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SEN Policy Research Forum Exeter

UK General Election: How to fix a broken system – Starting points for an equitable and inclusive education system in England under a new government.


How to fix a broken system: Starting points for an equitable and inclusive education system in England under a new government.

Francesca Peruzzo, Research Fellow in Education Policy and Equity
Education Equity Initiative – University of Birmingham

 

With elections approaching, in this blog post I suggest three starting points for the new government to begin to take inclusive education seriously and avoid quick fixes that would prevent the irremediably broken system to be overhaul and rewritten.

Currently, the notion that children with Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) should be educated in mainstream schools is upheld across different schools (state, academies, independent) through the Equality Act 2010, and provisions are regulated through the Children and Families Act 2014, the SEND Code of Practice 2015, and the SEND and Alternative Provision Green Paper March 2022.

However, inclusion is still hardly defined through legislation and still sees little enactment in English mainstream classrooms. In the past 14 years, relentless funding cuts, on school, local and national levels, have hindered not only individual children’s success, but children’s possibility to access and stay in education. The relentless withdrawal of the state has seen an increased privatisation of education processes. Privatisation happened both exogenously by bringing new providers into education service delivery (i.e. the ever-increasing number of multi-academy trusts that now run state schools and the growing number of privately run special schools); and endogenously, by introducing market relations into the public system, delivering a system though school competition, choice, and post-code lottery.

The increased fragmentation of the system has had devastating effects on inclusion and equity in education, extending from student to school, community and local authority level. According to UK Government data, in Spring 2022/23, there were 3,309 permanent exclusions across state-funded schools only, most of them of children identified with Special Educational Needs, increased since Spring 2021/22 when there were 2,200. Looking into these results, we find a highly intersectional exclusion rate, where children from Gipsy Roma and Traveller ethnicity and Black-Caribbean origins, in particular boys, are the most excluded for behavioural and communication issues and subject to Zero tolerance behaviour policies because they cannot behave according to classroom’s rules.

On the other hand, children with an EHCP and their families experience high level of stress due to either struggling to access the plan due to heavy bureaucratic procedures, or when this is delayed or not approved. In fact, financial cuts are increasingly hindering their very possibility of accessing a plan, given the huge disparity that exist between local authorities’ and schools’ offers, according to where pupils live. Delays in receiving the right support or misdiagnosis often end up with either children being redirected to special schools or excluded. Special schools are frequently far away from where they live, or worse, over capacity. These dynamics too many times force families to go through legal complaints at the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman and the SENDIST tribunal processes. In the academic year 2022/23, HMCTS tribunals recorded 14,000 registered SEN appeals, an increase of 24% when compared to the prior year, with 28% against ‘refusal to secure an EHC assessment’, and 58% in relation to the content of EHC plans. Of the recorderd 12,000 outcomes in relation to such appeals, 68% (8,000) of cases were decided by the tribunal, and 98% (7,800) of these cases were in favour of the appellant.

On a school level, compounded difficulties including the need of increased funding (IFS, 2024) and the pressure of standardised tests intersecting with some of the highest number of teachers leaving the profession for reasons other than retirement, with research finding that routinely teaching assistants have to cover for regular teachers. This combination of factors, first, sees teaching assistants either not having time and means to support children in need or left on their own with many times with more than they can actually support, effectively enacting actual separation within and outside the classroom. Second, regular teachers growing increasingly concerned about high stake accountability tests and Ofsted reports lead to what it has been often called ‘teaching to the test’,. This implies the standardisation and fast-pacing of pedagogy and curricula  in such ways that pedagogically sideline disabled children and children with SEN, preventing the implementation of inclusive teaching and learning practices that could equitably address the variety of children’s backgrounds, ethnicities and needs in the classroom. Moreover, despite the current government promise of increase in funding for SEND and EHCPs, mainstream schools still struggle with a shortage of specialist staff in particular speech and language therapists and educational psychologists who support and diagnose students with SEND. The assessments they provide are used by councils when deciding upon their EHCPs.

The compounded effects of lack of effective individual support within a clear inclusive school vision, shortage of key professional staff, increased numbers of students identified with SEND depict a bleak situation, which many feel as irrecuperable. While the SEND and Alternative Provision Improvement Plan is being tested across the 9 regions to provide a strong evidence base and inform future funding and legislation, there is still uncertainty whether the new government will take this evidence as basis for a change in the system or if the process needs to be started anew. In a system that seems to be irremediably broken, some underpinning strategies need to be considered on a systemic more than ad hoc level, to create the conditions for good practices to be enacted and equity and inclusion to be advanced.

 

  1. Regulating to end the fragmentation of education system and delivery of EHC Plans across Local Authorities.

There is a need to identify better governance solutions that support a more homogeneous enactment and application not only of legislation regulating equitable and inclusive experiences of children with SEND, but the whole education system. The privatisation of many services, and schools, continue to generate new inequities and forms of exclusions, which must be monitored according to a common framework and code of practice. Local authorities are to play a substantial role in this, on a level of governance through a shared format of EHC Plan and more power to more evenly distribute school resources and success.

 

  1. Acting on individualisation of needs

While financial support must be there for children to be provided with the correct help they need to be active participants in their classroom, this support needs to be considered as encompassing the school’s inclusion plan, a whole-school approach so all children to benefit from inclusion, not only children identified with SEND. Inclusion is not only about children that have a EHCP but also children that do not see themselves represented in education, and who often manifest their discomfort through challenging behaviours. A plan that includes emotional support and school activities that foster inclusion and the participation of all pupils needs to become common practice, fostering the school community while supporting children’s individual needs.

 

  1. Focusing on teachers’ training and well-being

In their Steps for Change, Labour have pledged to create 6,500 new teaching positions. While recruitment of teachers is indeed needed, it is of foremost importance that teachers believe, and are properly trained, in enacting inclusive education. This would first imply close monitoring of the roll-out of the Initial Teacher Education New Core Content Framework from September 2024 to make sure that all student teachers are formed on the tenets of inclusive education as an integral part of their future profession. Second, ensuring that inclusion happens in the classroom, with teaching assistants and regular teachers collaborating towards curricula, pedagogies and assessment strategies that do not differentiate without standardising but that allow for different students’ abilities to thrive. Third, the focus needs to be on teachers’ wellbeing too. Inclusion in the classroom implies also to take care of teachers that are to enact such inclusion, in particular support for disabled teachers who also act as role models for children with SEND. A careful focus on teachers’ working conditions is also needed to create the conditions for inclusion to be enacted.

 

Hopefully these can be three starting points to seriously rethink and reprogramme not only SEND provisions, but the whole education system, preventing new patches to be put on long-standing, incurable wounds.

 




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