortable doing so. Consequently, this study was small scale and the children are unlikely to be representative of the population of pupils with SEND in mainstream schools. The results are therefore not generalisable, in particular, the extent of the presence or absence of particular experiences found in our sample. Schools often took a pupil-centred approach when identifying needs and planning provision, but staff did not always know the pupils well enough to do this.
Schools worked towards building secure understandings of pupils and their needs. This appeared to support timely and accurate identification of SEND. Having positive relationships and high expectations for pupils with SEND appeared to be important features of practice. Schools also focused on pupils’ strengths to build confidence and independence. Ensuring that pupils had positive relationships with staff and felt included with peers was also a feature of some schools’ approach. Gaps in understanding of pupils’ needs and starting points resulted in a negative impact on their experiences, learning and development. In our sample, this particularly seemed to be the case for children without education, health and care (EHC) plans and those who were less well known to their special educational needs coordinators (SENCos).
Pupils with SEND regularly spent time out of class working with teaching assistants (TAs), but there were some concerns about social exclusion and over-reliance on a single adult.
Almost all pupils who took part in the research, including those on SEND support, had TAs allocated to them. Sometimes, this was to support them in the classroom, but very often they were taken out for intervention activities. This meant that many pupils were spending some curriculum time with TAs rather than teachers. This raises concerns about pupils with SEND having full access to the high-quality teaching that they need in order to have a chance of success.
Time out of class for intervention activity meant that some pupils were not able to participate in some learning opportunities and some pupils were missing entire chunks of the curriculum. Not only does this imply that regular learning loss will occur in some areas for these pupils, but also that the curriculum that they are offered does not have the same ambition as for their peers.
The significant amounts of curriculum time that pupils with SEND are spending with TAs also raises the issue of support staff training, specifically in the subject and curriculum knowledge required to teach pupils who have struggled to learn the intended curriculum at the same rate as their peers. To deliver intervention activities successfully, TAs need good subject knowledge. Training for robust subject-specific curriculum knowledge is therefore an important element of ensuring that the TA role works effectively for children and young people with SEND.
In a small number of cases, pupils had become over-reliant on their TAs, potentially impacting on them being able to develop independence. Some parents and carers also raised some concerns around social exclusion due to the amount of time spent out of class in small-group or individual interventions. However, regardless of this, most parents and carers were generally very positive about the reassurance and facilitation of learning provided by TAs.
Occasionally, schools were teaching a curriculum to pupils that was not properly sequenced or well matched to their needs. Some parents and school staff thought that in a few cases, pupils were being taught curriculum content that they could not easily access. Due to missed prior learning or unmet needs, these pupils did not have some of the required foundational knowledge and skills. In addition, they were not always given the chance to master basics before moving forwards. When this occurs, pupils are likely to continue to experience difficulties, gaps in their understanding will widen and they will then not have the best chance to succeed in the future. This highlights the importance of practitioners, including TAs, class teachers and SENCos, having strong subject knowledge so they can understand how best to develop and teach the curriculum to support pupils with SEND. It also shows that curriculum content needs to be prioritised effectively so that pupils with SEND can master what they most need to know before moving on.
Collaboration between practitioners and families supported schools in meeting pupils’ needs more effectively. Some schools developed positive and trusting relationships with parents and carers, treating them as partners in co-production.[footnote 6] Parents shared information about their children with schools, who then used this to more accurately identify their needs. Some schools used a range of formal and informal communication channels to encourage families to share information. Parents and carers in these schools felt well-supported by individual members of staff, such as the SENCo or a class teacher, and were more likely to be confident about the school’s broader approach to inclusion.
Mechanisms for co-production with parents and carers were often in place but implementation was not always meaningful. This is likely to impact how far schools can tailor provision to children’s needs.
While some parents and carers spoke about participating in decision-making for their child’s special educational provision, others felt that they were not given sufficient information about their child’s learning and development. Some were not given opportunities to input into support plans by, for example, expressing opinions on targets or provision plans. In some cases, pupils did not have written support plans at all. This meant that the graduated approach was not in place and, crucially, that parents and carers were not given the opportunity to co-produce support plans. A few parents and carers did not consistently take up opportunities for engagement. These factors affect how meaningful joint decision-making can be.
School SENCos were essential for mediating provision but experienced a range of challenges in carrying out their role. SENCos fulfilled a crucial intermediary role between external agencies, schools and families. Strong and trusting relationships between SENCos, parents and carers facilitated this. However, some SENCos felt that they did not have enough time to carry out their responsibilities and access continuing professional development.
Some SENCos were doing this alongside a full-time class teacher role. This indicates that for some schools, the role of the SENCo was not strongly prioritised. Some SENCos also reported frustration with delays and bureaucracy with both referrals and EHC plan assessments. These constrained how effectively they could perform their role.
Schools employed a range of tailored strategies to meet pupils’ needs, sometimes supported by multi-agency services. Schools made adjustments to support pupils socially and emotionally helped to enable the pupils to participate in the curriculum. Staff reported adapting their teaching and providing tailored or specialised resources to enable pupils to access the curriculum. Subject-specific interventions were a strong feature. Access to quiet spaces and strong communication at transition points were also important. When required, specialised support from multi-agency services[footnote 7] complemented what was offered by schools. This input from multi-agency services was valued by families and staff. However, some pupils were not receiving help that adequately met their learning and development needs even when multi-agency services were involved. Local authorities had strong ambitions for multi-agency collaboration, but this did not always translate into improved practice and positive experiences for schools and families.
Leaders from both local authorities had strategies to promote partnership working and collaboration between education, health and care services. However, this did not always happen in practice and many school and family experiences highlighted challenges such as long waiting times and high levels of bureaucracy with the EHC plan process. Pupils with SEND lose too much time in appropriately planned education when there are long delays in accurately identifying needs.
Some pupils received support from external services, but not always to the extent they need.
Some families and schools felt that some pupils did not have access to the full range of practitioners needed, and some did not always have timely access. In some cases, this led to pupils’ targets and support plans being outdated and their needs unmet. Occasionally, families felt the need to commission or pay for services themselves to remedy the lack of timely provision from external services. This highlights the importance of a full range of multi-agency expertise being present and available for planning and providing in order to meet pupil needs.
This research raises questions about what ‘success’ looks like in terms of supporting children with SEND in mainstream schools. This report has provided insight into the experiences of individual pupils, how their needs were identified and the support that was or was not put in place to allow them to learn and participate in school life. Some of the pupils in our sample appeared to be thriving at school. They were accessing the full curriculum alongside their peers, were making progress and were fully included in the wider life of their schools. Others were accessing a more limited curriculum or were excluded from particular events and activities.
As some pupils with SEND may need longer to master particular areas of the curriculum, schools and parents have difficult decisions to make about how to enable learning while also working to ensure that the pupils are included in school life. This highlights broader issues for debate about what ‘success’ looks like in supporting pupils with SEND in mainstream schools. The variation in support experienced by pupils in this study, even when they had a similar identified need, suggests that the SEND system relies on particular individuals performing important roles well and working together effectively.
This means that 2 pupils with similar needs, attending different schools, can have very different experiences. Absolute uniformity is unlikely when individual schools have autonomy to make provision for their pupils. However, despite individuals working hard and with care, significant variability in provision is not an indicator of a system working effectively for children with SEND.