“Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) pupils are not someone else's problem. Every school is a school for pupils with SEND, and every teacher is a teacher of SEND pupils.”
These were the words of former Education Secretary Damian Hinds when he addressed the Association of Directors of Children's Services back in 2018. More recently, the government has pledged to review, and inject new funding into, special educational needs provision.
While this ambition is welcome, we are still a long way from achieving a mainstream education system that provides for students with SEND. Nowhere is this clearer than school exclusions. SEND pupils are around seven times more likely than their peers to be excluded.
Funding pressures are making it harder for schools to provide for students with SEND
In most recent academic year for which data is available (2017/18), children with SEND accounted for almost half of all permanent exclusions, despite making up only 14.9% of the school population.
The numbers are even more alarming among younger children: 83% of all pupils permanently excluded from primary schools in 2017/18 had SEND.
Why is this happening? As part of the RSA’s research into rising school exclusions, we’ve been interviewing headteachers and visiting schools up and down the country who are committed to reducing exclusions.
School leaders and staff told us that budget pressures make it increasingly difficult to support the needs of all their students, particularly those with additional needs.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies report that per pupil funding in England fell by around 8% in real terms, from £6,539 in 2009/10 to £5,994 in 2018/19. The leaders we spoke to explained that the immense pressure this has put on resources has forced them to make “trade-offs” in order to balance the books. As one former headteacher put it: “when funding goes, there’s no way to do it all”.
For many schools, this has meant cutting back on pastoral and support staff, such as teaching assistants (TAs). The number of TAs has been in decline for many years at secondary level, with school leaders citing reduced funding as the main reason for this. TAs often work very closely with students with SEND. It’s not surprising that less TAs means less support for SEND pupils.
Pressure on council budgets is also affecting support for students with SEND
Schools are not just impacted by cuts to their own funding but also cuts to ‘high needs’ funding from councils, which funds provision both for young people with SEND and those in alternative provision who, because of exclusion, illness or other reasons, cannot receive their education in mainstream schools.
There’s evidence that this money isn’t stretching fair enough:
And with the number of young people in alternative provision rising, including in expensive private settings, pressure on the very funding intended to support young people with SEND in mainstream schools isn’t likely to ease.
With dwindling resources for schools to support students with additional needs, students with SEND disproportionately likely to face exclusion, and families increasingly opting for special school education concerns that mainstream schools are becoming less inclusive are widespread.
All this points towards a deeper question for the education system – is it really inclusive?
The history of SEND education
Disabled students have long been left out of mainstream education.
The Industrial Revolution saw the mass rollout of education for children. At the same time, institutions were introduced in Europe that aimed to educate and care for disabled people. By the end of the eighteenth century, the concept of a separate ‘special’ education system was increasingly recognised.
But these philanthropic schools only provided for a small minority of disabled people and it wasn’t until the 1944 Education Act that the state claimed responsibility for providing education for all students with “serious” disabilities, albeit in “special schools appropriate for that category” of impairment.
By the 1970s, the disability rights movement had gathered great momentum. It was successful in demanding a more inclusive and equal schooling experience for disabled people. Their campaigning influenced the Warnock Report of 1978 and the 1981 Education Act, which introduced the language of ‘special educational needs’, and provided for legal assessments for children with additional support needs (which might lead to ‘statements’ of SEN). This was pivotal in shifting thinking away from a segregated model of education and towards inclusion of disabled children in mainstream schools.
Inclusive education continues to be a hot topic on both the disability rights and education agendas. But what does it look like?
Inclusive education goes beyond integration
The Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE) have campaigned for inclusive education since 1990 and make an important distinction between inclusion and integration.
They argue that while integration – young people with SEND being admitted to mainstream schools – is a necessary precondition of inclusion, it works on the basis that students with SEND should fit within existing structures. Inclusion goes beyond this. It’s:
“a fundamental shift in the existing education system from seeing difference as a problem to be fixed to celebrating the diversity of learners and providing all necessary supports to enable equal participation.”
This definition of inclusion reflects that of many of the schools visited during our research. As one headteacher described: “real inclusion is about adapting our systems to [fit] around you”.
Inclusive education as a human right
Thanks to the work of the disability rights movement and disabled persons’ organisations such as ALLFIE, today the right to an inclusive education in mainstream schools is seen as a human right.
Article 24 of the UN Convention on The Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006), outlines the duties of the state to ensure that those with SEND are “not excluded from the general education system on the basis of disability” and “receive the support required, within the general education system, to facilitate their effective education”. Similar language of inclusion has also become part of UK policy. The Children and Families Act (2014), for example, works on a “presumption for mainstream” education for children with SEND.
But while human rights acts and changes to legislation represent an important step forward, sadly, that is not the end of the story. The UK government of the time placed restrictions on Article 24 of the UNCRPD, reserving the right to define special schools as part of the ‘general education’ system, and to send students outside of their communities in order to access suitable provision. The UK is one of only two countries in the world to place restrictions on Article 24, and has been heavily criticised by the UN’s Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities for its implementation of the Convention.
With declining funding and support staff in mainstream schools, and a lack of political commitment to fully embedding rights to inclusion in education policy, it is perhaps no wonder that children with SEND are increasingly at risk of exclusion.
Making SEND inclusion more than just rhetoric
Action from current education ministers is vital if we are to work towards making Damian Hinds’ words more than just rhetoric, and to ensure that pledges and promises are not empty.
Local authorities and schools need the resources and training to support students with SEND. They should also be recognised by Ofsted for their work towards inclusion, not only their performance in exams. While some of the headteachers we interviewed were optimistic about updates to Ofsted’s inspection framework, inclusion is only judged under the leadership element of the framework and must take a more central role.
Inclusion is about more than just schools and education. It is about the kind of world we want to create. As leading disability studies and inclusive education scholar, Len Barton, puts it “inclusive education is not an end in itself, it is a means to an end, that of establishing an inclusive society”.
Our research project, Pinball Kids, is exploring the underlying factors that lead to exclusion and looking to learn from best practice to support those children most at risk, including those with special educational needs and disabilities. The findings of our work will be launched in March 2020 and will include case studies of the schools visited. Please feel free to get in touch at RSA.Pinballkids@rsa.org.uk for more information.