Ensuring people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) are empowered and equipped with the tools they need to contribute to public life is a key measure of how capable and compassionate we are as a society. A complex and expensive challenge, it offers a test of the resilience, competency, and creativity of our health, education, and social care systems.
The Government has a core ambition to support adults with SEND to live fulfilled lives by supporting their integration into society through measures such as community-based care provision and encouraging the take-up of employment.
While essential, the ambition of integrating young adults into society may be compromised if there is insufficient investment and attention paid in the earliest stages of people’s lives - when the chance to nurture potential and develop learning is greatest.
In reality, rather than entering society with as many skills and abilities as possible, many young people with SEND enter life as an adult less well prepared and equipped than would have been the case had the educational system been optimal.
Weaknesses in SEND provision is not new news; the Commons Select Committee’s (2019) assessment of the sector found that five years after government reforms were launched to better support children and young people with SEND, more than half of the first 100 areas inspected had significant weaknesses in their provision.
Crucially, the Commons Report highlighted that this is not just about budgets – a cultural shift is needed to address the weaknesses in provision within our SEND education system.
A key issue facing many young people at the start of their learning journey is knowing how to learn. Many children with SEND lack pivotal skills, such as basic language or imitation skills, which are the essential building blocks of learning. For many children with SEND, this means they may never learn to their full potential or develop key life skills such as going to the toilet, managing their emotions, or being taught to cope with being in public places.
There is a risk that some children with SEND are occupied while at school rather than educated - limiting growth and development and leaving them vulnerable to missed opportunity by the time they leave the education system.
Without establishing core skills as building blocks, we risk committing children to lives where exclusion, isolation, and deep dependency are near certainties – limiting the quality of life for the individual, and placing a significant burden on families, communities, and local authorities. It is also likely to significantly hinder a person’s ability to contribute meaningfully or make autonomous choices about their future.
There are economic as well as a human costs associated with less than maximally effective teaching. Treasury spending figures show that public expenditure during 2017/18 on personal social services in England amounted to nearly £24.5bn, with younger adults aged between 18 and 64 with severe learning disabilities the largest group receiving local authority support.
Personalised curriculums and behavioural support can transform what can be a negative cycle into a positive pathway, where learning is enabled, children’s needs are addressed and they are supported to control and manage their behaviour. Once a personalised plan is in place, parents and families can also be supported to care for their children through home visits, increasing the likelihood of family units staying together and reducing the need for local authorities to fund expensive residential care.
Given the range of needs that we see with SEND, it is an absolute necessity to personalise a curriculum because every child’s needs are different. Although it requires specialist attention, and therefore greater outlay; there is huge opportunity to reframe SEND provision and focus on the importance of a personalised approach that offers people the opportunity to grow and develop into valuable contributors in our society.
As part of our commitment to innovation, Abbey School in Chester is pioneering a strategic research partnership with SEND experts at Bangor University and University of Warwick – both globally renowned leaders in the field of SEND educational research and development.
The Abbey School Educational Research Alliance (ERA) will enable Abbey School staff to collaborate with both universities to explore and monitor the pupil learning experience, introduce evidence-based and innovative practices, and pioneer world-class research to drive positive change in the sector.
Eventually, we plan to create an ‘open-source’ model where other schools and teachers will be able to access its research, and draw on the learnings and findings from ERA within their own educational settings.
Although our programme is still in its infancy, we see potential for this model to transform how we look at children and young adults with SEND and the role they play in our families, community and wider society.
By investing early, and focusing on a personalised approach from the earliest stage, young adults with SEND across our society could be provided with the best possible educational start; nurturing their ability and providing them with the valuable building blocks they need to effectively learn and develop.
Ultimately, this personalised focus could empower and enable a new generation of young people to play a valued role in our society, relieve some of the pressure on the benefits and adult social care system, and lower the long-term costs of care.
Prof. Sandy Toogood is head of clinical and behavioural services at Abbey School Chester and an honorary professor at Bangor University