A reflection: SEND Webinar – Priorities and questions from the network

Pauline Holbrook, Head of SEND reflects upon the discussions that took place during the SEND Webinar on 18 January 2022

The word cloud above was generated during the webinar and clearly shows that leaders of special schools continue to face many challenges. The main ones include staffing, Ofsted and Covid; all of which were discussed alongside the SEND review, academisation and growing number of SEND learners. What became clear was just how many leaders feel isolated and at times think it is only them that are experiencing a particular challenge. This webinar provided the opportunity for them to realise they are not alone and that through this network they are able to connect with others experiencing the same challenges and anxieties.

SEND Review

We still await the publication of this with anticipation. The themes we think it may explore are:

  • Challenges in relation to increased overspends in the high needs block which logic says would mean looking at student placements. We all will have examples of the cost of out of authority placements some of which are totally necessary due to lack of very specialist provision locally. Perhaps the review will give us an opportunity to re think how we meet the continuum of need presented by an ever growing number of SEND learners.
  • The variability in EHCP’s and input from other agencies in both the writing and delivery. Several colleagues said that they would welcome consistency and streamlining as even the documentation varies from one authority to another. Also, special schools are being expected to take on more and more medical interventions with the reduction of school nurses. This is becoming the norm in many schools and/or areas without additional funding, and it is hoped that the review will recognise this variable position which is felt untenable by many special schools.
  • Outcomes for our students is always a sticky one. The data sets available are very sparse and often only relate to SEND students in mainstream. There is a growing number of parents lobbying for improved data. Possibly one way forward is to share best practice and certainly to be looking at destination outcomes rather than a deficit model which only seeks to identify what a student can’t do.

Each of these areas is huge and I am sure the review will identify many things but probably all will boil down to funding, identification of need/provision and how we know we are getting it right for these students. If only we had a magic wand! As neither we nor the government do I think we are going to need to be patient. However, these students are with us now and we do need to look for innovative local solutions. The Working in partnerships to meet the needs of SEND learners, Thursday 10 February, will provide 2 special school accounts of how they are working locally to support SEND students not on their roll.

Academisation

There is still a drive towards all schools being part of a MAT although this seems to have quietened down of late. A high percentage of special schools are either stand-alone academies or have decided not to go down the academy route. It is important that special schools keep an eye on trends and are clear in their thinking as to where they wish to position themselves going forwards.

Ofsted

There has been updated deferral guidance issued which clearly states:

The COVID-19 pandemic poses a unique set of ever-changing challenges for all providers. We know that these challenges and the impact of COVID-19 will vary considerably from provider to provider. While our responsibilities towards children and young people remain, we recognise that there will be circumstances when it is not the right time for an inspection to go ahead. If provide have any concerns about the timing of their inspection or visit, they should request a deferral.

Also serving practitioners who are Ofsted inspectors are not being asked to undertake inspections at this time.

Staffing

Issues being faced by special schools now are in relation to staff absences, recruitment and supply.

  • Absences: Some schools and Local Authorities are looking to follow some companies such as Next and Amazon, and consider whether staff who choose to remain unvaccinated should only receive statutory sick pay if absence is Covid related. We would like to hear from you if this is the case in your LA or MAT.
  • Recruitment: This is challenging at all levels particularly for TA’s. Some schools are block booking supply TA’s; others have a rolling advert. Unfortunately, many are reporting this is no longer working and even when they find staff and offer them a job they decline when they see salary as it is no longer competitive. Colleagues explained that they were pushing the training packages they offer to make their school more attractive. Certainly having a USP that is particularly attractive whether this be training & personal development, toil in relation to additional hours worked or flexible working could support recruitment.
  • Supply: Many special schools used their lunchtime supervisors as supply TA’s whilst others had a bank of staff they called upon rather than using agencies. Where this is still the case, it is more cost effective than using a supply agency as costs of a TA vary from £100 a day to £150; yet the TA themselves only receives about 50% of this. Similarly with teachers. Leaders also reported that the quality now is variable although some schools do have excellent relationships with the agencies they use and even get refunds.

Numbers

Numbers in special schools seem to be rising on a weekly/fortnightly/termly basis. As we know going over commissioned places is not always as easy as some LA’s seem to think. It is worth remembering that LA’s have been given significant funding from government to support schools where actual numbers are significantly higher than commissioned places. Also worth noting is that 90% of tribunal cases find in favour of the parent, so it may be worth picking your battles given the amount of time and energy a tribunal takes up.

Covid

This is still challenging for special schools who are expected to remain open to all students. However, this is not always possible given the high number of staff absences at this time. Schools are negotiating local solutions which may involve all classes in a particular pathway/phase or indeed the whole school being on a 4 day week, rather than just one or two classes or not being in school for an extended period of time.

It is important we learn from this pandemic and don’t lose the ideas etc that work. One colleague from an ASD school shared that instead of doing whole group virtual lessons, they allocated each student a certain amount of time each day with a teacher for 1:1 learning. This was welcomed by parents and students, and it had had a phenomenal impact. However, this is proving far more difficult now with most students in school and only a few isolating at any given time but parents seeking the same support. This is just one example of effective remote learning. Is it time to re visit engagement?

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