Last reviewed 12 March 2019

Pupils with special educational needs (SEN) have arguably been overlooked in the current Ofsted framework. In this article, Suzanne O’Connell highlights the importance of reviewing your SEN practice, particularly in light of the proposed changes.

A focus on outcomes has done little to support the task of delivering the best SEN provision. The proposed Ofsted framework moves away from an outcome-centred approach and means that inspectors will be taking a closer and more detailed look at the curriculum which is being offered. Now is the time for schools to review the condition of their SEN provision and whether it will satisfy the new requirements.

Review your curriculum

It was well-publicised that there would be a renewed focus on the curriculum in the draft framework. Inspectors will still look at outcomes as part of the impact section of the “quality of education” judgment. However, this will no longer carry the weight that it did.

Schools must demonstrate that their curriculum has been carefully thought through and that their approach is being implemented. They must ensure that special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) pupils have the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life.

Inspectors will evaluate the extent to which the school’s education provision meets different pupils’ needs, and inspectors must take a “rounded” view of the quality of education. There is no prescribed approach to curriculum delivery. That is for schools to decide upon. However, schools will want to feel clear about and justified in their approach, ready to explain and defend it.

SEN pupils should not receive a watered-down or reduced version. Inspectors will still want to see ambition there, but the curriculum can be adapted to meet their needs. With the special educational needs co-ordinator (SENCO) and curriculum co-ordinators, time should be taken to consider how schools can find the right balance between adaptation and ambition.

In the grade descriptors for “quality of education”, good and outstanding schools must demonstrate the following.

  • Leaders adopt or construct a curriculum that is ambitious and designed to give all pupils, particularly disadvantaged and including pupils with SEND, the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life.

  • The curriculum is successfully adapted, designed or developed to be ambitious and meet the needs of pupils with SEND, developing their knowledge, skills and abilities to apply what they know and can do with increasing fluency and independence.

In the draft inspection handbook, inspectors are reminded that there are specific factors which should be taken into account when inspecting SEND provision in mainstream schools. These include:

  • how well leaders identify, assess and meet the needs of pupils with SEND

  • how well leaders develop and adapt the curriculum so it is coherently sequenced to all pupils’ needs, starting points and aspirations for the future

  • how successfully leaders involve parents, carers and, as necessary, other professional/specialist services in deciding how better to support pupils

  • whether leaders are ambitious for all pupils with SEND

  • how well leaders include pupils with SEND in all aspects of school life and will give particular emphasis to how well they are prepared for their next steps in education, employment and training, and adult lives

  • how well the learning and development of pupils with SEND are assessed and whether pupils’ outcomes are improving as a result of the different or additional provision being made for them, including outcomes in:

    • communication and interaction

    • cognition and learning

    • physical health and development

  • relevant findings from any inspection of the relevant local area’s arrangements.

Under the leadership and management judgment, it’s clear that inspectors will be looking closely at any exclusions and be alert to the practice of off-rolling. Inclusion is given a renewed priority and school leaders must demonstrate that there is “a clear and ambitious vision for providing high-quality, inclusive education to all pupils.”

Protect your SENCO

An important part of any SEN review is that of the SENCO role. The SENCO is key to the success of any SEN department and there is evidence to suggest that nationally they are struggling to keep their heads above water. The research It’s About Time: The Impact of SENCO Workload on the Professional and the School” by Bath Spa University and NASEN raises serious concerns about workload and support.

Workload is a key issue and the Government is well aware of the view that teacher recruitment difficulties are linked to the pressure that teachers are under. The draft Ofsted framework points out that teachers should not need to make elaborate plans for differentiation and that making resources and materials should not create unnecessary workload.

There are tensions here between the fact that all teachers are teachers of learners with SEN and the need to reduce workload. Any gaps between the two will need to be carefully managed and not be plugged by a school’s SENCO. The Bath Spa research suggests that schools might develop a team around the SENCO. This could include having department SEN champions, providing assistant SENCO support, administrative support and a wider SEN team.

With tight budgets, it can be very difficult to allocate sufficient dedicated time for the SENCO. However, if at all possible, schools should look at SENCO time critically and protect it in future budget-making decisions. Encouraging and supporting links with other SEN departments and SENCOs can help generate ideas and resources.

Consider internal assessment arrangements

With the move away from levels, including that of P levels, SENCOs have perhaps found themselves struggling to find ways of demonstrating the progress that pupils with SEN make. While we wait for more support in how progress might best be tracked, school should look at their current systems and whether they are sufficiently tuned to the small steps that some of our SEN pupils can make.

This is not about lowering expectations but being realistic about what SEN pupils should be aiming for and ensuring that SEN staff are motivated and feel empowered by the measures they can use. The Assessment Without Levels: Qualitative Research report highlighted the concerns that many school staff have about assessment approaches for SEN pupils.

The report suggests that internal assessment procedures tend not to recognise the small steps of progress that are made by SEN pupils. This can make SEN staff feel that their efforts go unrecognised. It can also make it more difficult to identify when progress is not sufficient and alternative interventions and strategies should be tried.

The school’s assessment co-ordinator and SENCO would be well advised to work together on this, perhaps as part of a network or in conjunction with other schools. They should focus on finding a method that can sit within the whole-school approach but that recognises progress and flags up needs.

The Assessment Without Levels report itself provides a case study of a school that uses bookmarks to record the progress of SEN children as part of their whole-school approach. This system might be used as a starting point for discussion either for rejection or consideration.

A juggling act

September’s Ofsted framework brings new priorities to address. Some of these do not rest easily with one another, including how to prepare for a new framework when workload is such an issue. However, a new framework that acknowledges the provision for SEN pupils and not just the outcome was needed. Hopefully, schools will not find it too difficult to address.

Action points

  • Review curriculum provision for SEN pupils — attempting to find a balance between ambition and individual pupil needs.

  • Review the SENCOs timetable — consider whether more support can be provided through developing the SEN team and through administrative support.

  • Review assessment arrangements for SEN pupils — does the school’s current system sufficiently recognise the small steps they make?