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Monday, July 08, 2013

Special Ed

This week one of my wife's relations asked me questions for an assignment for her Teaching Assistant course. Perhaps some of my answers may lift the lid a bit on the world of special education. All observations and opinions are, of course, my own and not official.

1-Do you have any experience working with special needs children?

Yes. [Looked After Children two years... For a year or so I also taught at a project to reintegrate 15-year-olds youngsters who had been out of education for some time... some supply teaching at special schools for physically disabled children...autistic children at an ASD special school for a couple of months... From 2006 on at primary age Pupil Referral Units... now I am the Targeted Intervention Lead Teacher and assist staff with assessments of various kinds.]

2-Do you feel that children with disabilities should be integrated into mainstream schools or segregated into special schools? Why?

Some yes, some no. Integration can be good for the pupil, because it helps prevent institutionalisation and low expectations; it can also be good for the mainstream children to learn to mix with, cope with and help children who are different from them. But there are some children with emotional or behavioural difficulties (EBD), or who are on the Autistic Spectrum (ASD), who don’t mix well with mainstream children or cope well with a large group. Perhaps physical disability is easier for “ordinary” children to see and understand.

3- What effect do the SEN children have on the mainstream pupils?

I don’t get to see this much in our context. Mostly, we cater for children who have been excluded from mainstream. And it depends on what kind of SEN it is – emotionally upset and attention-demanding children can seriously subvert the work of a class, which is why they tend to get excluded.  Autistic children can get very stressed by noise, changes of location etc. In a mainstream school it takes a very skilful and energetic teacher to manage children of different kinds in one class and still make adequate academic progress overall, and the workload and stress on the teacher can be considerable.

There is also the question of how different SEN types react to each other. EBD and ASD children don’t understand each other; EBDs wonder why ASDs “don’t stick up for themselves” and also why they butt in, pass annoying comments or tell teacher about misbehaviour, whereas ASDs wonder why EBDs aren’t following rules, and don’t understand why they get hit for telling the truth. EBDs enjoy being a bit out of control; ASDs try to control everything (e.g. I know a little girl who made a coloured time chart for when each of her friends was supposed to spend time with her).

3-In your experience of education (personal +professional) how have attitudes +policies changed towards special education?

Many primary schools are now much more aware of the need to use strategies to manage behaviour, and are on the lookout for special needs. But the skill level is patchy – there are still schools that let a child’s problems continue for years and then throw them out as SATS looms up. Secondary schools are, I understand,  generally well behind primary schools in adapting to the behavioural variety of their intake.

Screening and funding arrangements for special needs are currently changing, and some suspect that there is a save-money agenda behind some of the changes. Our PRUs feel that there are not enough special school places and the system is creaking; it doesn’t help that we now have so many broken and abusive or inadequate families that yield children with enduring emotional problems.

4- Do you have a teaching assistant to support you in your daily routines? What do you feel are the benefits  and disadvantages of this?

Yes, we all have at least one full-time TA in every class in our PRUs. It’s essential for managing the children’s behaviour, and for professional protection against false accusations (we sometimes have to handle children physically, for their own and others’ safety). And there is so much paperwork.

A number of TAs are agency staff and need to be shown how to do things our way; this means more time in training and supervision. It’s a hard job and not everyone stays with us.

5 – Within your setting how do you ensure that the planning and day-to-day routines are flexible to accommodate individual children needs?

Activities are planned to meet the range of abilities, so there is differentiation in task and outcome. We also look at learning styles (visual/audio/kinaesthetic), do regular assessments of behavioural risk, have individual Behaviour Management Plans, Individual Education Plans (IEPs), CRISP analysis (Criteria for Special Provision) and do social developmental and attitude testing using the Boxall Profile or PASS (Pupil Attitudes to Self and School). Staff have to be flexible because individuals can still “kick off” and the work of the class may have to be suspended while issues are resolved.

6- Do your children have a voice in your setting? Please give examples.

Yes. For example, many are involved in the Common Assessment Framework and some are Looked After; both processes allow the child to express opinions. And we have a School Council that meets several times a term – they enjoy the sense of responsibility. When they have seriously misbehaved they do a Put It Right sheet that asks them to reflect on what they did, why, what the result was and what they should do next time. In their exercise books they can indicate how well they think they understood their lesson.

7- In your opinion does statementing lead to a more inclusive practice? Please explain.

Most of the primary schools that buy into our additional services work hard to spot and help children with difficulties. The SENCo in such schools will usually be pretty good at doing CRISPs, IEPs, IBPs (for behaviour), Pupil Provision Plans etc. Young teachers also seem to be fairly well briefed on managing behaviour and special educational needs – far (far) better than the teacher training I received in the 70s.

A Statement of Special Needs has legal teeth and is reviewed at least annually. It defines the child’s needs and how they are to be addressed. You can end up with a formidable list as SENAR (Special Education Needs and Review) takes in reports from all and sundry and in effect turns all of it into action points. You then have a recommendation as to placement – which is decided by SENAR in association with the parents/carers: mainstream with funded support, special school, or a “resource base” (a school with some mainstream classes but also a special unit where the child may spend much of the time).

We do see placements fail in secondary, especially in Year 7, as many children can’t cope with the transition, so our [PRUs are] now doing more to hold onto and support children across the KS2/KS3 divide, and in KS4 the youngsters are being steered into projects like the XXXX Project, rather than into secondary schools that can’t or won’t effectively cater for their needs. Not everyone is made for mainstream school.

8- You said you work with inter-agency and CAF. Can you tell me a bit more on how this supports the inclusion of the child?

Think of the child’s difficulties as symptoms and their family and its circumstances as the causes. The CAF process can reveal what’s really going on at home, and help to get agencies to work more urgently to solve problems (e.g. re inadequate housing). Education and social work have a significant interface, and if you don’t deal with the whole child you’ll only get partial success.

But it also becomes clear that in some cases, even the parent/carer isn’t as committed to the child’s needs as they should be. Ultimately this can lead to a social services referral for neglect or abuse – but at least that is also a kind of progress in solving the child’s problems.

We are now generally doing fCAFs (Family CAFs) rather than individual child CAFs, because more often than not there are other children in the same family with problems, or the adults have their own difficulties, or the family as a whole has a problem (e.g. housing).

The government has latched onto CAF as a tool for tackling “problem families”, which means that in some cases the agenda can be at least partly driven from above rather than by the clients. CAF was set up as a voluntary system and the official “mission creep” could undermine the consensual nature of the process.

9- How does funding affect inclusion for your setting?

We get additional funds, but I’m not an expert in this. However, we are not a special school and so don’t get the level of resources they do.

10 – Do you find there is any policies or provision that restricts you doing your job?

Our children have significant social and emotional difficulties. The demands of the National Curriculum can be a burdensome distraction in these circumstances, because until the emotional needs are met the learning can’t proceed. It’s quite a juggling act. I’m wondering whether provision like ours shouldn’t have its own specialised curriculum.

We also tend to be used as a prolonged, cheaper alternative to special school provision. The original concept for our PRU was that children would only be with us for a few weeks, while we did assessments and organised reintegration; instead, we have had a number of children who have been with us for 1 – 3 years. Partly that’s down to a shortage of special school places and partly to difficulties in getting readmittance to mainstream. There is also the question of how long it takes to conduct a Special Needs Assessment – typically at least 6 months; and unless it starts early in the Autumn Term you’re unlikely to complete in time to secure a place in special school for the following September.

11- I know from experience that some families are hard to reach, how does your setting encourage parent partnerships?

CAF is helpful. We also had Family Support Workers that liaised between us and the home, but this ended in April when we reorganised. We used to have a nominated Integrated Family Support Team member, but again this has faded back and now we are just referred to the local IFST for such support as they may be able to provide. Our plan is to develop some of our TAs to offer some support for parents and carers; and they are currently being trained by me to take over CAFs, which until recently I’ve run myself.

12 –If you were developing a 5 year plan, what would you like to change or develop in your setting?

a. Radically shake up Special Needs Assessment, to be more like a Formula 1 pit-stop – get the professionals to see the children and write their reports within a few weeks at most. Ideally a Statement should be finished in 4 – 6 weeks, in my opinion. Also, these assessments should be made at the child’s home or mainstream school – not wait till a permanent exclusion.

b. Following from (a), as soon as a Statement is finished, the child is entitled and should begin receiving it in full immediately and with full funding, not languish in a PRU like someone whose plane has been cancelled.

c. Work with primary schools to create Transfer Panels as in secondary schools, who have taken on pupil-swapping and made it a success.

d. More training and support for staff in mainstream schools, to help identify and support children with additional needs.

e. Rethink the curriculum and provide more standardised resources and courses of work. Teachers are spending too much time on the paper side of things and in dread of OFSTED, when their energies should be going into the children.

If we did all the above we would hardly see any children arrive in our PRU. This would be a good thing, as putting children with behavioural difficulties together in one place is like the cross-infection of a doctor’s waiting room.
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James Higham said...

Hasn't this area burgeoned in recent days [maybe a decade and a half]? And the game is a racket now, a closed shop.

Still the debate is withdrawal or immersion.

Sackerson said...

"a racket now, a closed shop" - I shan't rise to the bait, James.