Centre for Policy Studies · Dr John Marks · Michael Gove · Nick Gibb · Ofsted

SEN, or just poor teaching?

Has Ofsted recovered its nerve? Apparently so. In its recent report ‘The special educational needs and disability review: a statement is not enough’, Ofsted reveals that, while the number of pupils with a statement of special educational needs ‘decreased slightly’ (from 3% to 2.7%), ‘the proportion identified as needing less intensive additional support at School Action or School Action Plus has increased from 14.0% in 2003 to 18.2% in 2010’. In the next paragraph of the report, Ofsted wastes no time in cutting to the chase, stating baldly that ‘as many as half of all pupils identified for School Action would not be identified as having special educational needs if schools focused on improving teaching and learning for all, with individual goals for improvement’.
Anyone working in the field and not wearing blinkers will know very well that all this has been common knowledge for years. Ten years ago, Dr John Marks drew attention to the alarming rise in the numbers of children and young people ‘with special educational needs but without Statements’. He reported that over the four years from 1995 to 1999, numbers rose from 9.6% to 16.5%.
As Marks noted at the time, the system of SEN is ‘perverse’: ‘the system has a vested interest in failure: the more children with Special Educational Needs that can be identified, the greater the resources that can be claimed.’
At the heart of Marks’ analysis is the estimation that ‘the main problem with about 75% of special needs pupils’ both in 2000, when he was writing, and a decade earlier, ‘is that they can’t read’. Ten years later, in 2010, this egregious state of affairs remains the same – in spite of the huge sums of money put into the literacy strategy by the last government.
In its latest report on SEN, Ofsted contends that some schools are using ‘low attainment and relatively slow progress’ as a criterion for designating children as having SEN, from which it goes on to state:

A conclusion that may be drawn from this is that some pupils are being wrongly identified as having special educational needs and that relatively expensive additional provision is being used to make up for poor day-to-day teaching and pastoral support.

Ofsted is absolutely right in its report to make explicit that pupils learn best when they are being taught by practitioners who have a thorough and detailed knowledge of the subject they are teaching, have knowledge and understanding of proven and effective teaching approaches and strategies, and have ‘a sound understanding of child development’.
Would that it were that easy! We come back time and again to the same thing: the training of teaching practitioners. On the latest Sounds-Write course I am teaching, there are three NQT’s, all of them working in an early years setting. When asked what training in the teaching of reading and spelling they had received from their training institutions, they all said the same – not a one of them had had anything practical. And this is exactly what we hear on all the courses we run attended by NQTs. It is obvious that most training institutions couldn’t care less about training their trainee teachers to teach this fundamentally important ability on which rests the whole educational edifice and that they are openly flouting the requirement that they give adequate time to the teaching of phonics. It’s a scandal and unless Michael Gove and Nick Gibb show some resolution in attending to the problem, we’ll be reading the same thing in another ten years.