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SEN: Fighting the system

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What can we do when we find ourselves increasingly having to fight the system in order to achieve the best outcomes for our most vulnerable students? 

When you make the decision to work in education, you become a guardian of dreams.

If that sounds grand, then it is. It’s a dizzying responsibility. My school educates secondary-aged pupils with SEN. All have moderate to severe learning difficulties, often with autistic spectrum disorders, language, emotional, sensory and physical needs alongside. All of these students, and their families, have dreams. It is our job to help them to achieve these dreams.

Two of my former students are heading to university this year. When they joined a special school at 11, this was an almost unimaginable goal. That’s the magic of working in special education – you never know what you can dare to dream.

Dreaming is one thing. Practicalities are another. It’s important to remember that educating young people with special needs is a long game, where progress will often feel very subtle or remote. It is anything but linear, and backward steps are common; and an apparent lack of measurable progress in set time-frames is extremely daunting for those of us being held to account for it.

And yet, it is possible to achieve great things in the end.

If you work in a school like mine, dogged determination is a necessity. You can never give up. You have to be relentless.

These qualities are essential if you are going to make a difference for the pupils in your care. When they do make a break-through there’s an almost euphoric sense of achievement. Consequently, it is the most rewarding work I have ever known.

Sadly, this doggedness in the classroom doesn’t leave a lot of emotional and professional energy left for the other fight that is increasingly common for schools like mine. More and more now I find it is necessary to fight the system. All too often, the successes of my students happen despite the system, not because of it. And that can’t be right.

My students have lots of complex additional needs and some severe medical conditions. But they cannot get all the support that they are entitled to. Let me give you an example. In the past, I could rely on the support of the school nursing service. They could be prevailed upon to help us to care effectively for the medical needs of students, while staff took care of their educational needs. 

In my local authority, the school nursing service has been severely depleted and its functions changed to remove altogether its role in both direct care and in the development and delivery of medical care plans. 

As a consequence, classroom staff in many special schools, with no medical background, are carrying out expert medical procedures such as those involving jejunostomies, tracheostomies and deep suction. While provided with a limited initial training, this is not revisited and practice is not quality assured.

This has created unacceptable pressure on my staff and is limiting the ambitions we can have for students as well as our confidence in the quality of care that we can offer them.

Teaching practitioners and support staff are now undertaking work that should really remain with the medical profession, and – more worryingly – taking responsibility for managing dynamic and potentially life-threatening medical conditions. The work is essential, but it’s taking time away from our prime responsibility – teaching and learning.

All my students have Educational and Health Care Plans (EHCPs). Within these plans the education of students is a

statutory requirement, with a legal accountability for delivering both support and the progress towards targets prescribed within them. Unbelievably, the health and care components are not. This creates two problems for schools. First, as local health and education budgets diminish, the thresholds for care are getting higher and higher, making it harder and harder for us to access the health and care support that are essential for the young people in my school.

Where we could once have relied on the local authority for things like speech and language, physiotherapy and occupational therapy, now we must often provide this ourselves, with no extra funding. And costs for this support are rising all the time.

All academic tasks and progress rely on appropriate language and physical skills. If our students don’t have them, they cannot make progress. Where medical care is imperative, the school has no choice but to fill the gap. Ethically, this is the only choice open to us, of course. 

But there is also another factor which relates to the second problem for schools who have students with additional needs – schools are the only part of the system to be judged on the progress that these young people are making. 

Local health authorities and commissioners are not held accountable in the same way, which is why they can afford to increase their thresholds for intervention and are never seen at reviews of EHCPs. In a school, you cannot ever do this.

You always have to do what is required.

Heartbreakingly, I find myself having more and more conversations with my students’ families about the difficult decisions we are having to make about the provision we offer. I hate doing that because it adds more pressure onto parents and carers who have already got such a lot on their plates. 

Having a child with special needs is hugely traumatic and draining. It is a never-ending challenge. Throughout your child’s life, new resonances and implications of their needs emerge, including, sometimes new diagnoses.

Just as it is for school leaders and their teams, the emotional and professional energy that parents and carers require is immense. We could all do without having to spend such a lot of that capital on fighting the system.

Sometimes you fight the system together. On other occasions, it can drive a wedge between you and your families. And the only people who lose out then are the children.

It does come down to resources in the end. Costs are rising faster than funding. Provision and support are being cut. You can do anything if you have the money. You cannot do anything without it.

In special schools, we will always dream as big as we dare for our students. They are ambitious young people and have every right to be. Their families are ambitious for them and support their schools wholeheartedly in reaching for the stars. What we need is for the government to show some leadership and fund the essential work we do sufficiently. If they do not, I fear that the most vulnerable in society will pay the highest price. 

This article was written by Marjike Miles, head teacher at Baycroft School in Hampshire, and was first published in SecED on 28 February 2018.

First published 09 April 2018