Early Career Framework, Leadership, SEND

SEND Leadership: a new way of working

By Anita Devi

Last week, #TeamADL jointly led a series of SEND Briefings with Tappter, because we believe this is a time for a new way of working.  In recent weeks, we have already started the conversation by talking about:

In addition, we are proposing a way of working that re-connects the sector.  For years, I have listened to people describe the SEND system as ‘fragmented’.  In truth, I have struggled with this level of negativity, not because I don’t’ believe there are things we need to address.  There are many issues we need to address.  My resistance to this comment was due to the dream I have in my heart and the joint up vision; I have in my head.

I envisage a system where there is a co-operative approach to the leadership of special educational needs, disability, and inclusion. Leadership is not just about those in post.  It is about teams and recognising the value each team member brings to the conversation. Parents and carers are very much part of the team, as are children, young people, specialists, teachers and community members.

I envisage a system where identification is both timely and accurate.  Identification has become a tick-box process, much to the detriment of the child and young person.

I envisage a system where resources are available to meet the needs of children and young people, not only in educational settings, but also in the community when they attend social groups or other community settings.  Reasonable adjustments need to become part of the norm.

So how can we connect the dots and make this a reality?

Co-operative Leadership involves mutual input from team members in working towards a common goal.  What is our common goal?  The best life chances for children and young people.  I believe many of us know this, but we possibly differ on how we get there.  It is for this reason, we teamed up with Tappter to create ‘SEND Leaders Connect’ and Advanced.  This is a safe platform for leaders, parents and carers to connect, talk and find solutions. 

A few years back, I started looking at the SEND Leadership Pipeline, in a more structured way.  I was humbled when in 2017, this work was recognised internationally at a conference in Cambridge.  The concept is simple – a thought through process of professional development from trainee teacher/educator to advanced SEND Leader.  Over the years, we’ve tested various points of effective CPD.  We have been working with different organisations such as NASBTT, Hays Education, Optimus Education and others to make this a reality.  Last Friday, a book I have been working on for two years was also published to support those in the early stages of their career.  My PhD focus enables those with experience and expertise to be retained in the profession, so we do not lose the tacit knowledge of practitioners.

Finally, as a not for profit organisation, I have had a dream for a long time about how we can fund resources differently.  I have some big and achievable ideas to make this happen.  However, we are going to start small. Settings that join our SEND leaders Connect (Advance) which includes access to Tappter networks and a termly online meet with bonus sessions will have the opportunity of receiving a resource worth up to £100.  My long-term vision is much bigger than this!  Many have questioned me over this … if we are to create a culture of abundance of resources to meet needs, it starts with generosity and the belief ‘there is enough in this world for all to receive’.

Over the years, I often been mocked for my out-of-the-box thinking around SEND, but just looking at how we have trailed blazed over the last 9 years (i.e. since the start of the SEND Reforms), we have a lot to be thankful for:

  • 2011 – to date Several local authority projects to challenge inefficiency, redesign simpler systems and establish a more conducive and integrated local culture of support
  • 2012 – to date High impact professional networks, including several during #lockdown
  • From 2012 The #TeamADL Provision Review model has been adopted by many as an agile approach to review SEND provision and ensure it is consistent, as well as cohort responsive.  The methodology also ensures everyone has a voice.  This, with other unique CPD packages became an accredited training course in 2020
  • 2012-3 We developed some insights around ‘outcomes-based accountability’ that shaped the SEND Code of Practice 2014/15 (Partners: Optimus Education)
  • 2014-5 Designed and developed the SEND CoP Postcard.  This is still used by many schools and part of teacher training programmes globally
  • 2014-7 Workshops on SEND Finance and reducing the paperwork load. The reducing paperwork and increasing impact is still part of our core work and many schools and leaders have benefited from this. Here is some feedback.
  • 2015 Launch of www.sendreviewportal.net that is all about choice and informed decision making around procurement and commissioning.  On that note, concrete strategies on effective commissioning were shared at The Academies Show in 2017 and have been used by many schools since.  Do look at our SEND Advocates page
  • 2016 We published Time Management book for SENCOs (Partners: Optimus Education) This subsequently evolved into the first SEND Leader Planner in 2018 and subsequent versions in 2019 and 2020
  • 2017 We were privileged to be involved in the SEND ITT Toolkit (Partners: NASBTT and other ITT Providers)
  • 2019 MK SEND Careers Events (Partners: Network Rail, RiX and Natwest).  In the same year, #TeamADL were shortlisted alongside Virgin Media and the BBC for a Disability-Smart Award
  • 2019-2021 Strategic leadership development for those leading in Post 16 (Partners: Derby College)
  • 2020 During lockdown, we provided FREE SEND leader coaching to many schools and settings in the UK and internationally
  • 2020 onward SEND Leaders Appreciation Day (Partners: Hays Education).  You can find many of the stories on Instagram @send-leaders

… and now SEND Leaders Connect (Advanced) with Tappter plus a NEW way of funding resources through a #GiveBack approach. We have connected with Tappter for 5 main reasons: privacy, security, simplicity, connectivity and distraction free. The project has been piloted and scored independently by reviewers. As part of the pilot, we presented our approach to SENCOs and headteachers.

“Our Trust chose to use the SEND Leaders Connect Advance package because it is a simple and effective way to bring together professionals from across our Trust. This includes our SENCOs, where some are very experienced and others newly appointed. The App enables them to ask questions and support each other with advice and resources. It also connects our leadership teams and eventually we will connect our governors, bringing SEND to the forefront. We also chose to use it because it allows us to liaise with other professionals and experts across the region, including experts like Anita. – LH, Director of Education

Are our ideas out of the box? For sure! But we know they make a sustainable difference.  And you know, we know SEND Leadership! Listed above, are only a small selection of the partners we have had the absolute privilege of working with over the years. You can find others on our website.

#TeamADL is committed to ensuring everyone thrives in education, employment, and life. We stand up for people who are different because we are different.

If you would like to find out more about our three-prong approach to reconnecting a fragmented SEND system or anything we are involved in … do please get in touch.  We are excited about the future and the possibilities that lay ahead of us for a better system.  Ultimately, our heart remains focused on ensuing nothing holds the next generation back.  What is your hope for the future?

We have put on an extra meeting on 21st September 2020.  Click here to register.

About Anita Devi

Anita has had an extensive career in education.  Her why is based around the ‘joy of learning’.  As such, she focuses on what enables learners and what hinders them and more importantly, what can she do to improve the system.  Amongst many other roles, Anita leads #TeamADL

To find out more visit www.teamadl.uk

Disability, Leadership, Preparing for Adulthood, SEND

Special educational needs and disability: time to restore a differential diagnosis approach

By Anita Devi

In a previous blog, I have written about synthesis of assessment.  Today, I want to share my thoughts on why differential diagnosis is an important part of supporting children and young people with SEND and their families. To be clear, this is not a debate about the medical model or the social model of inclusion.  It is a conversation about ‘how’ we identify needs accurately, so that we can put the right support in place.  I will use examples from my own professional journey as a SENCO, SEND Advisory Teacher and SEND Consultant to illustrate some key issues.

Differential diagnosis is the process of differentiating between two or more conditions which share similar signs or symptoms. To be effective differential diagnosis requires three key components:

  1. Firstly – everyone round the table has a voice and difference is to be welcomed.  On many occasion, children and young people may present with some symptoms and behaviours in one environment and not in another.  What is relevant here is the difference.  By accepting both observations as correct, we are better placed to consider the environmental factors that are having an effect.  No one voice should be given more weighting than another and where possible, evidence should be sought.  Awhile back I was training panel members in a local authority to make consistent decisions regarding 9.14 & 9.54 of the SEND Code of Practice 2015.  An evidence-based approach is vital for consistency.  In one case that we reviewed, throughout the paperwork practitioners referred to a conversation where the child was said to have a diagnosis of X.  This conversation was repeatedly referred to as the primary need of the child.  It was a medical condition.  Yet, in fact there had been no formal diagnosis.  The comment (and subsequent basis for the plan) arose from anxious parents raising the possibility of this condition.  This possibility condition turned into, “She has …” in the reports and subsequent decisions (to the detriment of the child) were based on that possibility condition. Further investigations revealed the child did not have this condition and any support, intervention or treatment put in place had simply served to delay accurate identification and provision.  How different the story would have been if someone had asked for evidence of the diagnosis.
  2. Symptoms need to be perceived as holistic patterns in the current moment and over time (i.e. historical).  As a SENCO, I devised a form for teachers to record symptoms they were seeing in the classroom and over time / year groups. A symptom is a physical or internal feature indicating a condition or need. This form helped us collectively discuss with parents and understand the child’s needs better.  Too often, it is possible to consider only one or two things and depending on the lens adopted, a label is attached.  Two case studies edify how easy it is to misdiagnose.

Child A was presenting with symptoms that everyone including a private assessor diagnosed as dyslexia.  As a SEND advisory teacher, I met with the parents and ask them questions about Child A’s development history and daily routines.  Child A regularly bumped into things and presented with other co-ordination difficulties that the parents had assumed was Child A being clumsy.  Further investigation revealed Child A had dyspraxia. Whilst there is an overlap between symptoms of dyspraxia and dyslexia; the latter predominantly focuses on a difficulties in learning to read, write and spell.  Therefore, any interventions put in place may have missed other significant areas of need.

Child B was a bright year 5 student, who took part in several community team sports and orally was able to articulate high levels of knowledge and creativity.  The difficulties arose with reading and writing.  Parents engaged the services of a dyslexia specialist, who diagnosed dyslexia and suggested a 10-week intervention programme, that only the specialist could provide.  I undertook a reading test of real and nonsense words.  As Child B read, I noticed erratic eye movement.  Child B’s eyes would jump three letters forward, then two letters back.  A similar patter emerged when reading high frequency words in a sentence. I referred Child B to an eye specialist, who confirmed my observation and Child B was given eye movement corrective glasses. Entering Year 6 (with his glasses), Child B was a quite different student.

3. The third component is possibly the hardest for stakeholders to take on board.  Differential diagnosis works through 5 core thinking skills:

      • analysis
      • interpretation
      • inference
      • deduction
      • problem-solving

Therefore, differential diagnosis requires up-to-date knowledge of research and accepting the possibility ‘of getting it wrong’.  Child C was unable to access the maths curriculum.  Demonstrated ability placed Child C as working three years below his age.  One option would have been to place the child in an intervention group and support development of mathematical foundation skills.  However, the SENCO decided to commission a dynamic assessment test.  This basically assesses cognitive processes, in the moment i.e. as they are happening.  Child C was cognitively age appropriate.  However, a look through the historical records showed Child C had had many supply teachers for maths and as a result had significant ‘gaps’ in learning.  This was not a SEN issue.

As part of the work I do, I am often asked for a good-practice example of an Education Health Care Plan (EHCP) and 5-star examples of well-written outcomes.  I have yet to find one and I have worked across several local authorities.  The issue is the plan has become about form filling, not the connected bigger picture of understanding the child and presenting symptoms.    In one local authority project, I reviewed the Advices written for more than 30 EHCPs.  I also then reviewed the associated plans.  What was apparent was the reports by specialists focused on one or two voices, at the expense of their own professional knowledge.  When I then met these specialists, they then shared with me their reluctance to express their opinion, as it differed to others.  I regularly undertook statutory assessment of pupils and a key part of my report writing was to consolidate conflicting pieces of evidence to clearly discern the child’s needs and then the provision needed to be put in place to meet those needs (sometimes multiple).  On many occasions, less is more meant I had to acutely define a catalyst approach for supporting the child.  The current system (post SEND Reforms) shies away from difference and differing opinions.  I think this is a mistake and as a result, I am not convinced we are identifying needs and provision accurately.  The system is resources-driven, not identification-based from differing evidence-based perspectives.

One of the areas I lead training on most regularly is enabling SEND Leaders to discern ‘why’ an intervention / support is needed and ‘how’ it should be delivered.  The why and how are intrinsically linked.  To discern this knowledge, SEND Leaders need to look beyond the data and look at patterns across several factors. Knowing the why really does change the how.

What is needed for improvement?

I would suggest two factors are needed to drive improvement and ensure a better system for identification.  The first is ‘protected CPD time’ for SEND Leaders.  This is in complete contrast to current SENCO Workload Survey approach and I have written more about this here  The SENCo workload survey, mistakenly focuses on ‘protected work time’.

The second is a recognition and acceptance of difference at all levels.  This needs to be evident within settings and at local authority level. Only then can we begin to discern patterns, environmental factors, and historical issues for accurate identification of needs.

If both were in place, over time we would see a system where open conversations were prevalent and the single goal of ensuring the child progresses becomes the focus.  Naturally, this involves a conversation about defining progression.  However, this is the 21st century; young people and adults with an educational need and/or disability should be able to contribute to society through employment, they should be able to live independent healthy lives and be included in the community.  So, if we are serious about the ‘preparing for adulthood’ outcomes, we have a responsibility to employ a differential diagnostic approach to accurately identify need and the provision needed.  I would be interested in your thoughts, especially if you disagree with me!

About Anita Devi

Anita has had an extensive career in education.  Her why is based around the ‘Joy of Learning’.  As such, she focuses on what enables learners and what hinders them and more importantly, what can she do to improve the system.  Amongst her many other roles, Anita leads #TeamADL

To find out more visit www.AnitaDevi.com