Special needs: politicians should check the evidence before making claims about inclusion

Rob Webster. 

Last week, a video of controversial comments made in the Australian Parliament about pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) provoked international headlines. Voice wavering and clumsily tripping over her words, Senator Pauline Hanson unmistakably suggested that “we need to get rid of these people” from mainstream classrooms, because their presence “held back” others:

Most of the time the teacher spends so much time on them, they forget about the child who is straining at the bit and wants to go ahead in leaps and bounds in their education”.

Educators, researchers, advocates and parents of children with SEND from the UK joined those in Australia in responding sharply to Senator Hanson’s ‘anti-inclusion, pro-segregation’ position on social media.

But what about Senator Hanson’s central claim – based, it seems, on anecdotal evidence – that pupils with SEND receive more teacher time at the expense of pupils without SEND? She was admittedly referring to the Australian education system, but does her claim have any validity in the UK context? We can test this assumption using data from new research conducted by myself and my UCL Institute of Education colleague, Peter Blatchford.

Our SEN in Secondary Education (SENSE) study was set up to describe the educational experiences of 49 pupils with Statements or Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) in mainstream secondary schools. The SENSE study replicates and builds on our earlier Making a Statement (MAST) study, which described the educational experiences of 48 pupils with Statements in primary settings.

In both studies, we gathered systematic, minute-by-minute data on pupils’ interactions with adults and peers, and the contexts in which they occurred. Thirty pupils from the primary cohort featured in the SENSE study. Taken together, the MAST and SENSE studies amassed 1,340 hours of classroom observation, making it the largest observational research project conducted in the UK on pupils with SEND.

The SENSE study results revealed that pupils are educated separately via a form of ‘streaming’. Pupils with SEND were mostly taught together in (so-called) ‘low ability’ groups, and average-attaining pupils were mainly taught separately (by a different teacher) in ‘middle ability’ groups. There was relatively little use of mixed attainment teaching in secondary schools. Even in primary schools, where children across the attainment range are taught together almost all the time, our earlier MAST study found that pupils with Statements did not get any more time with the teacher than their non-SEND peers. In fact, they got less.

So, on the basis of our extensive observations in English schools, the presence of pupils with learning difficulties doesn’t appear to prevent pupils without SEND receiving any less time with the teacher, as Senator Hanson implied.

Our research, however, identifies a different factor that does have a decisive effect on the amount of teacher interaction pupils with and without SEND receive: the presence of teaching assistants (TA) in the classroom.

While there were rarely TAs in the average-attaining secondary school classes, there was almost always at least one TA working with the classes containing pupils with SEND. We found that pupils with Statements/EHCPs spent 18% of their time interacting with TAs, versus 1% for average-attainers. In the earlier MAST study, 27% of the interactions primary-aged pupils with Statements/EHCPs experienced were with a TA, as opposed to 2% for average-attainers.

Our two studies show that compared to pupils without SEND, it’s the high proportion of interaction with TAs experienced by those with SEND that gets in the way of teacher interaction. What’s more, in both primary and secondary settings, interaction with TAs cuts across opportunities for peer interaction: overall, pupils with Statements/EHCPs had just under half as many interactions with their classmates as average-attainers.

The SENSE study adds to what we found in both the MAST study and our previous research: a high reliance on TAs to facilitate the inclusion of pupils with Statements/EHCPs has implications and unintended consequences. The findings raise important questions about the quality and sustainability of inclusive practice in English schools. You can read more about the SENSE study here.

Senator Hanson stands by her comments, though she claims (somewhat disingenuously) to have been ‘misrepresented’ in the media. This episode is another example of the troubling trend for politicians to use opinion to carry their arguments, rather than fact.

Indeed, in the wave of criticism that followed the video, one commentator produced an elegant take-down of Senator Hanson’s position by drawing on robust evidence showing that the inclusion of pupils with SEND has no detrimental impact on the learning of others, and can even have a beneficial effect.

It’s right that politicians should take account of the broad range of views and experiences of their constituents, but when it comes to the sensitive topic of addressing the rights and needs of vulnerable children and young people, they would do well to consult the evidence base too. Empirical research lends a much-needed objective insight into what happens in schools, in classrooms, and in the lives of pupils with SEND, and provides a sounder basis for pronouncements and policymaking.

 

The SENSE study was funded by a grant from the Nuffield Foundation.

Download the SENSE study Final Report here.

Click here for information on the MAST study.

 

 

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Posted in Special educational needs and psychology

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