December 2012


  • New schools of thought
    They are a key plank of the government’s strategy to create a ‘self-improving system’, so 18 months from their launch, how are teaching schools shaping up? Nick Bannister reports. More
  • High Hopes
    A programme providing bespoke support for the most vulnerable pupils with special needs and their families has had remarkable results, including reducing the number of children designated SEN. Dorothy Lepkowska reports. More
  • Knock on effect
    Changes to government rules on how many students and of what calibre universities can recruit present a fresh challenge for school and college career departments, says Steve McArdle. More
  • Global Gains
    Working with a school overseas does more than help to create global citizens. Growing evidence shows that it can contribute to pupils’ academic motivation and attainment, say James Love and Claire Kennedy. More
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A programme providing bespoke support for the most vulnerable pupils with special needs and their families has had remarkable results, including reducing the number of children designated SEN. Dorothy Lepkowska reports.


When staff at Lyng Hall School began implementing the Achievement for All (AfA) programme back in 2009, about 45 per cent of pupils had statements of special needs or required some form of support with their learning. Three years on, that figure has dropped to just 15 per cent.

“It is not that fewer children now need support but we have redefined what special needs actually means,” says Paul Green, the headteacher of the Coventry secondary.

“Many children who were labelled as having special needs actually had other challenges to face, such as family problems, which were preventing them from learning rather than a specific learning difficulty. AfA helped us to determine exactly what those problems were and to offer the appropriate support.”

AfA was launched three years ago by the previous government (the Department for Children, Schools and Families [DCSF]) in a number of pilot authorities as a fresh strategy for tackling underachievement among certain vulnerable and disadvantaged groups, including children with special needs. It is a tailored school improvement framework that is delivered in partnership between heads, teachers, relevant support agencies, professionals and, crucially, parents, who have a vital role to play in the process.

Unlike previous initiatives, AfA specifically targets the 20 per cent of children considered to be most at risk, and targets everyone involved with those pupils, who are required to work together for the good of the child. An AfA coach is paired with the school to work with teachers and the school’s own dedicated champion to analyse the school’s exact needs in the priority areas of school improvement, parental engagement, behaviour, attendance, and staff development. A scheme of bespoke training and support is then put together and agreed with the school.

During the initial two-year programme the coach and the school champion work together to deliver 18 training sessions and support that cover four key areas: school leadership, high-quality teaching and learning (assessment and target setting), parental engagement, and improving wider outcomes as part of an overall ten-point ‘journey’. This culminates in the expansion of AfA to all pupils, regardless of background and ability.

Holistic approach

The scheme takes a holistic approach to raising standards and has three main strands: the rigorous tracking of progress in English and maths, with tailored interventions when pupils are found to be falling behind; a termly ‘structured conversation’ with parents; and strategies for eliminating problems that can hinder learning, such as bullying or poor social skills.

Schools or clusters of schools pay between £3,500 and £7,000, depending on the number of pupils on roll, for access to the scheme. Smaller schools are encouraged to work in clusters in order to reduce costs, although the charity that now administers the scheme claims that the charges will be recouped many times over with rises in standards and improvements in behaviour and attendance.

AfA has been shown to have made huge strides. An evaluation of the pilot, carried out by the University of Manchester, found that of the 28,000 pupils on the programme between 2009-11, 37 per cent made the same or better than expected progress than non-special needs pupils in reading and writing. In mathematics, the figures rose to 42 per cent.

At Lyng Hall, AfA complemented the school’s own improvement strategy, which was beginning to have an effect on results. “What was clear was that we were not doing as well with some of the more vulnerable groups and I was concerned we were using special needs as an excuse for underperformance,” said Paul.

‘Break down barriers’

Some parents are and remain, hard to reach. In one extreme instance, a member of staff kept a parent on the telephone line from the school while a colleague knocked on the door of their home, allowing them no escape from speaking to a teacher.

“I have not yet met a parent who does not want their child to do well at school, but we have to break down barriers and it is for the school to take the initiative,” Paul added.

“We had to build up the confidence of the parents, but also it forced us to address the strategies we were using. There had to be information-sharing on both sides, with a clear dialogue about academic outcomes.”

Crucially, AfA prompted Paul to restructure support provision generally at the school. Students who had previously worked with a range of professionals were now assigned one ‘associate teacher’ who liaised with everyone on their behalf. This led to a more structured and less fractured support framework for each child, and the family.

“Each child now had their own, individual road to go down to achieve success and we got pupils into a position where they could access learning more effectively,” Paul said.

At The Brunts Academy, in Mansfield, another pilot school, the focus was on classroom practice, with teachers implementing more differentiated learning. The school serves a former mining community with high unemployment and deprivation.

The key focus areas for the school were teaching, learning, assessment, and the rigorous use of data.

“We moved away from using different types of resources for some students and more towards how teachers interacted with them in class,” said Carl Atkin, the deputy head. “We looked again at how teachers questioned pupils and probed to find out how deep their learning had been”.

“We also moved away from the classroom where activities were teacher led, to one where every child was able to contribute further, and students shared ideas and discussed concepts before finally offering a response.” In one notable case using this approach, he said, a child who had difficulty in maths was able to progress from a projected D grade at GCSE to achieving a B.

The involvement of parents was sought through the AfA’s ‘structured conversation’ approach, which used a variety of methods of drawing parents in – from telephone conversations to home visits. A family liaison officer was appointed from an existing support staff member to coordinate approaches and find the most appropriate ways of engaging with parents. Despite their efforts, some remained reluctant.

In addition, a sport and disability coordinator was appointed to ensure there was inclusivity in all aspects of the curriculum. Able-bodied students now play wheelchair basketball alongside their disabled classmates.

Of the 1,500 students at the school, 236 are now classed as having special needs, a drop of 120 pupils since the pilot began.

“There is often an assumption that with special needs children they are automatically in the low ability range but this isn’t necessarily the case,” Carl added. “Often they have a talent such as art and music and nurturing this would help them to feel successful and increase their confidence. We had to raise staff awareness of this and the AfA framework opened our eyes as to what could be done.”

Non-traditional SEN

At Parliament Hill School, an all-girls school in Camden, north London, one of the main focuses was pupils’ emotional health and well-being. As well as special needs, issues around neglect and eating disorders, for example, were found to be hindering pupil achievement and attendance at school.

“These may not be traditional areas of special needs, but nevertheless these were problems that needed to be addressed in our school, where there were girls who were prone to disaffection and truancy,” said Susan Collen, an assistant headteacher and the school’s director of learning development.

Using some additional funding received through AfA, the school sought out the services of Kids Company, a charity devoted to using methods such as art therapy and dance, as well as mentoring, with vulnerable inner-city children to build self-esteem and confidence and offer young people opportunities to excel beyond the classroom.

Massage and reflexology were also used to help to relieve stress and emotional upset. The school now pays for Kids Company’s involvement out of its own budget.

“Therapists come into school, so there is no need for pupils to leave the site and miss lessons. We have found this to be a more pro-active approach which often removes a later need for referral to mental health or other services, for example,” Susan added.

AfA is now being rolled out nationally by the Department for Education (DfE) and its business partner, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). It has become a charity called Achievement for All 3As, and is run by Brian Lamb, its chairman and author of the influential Lamb Review on special educational needs (SEN), and Professor Sonia Blandford, the chief executive and director of the charity. Schools participating successfully are eligible for a quality mark in recognition of their work.

Professor Blandford said, “It was evident as early as the first year of the pilot that AfA was having a huge impact. When the first set of data came through we realised we were on to something and had found a scheme that worked for a wide range of leaders, teachers and pupils.”

For more information in Achievement for All 3As, see:

(Please note that the feature on Achievement for All has been amended in Leader magazine online and is different to the printed version following some minor amends to the section on The Brunts Academy)