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The Knowledge. Understanding best practice in SEND support

When the secretary of state for education herself describes the special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) system as ‘lose, lose, lose’, no one can deny it is in a bad way.

Concerns around attendance, behaviour and mental health in the wake of the pandemic coupled with a decline in real-terms funding have left schools facing an increasingly challenging context for supporting all pupils, especially those with SEND.

Yet while the SEND and AP Improvement Plan published last year calls for a ‘united workforce’ around the child, it does not identify collaborative school groups such as multi-academy trusts (MATs) as among the key system stakeholders.

Today, NFER publishes a new report that looks to address this gap by providing insights into how some MATs are looking to better support their pupils with SEND, and what lessons school groups of all kinds may draw from this.

Over the recent autumn and spring terms, we interviewed 49 trust leaders and school SENCOs across 19 MATs that had been identified as demonstrating potential for promising practice in relation to SEND. Below, we outline three of the main ways these MATs reported they were supporting SEND provision.

Supporting, not stipulating

Rather than mandating particular approaches, these MAT leaders instead tended to provide a vision or framework to align schools in terms of culture and standards. A designated SEND leader within the MAT leadership team was seen to be particularly valuable for providing specialised and strategic support, and for understanding the nature of the challenges SENCOs were facing.

Internal SEND inspections were likewise reported by both MAT leaders and SENCOs to be positive, constructive experiences that focused on the school’s strengths and areas for development. All interviewees emphasised the importance of schools within the trust having agency over the nature of their provision as school staff are best-placed to understand the needs and context of their pupils.

Resources, resources, resources

Schools are facing lengthy waiting lists to access the specialist services required for pupils with SEND. Some MATs, however, reported bringing these services in-house as a resource for their schools to draw on. Interviewees also highlighted that the economies of scale afforded by acting as a school group enabled access at reduced rates to training opportunities, interventions and needs assessment resources for their schools.

Sharing additional resources such as templates, toolkits and guidance also helps to reduce SENCO  workload. While financial resources from central MAT teams were mentioned, these tended to consist of a small amount of additional funding for discrete ambitions, as well as support to access and optimise funding from other sources.

Communities of practice

Being a SENCO can be an isolating role. Often, they are the only staff member with their specialism, and even their line manager may not have a full picture of the day-to-day responsibilities and challenges of the job.

The SENCOs we spoke to unanimously appreciated opportunities for collaboration and communication with other SENDCOs (and with the MAT SEND leader where available). They say this is beneficial not just in terms of knowledge exchange but also moral support.

SENCOs reported interacting through regular cross-trust SENCO meetings, instant-messaging groups, school visits and/or local buddy systems. Collaboration with special schools within the trust (where applicable) was likewise seen to be valuable in providing access to specialist SEND expertise.

Our research findings shed initial insights on the ways in which MATs and other school groups might best support pupils with SEND. However, we need more evidence on how these practices may or may not influence pupils’ outcomes.

Moreover, while school groups can do more to better support their staff and pupils in relation to SEND, they alone cannot overcome the challenges of an overloaded and underfunded SEND system.

It is therefore critical that fixing the SEND system remains a top government priority. This means addressing staffing challenges, providing adequate resources for schools and local authorities to facilitate aligned partnership working, and supporting effective provision for pupils with SEND.

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