Specialist Schools and Academies Trust: Conference on complex learning Difficulties and Disabilities

The Minister for Children addresses the SSAT conference on complex learning difficulties and disabilities.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
Sarah Teather

Thank you, Philippa.

And also a big thank you to everyone here today for the fantastic work you do, day in, day out, making life better for our most vulnerable children - whether you’re a head teacher or a teaching assistant, occupational therapist or educational psychologist.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again - we are extremely fortunate to have so many talented and committed professionals working with our children who have disabilities and special educational needs, helping them to fulfil their potential.

And I’d like to congratulate the Trust on the launch of your research project findings, and set of six guidance booklets. The findings offer enormously important insights into the new generation of children with complex learning difficulties and disabilities - taken from a solid research base involving 90 special and mainstream schools, including 15 international schools.

Your web-based tools, such as the Inquiry Framework for Learning, and Engagement Profile and Scale offer much forward-thinking, imaginative and practical guidance on how teachers might systematically engage children in their learning.

Professionals who support our most vulnerable children, whether in mainstream or special schools, will find these tools an invaluable support to their work - and they cost nothing to download.

Many of the insights that developed from your research have already fed into our Green Paper. For example, we know that the profile of disabled children and children with special educational needs is changing. Medical advances mean that babies who were born extremely pre-term, and who previously would not have survived birth, are now entering school.

Ten per cent of babies born at less than 27 weeks , have very severe cognitive difficulties.1

Nearly a million families in the UK today have a child with a disability.

Children with rare syndromes, who in the last century would not have survived, are entering school for the first time.

And teachers are reporting that they increasingly have to deal with mental health needs in children. So it’s clear that today there are many new challenges and opportunities for teachers - and for us in government - to face as we work out how best to support children with special educational needs and disabilities.

It is equally clear that the way ahead is to focus on more child-centred services. The starting point has to be the child, and services should be able to adapt to the child, rather than the child having to adapt to the service.

In our Green Paper we use the example of six-year-old Lucy, whose compulsion to put paint and other substances in her mouth, meant she was unable to do art activities in school. But by analysing how Lucy could engage, teachers were able to test strategies that meant she was eventually able to paint directly on paper, without touching her mouth.

We know that the system as it stands is letting children and young people and their families down.

For a start, services just aren’t joined up enough. Parents describe how they are passed from pillar to post as they seek the support they need. They face bureaucracy and frustration at every step. The Council for Disabled Children reports that, on average, a disabled young person will have been assessed 32 times as they’re growing up.

So we’re very clear that what we need is a new system with a new approach - a much more streamlined approach. And the Green Paper is our vision of a radical new approach. The plans we set out are informed by professionals like you, and by parents. In fact, of the 1800 responses we received in our call for views, 40 per cent came from parents.

We propose a system that puts parents and children right at its heart. And where services work together, alongside families, to provide early and effective support. It will be very much in keeping with the philosophy of the Trust’s own research - child-centred, practitioner-led and evidence-based.

First of all, we want to make the system less stressful for all concerned by introducing a more coordinated process for assessment and care. And one of our most radical ideas is to replace the statutory SEN statement with a new single assessment process, supported by an Education, Health and Care Plan.

This single, straightforward plan will be reviewed regularly to reflect the changing needs of the child right from birth to age 25: it will have the same statutory status and will include a commitment from all agencies to provide services required by the child.

To make sure we get it absolutely right we will be setting up local pathfinders to test the best ways of achieving this. Many local authorities are already coming forward with interesting and innovative plans, and I hope that more will put themselves forward.

Second, we plan to make information about the system and the provision of services clearer and more easily available for parents. This will enable parents to have real choice over their child’s education, and control over support for their family. We propose a change to the law so that parents of children with statements or single assessment plans will have the same rights to express a preference for any state-funded school, be it a special school or mainstream. And they should have their preference met wherever practical.

Third, we want parents to be confident that their child’s school will have the capacity to meet their needs. Having a special educational need or being disabled shouldn’t mean low expectations or poor quality education and support.

It’s crucial that teachers and college staff are well-trained to understand and overcome the barriers to learning that these children experience. The Pupil Premium gives schools additional funding and flexibility to support individual pupils, but teachers also need to be able to identify the right help for those children.

SSAT’s online guidance will go a long way to helping teachers understand how to engage children with complex learning difficulties. In addition, we’ve asked the Training and Development Agency for Schools to commission online training materials about profound, multiple learning disabilities and severe or complex learning difficulties.

We’re offering free training resources on specific conditions such as autism, dyslexia and speech and language needs. It will form nationally recognised training for teachers that can be used for accredited professional development.

We’re proposing to fund scholarships for teachers to develop their practice in supporting disabled pupils and pupils with special educational needs. And we want outstanding special schools to apply to become teaching schools, so they can share and develop expertise among their own staff and throughout their network of schools.

Finally, I want to emphasise that this Green Paper is a consultative document - so I urge you to keep telling me your thoughts and ideas. We’ve set a four month period for this because we want to hear from as many people as possible. This is a really important issue and we are determined to get it right - so if you haven’t already done so, please read it, scrutinise it - then tell me what you think.

Thank you.

  1. EPICure study of pre-term babies - Marlow et al, 2005
  2. Blackburn et al, 2010
Published 11 April 2011