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Expert Comment: Is the UK education system failing our children?

Three primary school children sit at a table in front of a whiteboard in a classroom.

The UK education system is at risk of failing children with undiagnosed or suspected special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) due to a lack of financial and emotional support.

That’s the verdict of Liverpool Hope University’s SEND Lead for Teacher Education, Gill Rogerson, who argues we need to find new ways for schools to holistically support children in order to maintain mental health and wellbeing.

The impact of undiagnosed or suspected SEND on children and their families is increasing.

Of the 4.6 million children in English primary schools, just under 1.5 million are diagnosed with SEND, but we must consider the children in our classrooms who are struggling with suspected but undiagnosed needs and the impact of this on their mental health and that of their families.

Support for these families is notionally reported to be sparse and, now that school budgets for next year have been drastically cut, reduced staffing ratios are likely to exacerbate this issue even further. 

There is therefore a need to find low-cost/no-cost ways in which schools can better support pupils who are struggling.

In 2019, Liverpool City Council received a damning report from Ofsted stating that ‘too many children, young people and their families have not had their needs adequately met. Where needs have been met, it has been because of dedicated professionals working tirelessly with and for children and young people and their families.’

Following quarterly visits, June 2022 saw a further report stating that sufficient progress in this area had been recognised, demonstrating that agencies were working together to make provision suit the children and young people in its education, social care and health services. 

However, these improvements were specifically for children with diagnosed needs, so children without formal identification are not recognised in these inspections.

What does this mean for our children with undiagnosed needs who were not part of this report?

Emotionally- based school avoidance (EBSA) is commonly associated with both emotional and physical anxiety and is becoming more widely recognised as a key reason for children and young people struggling with everyday school life.

My concern is that this is not recognised by the system and therefore is not given the priority it needs. 

In March 2023, the Department for Education released its Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) and Alternative Provision (AP) Improvement Plan: Right Support, Right Place, Right Time.

It states that the Core Content framework, the minimum entitlement for all trainee teachers, and the early Career Framework, need to be reworked in order to consider further how to develop the abilities, skills and confidence of teachers in order to meet the needs of children.

Does this extend to all children who are finding school difficult to access who may not have a formal diagnosis?

Speaking to one parent, they commented: “My daughter does not have a diagnosis of SEND and while my child’s school amends certain parts of the day for example, allowing her to enter school at quieter times, leave before home time and have break times inside if necessary, not all staff are aware of these very simple strategies. Counselling was successful for six weeks but then funding ran out and that was it. 

"Her crises didn’t stop but the support did. As hard as the staff tried to plug these gaps, there are too many to fill with such a small pot of money and limited understanding.”

We must ensure that all trainees enter their schools with a ‘toolkit’ on how to provide a safe and secure space for their pupils.

At Hope, working with our future teachers enables us to ensure that specific, adaptive strategies are put in place to recognise and support children who may struggle with school life. 

Working with our partnership schools has shone a light on the range of adaptive strategies that are being implemented to support children who are currently struggling with school life. This includes:

- Using soft starts to the day, where children can enter school from 8.30am without the pressure of lining up and crowded playgrounds.

- Having dedicated staff who are looking closely for those who may be anxious or grappling with dysregulation, ready to soothe and offer sensory ‘snacks’ where necessary.

- Implementing a ‘nurture base’ which children can access when needed throughout the day, led by staff whose role it is to regulate, comfort and be that essential and consistent support system that so many of the children require.

This powerful approach to inclusive education is what is required for vulnerable children and their families at a time when government funding is at its lowest ever.

Liverpool Hope University’s SEND teaching team are investigating what the issues and challenges are for these children with undiagnosed/suspected SEND. 

We rolling out a national online survey for parents to share their opinions and experiences.  These findings will be used to help focus and enhance provision of support and advice to school to help them to better meet the needs of these children who find school so very hard.

Complete the survey, here.

Published on 19/05/2023