Making SEND a Strategic Priority Can Help Schools Meet the Challenges Ahead

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One thing that appeared to define the 2016/17 school year was the seemingly unending output of surveys and statistics, research and reports, that hammered home, on a weekly basis, the financial and contextual challenges facing school leaders.

The challenges relating to special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) didn’t break through in quite the same way as concerns relating to funding, teacher recruitment and retention. But in the months to come, be prepared to hear more about the perfect storm that’s brewing in SEND – and is coming your way.

In July, there were two indicators of the crunch that lies ahead. Given end-of-year weariness and the topsy-turvy nature of the last few weeks of the summer term, you can be forgiven for missing them. So, let’s replay them here and consider the implications.

First, there was news from the Department for Education that the number of pupils anticipated to need some form of specialist or alternative education is projected to increase by 15.5% by 2025: that’s 17,000 additional children and young people in our schools. In many ways, this is a cause for celebration, as it reflects marked improvements in medicine and healthcare (more babies born with complex disabilities live longer) and better identification of need.

Second, there was the publication of results from one of the largest studies of the classroom experiences of pupils with SEND ever undertaken in the UK. One of the key conclusions of the research I led at the UCL Institute of Education was that, the system of support for pupils with high-level SEND in mainstream schools has grown too reliant on the employment and deployment of teaching assistants (TAs). The systemic use of TAs appears to be compensating or covering for failures elsewhere, such as the continued failure to adequately cover SEND as part of initial teacher training, and the haphazard approach to expanding the specialist sector via the free schools programme.

We may wonder how our system will accommodate 17,000 additional pupils with often complex SEND at precisely the same time as funding settlements are likely to leave school leaders with little choice but to reduce the primary resource (namely, TAs) that helps achieve this. In both my view and my experience, effective support from skilled TAs is part of a coherent approach to including and teaching children and young people with SEND – not the sole response.

An advantage of an autonomous system means that schools don’t have to wait for a policy response. Schools are the more effective engines of change, capable of rethinking their approach to the way provision is made for pupils with SEND, and bringing about a more balanced, more inclusive system. So, here are some considerations for school leaders, raised by our recent research.

Rethink grouping by ‘ability’

We found pupils with high-level SEND spent almost all their time being taught in ‘low ability’ groups, with some feeling stigmatised by always being in the ‘bottom’ group or set. Given the more positive evidence for mixed-attainment teaching over setting or streaming, secondary school leaders could, therefore, take the bold step of organising grouping by mixed attainment, for at least some subjects and contexts. Minimally, they should adopt grouping strategies that militate against the more harmful effects of streaming or ‘hard’ setting. This would include: using only attainment data as the only basis for composing groups; ensuring porosity between groups; balancing groups on the basis of frequent assessment; and making sure the best teachers do their fair share of teaching more challenging groups. In primary schools, ensure pupils with SEND are not routinely grouped together for paired or group work, but have opportunities to interact and work with classmates from across the attainment range.

Remix classroom organisation

Our research found that in both primary and secondary schools, pupils with high-level SEND who need the most time with the teacher get the least interaction with them. Schools should be mindful of practices – such as, withdrawal from the classroom – that result in pupils with SEND having less time with teachers, relative to other pupils. Efficient TA deployment can help organise and maximise opportunities for these pupils to receive more teacher time.

Improve teaching for SEND

Creating the opportunity for more teacher time can have little impact unless we improve the confidence and competence of teachers to teach pupils with SEND. A concerted, system-wide effort to address this is both necessary and overdue, but one good start would be to partner with local special schools to identify the characteristics of teaching and curricula for SEND, and the models needed to embed practical strategies at scale in mainstream settings.

Institutionalise excellence

Our research raised questions about the effectiveness of leadership for SEND in mainstream schools, and its status within the drive towards whole school improvement. At the individual and multi-school level, governing bodies and boards of trustees, together with leadership teams, could institute career progression systems for teachers and leaders throughout the organisation, which are contingent on evidencing practice that has a demonstrable impact on outcomes for pupils with SEND.


Adopting an inclusive approach is not just about weathering the storm ahead. It lays a foundation for a more socially just and equitable education system. If we define the true success of our schools and our system by what it does for the most vulnerable members of its population, then it follows that we need to make SEND a strategic priority.

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