SITTING in the office of a Salford primary school, the hazy sound of children laughing and playing outside can be heard as a new game of ‘tag’ commences. Looking out of the window at the group, you would never know that some of them have a special educational need (SEN).
The teacher and special educational needs co-ordinator (SENCO) from the school walks in looking rushed off her feet. It only takes one word for her to explain why her mind is not fully focussed on our imminent discussion, ‘paperwork’.
“The paperwork side of things is almost unmanageable” she says. “Tons and tons of it!”
The fact is, around 1.3 million pupils in England currently have SEN, a 2.5% decrease from 2014. In Salford alone, more than 1000 pupils currently have a statement or an Educational Health and Care plan.
On a daily basis, a lot of work with SEN goes on behind the scenes in Salford’s schools. Many of us who don’t live or work with SEN do not always get to see the time and effort that multi-agencies put in to get support for children and young people living with a special need or disability.
What is a SENCO?
The SENCO, who wants to remain anonymous, told me about her role in school and how it has changed since the governments reforms just over a year ago.
“The role of the SENCO has increased massively over the past few years and in many schools it could quite easily be a full time position.” She says.
“I’m responsible for ensuring that all children on the SEN register have their specific needs met. This involves costing, timetabling, putting interventions in when necessary, involving the correct outside agencies, writing and reviewing IEPs, compiling reports, attending meetings and holding annual reviews, as well as keeping track of progress being made by each child.”
Under the old system, a child identified as having a SEN would receive a statement, a formal document detailing their learning difficulty and the help they will receive. The government reform replaced these statements with educational health and care plans (EHC), which has changed the way that schools get support for their pupils.
One significant difference is that EHC plans now run from birth to 25, unlike the old statements that only ran until the child was 16. They are now more child centred and focus on the child’s positives in school, whilst allowing them to input on their support.
Although many people support the new EHC plans, the SENCO is not convinced that they have improved the support in schools.
She said: “As a school we have tried to put EHC plan in place for someone who needed it but we got knocked back.
“It’s very difficult to get one now as you have to go through two cycles and try everything possible before submitting an application. If I looked at a child who was really struggling and I thought they needed an EHC plan, a lot of people and organisations would be involved in the decision.
“From a schools point of view, the amount of work now required is immense when it comes to trying to get an EHC plan in place.”
Statistics from the Department for Education show that in Key Stage 1, pupils with SEN performed significantly worse than those without SEN, and the attainment gap has widened in Maths and Science.
Although support and attainment is improving in some areas, the SENCO believes that the government could do more to help.
She said: “Funding is a major issue in SEN as children with often need adult support over and above others in the class.
“Funds are limited and it isn’t always possible to give one to one help to children on a regular basis, which is what us as a school would love to be able to do.
“As a SENCO I feel under a huge amount of pressure, trying to combine my role in SEN whilst still having a large teaching timetable of four to four and a half days is a lot to take on.”
“The Government need to put in more money into schools to cover SEN costs, or pay each school to have a full time SENCO who can organise and have time to do the job properly. Some children with severe and complex needs would be far better and make more progress in a school with more specialised staff.”
Children’s minister Edward Timpson met with parents this week to discuss the reforms, and now OFSTED want to find out how effective local areas have been when it comes to identifying and meeting the needs of children and young people with SEN.
Tania Tirraoro who attended the meeting with Edward Timpson, revealed that the Children’s Minister and officials present ‘listened closely to the parents’ views’, and acknowledged that there were still improvements to be made.
Mr Timpson himself said that he wants to make sure that his department plays their part in making the reforms a success.
In a statement on the recent meeting he said: “It’s an opportunity to build a clearer picture on what aspects of the reforms are working well, and where things need to improve.
“We’d like to be more creative in how we use knowledge from parents in improving the provision of SEND services.”
Although the SENCO believes that it is hard to tell exactly how much difference the reforms are making since they have only been in place for over a year, updates expected in the new year will show the direction that SEN is headed.
As the discussion concludes, the SENCO leaves me with a final thought.
“If only there was an endless pot of money, every child with special educational needs would get the support they need.”
By Laura Dodds