Just before Christmas, Mencap – the UK’s leading charity for people with learning disabilities – reported results of a survey of parents’ perceptions of their children’s education. Responses from 908 parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) found that 65% thought their child receives a poorer education, compared with pupils without SEND. Also, 64% said their child had been taken out of class because of their learning disability.
The findings clearly prompt concern, but they also invite broader questions about how we corroborate the views of parents and others with what happens in schools. In this case, investigating the veracity of subjective views requires additional objective data concerning what actually goes on in classrooms where children with SEND are taught.
We can obtain such data through a technique called systematic observation (SO). SO was developed in the early-1970s after researchers realised that to get at the features of effective teaching, more effort was needed to objectively describe and understand what teachers actually did in classrooms. Hitherto, research had focused chiefly on teachers’ personalities and characteristics.
SO allows researchers to take snapshots of the classroom at regular intervals. Mutually exclusive observation categories of teacher and pupil behaviour (e.g. their interactions) and the contexts in which they happen (e.g. as part of the class or a group) are coded on a consistent basis, typically minute-by-minute.
Codable categories must be straightforward to identify reliably, validly and at scale. Consequently, the pictures researchers paint using SO data are typically achieved using broad strokes. It’s a technique not without its critics, but it produces large datasets that provide valuable objective insights into classroom life, often unavailable to everyday experience or received opinion.
A new paper1, soon to be published in the British Educational Research Journal, describes results of an analysis I undertook using SO data from studies dating back nearly 40 years, comparing the educational experiences of children with and without SEN. Six SO studies with similar approaches were identified. The common lineage meant that the measures of classroom activity were relatively stable, allowing a comparison of experiences of the two groups of pupils over time.
Data, consistent in terms of pupil sample (children in Key Stage 2 attending mainstream primary schools in England) and observation categories, provided markers at six points between 1975 and 2012. Two separate analyses of experiences over time for pupils with and without SEN were conducted, plus a third comparing the experiences of pupils with SEN, relative to those without SEN.
The results allow a plausible commentary on changes over a 35-year span. To summarise, the average pupil has, over time, experienced an increasing amount of whole class interaction with the teacher and with peers, and much less time working alone in silence2.
In contrast, those with SEN have experienced a more moderate increase in the proportion of time spent interacting with the teacher, and almost no change in the amount of time spent interacting with peers and in whole class teaching contexts.
The data suggest some explanatory factors regarding the results for pupils with SEN. Firstly, the large increase in the number of TAs working in primary classrooms has meant that, compared with average (non-SEN) pupils, those with SEN end up having a greater number of interactions with TAs, and consequently fewer with their teacher and peers.
The second reason is that opportunities for teacher and peer interaction are additionally affected by the amount of time pupils with SEN spend outside the classroom. Those with the highest level of need have been found to spend the equivalent of over one day per week away from the classroom. When these data (from 2012) are factored in, the proportion of time spent with the teacher is not only markedly lower than for the average pupil, but virtually the same as it was in 1982.
It’s a remarkable conclusion to reach. On the basis of these results, for some pupils with SEN, key aspects of their education are as they were 30 years previous.
The Mencap survey was essentially an opinion poll and the results should alarm us, because it was precisely concerns like this that led to the revised SEN Code of Practice. The new Code is intended to improve school experiences for children with SEND and place families at the centre of decision-making and provision. The Mencap survey, then, provides a necessary check on whether the Code is delivering its aim to ensure their voices are being listened to.
The broader point to make is that improving policymaking and delivering effective classroom practice have as much need of empirical evidence as they do of stakeholders’ opinions, outlooks and experiences. The added historical perspectives we can obtain from analyses of data collected using techniques like SO are useful too for holding decision-makers to account.
1 Webster, R. (in press) The classroom experiences of pupils with special educational needs in mainstream primary schools – 1976 to 2012. What do data from systematic observation studies reveal about pupils’ educational experiences over time? British Educational Research Journal
2 The authors of some of the studies identified the way the National Curriculum influenced how teachers taught and arranged the classroom as a potential reason for this. For more, see Galton et al. (2002) Inside the primary classroom: 20 years on, London: Routledge, and Pollard et al. (2000) What pupils say: Changing policy and practice in primary education. Findings from the PACE project, London: Continuum.