OFSTED and Special Educational Needs – a response to Sophie

16th September 2010

Posted on the LKMco facebook wall by Sophie on the 14/09/10

The question of how many pupils have Special Educational Needs (SEN) really goes back to some of the sociology behind what we mean by SEN. If by SEN we mean a wholly medical idea, then clearly no, not everyone currently identified as SEN has a medical condition. I think that this view is guiding a lot of the media’s response and criticism of schools. There’s some really interesting discussion of this issue in the NASUWT’s Inclusion report.
If a child is behind with their learning or has a particular need then the teacher needs to make special provision. According to the current definition, they have SEN if this difficulty is because of a “learning difficulty or disability”. I don’t think a “learning difficulty” needs to be a particularly medicalised concept and it doesn’t seem to me a bad idea to identify a need clearly in order to encourage an effective response. But of course, teachers should be personalising for all pupils anyway. This may be the source of some of OFSTED’s criticism.
Take this scenario: I may find it near impossible to learn through visual teaching (I use the classic VAK example not because I think it particularly valid but because it’s conveniently simple). If a teacher is good this won’t be a problem because they’ll also use auditory and kinaesthetic activities and take this into account when personalising. However, if they don’t, I may make slow/no progress and therefore be identified as SEN. I certainly have a learning difficulty- (learning visually) and am making slow progress. But as OFSTED say- the latter is only because of poor teaching. So there is a discussion to be had about where the line between personalisation and SEN should be drawn.
Now that it has been identified,  there’s what’s done about my lack of progress following my poor, wholly visual teaching. Personalising for my learning style should become a priority and easier because the need has been identified. I should then start to progress faster and no longer have SEN (it’s recognised that pupils’ SEN status can come and go). So, despite the fact that the reason I have SEN is bad teaching, the identification and label was no bad thing and was a tool in addressing poor teaching. I think OFSTED are therefore right to identify poor teaching as a (partial) cause of the large number of SEN pupils but wrong to present this as a reason to identify less- so long as the response is strong and effective.
Sadly, the response isn’t always strong and effective. They’re right about this too. I think that often pupils are labelled as SEN and then given fairly poor provision. Schools/teachers sometimes see it as – “well they’re making less progress but they’re SEN so what do you expect” – it’s seen as an excuse rather than a call to action.
I therefore think that in some schools where teaching is poor (so there’s a lack of personalisation) you end up with upside down thinking: “They’re not making progress (because we haven’t personalised)” –> “So they must be SEN” -> “well they’re SEN so they can’t make progress” –> so no effective provision is made.
All in all, I think the report is right in its description of the reality but wrong in what it SEEMS to be concluding in terms of less pupils should be identified as having SEN. That’s what the media is emphasising but I don’t think it necessarily reflects the full flavour of the report- have a look if you haven’t yet, even just at the summary.