Gazette Article 26: “Why are schools trying to put off pupils with special needs?”

Gazette article 26(Published in the Brentwood Gazette 05.11.14)

Inclusion was the theme of the final episode of the Channel 4 series “Educating the East End” that finished last week. I watched it with more than usual interest following a recent news report in this paper regarding a mother of a child with Special Educational Needs (SEN) who felt that she was being put off applying for a place at a local secondary school.

I do not know whether the headteacher of Becket Keys free school was misreported or misunderstood as I was not there, but his reported comments seemed to me to be unusual as they were apparently made at an Open Day, which are usually held to attract pupils.

Erroneously or not, the lady in question stated, “he will have put off quite a few people, which was probably his aim”.

I am not in a position to be the referee in this specific local case, but the central charge does interest me greatly from a national perspective.

I struggle to believe that any representative of a state funded school would seek to dissuade people from joining it, however, it is a question central to a report published in April this year by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner.

Scott Evans upsetEntitled “It Might Be Best If You Looked Elsewhere”, it outlines evidence that shows that some schools are, deliberately or otherwise, dissuading parents with children with SEN from applying to their school.

As the Children’s Commissioner , Dr Maggie Atkinson, explains in her foreward to the report: “I can accept that some schools may genuinely believe they are ill-equipped to serve the needs of some children and feel obliged to tell this to parents. However, the law states that this is not their decision to make. Equally, I can accept that it may not be their intention to dissuade parents from applying. However, it is not their intention that matters but the effect that their words and actions have.”

So why is this happening? From the comprehensive reading I have done on the subject, the root of it may actually be in the accountability system itself. In particular, the importance placed on Ofsted grading.

In his blog, “What’s the easiest way to a secondary Ofsted Outstanding”, the headteacher of Millthorpe School in York, Trevor Burton, analyses the most recent inspections of all secondary schools in England and it appears to show that a school’s intake in Year 7 heavily influences the likely outcome of an Ofsted inspection.

Mr Burton demonstrates that there is a far greater likelihood of achieving a high Ofsted rating if a large proportion of your intake were academically high achieving at primary school. Conversely, schools with more mixed, or lower attaining intakes, are shown to be far more likely to receive lower judgements.

Of course, SEN pupils can be high attaining but the support and effort required to fully realise their potential may be a cost that some schools feel is not worth paying. The central point seems to me to be that manipulation of intake is actually being indirectly encouraged by the current accountability regime and inclusive practice is not being rewarded.

So, given that, why would any school wish to be fully inclusive? In reviewing the programme I referenced earlier for TES, headteacher Vic Goddard, subject of the first series in this strand, “Educating Essex”, gives a great answer:

“Inclusive schooling enables young people to develop an understanding of what challenges other people have to face and empathy is one of the most vital characteristics that we can help our young people develop…Not hiding differences but learning, together, what needs to be done to ensure we all succeed.”

In short, ALL students benefit from inclusion. Students that do not attend a truly inclusive school are missing out.

In these competitive times, as Ofsted judgements are given highest profile, it is easy to lose sight of that.

It’s time to judge schools differently to ensure that those actively championing inclusion are encouraged and rewarded.

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