Friday, 1 October 2010

SEN - the educational rollercoaster

Several friends have asked me recently for advice/information on forging a path through the maze that is Special Educational Needs to obtain even adequate support for their child. On our journey to finally obtain such support I have learned a huge amount, most of it through experience rather than research. The inaccessibility of SEN policy and practice in individual schools and at County level continues to astound me. I've experienced schools with their pupils best interests at heart struggling to make themselves heard by their County SEN Officers (assuming they actually HAVE one and the post incumbent hasn't gone on maternity leave with the post left unfilled in the interim) and those for whom the official requirements of SEN best practice appear to be an unpleasant hindrance should they find the time to address them.

Who in their wisdom assumed mainstream schools were the best places for virtually all special needs? Closed the schools, units and support teams dedicated to supporting those for whom mainstream education is at best a patchwork of second and third best options and at worst a living nightmare? It wouldn't be so bad if the funding had been diverted to provide for such children.

Schools today are charged with meeting their pupil's educational AND emotional needs (Education Act 1996) which is a key point. It (and the SEN Code of Practice) also set out the requirement to monitor progress (as before) and ensure those with additional needs were adequately supported. "A child has a SEN if he/she has a significantly greater difficulty in learning than the majority of other children or has a disability that prevents or hinders him/her making use of mainstream facilities." This means the government has a legal responsibility to meet social and emotional needs as well as educational ones. It is now against the Law to discriminate against disabled pupils in admissions, access to the curriculum, school trips, after school clubs and anywhere on the school premises. (The Disability Descrimination Act 1995 also supports this.)

It's all too easy for your Autistic son, daughter with ADHD, wheelchair using pre-schooler etc to be advised the after school multisport club is not an option because of x, y z (insert preferred excuse) but schools are simply not allowed to do this. It may seem totally reasonable that the very young and inexperienced football coach cannot cope with a child with Asperger's and ADHD but that ISN'T your child's problem. you might completely understand why your autistic child in Reception might not cope with the proposed excursion but that is a problem for the school to solve. If your child is in mainstream education then it IS the school's responsibility - rightly or wrongly.

A child deemed to be struggling in school should be assessed (as all children are constantly in school) and if not making progress (academically, socially, emotionally, physically etc) then they should have a termly IEP or Individual Education Plan. This should be related and explained to parents at termly IEP meetings and this should be in ADDITION to the usual parent-teacher meetings. Clear goals should be set out and if unmet or not even partially met after two terms then consideration needs to be made to step up the support. It is essential that you attend these meetings and keep copies of all IEP documents to refer to later.

The Code of Practice for Special Educational Needs recommends a graduated approach to intervention and support. They are as follows:-
1) School Action - where support is 100% school based, with termly IEP meetings and clear targets for progress.
2) School Action Plus - where outside agencies are involved. this might be speech and language therapy, intense   physio, enteral feeding, ADHD medication under a psychiatrist.
3) Statement of Special Educational Needs

School Action is the initial stage of concern but even at this level the school should liase with the educational psychologist for advice where appropriate. In our experience schools do not always have a good relationship with their Ed Psych's and often feel they have somehow "failed" when they have to call the Ed Psych in - as if they couldn't "fix" the problem in school. It's important to focus on the child's needs and keep referring to IEPs, reports and meeting logs to avoid being swayed! Ed Psychs are difficult to pin down, overworked and probably underpaid they cover huge areas and you may well be told in retrospect your child has been seen by yours. I really recommend writing to yours (County Education Website should provide addresses etc) and requesting you are notified of an impending visit and say you would like to have the opportunity to discuss your child with them on that date too. Too many school's fail to consult the Ed Psych until School Action Plus is getting your child nowhere, and a Statutory Assessment begins to look likely.

A Statutory Assessment is a detailed investigation of your child's special educational needs and what provision is needed to meet those needs. It is not a step many councils take lightly! you can request one yourself (sample letter here)  but you will most likely get turned down first time. Don't be put off, our school refused to back us initially, we appealed, referring carefully to Educational law and Best Practice. In H's case he was being excluded several times a WEEK by age 6... clearly not therefore having "full access to the Curriculum" and it was this assertion which won us an Assessment. Don't even mention the word "Statement" as everyone immediately looks the other way and starts singing "Tra-la-la!!!" very loudly! Statements cost around £5K to complete, they are legally binding documents - small wonder few councils jump at the chance to initiate then.

A Statutory Assessment doesn't always lead to a Statement, and again you can appeal (don't be afraid to do so) and if you have requested it yourself DO take advice. Agencies like IPSEA are a mine of information. USE them!  Even if you do actually secure a Statement sadly the battle doesn't stop there.

Only today, I was discussing this with H's psychiatrist. (Whom he has to see for ADHD support/medication) The SEN system is so flawed.... children struggle to extreme levels, many spend months out of school, most finally get support, but as soon as this support works, the Council remove it because it's too costly and your child is coping better! Our son finally has the 1:1 support his Statement and Dr say he must have, and it works. 100%. total transformation in school..... but his Annual Statement Review is due and we are terrified the current level of support will now be reduced, precisely because it is working. Eighteen months ago we were on the brink of permanent exclusion - a step extremely difficult to reverse as a friend's son has found. He spent a year out of school, and is finally in an appropriate setting. but guess what? He's doing better, his place at that Special School costs the County a fortune so now he's doing so well they want him back in mainstream!!!

Honestly, it beggars belief. How we can condemn these children to an educational lifetime on a rollercoaster like this? I'm dreading the next dip.... because it isn't ok to be seen to be doing well, that suggests there are resources to be saved somewhere. For the time being though, having fought for 5 years to see our son better supported in school we have reached that point - where he is happy, he is in school, learning and is slowly making friends. He is welcome in ALL clubs, invited on trips and is just one of many. Bliss. Long may it ast, but sadly I don't hold much hope of that!
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