The Institutionalisation of SEN Learners.

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to be invited to a council meeting to discuss using wellbeing models to lower exclusion rates in Hackney schools.


As a staunch supporter of structured wellbeing models, I was particularly interested in the council’s plans on implementation and understanding what their proposed model would look like.


What I found in the committee chamber was an eye opener on exclusions in schools.  The chamber was full of a lot of angry, frustrated and disheartened parents of pupils with special educational needs and disabilities. Parents including some with children as young as 9, told the committee that their child had been permanently excluded from school.


Not only was I surprised that children this young were being permanently excluded, but was struck by the fact that every single parent in the room had children with Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND).


Alarmingly, most of these children already had Education Health Care Plans in place, which the schools failed to implement prior to exclusion.


Parents shared their frustration over how the schools didn’t even wait for the Education Health Care Plans to be finalised before the exclusion took place. Some had to take legal action against the school to overturn the decision to exclude, but even after they won their appeal the school was under no obligation to take the child back.


The Hackney Learning Trust, who has the statutory obligation to investigate every school exclusion, was doing its best to fight the autonomy of the schools. In cases where schools had acted against statutory regulations and in some cases illegally, the local authority was still powerless to overturn the school’s decision to exclude. They were also in the precarious position of having to find the young person alternative education by law.


Where did these young people end up? Some were lucky. They found places in special education settings, with great support models. However, according to The Bow Group’s; the United Kingdom’s oldest conservative think tank, in their report SEN: The Truth about Inclusion, most of these SEN learners ended up in Pupil Referral Units!


So here is the situation. We have 9 year old SEND learners, some with profound needs, in a setting which caters to a mix of children with issues ranging from social, emotional, mental health, special educational needs and learning difficulties. We have in effect begun to institutionalise our most vulnerable young people. A giant leap backwards for a government and society that sees itself as being progressive.


From the data I analysed; from a number of government led reviews and reports, the situation these parents are facing is not something new. In fact this situation seems to be well documented and is recognised as a considerable problem in the progression of learners with SEND.


Statutory legislation calls for inclusive settings for SEND pupils, unless parents specifically request their child be placed in a SEND school setting. Schools have to prove that they provide inclusive education environments. Good news then?


Schools however face another set of challenges in an increasingly common outcomes driven approach. Enabling and allowing inclusion is a direct threat to success rates and rankings on league tables. Zero tolerance policies in some academies are arguably working counter-intuitively to any notion of inclusive education. Permanent exclusion rates in academies are almost three times higher than those in mainstream schools (National Union of Teachers, 2012), but exclusions of SEND pupils under these policies are highly likely to be upheld, as local authorities seem powerless to curb the scatter-gun approach to exclusion in schools.


I set about doing some research to get a better understanding of what was happening. What I found was disturbing. From a government report in 2011, I found that 79% of children in pupil referral units had recognised SEND needs. ‘Pupils with SEN were more likely to be excluded due to physical assault against an adult in 2013/14 compared to those without SEN – 19.6% of fixed period exclusions for those with a statement of SEN compared to 2.6% of those with no SEN’. (Department of Education (DfE), 2016)


This 79% doesn’t account for those SEND learners that are placed in alternative provision because the relationship with the school has ‘broken down’. There is no government data available to assess the number of SEN learners on alternative provision. This is because many of the students are still enrolled with their school, especially if the child is only part-time with the alternative provider. However, anecdotally this is quite high, because in 2012 the government saw the need to call for improvement of alternative provision (DfE, 2012) on the grounds of implementing better quality controls.


From another DfE report (2012), learners with SEN were ‘seven times more likely to receive a permanent exclusion than pupils with no SEN, and were nine times more likely to receive a fixed period exclusion.’


The Bow Group report goes on to highlight a growing trend of SEN exclusions. The last ten years 70% of all permanent exclusions were SEN learners, with or without statements. In fact, from 1997 to 2007, the total number of SEN learners in PRU settings had almost doubled. Unfortunately for the SEND children the process of exclusions does not stop there either. Within a PRU setting, two-thirds of fixed term exclusions are SEN learners.


Success rates in PRUs are a fraction of the national average, approximately 1/50th of their mainstream peers, further supporting the idea of lower expectations for SEND learners, but also acknowledging the higher needs of the children.


SEND pupils are already 33% less likely to continue their academic path into further education and when they do there is often a lack of the level of support that reputable schools have in place. They invariably drop out all together and often end up in the youth justice system or spiral into depression before adult services takes over.


In 2010, the Prison Reform Trust reported that ‘23% of young offenders have very low IQs of less than 70, and 25% have Special Educational Needs’. It is such a big problem that the Department of Education recently awarded the education charity Achievement for All a contract to work with front-line professionals in the youth justice system to improve outcomes for youth offenders with SEN.


The question this raises for us as a society is how far have we gone to accept people with Special Educational Needs and Learning Difficulties? Are they integrated into our social constructs or floating on the periphery? How likely are they to be truly independent, without relying on systems and services whose budgets are being cut every year?


It is very easy to think that our society is inclusive, unless you are among the marginalised. The situation for young learners with special needs has improved, but there is so much more we can be doing to ensure that all of our young people have access to avenues for success. We need to be honest about where we stand now and not allow our most vulnerable young people to become institutionalised.


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