Why the SEND system does not work

April 17, 2022

The government has recently published a review of SEND (Special Education Needs and Disability). I haven’t read it yet, but before I do I thought I’d lay out why I think the problems with the system are very fundamental.

The basic concept behind the current system dates back to The Warnock Report of 1978. This proposed replacing the existing system which was based on categories of “handicapped people”. As well as obvious physical disabilities, the pre-Warnock system included some potentially stigmatising categories such as “educationally sub-normal pupils” and “maladjusted pupils”. In its place, was to be a system based on identifying pupils by their needs. The language certainly needed modernising, and the concept of children having needs rather than “handicaps” certainly seems empowering. Much of the language of the report has been adopted, and officially the system is based on identifying needs. However, in practice, diagnosing disabilities and conditions has remained central to how the system works. This may well be because the demand for support is potentially unlimited, so can only be rationed by identifying the differences between children, and continuing to categorise them with labels that are still very similar to the old categories of “handicaps”.

This has led to a fundamental confusion between two groups:

  1. Children who need support in order to meet normal expectations.
  2. Children who have a disability, or other diagnosable condition, the identification of which will be of benefit to the child.

The system, and all its bureaucracy, does not function well because of the difference between these two groups of children. A child can have a great struggle to access education, but not be easily diagnosed with any disability or condition. Conversely, a child can meet the criteria for a disability, or other condition, but actually be thriving at school. At the same time, these two groups of children can never be so distinct that decisions to give support can be completely independent of diagnosed conditions. Diagnoses will often be important for deciding when to provide pupils with support.

I think the following are aspects of the system that show how it is often focused on the first group: children who need support in order to meet normal expectations).

  1. Most pupils with SEND are identified primarily by the school with no outside agencies involved, which does not suggest a rigorous process of diagnosis.
  2. Many (I suspect most) SEND interventions consist of little more than telling the class teacher to differentiate their teaching.
  3. Large numbers of pupils are identified as SEND. It’s 15.9% at the moment; it used to be over 20%. Anecdotally, it is quite normal to identify a pupil as SEND just because they have struggled academically, emotionally, or behaviourally.
  4. Students often move in or out of being SEND. At one point, the proportion of students to have ever been identified as SEN at some point was high enough to be calculated as 44% here; 45% here, and for boys, 51% here. Yet the proportion identified as SEN at any one time was less than half that.
  5. Many of the factors affecting identification as SEND reflect immediate need rather than rigorous diagnosis. For instance, being born later in the year or being on free school meals may well affect how much support a child needs, but these factors seem unlikely to reflect a disability or diagnosable condition.

While I think all of the above indicates the extent to which the system consider pupils on the basis of whether they need support, rather than whether they have a diagnosable condition or disability, there are a number of ways in which, simultaneously, the SEND label is used to refer to disabilities, or diagnosable conditions.

  1. People talk about “undiagnosed SEND”.
  2. It is claimed that the need for support (perhaps support with behaviour, reading or keeping up academically) is caused by SEND.
  3. Diagnostic tests are used, and outside experts are called in, to identify SEND in order to access greater help.
  4. The Equality Act 2010 including the protected characteristic of disability, and the language of “reasonable adjustments” for disability, is seen as relevant to SEN provision.
  5. It is seen as important that people are identified as SEND, despite being able to meet normal expectations without support. So, for instance, a pupil might be given extra time in exams, because of their SEND, even though they are already capable of achieving extremely well in exams. Or a pupil whose behaviour and social skills are as expected, might be identified as SEND if they or their parents say that it takes extra effort for them to behave or socialise normally. In some cases, (and I think the impetus here is more from parents than schools) a diagnosis of a condition might be sought in order to explain how a child feels, or why a child has particular personality traits, even if those feelings or traits are not affecting their education.

Almost every discussion of SEND is affected by which of the two groups people are talking about, yet the difference is often not acknowledged.

A child’s academic difficulties, emotional upsets, or behaviour problems become viewed as a symptom of an underlying problem that must be diagnosed to be addressed, rather than as something that is normal for a school’s curriculum, pastoral system or disciplinary procedures to address directly. And because support is so often linked to identifying a disability or condition, it is seen as only kind to identify one at every opportunity. Some people switch between talking about children who need support to talking about children with a diagnosable condition without even noticing. A discussion about bad behaviour will become a discussion about disability without any steps to connect the two, other than perhaps an implicit belief that bad behaviour can only be caused by disability.

Identifying a disability or condition, rather than an opportunity to support, also becomes highly ideological. For some adults there are no children who are low ability, badly behaved, unhappy or lazy, only those with undiagnosed conditions. There is a constant push to invent a pathology, or medical cause for almost everything. Conversely, if a child has difficulties for a reason that really obviously (even to the ideologues) isn’t a disability or a condition, for instance if they have just arrived from overseas and don’t speak English, then they are kept out of the SEND system and will have to rely on other forms of support.

I will, no doubt, move on to discussing the system in more detail and looking at the new reforms. But I am convinced we need to abandon the label SEND entirely. We should split the system up into three. There should be:

  1. a rigorous, evidence based system for diagnosis and identification of disabilities and conditions, which can be addressed in demonstrably effective ways;
  2. a system for pastoral interventions (providing behaviour and emotional support), and
  3. a system for addressing academic deficits through additional, high impact teaching.

As long as very distinct reasons to give a child support are considered under one umbrella, there will be continue to be an endless system of bureaucracy based around labels and paperwork.

One comment

  1. Thank you Andrew for such a thoughtful and insightful commentary regarding the current SEND system in England. What you have correctly identified is the highly unscientific basis of this all- it is absolutely wrong to have teachers with little or no knowledge of SEN and neurodiversity diagnosing conditions when that really should be done by psychiatrists, pediatricians or preferably educational psychologists with the correct scientific and medical expertise operating independently and impartially. I would suggest that the time has come to establish in England (and likewise in Wales, Scotland and both parts of Ireland) nationwide independent educational psychology services where children can be correctly identified and the appropriate support and educational pathways tailormade to the needs of the individual. But all that costs a lot of money and the genuine rights and needs of people with SEN (such as myself) will continue to play second fiddle to a) a serious lack of investment in educational psychology services and training enough EPs and b) the uninformed opinions of the leftwing ideologues who dominate education and think they can speak for us but categorically do not have our best interests at heart. Rather, we become unwilling conduits for their virtue-signalling and need to find hapless underdogs and victims of their pity and condescension. By attaching SEND labels willy-nilly without serious proof, one is wasting taxpayers’ money and diverting educational resources away from those who genuinely need it, and of discrediting and damaging the SEND process. And just for a note of reference I was diagnosed with ASD and dyspraxia in my late30s and my schooldays were often hell in a mainstream Catholic school back in the late 80s and early 90s.

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