SEND Reforms: Setting-based SEN Reviews are not the solution!

In September 2015, I published 40 Shades of Purple. This blog is a part 2 follow-up, with part 3 (for teachers & TAs) to follow shortly.
The SEND Reforms have been a major focus since 2011. SEND is only one part of The Children & Families Act 2014; which came into effect in September 2014. Page 13 of the 0-25 year SEND Code of Practice (2014) clearly lists the various organisations and individuals that need to have regard to the statutory guidance. Elsewhere, I have written and spoken extensively on implementation of the SEND Reforms; which continues until 2018 in terms of the full cycle of implementation.  The cycle of SEND capacity building and improvement remains on-going beyond this date.
In this blog, my focus is on early years, schools (mainstream, special and alternative) and FE. Chapter 1 (page 25), states (bold formatting added):

1.24 High quality teaching that is differentiated and personalised will meet the individual needs of the majority of children and young people. Some children and young people need educational provision that is additional to or different from this. This is special educational provision under Section 21 of the Children and Families Act 2014. Schools and colleges must use their best endeavours to ensure that such provision is made for those who need it. Special educational provision is underpinned by high quality teaching and is compromised by anything less.

1.25 Early years providers, schools and colleges should know precisely where children and young people with SEN are in their learning and development. They should:
• ensure decisions are informed by the insights of parents and those of children and young people themselves
• have high ambitions and set stretching targets for them
• track their progress towards these goals
keep under review the additional or different provision that is made for them
• promote positive outcomes in the wider areas of personal and social development, and
• ensure that the approaches used are based on the best possible evidence and are having the required impact on progress

For those of us who have been involved in special educational needs for some time recognise and appreciate the challenges and changes that have evolved since the Education Act of 1981.  SEND is no longer a ‘bolt on’. In effect, the delivery of any provision should be integral and embedded within the wider organisation.  Every process of policy change involves the manifestation of different ideas on HOW to implement change. Organisations and individuals with good intentions put forward ideas from their perspective in order to support or act as a catalyst for the changes. This is to be encouraged.
One such proposal that has grown momentum over the last year is the idea of setting-based SEN Reviews (in a variety of shapes and sizes). Having undertaken many in the past (i.e. prior to 2014), I can appreciate the logic behind this line of thinking. I do disagree fundamentally though on the current comparative approach they are being given to Pupil Premium Reviews and in the dawn of a new era SEN Reviews serve only to keep the old in the mask of the new. We need to think and do differently.
The quote from the SEND Code of Practice 2014 cited in this blog holds the key. In order to be clear on what provision is ‘additional to and different from’; we first need to determine what baseline provision is available to all pupils/learners (including any reasonable adjustments that have been made). This applies to all types of learning environments – there is a core personalized baseline plus additionality (which is individualised). It is important for professionals to clearly understand the difference between differentiation, personalisation and individualisation.

In effect, the term ‘SEN Review’ is redundant – it implies a ‘bolt on’. What we need are ‘Provision Reviews’ as part of a wider Provision Management System. During the consultation and preparation period of the SEND Reforms, I had the privilege of working with Pathfinder partners as well as non-pathfinder local authorities. The Local Offer and an outcomes-based accountability system is pivotal to the SEN Reforms being a sustainable success beyond compliance into cultural change. For schools, the strategic key rests in the SEN Information Report; which needs to be updated annually based on a ‘Provision Review’ – that links to the wider school improvement cycle. The methodology for ‘Provision Reviews’ in turn requires a defined theory of change underpinning its implementation. Please note: Provision Management is not the same as provision mapping nor is it a commercial software.
By contrast, SEN Reviews are a summative audit undertaken at a point in time. In order for these reviews to morph into a formative tool for on-going provision delivery, it would require additional admin time and result in more paperwork or the purchase of additional software; which many settings cannot afford, given budget constraints. This is time and funding that could be better spent with the children in the classroom and/or on CPD!  Provision Reviews rely on joined-up teams; they are focused on improving the learner experience and are both time and cost effective.  High long-term sustainability factor.
As a previous SENCo and as someone who trained hundreds of SENCos over the years; I have seen how the old system assumed responsibility for SEN/D rested (in the main) with one individual. The new world places an expectation of every teacher to assume responsibility and for the school to deliver provision (high quality core plus additionality). So again, the new culture is not about SEN leaders (i.e. individuals), but a collective and co-productive dialogue in the community. It is about collaborative SEND leadership and teams. For me, the key is teams – this is only way to truly fulfill the principles underpinning the 0-25 SEND Code of Practice 2014, as stated in chapter 1.
This is not a question of semantics or word play, but clarity on how to embed change so it is sustainable, empowering and capacity building. SEN Reviews, templates and tick lists serve only to provide shortcuts and the illusion that a desirable state of change has been met. When clearly it has not. In March 2015, the DfE published a SEND Reforms accountability document. Table 1 (page 6) states one of the measures of success is a joined up/transparent approach (i.e. teams). SEN Reviews (by their nature) are neither joined up nor do they make clear what the core offer is. Page 9 states

“The governing body and school leaders are responsible in mainstream schools and have duties to use best endeavours to make the provision required to meet the SEN of children and young people.”

How can we articulate ‘best endeavours’ without looking at the whole picture i.e. a provision review? Schedule 2 of the SEND Regulations 2014 (points 1 and 2) states that information published in the local offer needs to include “The special educational provision and training provision which the local authority expects to be available in its area” – once again the emphasis is on ‘provision’ and stipulating an expectation. In order to fulfill this, providers need a mechanism to look regularly at their provision and capacity building opportunities. The mechanism needs to be consistently structured to ensure comparative decision making for parents, but also flexible and pragmatic to be used by a wide range of settings as well as a simple on-going tool to affect day-to-day classroom practice. One day SEN Reviews do not achieve this.  Page 68 in the 0-25 SEND Code of Practice 2014 states that Local Offer needs to include information about:

“approaches to teaching, adaptations to the curriculum and the learning environment for children and young people with SEN or disabilities and additional learning support for those with SEN”.

Page 27 also highlights that

“in practical situations in everyday settings, the best early years settings, schools and colleges do what is necessary to enable children and young people to develop, learn, participate and achieve the best possible outcomes irrespective of whether that is through reasonable adjustments for a disabled child or young person or special educational provision for a child or young person with SEN.”

In effect, neither of these can be achieved simply by a SEN Review that just looks at additional provision at a particular moment in time instead of the on-going whole picture. Recently I read a nationally published article by a local authority Trust implying SEN Reviews/Audits (commercial and recently published government funded templates) could be viewed as a strategic response to coasting schools – really !?! Undertaking a SEN Review as a response/reaction is not the solution. As I have already said, it has to be embedded strategically in the annual leadership cycle of any setting in order to strengthen a team approach. Not just a one-off.

I recognise, my views possibly go against the tide of many (at the moment) – but that is what change (of this nature) is about. Where we have worked with teams to deliver and develop Provision Reviews, the impact on the quality of teaching by all teachers has improved significantly and leaders have found it simple to embrace as an annual process. It’s about doing things differently not doing what we’ve always done in a new way!

If you do what you’ve always done,
you’ll get what you always got.
– Mark Twain

An open letter to those in education

Dear colleagues,

A new year and time to reflect on not just where we are headed, but also how. Towards the end of 2015, there were a number of public blogs and articles that served to highlight how many teachers and schools leaders were now leaving the profession due to increased admin, workload, stress pace of change etc. I emphasize with these challenges and wish each of them every success in the future.
However, in 2015 we also had quite lot of public chatter about the recruitment and retention problem we face and will increasingly face in education. Therein lies the first problem – mixed public messages from credible and esteemed individuals.
In my work, I travel a lot and last year I met on the train a woman (mid to late 30s). We started talking. From my reading material, she guessed I was a teacher and then began to tell me about her dream of training to be a teacher. I was so excited for her and encouraged her to explore different options as well as gave her a few tips, based on the what she shared with me. She said she would look into it. Her parting remark to me, “You are the first person to encourage me to be a teacher; everyone else just keeps telling not to bother – it’s too hard!” Of course it’s hard – we are tasked with learning from the past, to teach in the present in order to build a better future. Teaching is a privilege and every profession has its challenges!
There isn’t a day on Twitter, when there isn’t some sort of scheduled #chat around education or educational issues. Those involved in these dialogues (and I’ve been guilty of this too) believe that in the main they are talking to like-minded colleagues. They are, but in a public forum; where comments/opinions are open to all and recorded! In schools, teachers have professional dialogues within the confines of the staffroom or on a CPD session. They discuss, debate and openly challenge in order to ensure the best outcomes for children and young people. How many head teachers would issue an open invite to any parent or colleague from another school to join in a professional staff meeting discussion? I’m guessing, not many. So we need to re-think; what messages we are putting out there. I would say the same to colleagues at the DfE. The #AskNicky sessions do little to engender parental/community confidence and the reality is the dialogue is open to everyone, not just teachers and leaders. Those of us who enjoy interacting on social media need to be real; but transparency and being completely open are not the same thing.
NQTs use Twitter quite extensively to connect to more experienced teachers and leaders in order to learn as much as they can. Again, not a new concept – learning from those who have gone before. However, they also then get sucked in to other debates about change. Therein lies the second problem – implementing change. There is no doubt the pace of change in education since 2010 has been phenomenal. However, where I think our memories have lapsed is the thirteen years prior. When the Literacy Hour was introduced, I was teaching primary children at the time … those were the dark days! Observed in class on a nationally defined hourly clock! Ten minutes for spelling … move on ten minutes guided reading … move on. There wasn’t time or space for thinking conversations with the children, for pursuing different lines of inquiry, creativity etc. And we were ‘graded’ as ineffective professionals, if we didn’t keep to those nationally set times! It was during this period, that Ofsted changed radically to grading our lessons!
We now have greater autonomy in schools over curriculum, assessment, finance and strategy. Leaders, who separate the operational from the strategic are able to manage and direct change at a pace that is suitable to the local community. They use a robust theory of change to ground their vision and values; not just create ‘to-do’ priority lists that claim to be a school improvement plan. It is too easy to blame the government. The reality is the government simply creates generic frameworks (statutory and non-statutory) for us to professionally and pragmatically work within. They do not and cannot tell schools or school leaders what to do. Admittedly, the removal of the local authority personnel has resulted in local areas not guiding schools on what and how to implement change. Change, in itself is not the problem. As educators, we are in the business of life-long learning; which fundamentally is all about change and continual improvement. Before anyone jumps on the bandwagon of ‘education is not a business’, I would recommend you look up the definition of business.
One of the reasons, I think we in the profession struggle with change is because we assume it means ‘more of’. We are hoarders by nature and so when something new is introduced, we sometimes tend not to let go of the past – holding onto the past and the new simultaneously – added burden. Other times, we do not take time to reflect on what we are doing and how it can be ‘adapted’ (not necessarily changed) to meet the new. During the constraining era of The National Strategies, with my SLT, I developed a strategic management system; so every time a ‘new initiative’ was put on the table, we would evaluate it in terms of the vision, values and current provision. On numerous occasions, we were able to go back and say (with confidence and authority), we don’t need to do XYZ new initiative because this is what we are already doing, this is how and this is the impact it has had. Strategic management gave us the confidence as a team to say “thank you, but no thanks” as well as sometimes shape the policy delivery for others.
Before I end, I feel it necessary to explain why I am no longer in the classroom. I have a sense no doubt someone will come back and say “easy for you to say – you no longer teach!” The classroom has and will always be where my heart is. The truth is simple, as a Senior Leader I facilitated a TA redundancy situation in a community, where there were falling numbers on roll. It wasn’t easy. The year after we had to make a teacher redundant. I did the maths and in order to protect final salaries of my longer serving colleagues, I took voluntary redundancy with the expectation I would be deployed to another school in the area. The school was scheduled to close the following year. My background in special educational needs led to my deployment to a local authority post as a SEND specialist teacher (strategic and statutory casework); which in turn led to my current work. So yes, I may not be currently in a classroom; but across the country, I enable many (who are in the classroom in diverse settings) to fulfill their role effectively. This is supported by my background in finance and Prince2.
I do believe this is a great time to be in education and we have great opportunities ahead of us to improve the system. However, I would also share four reflective thoughts; especially for those in leadership:
1. If you are serious about addressing the problem of recruitment and retention, stop airing negative comments and moaning in the public. Let’s celebrate the positive aspects of the profession and encourage/support each other. Find a confidant to share your worries, issues etc. These need to be expressed, but we need to think about to who, when and how.
2. If you want to positively influence the next generation of teachers, think about open chats in social media – do they help or hinder? Do they foster deeper relationships of trust?
3. Discern the operational from the strategic and use your community’s mission to choose what/when/how to implement new/different ways of doing things. You know your community!
4. Finally, embrace change! Sure, there are always going to be challenges, but I would rather be a part of the solution, than the problem – how about you?

Be the change you want to see!

With every good wish,