You only have to look at any property search site to know how important being near an “outstanding school” is. There is a premium to property, there is a prestige about attending, there are scores and charts about how each school is doing. For most, it isn’t possible to simply up and move closer to an outstanding school, and that is when you have “normal” (read neuro-typical and without disability) children. As a parent and advocate for children with both of these factors, the choice is all the more critical, but so are the tools you can help get (it should be provided as a matter of law) to “facilitate the development of the child or young person and to help him or her achieve the best possible educational and other outcomes”.
Let’s examine that last sentence, s19(d) Children and Families Act 2014, states that the Local Authority “must” (a legal duty), have “regard” to the facilitation of development of the child or young person and to help them achieve the best possible educational and other outcomes. Having dealt with both EHCP’s for my children over 2 years, going to Tribunal twice and with another date set for the new year, the interpretation of regard varies from person to person and in my experience volunteering to help others, from Local Authority to Local Authority as well.
Regard is quite complex, it is when comparing school a) and b) who can both meet the needs, is there a significant difference in cost, and is there a significant difference in benefit for either school and is that a reasonable expense (case is here https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/578f3a36e5274a0da900012e/HS_3337_2015-00.pdf). The key to identifying this is down to the reports which inform Section B of the EHCP (Part 2 of SSEN), the Special Educational Needs. The quality of this is entirely down to the level of detail, the specificity with which the report details the need, the outcome and the provision required to achieve that in the timeframe stipulated (SMART Targets). The most recent definition in case law, the legal standard with which SENDIST measures is that of JD v South Tyneside  which reinforces the definition of “Specificity” in L v Clarke & Somerset County Council where it was taken to mean ““the real question … is whether [the statement] is so specific and clear as to leave no room for doubt as to what has been decided and what is needed in the individual case”.
For me, it isn’t difficult to grasp that the “N” which should Never be igNored is “NEED”, not want, not good to have, not regular access to, not enhanced levels of, it’s just need, things this child NEEDS in order to be supported in their education. Sadly, there are many organisms of government, professionals etc who seem to miss, or simply ignore this critical word.
So if you get that unicorn which is the specified, detailed, time-bound, targeted plan at first draft, or whether you have had to go to the Upper Tribunal in order to achieve a decent plan which is the child’s right, it still needs to be implemented.
As we know, the real funding per pupil in England has decreased year on year certainly over the last 7 years; indeed the IFS report “Education spending has since fallen in real terms as spending cuts began to take effect from 2010 onwards. Between 2010–11 and 2015–16, it has fallen by about 14% in real terms, taking it back to the same level it was in 2005–06 and a similar share of national income to that last seen through most of the 1990s”.
We also know that in my prominent area of interest, Autism, exclusions are far higher than the norm, with a year on year increase of over 24% between 14-15 and 15-16 alone (read the whole article). Indeed, from that study, and from NASUWT data that “despite the fact 70% of children with autism are in mainstream schools, that 60% of teachers in England do not feel they have had adequate training to teach children with autism and 35% of teachers think it has become harder in the last 12 months to access specialist support for children with autism”.
Whilst researching this article, it became clear, that although an anecdotal observation, the national statistics of achievement of those with SEN and in particular, those with SEN with an EHC Plan are so much lower than those without. One possible reason for this is that all children with SEN are too difficult to help, but I cannot give much credence to this when the description of SEN is so broad as to not only encompass children with complex needs and Learning Difficulties, but also children with no Learning Difficulty at all other than issues with social interaction as is often found in children with Aspergers. Having seen a great number of EHC Plans, the lack of specificity and detail in reports, and that many reports sadly are written with low, but readily achievable aspiration. The result is therefore likely to aim low and hit low. For the latest study, which I implore you to read, look here. For SEND GCSE results, look here.
So, you’ve got your plan, you want your child to be supported in a specified plan to be supported in order to achieve the “best possible educational and other outcomes”, and you’re looking for a school, where many of the teachers feel they aren’t supported or equipped to deal with your child, what can you do?
Well, the best way to illustrate a good situation is to use a case study of a good school, using a good specified EHCP, which was written largely by using good, detailed, specified reports…
The following example is one I know in great detail, one of ours;
We were in the fortunate position of both parents still being together, both educated to postgraduate level, myself in law and my partner in Accountancy and Finance. The law helped us to understand the some of the legal frameworks along with excellent assistance by particularly IPSEA and SOS!SEN, the reports issued by commissioned services fell short of the definition of “Specific” (see also JD v South Tyneside) so we commissioned ones specific to the issues our son faced. For that we did extensive research and also got recommendations.
Firstly we looked at the obvious and significant sensory issues by appointing an Occupational Therapist with both a professional working, and personal knowledge of ASD, we appointed Children’s Choice Therapy, in part because the clinician who first saw our son and worked well was initially contracted by the Local Authority for this work from her company, but also by reputation amongst other clinicians. We were then recommended to our wonderful SCLN Specialist in Autism & PDA Libby Hill of Small Talk Speech Therapy. Both professionals carried out assessments at school, at home and at their specialist settings to test various different functions and within various different environments. Their reports were detailed, specified and particularly well tailored to our sons specific needs in concert with other needs rather than potentially working against them.
The key is that these professionals both had specialisms with our sons’ needs and also knew and worked well with each other to be able to then ensure that all work enhanced each other, rather than working at odds or in conflict.
The next stage was to find a school, the main point of this blog!
On first glimpse we saw good things from the most local school to our son, Heathfields Infant School, a mainstream school, relatively small in size, but initially on looking at their website, it was clear that SEN shouldn’t be hidden, or feared, it meant children were different… All children are different, and all are valued…
A good start.
The next step was to book a meeting for a visit to the school to look at the facilities and to meet the SENDCO, Mrs Harris… When we arrived we were greeted warmly, Mrs Harris had already spoken to the nursery our son was arriving from, his keyworker, read his report, and the reports we had furnished her with, the ones which informed his EHCP we later fought for through Tribunal (see my very first blog here). This was a good sign, from the first instance the school appeared invested and eager to meet him. They arranged some taster sessions to aid with transition, with the potential new classroom and teacher he would be going into if nominated.
All schools say they are inclusive, most will say they can meet needs, but this school had an entire presentation on SEND on their website, the pupils we saw coming from there as young adults were all friendly, well balanced young people. These were all good signs beyond the obvious nods and affirmations you might expect.
What has happened since nominating this school is what has really motivated me to write this article. Despite the cuts to funding, this school has only trimmed staff as a last resort, members of the Senior Leadership team are all qualified teachers, they open gates, they welcome children, they step into lessons and even help to run the breakfast club. The leadership team at this school are filling in the gaps to ensure the staffing levels are right, that the pupils aren’t short changed by the lack of funding. No more is this evident, than in the case of my son. Small Talk (who are named in the EHCP) have given whole of school training on SCLN to teachers and TA’s. Our sons’ TA, I have to name her because she is so wonderful, Mrs Ashby, has a direct line of communication to both SALT and OT, and she uses these frequently to ensure what she is doing is right, that it is meeting his needs but also stretching his comfort zone and giving him more tools to use.
Our son, like many with ASD, SPD, SCLN, Behaviours others find challenging etc, started at the school with 10+ ABC sheets every single day with incidents of violence. He would come home at the end of school physically exhausted, he didn’t speak very much at the start, in most EYFS he was measuring at 18/24 months at over 48 months chronologically…. Our son was not an “easy win”, he was a boy who needed a lot of understanding, from his viewpoint, from his motivations, from his needs… This is exactly what he found in his reception Class with Miss Densham…
Miss Densham, like many of the other teachers in this school, is of the kind that your child, my child, will likely not forget, likewise his TA, Mrs Ashby… Both fill the morning with light and positivity, both welcome every single child, both celebrate every single positive outcome and the not so positive ones, they welcome as a “what more can we do?” challenge…
My son often has an object of reference he uses both to feel grounded by holding, but also as a point of interest with which to start a conversation. This is used as soon as he is welcome into school with an enthusiastic smile and a “Good morning B, tell me about what you’re holding”… “an R2D2 torch??? WOW!!!”, it seems like a small thing, but by doing this, they instantly take away some of the anxiety of entering the classroom, which is big. He is able to talk about an object he clearly likes, as he selects something to show every day.
He is then included in his part of the register, but not expected to stay, he is on the edge of the classroom when it is taken and if he wants to stay, he can, but if he wants to escape the noise or the quiet, he is able to go to the hall and commence his sensory circuits, created by Alison Hart of Children’s Choice Therapies. Sometimes, he will take a friend with him, sometimes, it is just himself and Mrs Ashby… but this is an important start to the day and key to his ability to both concentrate and feel at ease.
These skills of being able to know him and understand his unique “Fruit Salad” of ASD, and to respond with subtlety and appropriate approaches and or differentiation of his curriculum as needed.
School assembly can be daunting and difficult for any 4-5 year old to endure, but again, this has been approached in a different way. Rather than entering from the start and waiting for failure, he is encouraged to join the assembly at an increasing interval from the end (initially short) and then waits to lead his class back to the classroom. This means that he exits assembly with a success, he is able to increase his tolerance of an environment which is challenging to him, with the promise and experience of something he enjoys, to lead, at the end. This was a suggestion which was sought out by the school from the SCLN specialist, Libby Hill of Small Talk (YouTube). The school makes use of the relationship with the Professionals engaged in the EHCP and regularly seeks answers to questions, this strengthens the engagement with professional and school.
Something this school does very well is building the social interaction not only for our son but with his peers. There are regular opportunities for him to work with others, to bring them to his activity and to join in with theirs. The differences are not seen as negative but as unique traits, something we all share, we are all slightly different in what we find easy and what we find hard.
The result of that first year, from receiving the plan in February to his ending of term assessment in July was an increase in EYFS, up to 48 to 60-month range in some areas and increases in every single area of attainment of more than 18 months… In just 5 months… All of this was by following the EHCP, by regularly interacting with the professionals, differentiating his programme to him embedding it into his daily curriculum, to build social communication and relationships, and interaction networks in the class, to give him wins every single day.
The culture in this school is what makes the difference, from the top, the Leadership Team, to bottom, the lunchtime staff, in particular, his lunchtime assistant Steph, the reception lady, the handyman, they are all in it for the children… And it shows.
This isn’t just a school which should be celebrated for the great little school community they have built, it shouldn’t be celebrated solely on its’ OFSTED Score, it should be celebrated for the culture, the engagement of staff, the children and their engagement, and lastly…. For the fantastic job, it has done with my son, by using the EHCP correctly, by engaging with parents, by engaging with my son on his level and helping him to achieve his wants and needs…
This is how a good EHCP, with great professionals, a great school make great outcomes, with a great little boy, and we should all celebrate successes like this.