Statistics highlight the challenge of introducing a new single school-based SEN category
The government is convinced that over-identification of SEN is common in schools across the country and plans to tackle the ‘problem’ by introducing a new single school-based SEN category to replace current identification level of School Action and School Action Plus.
Evidence to support the over-identification claim is not clear-cut. Ofsted’s 2010 report (The Special Educational Needs and Disability Review: A statement is not enough) overstated or oversimplified the view that too many schools identify children at School Action or School Action Plus, but the government picked up the ‘message’ and chose to incorporate it into its policy planning. More positively, the government has learned from the successful Achievement for All (AfA) pilot programme that common sense planning, intervention and communication, coupled with well-focused leadership, can significantly improve outcomes for a wide range of pupils with SEN. However, without the benefit of pilot project levels of funding, it is not clear that AfA success can be maintained over a prolonged period of time or that it will be able to meet the needs of all children at School Action or School Action Plus.
Over-identification or good practice?
This brings us to the heart of the problem. Recent Department for Education (DfE) statistics show that in January 2012 there were 1,392,215 pupils without statements of SEN in schools in England. This is 17 per cent of the school population, and represents a slight decrease from the 17.8 per cent figure in 2011. The DfE notes that most of the decrease is in pupils identified at School Action. We need to be cautious here – the way that data is reported and captured by the DfE is not foolproof and fluctuations may occur for a variety of reasons – but there may also be a good practice story to tell. The current SEN Code of Practice always intended that schools should, where interventions are successful, take children ‘off the Code’. So, a decrease from 17.8 to 17 percent of children identified at School Action and School Action plus could, it might be reasonably argued, show that schools are working effectively to support the majority of pupils with SEN and that the current Code of Practice is working reasonably well.
Making sure that change is positive
Arguing that the SEN Code of Practice is not entirely broken or unfit for purpose, and that not all schools are unnecessarily giving children an SEN label does not mean that we should be complacent with regard to the identification, assessment and meeting of children’s needs. The introduction of a new single school-based SEN category should therefore be seen as an opportunity to strengthen and refine procedures that help children and their teachers, rather than as a mechanism for reducing SEN numbers. To this end, the view expressed by children and families minister, Sarah Teather (BBC interview, Today programme, 15 May), that we must cut SEN numbers needs to be reframed and presented in a more positive and more educationally meaningful language.
Getting the new category (and apologies for using 1970s terminology!) right will need to ensure that:
- conceptualising high-incidence SEN (already being referred to as ‘low-cost’ needs) is given careful consideration and that the distinction between low attainment and SEN is not oversimplified through the use of arbitrary ‘boundaries’
- a new category does not lead to calls from families or schools for more children to be identified as needing an Education, Health and Care Plan (due to replace the SEN statement from 2014) because this provides the only means of securing adequate resources
- children with moderate learning difficulties (MLD) are not unfairly treated by being re-labelled as low attaining pupils (this group of children receive much less attention than those with specific ‘labels’ such as autism or dyslexia)
- children with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties (SEBD) who may also experience difficulties in learning are not inappropriately excluded from a new SEN category on the grounds that their need can be met through better disciplinary procedures or mental health interventions
- children’s needs are not overlooked, and that they do not fall through a net because their difficulties have not been identified at an early age
- children meeting the new single school-based SEN category criteria have access to appropriate financial and human resources, and that schools/SENCOs know that this is ring-fenced.
The introduction of the new single school-based SEN category should not, first and foremost, be about reducing numbers of children identified as experiencing difficulties in learning. Rather, it should be about better identification, assessment and intervention across all phases of schooling. If this leads to a reduction in SEN numbers, this can be regarded as a positive side effect of effective policy and practice, but not its aim.