• Phoenix Education

Investment in SEN: Is it good money after bad?

When Education Secretary, Damian Hinds announced a £365 million improvement in SEN schools, it was easy to think it was a promise that would be broken or bafflingly large number that wouldn't amount to much when distributed nationally.

Yet, this week, an additional 3,500 special free school places have been announced with every region in the country benefiting from a new school. This include 37 special free schools and an additional two alternative provision free schools.

The government have focused on the importance of the additional choices these extra places will provide for the parents of children with complex emotional needs, learning difficulties or behaviours that put them at high risk of exclusion. There is a focus on encouraging collaboration between the expertise that exists within the school and the local agencies that can play a role in supporting and improving learning outcomes.

Whilst many people are celebrating this news, for me, I have conflicting views. It is an announcement that I must be received with a word of caution. 

In the last few weeks, we have been bombarded with news around the importance of reducing exclusions. With the further suggestion that for young people, sending them to an alternative provision school, in any guise, will lead to negative outcomes. We know that children that find themselves experiencing their education via a special or alternative provision school have significantly higher chances of becoming involved in crime, antisocial behaviour, unemployment and poverty. Factors which are likely have contributed and lead to the path towards exclusion. 

So recreating the wheel or simply increasing the amount of young people we can take on that journey isn't really good news at all, is it? More choice, maybe but not choices that connect to different outcomes. More options for a less than average education experience? More chances to reinforce negative self perceptions and affirm challenging behaviours?

To me, it feels like messaging across the industry is a little confused. We are promoting inclusion in environments where exclusion is on the rise. We are investing funds in schools for children who have been excluded but continually suggest exclusion is the cause of so many problematic behaviours.

For me, it is time to consider how the act of exclusion and the concept of exclusion differ. To be excluded could simply be the process that occurs when education professionals realise a student isn't suited to mainstream learning. The concept of being excluded however is fuelled with negativity, labels, isolation and abandonment - and it is my belief that it is the concept of exclusion that fuels the downward spiral of behaviours and attainment outcomes rather than the act of excluding a child from a school. When we tell a child that they do not belong to a schooling community, the message they receive is that maybe they don’t belong anywhere.

It is time we ask ourselves, as experts, as professionals and as human beings, what can we do to reduce the negative impact that surrounds the concept of exclusion and for me, it's as simple and as complicated as giving students a sense of belonging and truly make them feel they belong. 

I would love to see a change in the AP experience. A new benchmark for the level and quality of education we provide. A commitment to delivering so much more than the curriculum and not undermining the importance of sports days, performances, after school clubs and cake sales. We know that PRUs and AP perform well by Ofsted standards, but how do we make sure that there is a development of supporting children so they are not vilified in the media and stereotyped when they walk through the doors of the PRU or AP. How are these free schools going to make sure that the narrative of ‘bad kids go there’ is flipped on its head? That children deserve a sense of belonging and this is a place where they will be given the extra support, nurture and allow them to have an education that embraces their individual experiences and prepare them for a positive future.

I think every child deserves a full education, an embracive education experience and  I am confident that it isn't simply a ‘nice’ notion, something that might make us feel better or happier about our working environment as teachers. To me, embracive education is the solution that will shift the statistics and it must be explored at a regulatory level if we really want to drive change and improvement in learning for those at risk of exclusion.