Five Key Reflections #HandsUp4HealthyMinds 2018

Last academic year working with Hays Education, I was privileged to deliver a number of Breakfast Seminars or Twilight Meetings to Leaders in Education on ‘Mental Health Awareness’ in schools. In total, we delivered over 12 events to average audiences of 50-100 people.  Those who attended had the influence and authority back in schools to initiate and drive change. These conversations served to not only raise the profile of mental health in schools, but also culminated in us thinking about the assumptions we make and how we can do things differently.

The following is a summary of the 5 main key learning points we discussed across all the meetings in the Hays Education Mental Health Awareness Roadshow and how it relates to World Mental Health Day 2018.  It should be noted the key points from these meetings contributed to a government consultation submission during the same period.

#1 Everyone has mental health and just like physical health we ALL need to invest time in maintaining it.

Mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.” – World Health Organisation, (August 2014)

“Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

Therefore, mental illness is a condition which causes serious disorder in a person’s behaviour or thinking.

In line with this, we considered three elements:

  • What constitutes the ‘normal stresses of life’?
  • When discussing resilience in schools, do we focus on self-esteem and confidence, missing out the elements of developing self-efficacy and social problem solvers?
  • Are we mindful of the language we use? Do we use language associated with mental illness to exaggerate feelings (e.g. I’m feeling depressed …) or do we sometimes misuse language in jest to describe behaviours (e.g. The OCD side of me …)

#2 Thriving is more desirable than striving!  This was unanimous.

Reflection:  What does thriving for pupils and staff look like in your setting?  What are the barriers to thriving or the stiflers that promote a striving culture?

#3 What to do.  Those who suffer from mental illness need three core things:

  • Respect – this is about an open culture of acceptance
  • Support – access to the right support, in the right way and at the right time
  • A plan – to help manage the wobbly bits of life (every day stresses that are over powering). A named person to talk to, someone to call, when things go pear-shaped etc. This helps promote safe-independence.

#4 Are mental health problems on the rise for children and young people?  This is something we debated extensively and if you really think about it there are arguments on both sides.  We explored what key community leaders had said and why.  We concluded by sharing five top tips:

  1. It is important for ALL children and young to have a named person they trust and can talk to.
  2. Schools need to provide information on the promotion of good mental health for ALL.
  3. Creative outlet is necessary, and schools can think about how they use the curriculum / targeted extra activities to promote this.
  4. Pupils need access to information on mental illness, to reduce the stigma.
  5. Finally, it is imperative, those suffering from mental illness have expedient access to therapies, if they need it.

#5 There is wealth of resources out there and schools need to build a bank of information for staff and pupils to access.

The Local Offer in your area is a good place to start.

A toolkit for schools and colleges by the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families

Social Emotional Mental Health by SEND Review Portal

In conclusion, mental health is an everyday issue that we need to discuss more.  There are no easy answers, but together we can begin to shift the tide for everyone!  Remember, everyone has mental health and that’s the message behind this year’s #HandsUp4HealthyMinds World Mental Health Day.

It’s time for everyone to act!

Further reading and resources:

World Mental Health Day Toolkit 2018

Mental Health Foundation

Combined MH Roadshow 2017-18 v2

SEND: It’s not about proof, but dialogue!

I’m not a reactive person, by nature.  I tend to ponder over what I hear/read and weigh it up before responding.  Over the years, I have (more times than I care to remember) been openly criticised for not joining in an emotional reaction to something that has happened in the world of SEND.

Our experience defines us!

So before proceeding with this blog, I felt it would be useful to highlight my background; which in turn reflects my perspective.  I do this not to boast, but in humility. I consider it a great privilege to work in education – it has been my dream since I was 14 years old.  At 16, I undertook my work experience placement in a special school.  Education & learning is in my DNA.  So for me, every opportunity is a gift, I value.

My professional & personal history will show that:

  • I have taught early years to postgrad in England and overseas; supporting a wide range of needs of children and making full use of my first degree in psychology
  • I have been a SENCO and senior leader in school with aspirations and qualification pathways to be a head
  • I have led support staff, trained them & trained others in maximizing the impact of teaching assistants
  • I have been an SEN Advisory Teacher; working with schools and individual children/families through the assessment process and annual reviews
  • I have sat on multi-disciplinary/multi-agency panels reviewing SEND assessments
  • For 10 years, I was an active member of nasen, supporting both local and national initiatives
  • In 2007, I was part of the advisory panel, assisting the The Audit Commission develop the AEN/SEN VfM Toolkit
  • As a member of a local authority school improvement teams, I have supported settings (mainstream including academies/federations, special schools and alternative provision), as well as been part of local authority inspection teams for settings in difficult circumstances
  • In a consultative role, I have worked with numerous local authorities (Pathfinder and non-Pathfinder) undertaking provision and finance audits and driving strategic change processes for greater efficiency
  • I have been external examiner, a lecturer and assessor on the National SENCo Award with a number of providers
  • I have led & delivered the MA in Inclusion for three years, taught trainee teachers about SEND and contributed to the development of an undergraduate degree in SEND (covering education, health and social care)
  • I have co-led with a head teacher national briefings on SEN finance and funding
  • For two years, I have been an Achievement for All Coach and Pupil Premium Reviewer focussing on 20% of our most vulnerable pupils
  • I have delivered parenting workshops and governor training on SEND
  • For nearly 10 years, I have been a SEND Online Facilitator/Tutor
  • I have completed my SEN Foundation Legal Training with IPSEA scoring an overall 85% and over 85% for the modules on Duties on LAs, schools & FE as well as Mediation and SEND. 100% on EHC Plans.
  • I have created and published several tools to support stakeholders embrace and implement the SEND Reforms
  • I have also co-written and independently written numerous articles, publications on SEND; some of which have been translated into 5 languages
  • I have led and sustained SENCo Networks in three local authorities and developed the first SENCo Masterclass
  • In the last 10 years, I have probably worked directly with over 350 schools/school leaders across the nation
  • I come from a family, where we have experienced fatality and developmental disability

My point is:  I approach SEND and the main issues that arise during a period of change from a well-rounded perspective.

To the matter at hand.

Recently there has been an unfortunate spate of inappropriate social media messages by a solicitor’s firm, that rightly so, has led to many parents questioning the intentionally of solicitors in the SEND system.  This is not the first time, a solicitor’s firm has posted inappropriate tweets and I have been arguing for a while now for greater regulation over the professional conduct of solicitors.  What makes this recent round of tweets intolerable is they appear to have been explicitly directed in a negative way to parents and families.  On previous occasions, solicitors have taken out-dated and inaccurate information and used it to incite parents against the system and local authorities.  Whether the negativity is directed towards local authorities or parents, I consider it unprofessional, lacking in sensitivity and integrity.

Special Needs Jungle (SNJ) has put forward a ‘Call to Action’ following the recent incident.   The spirit of the call is valid; however, I do wish to raise a number of points in response:

  1. Solicitors already have a Code of Conduct; which has clearly defined principles and outcomes. More information can be found about this at http://www.sra.org.uk/solicitors/handbook/welcome.page Therefore we need greater clarity on how this new proposed voluntary code will work in tandem with the SRA.
  2. The main thrust of SNJ’s motion is to:
  • Stop local authorities using tax payers’ money to buy in law firms to represent them against parents at the SEND Tribunal and;
  • To also ask why so many cases are ending up at Tribunal in the first place.

I agree, I have always advocated more efficient use of public funds ensuing provision is put in place for children, young people and those who need it.  I also appreciate most parents do not want to go to Tribunal and therefore the point 7 put forward by SNJ (What’s the thinking behind this?) is something I wholeheartedly support.  In areas, where active participation in mediation is undertaken by both parties with a view to finding a comprise, the outcomes have been amazing and the number of cases going to Tribunal has reduced.  In some areas, however, there is a tendency to opt for the tokenism certificate of mediation, without engaging in the process.  We will need to continue to watch the statistics on this; especially families who initially opt for a certificate, but then engage in mediation at a later date.

If Tribunal is sought, then local authorities have a responsibility to represent themselves in court and this costs money. So my question would be: if SNJ is advocating they do not use public funds for this – where would the funding for legal representation come from?  In Point 11, SNJ advocates paying fines and parental costs; again the question I pose – how would this be funded?  My understanding is that, parents and local authorities are able already to make application costs against either party, though the process could be made simpler/easier.

What is needed?

I have already stipulated my support for a greater emphasis on Dispute Resolution and Mediation.  Many of us nationally are already working on these discussions.

I think, though the biggest shift from an adversarial system is going to come through a change in culture. The Lamb Inquiry (2009) did highlight the lack of parental confidence in the system.  However, when parents received the provision they required, there was high parental satisfaction.  We need to distinguish parent confidence and parental satisfaction to measure true impact.  Similar comments of high parental satisfaction came through many of the Pathfinder Trials, when children, young people and their families were listened to.  The principles of the 0-25 SEND Code of Practice 2015 (p19) are pivotal and we do need to raise their profile more.

As an SEND Advisory Teacher, each case I was involved started with me accepting what was presented before me and adopting an investigative approach.  I never expected parents ‘to prove’ their child had SEND, but to share with me their reasoning and experience.  This for me, is the true spirit of implementing the SEND Reforms.  Assessment applications should not be about proving a need, but sharing and explaining a rationale.  Proof implies judgement and inevitably leads to a legalistic approach.  Investigation implies “We’re listening”.  In all my years of being involved in SEND, I have only come across one case of Munchausen by proxy; which did go to Tribunal.  So my underlying belief is if an assessment application is made; we need to investigate – not expect individuals to prove.  No one submits an application on a whim.  This shift in mind-set and approach opens up relational dialogue.  I have met many parents, who have come into the room (having surfed the web) and told me ‘My child has X’ (self-diagnosis). I have always made it a point to listen and understand why they thought that.  Further investigation follows, and in some cases their perspective has been accurate and in others my investigations has helped them to see it is not what they perceive, but something else.  SEND is complex. Either way, there has always been a sense of mutual respect and open listening.

I am aware, that whilst we are in process of change, an investigative approach that characterises the spirit of the SEND Reforms isn’t fully in place across the nation.  This is a work in progress and I genuinely understand the frustration parents have experienced/are experiencing. Change is complex.

So what I would like to advocate is:

  • A more investigative approach by all involved. Valuing and respecting children, young people and their families as stipulated by the principles in the SEND Code of Practice (p19).
  • A more authentic engagement in dispute resolution and mediation.
  • Greater use of the Local Offer/SENDirect to consider choice during the process – possibly through a split meeting model and time to reflect. Already in discussion with SENDirect & the NHS about this.

I would like to end with a phone message, a parent left for my line manager; when I was an SEND Advisory Teacher. This was in the era of SA, SA+ and Statements:

“I just wanted to say how much I appreciated Anita listening to my concerns and discussing a way forward in a positive, realistic and constructive way.  Anita observed and evaluated my son in a manner that my husband and I agreed with and felt was beneficial to him.  Prior to Anita’s involvement, most people had brushed my son’s problems under a carpet.

 The investigative approach works every time.  Let’s embrace it!

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