Worlds apart? How pupils with special needs lead a life away from their teachers and classmates

Rob Webster and Peter Blatchford

This week the government’s long-awaited Children and Families Bill was presented to Parliament for its first reading. The Bill – which will prompt the biggest shake up of special educational needs (SEN) in 30 years – confirms one centrepiece proposal, heavily-trailed over the last 12 months: the replacement of statements of SEN with Education and Health Care Plans (EHCPs).

Statements are awarded to pupils with the highest level of SEN; they set out a pupil’s needs and the provision that he or she should receive to meet them.

These proposals follow ministers’ views that the current SEN system is unfit for purpose. But beyond parents’ genuine concerns about the statementing process, surprisingly little is known about the day-to-day teaching and support that pupils experience once a statement is put in place. Without such information, is the call for reform premature?

Findings from our Making a Statement (MaSt) project fill this gap and raise important points for policymakers to consider. Over 2011/12, we carried out minute-by-minute observations on 48 pupils in Year 5 who had statements for moderate learning difficulties or behavioural, emotional and social difficulties, and interviewed 200 school staff and parents.

The results show that the educational experiences of pupils with statements is characterised by a high degree of separation. Compared to average-attaining pupils, they spent over a quarter of their week away from their class, teacher and peers.

A clear point to emerge from the MaSt study was the almost constant accompanying presence of a teaching assistant (TA) in the locations – both in and away from the classroom –where pupils worked. Compared to average attaining pupils, we found that pupils with statements spent less time in whole class teaching with teachers, and were more than three times more likely to interact with TAs than teachers.

In many cases TAs also put together alternative curricula and prepared intervention programmes. They also had the main responsibility for verbally differentiating teachers’ tasks, often in the moment, having had little or no opportunity before lessons to meet or prepare with the teacher.

Teachers, on the other hand, rarely had as high a level of involvement in planning and teaching statemented pupils as TAs, or provided the extra level of differentiation these pupils needed. This is very likely to be connected to the gap in knowledge teachers especially had in knowing how to meet the needs of the particular statemented pupil in their class.

As a result of current arrangements, we found that whilst the support provided (largely by TAs) was clearly well intentioned, it seemed insufficient to close the attainment gap.

Not only did pupils with statements spent less time in whole class teaching with the teacher, but they also had almost half as many interactions with their classmates compared to other pupils. This, we argue, is likely to adversely affect their social development.

Spending a week at a time observing at close quarters, and discussion with practitioners and parents/carers, brought home how schools are making every effort to attend to the needs of pupils with statements amid a period of intense flux and uncertainty in schools and local authorities. However, findings from the MaSt project and our previous research – the Deployment and Impact of Support Staff (DISS) project – raise questions about the appropriateness of current arrangements.

Statements entitle pupils to a set number of hours of TA support. Yet, the DISS project found that compared to their peers, pupils who had the most support from TAs did less well academically, and this finding was especially clear for pupils with SEN.

With EHCPs replacing statements, a key message from our research is that the currency of statements should change from “hours” to “pedagogy”. We suggest EHCPs specify the pedagogical processes and strategies that will help meet carefully defined outcomes.

Crucially though, while we recommend the new SEN reforms do away with “hours”, we do not suggest they do away with TAs. Which is why, as well as thinking more inclusively about pupils with statements, schools and teachers also need to rethink the role of TAs. Our new book, Maximising the Impact of TAs provides guidance on this.

The Making a Statement project was an independent research project, funded by a grant from the Nuffield Foundation.

To download the MaSt project Final Report, and for more on our research, visit www.schoolsupportstaff.net

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Posted in Special educational needs and psychology
2 comments on “Worlds apart? How pupils with special needs lead a life away from their teachers and classmates
  1. […] authors have also made a blog post about the […]

  2. […] Undermining inclusion. As we concluded in a recent study, TAs are central to the good work schools do in educating and including pupils with the highest […]

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