February 2014


  • Sense of direction?
    A new special needs code of practice is being heralded by the government as ‘the biggest shake-up of special educational needs (SEN) in 30 years’. Jonathan Fawcett looks at what leaders can expect and sees some potential problems looming. More
  • Market forces
    In the third topic in the Great Education Debate (GED) series, Robert Hill explores the roles of autonomy and diversity, the twin pillars of reform. More
  • Behind the headlines
    Bad news stories about the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results don’t give the whole picture of how our schools compare internationally, says Ian Bauckham. Nevertheless, PISA contains important messages that we cannot afford to ignore. More
  • Talking cures
    Access to professional counselling for students in school can help prevent deeper problems emerging later on, enabling students to realise all of their potential, finds Karen Cromarty. More
  • Warning signs
    Teacher recruitment is already down alarmingly in key subjects, says John Howson. So is 2014 set to be the year the teacher shortage becomes a full-blown crisis? More
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A new special needs code of practice is being heralded by the government as ‘the biggest shake-up of special educational needs (SEN) in 30 years’. Jonathan Fawcett looks at what leaders can expect and sees some potential problems looming.

Sense of direction?

The Children and Families Bill 2013 currently making its way through Parliament includes the new SEN Code of Practice that will come into force from 1 September 2014. The government claims that the Bill will be the biggest step forward in SEN provision in 30 years and as a principle it is widely supported; nobody involved in the educational world would be against steps to improve the quality of education and life chances of any young people who struggle, for whatever reason, to access the full curriculum in schools.

ASCL Council’s Inclusion Committee has been tracking the Bill’s progress and development of the new code for the last couple of years and we have had a number of opportunities to meet the Department for Education (DfE) officials who are drafting the new legislation and to discuss its implications with colleagues around the country. We were keen to understand the implications of these new working practices a and to ensure that while they have a positive affect on young people’s education, they are also manageable for schools and colleges.

SEN is a complex area and attempts to overhaul its provision need to be based on full consultation of everyone involved in its implementation. It requires adequate funding in order to ensure that it will be successful at ground level as well as appropriate training of those who are involved in delivering it. It’s also essential that we have a sufficiently lengthy lead-in period to allow people to prepare for these new working practices.

One of the key aspects of the new legislation is the duty on health authorities to co-operate with schools and other organisations. Discussions with colleagues from around the country suggest that ineffective multi-agency co-operation and delivery can be a significant barrier to the success of education provision, so if the new code can at least ensure that all agencies work together for the benefit of those who have education, care and health plans (ECHPs), then it will be responsible for a significant achievement.

The introduction of the ‘local offer’ and the fact that the code covers the 0-25 age range are also welcome developments that will help to ensure a coherent approach to SEN. A further positive is that there will be a reasonably lengthy transition period of up to three years to convert existing statements to ECHPs.

But even so, it’s hardly ‘the most radical shake-up of SEN in 30 years’. At best, it is formalising existing good practice and introducing a couple of logical statutory duties. There remain far more questions than answers and it looks like the success or otherwise of the new code will once again be down to the hard work and goodwill of the teaching profession, and Special Educational Needs Coordinators (SENCos) in particular.

Funding barrier

When I want to radically overhaul something in my school, I try to think about when and how it’s going to be introduced and try to make sure that there is enough capacity in terms of training, resources and people’s time to ensure its success. Sadly, the DfE doesn’t think like school and college leaders so the new code will be formally approved sometime around Easter and implemented from September.

Yet there will be several more key initiatives underway at the same time. If we just start with a new National Curriculum to plan for and teach from September across Key Stage 3 as well as some pretty major changes to the exam and qualification system then it is clear that we won’t be twiddling our thumbs.

The new code also runs to 174 pages and the draft is not easy to navigate; statutory requirements are mixed in with good practice and post-16 guidance is interwoven throughout.

And funding could, yet again, be a real barrier to success. The code will cover the 0-25 age range for the first time, but there is no suggestion of additional money to meet these additional commitments, nor is there anything extra guaranteed to help with integrated planning and assessment.

We are also unclear as to how the funding for ‘additional SEN’, the single category that covers School Action and School Action Plus, will work.

The pathfinders that have been set up to model the new practice have undoubtedly done some good work, but they have been on a very small scale and we are concerned by the lack of modelling in mainstream schools and colleges. We have repeatedly asked for information about it from the DfE but this has been hard to obtain. We hope they are getting the message about the need to disseminate effective practice and outline procedures in good time. The gateway that the National Association for Special Educational Needs (NASEN), the SEN specialists, are involved in developing should provide good support.

Legal definition

The legal definition of SEN hasn’t changed in the new code but there’s a strong emphasis on moving away from securing additional hours of support to ensuring that students make at least the expected progress. The strategic role of the SENCo in leading the development of high-quality learning experiences in all classrooms for SEN students will be crucial to future success. There’s a suggestion that for schools and colleges that already have strong SEN practice, the new code won’t change much.

There appears to be a strong focus on defining SEN in ‘medical’ terms and a move away from anything that relates to behaviour or mental health.

All references to emotional and behavioural difficulties (EBD) appear to have been removed, and this raises concerns about the potential lack of access to resources and support and the subsequent effects that can be seen in terms of inclusion. This is a real concern at a time when teenage mental health issues are increasing rather than decreasing.

So, after three years and presumably several million pounds of public money and an awful lot of people’s time, the new SEN Code of Practice essentially boils down to the following:

  • Health services will be legally obliged to engage with schools, colleges and particularly students with an ECHP and there will be a strengthened local offer.
  • The role of the SENCo will be strengthened, with improved and more detailed (statutory) training, particularly focusing on SEN students receiving very high-quality teaching within the classroom and a reduction in students being withdrawn from lessons and moved away from their peers.
  • We will move away from a focus on the number of hours of support a student that is entitled to and focus on what we want children to be able to do, that is, specific outcomes and progress.
  • The rights of parents and guardians to be involved in decisions about their children’s provision may be strengthened, but they are already pretty strong, and that’s something that schools and colleges would always want in any case.

But the legal definition of SEN hasn’t changed, and nor has the statutory duty on schools to meet the needs of those children. Rather than a radical leap forward, the changes represent logical further development. At its best, it could ensure a renewed focus on best practice for SEN students.

Sadly, among the positives, too many concerns and unanswered questions remain and the detail as to what constitutes SEN and what funding will be available to provide essential SEN support in schools and colleges is lacking.

Over the next few months we will continue to work with the DfE and all other agencies involved to try to ensure absolute clarity over the new code and ensure that adequate funding and training are available, as well as effective dissemination of good practice. The real danger is that the success of another development will be down to schools and colleges once again to do more with fewer resources.

The real opportunity here is to develop further the very best of practice, and much of that can be achieved with changes in culture. But if it isn’t adequately funded, we won’t see the biggest development for 30 years.

  • Jonathan Fawcett is head of Swanwick Hall School, Derbyshire, and Chair of the ASCL Council Inclusion Committee