Moral accountability begins by taking action
Author: Karen James, SENCO and Early Years & Inclusion Professional
Five years on from reforms introduced to better support children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), the government launched a major review into SEND. This review comes on the back of the present government announcing a funding boost of £700 million in 2020/21 for pupils with the most complex needs, aimed at delivering on the Prime Minister’s pledge to ensure every pupil can access the education that is right for them.
It is reported that approximately 350,000 children and young people aged 0-25 with the most complex special educational needs are in receipt of bespoke support through Educational Health Care plans. Of those in schools just over 37% (130,000) are continuing in mainstream education.
There is little doubt that a national review is vital in identifying strengths and improvement needs in relation to current provision, but it could be argued that this needs to go beyond formal data analysis. The risk is that data can be manipulated to project a desired outcome by those who need to meet strategic goals in order not to be penalised for failing to meet specified outcomes.
Through my own professional and personal experience of SEND, I appreciate there are complexities that impact on SEND support and delivery within every single service required and involved. The review may give some insights in widening our knowledge of the parts of the system which are working well and the areas which need improvement. Yet I question whether any review will truly be able to identify the disparities in relation to what I consider as individual morale accountability.
My experience tells me that children with less complex special educational needs are disproportionately disadvantaged and are less likely to thrive in education, primarily because they often face a host of other challenges. Often, they are subject to other factors such as being in care or experiencing poverty.
The House of Commons Forgotten Children report published in 2018 shines an intense spotlight of concern in relation to exclusion and the disproportionate number of children with Special Educational Needs (SEN) that are being excluded. Even more concerning is the declaration that some schools are actively avoiding identifying these pupils as having SEN. This means that pupils are not receiving appropriate education and are not being supported. In addition, the report claims a lack of “moral accountability” on the part of many schools, with there being little or no incentive to retain challenging pupils.
This begs the question, would incentive bonuses for those who identify and take proactive action to improve outcomes for children through retention and strengthened SEND delivery see a change in professional and moral accountability resulting in improved outcomes for SEND children as they progress through society?
Regardless of anyone’s thoughts on incentives, it remains without question that there are some incredible SEND services available and amazing “SEND warriors” across all services who ensure that children receive the best services and support possible whatever the constraints. Yet it is sadly clear those disparities in relation to quality delivery from services need to be proactively addressed if we are to improve outcomes for all children. We are well versed with hearing the cry of a Postcode Lottery”, yet it is also arguable that quality is also in the hands of those who deliver provision on the ground.
As a deliverer of pre-school education, I regularly see and hear examples of disparity and this is where I believe moral accountability has to be seen also as an individual and leadership priority.
In the nursery where I lead as SENCO, often children arrive in the early years setting with very obvious and complex needs where it is clear that the child will require intensive support to enable them to maximise their learning potential and receive the holistic care they require. In many cases these children do not often have an Early Help Assessment in place which identifies children’s strengths and needs. As a result, specialist support and service provision that will have the most positive impact on long term education, care and future life chances has not been identified nor triggered. What is also alarming is that some children have clearly identified SEND needs from birth yet there has been limited multi-agency collaboration in preparation for the child entering the education system in the first instance. As a result, the journey to identifying and accessing the most valuable resources begins as children enter education rather than in preparation.
For young children their ambitions and aspirations are still open to interpretation and there seems to be less incentive on what a child can or cannot do, but a glorious belief that all things are possible. The majority of adults have an open mind to carry children’s beliefs and uphold their dreams of who they want to be, what they want to achieve and where they want to go. We share their dreams and say, “all things are possible”. For some children their educational journey can present emerging and growing challenges that have the potential to impact on future achievements. It is only as the child begins to show both their strengths and needs that proactive action is required. In my view this is one of the pivotal points where future life outcomes are defined.
The importance of early identification is sung from all hymn sheets, yet the amount of paperwork to begin the process of formal assessment is time consuming, heavily evidenced based, and has financial implications on settings budgets and staffing resources not dissimilar to other services. As an early years SENCO I clearly know the impact of all of the above, yet I believe that I am morally accountable to take action and support the child and family in any way I can regardless. The journey for that child to receive the support and education they have a right to, has to be started by someone and that is where I believe moral accountability begins, by taking action.
We could claim a wide range of reasons as to why we can’t deliver and achieve high quality SEND provision, yet the barriers do not limit our goal of ensuring every child who requires support interventions, referrals to specialist services and a multi-agency support approach receives it. Our goal is embedded in our pedagogy to ensure that every child who meets the criteria for an EHCP will have it in place for school entry, which, although hugely time consuming, heavily evidence based and challenging, is absolutely the right thing. We achieve our goal every time with a 100% success rate in our endeavour to ensure that all children enter school with a support plan in place that will help them thrive.
For some we sadly have to begin the journey of explaining to parents that we are concerned about their child’s learning and development. Breaking the news can be devastating, our belief though is that the child, parents and family must be at the heart of decision making, and planning together an approach to engage all services available can begin a positive path for intervention, service delivery and the best possible outcomes for the child
This year I have made 3 referrals to the community paediatrician, something that I have never had to do in 16 years as referrals were usually established through health. I am not concerned with whose role it is, I am concerned in achieving the goal of establishing support for the child and their family. In the meantime, every child who shows some developmental dip will have an intervention in place to ensure a continuum of progress. This all takes time, commitment and focus, it is a balancing act but it also our personal and professional accountability to step over the barriers that prevent progress in order to enable children to achieve at the highest level.
Financial restrictions, time constraints, lack of resources, limitations in professionally trained people etc. will always provide a reason why the right thing cannot be done. Any of these barriers may provide an explanation of the disparities of high quality provision across the country, yet it must be asked can they really be used as an excuse if we really want to improve provision for SEND children morally, are we not all accountable and if we are, then why do we wait for others to take the lead?
For me and many like-minded professionals, the early year’s educational platform plays a vital role in strengthening and shaping SEND delivery throughout all stages of education. Early year establishments have the opportunity to be professionally and morally accountable in putting into place strong SEND foundations that can shape and inform the direction for primary and secondary education in a positive way.
The review will no doubt provide a myriad of information that will identify strengths and areas for improvement and future recommendations will convey change. If we are to provide high quality SEND provision, then we must also individually adopt a pedagogy of individual morale accountability partnered with professional accountability regardless of one’s professional role.
Identification may be one thing, but stepping up to the plate and taking proactive action to put high quality SEND provision in place does not start from an establishment, it starts from one person who was willing to take the lead in setting the educational path of high quality provision for all SEND children. Ensuring that all SEND children have the same right and opportunity for a great life.
I for one will eagerly await the review, but I will continue to ensure myself and the team I lead are taking proactive action to ensure that we set the path for young SEND children. One which can hopefully be maintained throughout primary and secondary school and which ultimately ensures that aspirations can be met and every child is provided with the best opportunities possible to achieve and succeed in life.