Chaired by former Health and Social Care Secretary, Rt Hon Matt Hancock MP, the third inquiry session of the Dyslexia Commission provided an opportunity for participants to engage with the forthcoming Schools Bill and ongoing SEND Review and the potential implications for children with dyslexia.
Led by Director for Social Mobility and Vulnerable Learners at the Education Policy Institute, Jo Hutchinson, the final part of the inquiry session focused on the main points and areas of concern within the Schools White Paper and the SEND review Green Paper.
On the topic of the White Paper plans, one of the key ideas highlighted as challenging was a proposal for 90 per cent of children to reach literacy and numeracy standards. These unrealistic targets were an area of concern, as they are either ignored or tend to further exclude dyslexic children from mainstream into specialist schools – which are heavily oversubscribed.
The government proposed that interventions would be made available for children who fall short of this trajectory. A promising aspect of this intervention is that it will be made available to students regardless of their diagnosis, which would be beneficial in reducing the stigma faced by students with SEND needs. However, Ms Hutchinson highlighted a financial concern echoed earlier in the session – that these interventions would require additional staff, training and resources. However, detail around funding these interventions has not yet been made clear by the Government.
“If you set unrealistic targets, one of two things happens to them. Either everyone soon forgets about them and we all move on, or they tend sometimes to drive the exclusion of children or the pushing of children into more specialist placements because mainstream schools know they cannot meet those targets.”Director for Social Mobility and Vulnerable Learners at the Education Policy Institute, Jo Hutchinson
A focus on the personal, social and emotional development of these students was highlighted as an important step to drive down inequalities between the progress of dyslexic and non-dyslexic children. This was outlined as imperative, considering the difficulties faced by SEND students are often exacerbated by a system that is ill-equipped to support them.
Furthermore, there is an implicit assumption of cost neutrality within the Green Paper. Considering this in relation to children and adolescent mental health support, current plans outline that the NHS services will only cover parts of the country. Cost neutrality therefore seems unrealistic in achieving consistent and equal access to all forms of support, considering the current unequal landscape.
“Struggling within a system that’s not recognising and supporting them (children with SEND) may in many cases cause those difficulties and exacerbate those difficulties.”Jo Hutchinson, Director for Social Mobility and Vulnerable Learners at the Education Policy Institute
There is a significant opportunity to generate a robust framework and statutory standards that holistically tackle these issues. Within the SEND Green Paper, the Government has proposed to create one national framework of standards, rather than the current 152 local authority systems which are highly varied. This move could certainly narrow the postcode lottery gap and ensure all students have the same opportunity to access assessments and support for their needs.
To deliver these national standards, the Department for Education proposes to bring all planning and accountability centrally within a new group called the Department for Education Regions Group, which will regulate schools through new statutory academy trust standards.
A significant portion of the bill is a push for all remaining schools to join a multi academy trust, which will be regulated by the Department for Education’s new statutory academy trust standards. It will also have a portion dedicated to the inclusion of children with special educational needs. This would merge the split between schools currently under two different forms of governance and could make government regulation more universally effective.
However, Ms Hutchinson’s own research highlighted that primary schools within multi academy trusts are less likely on average to identify children as having SEND. It is therefore critical that in setting the new standards, the Government commits to the crucial strand of increasing provision highlighted in the SEND Green Paper. This would increase the level of complex needs that could be tackled by mainstream school provision, without pushing children into specialist institutions or alternative provisions.
To generate the framework, the Government is aiming to codify what parents can expect from schools and local authorities. This proposal empowers parents of children with SEND needs to articulate what they require for their child so that they can be supported in the school system. However, Ms Hutchinson highlights this is a challenging task to fulfil, considering the Government aims to outline the assessment and support for each specific need and disability.
On the topic of teacher training, Ms Hutchinson highlighted there is a proposal to boost SEND and early years practitioner training, which was a recommendation strongly suggested during the teacher training section of this inquiry session.
However, the skills challenge for the teaching workforce is significant and ensuring teachers have a rich knowledge of child development will not be an easy feat. Comparatively, the UK teaching workforce is relatively inexperienced due to a high turnover and fewer qualified teachers with master’s degrees. To tackle this, core requirements for the ITT must include dyslexia and SEND inclusion more frequently and with more depth.
An important question that arose from Angela Fawcett, Emeritus Professor at Swansea University, was how the changes in rules on minimum English and maths entry requirements to university were going to discriminate against potential dyslexic university students. Ms Hutchinson recommended two ways this policy could be more exclusive:
- Those designated as requiring special access arrangements for exams could have a lower grade requirement or an exception from the requirement altogether.
- Taking this a step further, consideration should be given to the amount of emphasis placed on marks awarded for punctuation and grammar considering the assistive technology available in work environments.
These solutions would not only benefit children with Dyslexia or SEND, but also students from low socio-economic background or those who do not have the vocabulary to express themselves. The entry requirement is a regressive step that should be avoided as they prevent access to higher education for lots of different types of children.
The forthcoming Schools Bill will provide an excellent opportunity for the sector to engage with decision makers about the future of SEND provision within schools.
As Ms Hutchinson outlined in her excellent presentation to the Commission, there are several opportunities – but there are also numerous risks. These all need careful consideration over the coming weeks and months.
The Bill could narrow the postcode lottery gap, an issue raised at the first session of the inquiry meeting. However, centralising any regulatory function does not come without risks. Often innovation is overlooked in favour of a stick approach, thus negatively impacting attainment and outcomes.
When the Bill is presented, it is important to include consideration of SEND consultation responses. Whilst the Schools Bill and SEND Review seem to have been separated in terms of forthcoming legislation, the Government can still take into consideration the early consultation responses. Should this be the last Schools Bill of this Parliament, the Government should not lose the opportunity to act.