Governance, Leadership, SEND

Bugs, viruses and ransomware in the SEND system

By Anita Devi

SEND = special educational needs and disability

It all started back in 2014.  For three long years prior, we had dreamed, shared, debated and imagined a better way of supporting SEND learners into adulthood.  The Bill finally became an Act in Parliament, then the summer recess was looming, and the SEND Code of Practice 2014 was rushed through both Houses.  We knew there were bugs in the Code.  Some of us even highlighted it, the moment the final Code was published.  Too late!  If only they had checked for meaning, accuracy and shared understanding.  With the Code full of bugs … people and organisations already started saying it needed ‘fixing’.  Some, including myself were focused on enabling – change was happening fast.  Multiple cycles, on multiple timelines.  The truth is the system needed debugging.  The 2015 revision did not address any of the bugs; just added a few extensions.  Maybe I should have been more vociferous about the bugs back then.  The thing with bugs is all it takes is a character, a word or a letter out of place, and we are in the bug zone!  So many parts of the SEND Code would change if a word, letter or character was omitted, or even added.

Then came the viruses!  Implementing the SEND Code requires tacit knowledge, lived out experience, and an approach that does not solely rely on school-to-school support.  Without these and the addition of social media, poor understanding of implementation and bad information has gone viral. I started to notice this first in 2014.  The same errors of interpretation appearing in schools geographically apart and not connected.  The errors were extremely specific.  I followed the trail and tracked down the source.  As a teacher, I’m skilled at looking out for common errors.  Be that via copying or generic misconceptions.  It took the best part of two years.  A group of well-meaning professionals (with no background in SEND) all sharing the same incorrect information.  We tackled some of this by sharing knowledge and different ways of working.  In a system predicted on choice, we were offering ‘choice’.  Not everyone liked this.  Centrally funded projects were given precedence, though there was no robust quality assurance in place.  The myth of being ‘free’ was the marketing strategy.  It was not free – there was a cost.  Resources distracted from the front line and pollution.  These projects, in some cases accelerated the viruses.  Overtime, the viruses mutated and in 2021, we are seeing a new kind of virus emerge in settings and feeding those new to the profession.  Too much of our energy is spent on undoing the issues, rather than building new and different for generational impact.

Ransomware is when ‘access is denied’ unless a price is paid.  This became the norm, on so many levels. Local government, law firms and practitioners.  It was the learners who missed out. They missed out on the opportunities, the possibilities, and innovative solutions for supporting increasing independence.  Not all, but most. Ransomware is not just about funding; it also feeds of control and insecurities. It’s a subtle beast, so what ‘appears’ helpful may actually be doing harm and what appears odd, may be what’s needed.  The beast has no conscience and as such can attack individuals and organisations alike, with little thought to the consequences of actions.  Therefore, tacit knowledge and lived-out experience of SEND is necessary. Parents and carers bring their tacit knowledge and lived-out experience to the table, but it saddens me to say, not all practitioners or colleagues do.  Of the few that do, few discern consequential behaviours.  It is easier to play ‘here’s the problem’ on repeat, than find solutions of a win: win for all.  Having led a few local authorities change projects – some well, some not so well … I know how hard this is. However, when parents/ careers bring their subjective tacit knowledge to the table and practitioners bring their objective tacit knowledge, that is when there is really innovative thinking.  Each voice valued.  Each voice adding to our understanding.  No single perspective can determine or support special educational needs and disability.  We know that.

Review after review, we are stuck in a reboot time loop.  Things keep changing, so by the time a SEND review is complete … the system has morphed into the next hybrid, fueled by the bugs and mutated viruses, and transported to another dimension by ransomware. The complexity of stakeholder involvement, funding and the system has made it into a beast. And it all started with a few bugs.

Everyone talks about the SEND system, as if it is out there … here is the reality:  everyone of us is part of the system.  That is why blame and shame do not work. Each one of us is part of the problem and the solution. When we point fingers, we’re including ourselves and this debilitates our creative thinking for new solutions and the wider good.

There is hope …

Whilst it may seem overwhelming, there is a way forward, but it requires 5 things:

  1. A humble acceptance that each one of us is part of the system.
  2. A circuit breaker to unlock the SEND Review time loop. We need to try something different and fast.
  3. Leadership that is born out of experience, not position or power.
  4. A move away from fixating on the literal meaning of implementation to going deeper and finding new flexible solutions that support a wide range of needs and embrace the diversity of stakeholders.
  5. Trust.

The last one is the hardest, and the most important. It was the driver for the SEND Reforms in the first place.  However, if you examine The Lamb Enquiry 2009 it does imply, once learners and families received the support, they needed (not necessarily wanted), they were highly satisfied.  So, there are some seeds of trust in the system, which we need to build on and germinate.

In October 2020, my main PC system crashed. There was a lot going on and we were supporting (new and experienced) SENCOs and SEND Leaders deal with COVID19 arrangements of returning to a routine. There was no time to focus on what was not working, just doing what needed doing.  I started working off my laptop. This was fine, at first.  However, the smaller single screen and flat keyboard eventually led to other challenges.  Many IT specialists spent hours trying to reboot and recover my PC through remote access.  Nada!  Just before Easter, (6 months on from the initial crash), I decided to approach the problem from a different angle.  I isolated my laptop system and elements of my PC and then rebuilt different parts piece by piece.  It took 10 hours and required me to dig deep and use my O’ Level knowledge on coding – but it worked.  I broke the reboot loop and then rebuilt a new system.

We can do the same in SEND.  We need to isolate elements, focus on these to rebuild a new system.  We cannot rebuild the whole thing in one go.

I am no coding or computer expert.  But I do know SEND.  I have spent some time recently thinking about what we can isolate, rebuild, and add to shift the system much quicker than any review would.  For many the word ‘isolate’ will kick against their passion for inclusion.  I am not talking about isolating learners but isolating the bugs and viruses and shutting down access to ransomware viruses. It will require us to work together and differently. 

Are you up for the challenge of reboot, rebuild and reconnect, so this generation and the next have access to the support they need and deserve?  It is a choice we all have to make.

#TeamADL You know, we know SEND Leadership – subscribe to our blog and follow us on social media to keep up to date www.teamadl.uk

About Anita Devi

As a former SENCO, Senior Leader, School Improvement Advisor, local authority SEND Advisory Teacher and Healthwatch Trustee, Anita Devi carries a wealth of experience in developing Leaders of Learning.  Her own teaching career spans early years to post grad in the UK and overseas and Anita lives her why through her belief in the joy of learning and the power of purpose.  In 2017, Anita was awarded the prestigious international Influential Educational Leaders Award for her SEND Leadership Pipeline strategy developing professionals from initial teacher training to advanced and experienced SENCOs.  Currently a PT PhD student, ChangeMaker Education Consultant & Founding CEO of #TeamADL (a not-for-profit) In 2019, the team were selected as finalists for The Disability Awards alongside some top multinational companies. More recently, working with NASBTT, Anita has written the first SEND book for Early Career Teachers.  #TeamADL have also launched in 2020 SEND Leaders Connect Advanced and SEND Leaders’ Appreciation Day. Here is the link to SEND Leaders Appreciation Day 2021 #SLAD2021 – start nominating!

Leadership, Wellbeing

Invictus Leadership

By Cole Andrew

Education Leaders:  Here’s thought-challenge for you – what 10 words or images would describe yourself, your emotions, and your leadership in this moment? 

The words of the Invictus poem by Willian Ernest Henely (1875) are said to have been recited by Nelson Mandella frequently throughout his 27 years in prison (1963 – 1990).  I cannot begin to claim I my life’s challenges are as impacting as living under apartheid, in a world where people are starving, homeless or still living under oppressive regimes.  Yet that for me is precisely the point, it shifts my mindset from my seemingly overwhelming circumstances to a healthier perspective.   In this blog, it is my intent to share my thoughts on mind-shifts in leadership.

Invictus

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeoning’s of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate,

I am the captain of my soul.

By William Ernest Henley

My life and work challenges remain staring me in the face. So, this weekend as I prepare for schools shifting their roles for the umpteenth in 12 months, I wonder if I am feeling bludgeoned, beaten into the shade, truly master of my fate, or perhaps somewhere in between.  How about you?

Take my weekend challenge: pause for a moment, go for walk, shut yourself in a room, ride a bike …. Do whatever it takes to buy yourself a moment to think, press the pause button and whilst doing so, answer these questions: 

  • Which parts of the poem describe my inner self right now and how is that affecting my leadership in school?  
  • I wonder what each member of your leadership team may be feeling and perhaps the other staff. 
  • How about your loved ones? 

The wellbeing and mental health of our nation is undoubtedly a concern in this season, and I am concerned that the very words wellbeing and work life balance are becoming words that are used but losing their intent.  Is it even a sign of weakness for leaders to be talking about their wellbeing and emotional state?  If an inspirational leader such as Nelson Mandella can identify the need to consider his mental health and find strategies to command captaincy of his soul, then perhaps we can allow ourselves permission to consider what might help us do the same.

Three things this poem helped me to take practical steps in leadership during the last 12 months:

[1] I identified true measures of success and means of measuring them.  The top measure of success I concluded was the health of my relationships; personal and professional.  We all know that building relationship is the key to motivating staff to follow your lead.   Most schools will be thinking about some form of ‘catch up’ curriculum for the pupils, starting no doubt with supporting pupils’ emotional wellbeing and building their confidence to re-engage with full and busier classroom environments.  What strategy are you putting in place to help yourself and your leaders to do the same?  Pause and discuss … listen to different views.

[2] I identified the things in this world that hijack my mind, therefore, my sense of control over my fate and inner self (soul).  Feeling overwhelmed invariably affects the way the people I lead respond, despite my best efforts to bury those things deep and carry on regardless.   In my Headship roles, I reflect on the foolishness of times I have made this mistake.   Ask your staff, if you dare, and they will tell you that they can always sense the atmosphere the Head teacher and leaders create.  Similarly, the children will always sense the tension a teacher creates if they are not captaining their souls.  This unspoken atmosphere affects the pressure children feel, even if the teacher is convinced, they are burying the pressure.  The things of this world (targets, OFSTED, lesson observations, deadlines….) they can hijack how we feel about ourselves and our sense of control.  How about taking each of those things and regaining our mind’s response to them. In my case, I learn:

  • better admin and time management strategies
  • to take each thought captive as I feel it rising up within me and reframe my response to it.  E.g., what if OFSTED ask me about quality PE curriculum during lockdown?   My reframed thought might be, we have kept children safe, checked in with them every week, built better connections with their parents online, sent them video clips to try physical activity at home and now we are planning to get them active outdoors 3 times a week to help them recover.  No need to panic, my conscience is clear that we did what was reasonably possible in a world where hundreds of people were dying on a daily basis.  I will be sure I evidence the impact of what we did achieve during ever-changing guidance from the DfE.
  • To review the workload I have facing me and my colleagues. I thought about the things I can STOP doing, KEEP doing (because they are fruitful and helpful), CHANGE streamline.  If it’s not a fruitful task for the students and staff, why are we still doing it? In my personal diary, I use the Eisenhower approach to helping achieve this priority setting each week.

[3] I had to get a grip on perspective. Like me, many will be mourning a sense of loss, either due to bereavement or simply a loss of ‘normal physical relationships.’  We are not in prison, starving or need be at a loss with our vision of the future. A leader’s most powerful tool in life is communicating and breathing hope into the world around us; even, as Mandella did, in a seemingly hopeless season of his life.  What is your vision for the short, medium, and long term for your staff and pupils?  Revisit it, recite it and find 1001 ways of communicating and breathing it into the relationships you reconnect from Monday onwards.   In your ‘moments’ of panic, remember and celebrate all you have achieved in the last 12 months, tough as it has been, you have navigated the most challenging season of school life the modern world has known since WW2.

I hope this has given you pause for thought and you make time of the weekend to invest in you.

About Cole Andrew

Cole is a leadership consultant that supports leaders in education and health to thrive, to bear fruit, to live in honour (vigeo). Having led two specialist provisions as headteacher in two different areas in the country, Cole now invests in Next Gen Leaders. He is an associate inspector and a great advocate for wellbeing. Cole has been part of #TeamADL since its inception.

#TeamADL You know, we know SEND Leadership – subscribe to our blog and follow us on social media to keep up to date www.teamadl.uk

#Teaching&Learning, Early Career Framework, Preparing for Adulthood, Purpose, SEND

I am a teacher. I teach.

By Anita Devi

“I know all those words, but that sentence makes no sense to me.”
 Matt Groening

It is no secret that I am not a fan of the clichés “every teacher is a teacher of SEND” or “every leader is a leader of SEND”.  In this blog, I will share my thoughts on why and how these phrases do not align with my values or vision.  To clarify, SEND here represents children and young people with special educational needs and/ or a disability.  The alternative title, I pondered upon for this piece was ‘It’s an injustice!’ As a fourth year PhD student in Education and Social Justice, I have spent a fair amount of time unpacking the different facets of social justice.  I do not claim to be an expert in this area, but what I have learnt is social justice is complex.  It embraces the view that everyone deserves equal economic, political, and social rights and opportunities.  How this pans out in reality is another story and one that needs clarity on defining a state of social justice and the means to achieve it.

An ageless dialogue has been the debate between “I am, therefore, I think” and “I think, therefore I am”.  My own leaning based on my background in psychology, my experience and my beliefs is in the former:  I am, therefore, I think.  If we assume, thinking is the basis for being … then what happens when individuals have learning or cognitive difficulties?  Do they cease to exist?  Not at all.  So, what has this got to do with teaching?  Looking across sectors, the most successful people are those who are clear on their identity – who they are.  From a place who they are, emerges what and how they act.

In defining a culture for change, language matters …

Every teacher is a teacher of SEND

This is an assertion about the current state of play, positioned in the present tense.  So, it is not entirely accurate.  The reality is, not every teacher is.  The statement itself does qualify the quality of provision provided by teachers.  Does it meet needs?  Is provision fit-for-purpose?  More importantly, it implies students with SEND are a homogenous group.  They are not.  They are individuals, each with distinctive characteristics, unique journeys, and futures full of potential.   Does the phrase also imply that teachers are fully knowledgeable about SEND?

I have been involved in SEND and inclusion a long time and in a variety of roles.  I do not say ‘I’m a teacher of SEND’ … as there is always more to learn and know.  As practitioners, we should not be afraid to say, ‘I don’t know, but I will find out’.  Saying ‘I am a teacher of SEND’ implies I know it all.  I do not.  What I do say is ‘I am a teacher.  I teach.’ That’s the foundation and implied within those two sentences is an invitation to ask, ‘Who do you teach?’  Professionally, I then have a moral purpose to reflect on whether I truly teach all children and young people in my care or am I selective?  By singling out ‘SEND’ as the focus of my teaching, I would be ‘pretending’ to be inclusive by being ‘exclusive’. A perverse injustice, surely?  Equally, I am aware there are specialist SEND teachers out there, who have extensively trained and researched a specific area or need.  That is different.  In my professional journey, I was at one point a local authority Specialist SEND Advisory Teacher for Cognition and Learning. It was a specialist role.

Some would argue the statement is aspirational – a desired state.  Does it truly reflect inclusivity and how do we know when we get there? The statement does not make it clear what actions and behaviours I would see and maybe for some, it creates an illusion of ‘I am there’.  The amount of inaccurate information around SEND on the internet has grown immensely over the years.  Individuals read a book / report and position themselves with a view. Suddenly they are leaders in the field!

Maybe a better way of expressing it would be “our aspirational vision is for all teachers to be responsive and inclusive of diverse needs”.  Not as sexy as ‘every teacher is a teacher of SEND’, but certainly much more wholesome and rooted in the reality of what is and what could be.

Focussing on being responsive brings in a quality element that can be evaluated.  Those who lead on SEND (at school / college level) can evaluate how responsive teachers are to diverse needs.  This is not about evaluating teacher performance, but about contribution to organisational goals on increasing inclusion and reducing exclusion.  The two are separate and interrelated dynamics.  However, reducing exclusion does not necessarily lead to an increase in inclusion and vice versa. At #TeamADL we have developed some structures, systems and solutions around this.  Maybe that’s a blog for another day?

Every Leader is a Leader of SEND

This is often cited as a motivational phrase.  However, just saying it does not mean things change.  As a consultant, I am generally called in when things are not working.  This is not about blame and shame.  The leaders have a maturity of perspective to recognise they need external input to align systems and structures to ensure all children and young people receive the educational experience, they are entitled to.  I have lost count of the number of times, I’ve walked into a school and a leader has said to me, “Every teacher is a teacher of SEND” and “Every leader is a leader of SEND”.  When I ask them what that means or looks like … they have no answer!  The children and young people we teach and the families we serve, deserve better than a few well-rehearsed catch phrases.

Effective leaders build diverse teams and come from a place of modelling good practice in their specialist field.  It is therefore helpful for those who lead on SEND to have experience on delivering effective SEND practice.  Otherwise, a lot of what is delivered is just theoretical knowledge.  SENCOs are required to undergo a specialist qualification, as part of their induction.  The content of this training is debatable and certainly my own research shows the courses lack pragmatism. Regulation 50 in the SEND Regulations 2014 defines the role of a SENCO.  I have written more about it here in relation to workload and assessment.  By repeating the mantra ‘every leader is a …”  we are undermining the role and value SENCOs play and we are not giving full credence to Regulation 50.   Like the cliché about teachers of SEND, stating every leader is a leader of SEND is inaccurate and does nothing to move us towards an aspiration of effective SEND leadership.

Ultimately, our goal is to deliver an effective educational experience for all children that prepares them for their future and adulthood. Using these cliches – it is an injustice! … and I would politely ask those using these phrases to stop or refine them!

Postscript (February 2021)

I’m grateful for the feedback I have received from colleagues who have read this post. A significant number of those who contacted me, agreed. There were a few, who felt we should remain aspirational and use the cliches to advance a bigger agenda. If that were possible, the world would move forward through memes, perhaps?

Another type of justification for using these phrases was shared with me; namely legislation. The comment was made citing mainly points from Chapter 6 of the SEND Code of Practice 2015 and in particular 6.4 which relates to assessment and identification. I have written about assessment and differential diagnosis previously. Hearing the arguments put across in relation to my comments above, I gave it considered thought and I still stand by my comments above. Here are my three reasons why:

  1. There is a difference between a leader of SEND and a leader for SEND. Reading a few books, articles and journals on SEND, doesn’t make someone a leader. It comes through the attitude and experience of an individual to articulate a vision, based on a core set of values and then be positioned to drive diverse teams through a change process for improvement. A leader for SEND is an advocate, not an specialist or expert. We need to recognise and honour the difference.
  2. If non-specialist leaders are going to be FOR something that positions them in the equality and equity dialogue, then it needs rooted in the broader context of inclusion, embracing not only SEND, but also ethnic diversity, gender quality, etc.
  3. The principles in Section 19 of the Children and Families Act 2014 provide us a framework to evaluate whether a leader is FOR inclusion. So we do have a legislative basis to challenge wider leaders, not because they need to be experts. More importantly they need to be advocates operating from a core set of values.

To re-iterate the final paragraph of my original post:

Ultimately, our goal is to deliver an effective educational experience for all children that prepares them for their future and adulthood. Using these cliches – it is an injustice! … and I would politely ask those using these phrases to stop or refine them!

#TeamADL You know, we know SEND Leadership – subscribe to our blog and follow us on social media to keep up to date www.teamadl.uk

About Anita Devi

As a former SENCO, Senior Leader, School Improvement Advisor, local authority SEND Advisory Teacher and Healthwatch Trustee, Anita Devi carries a wealth of experience in developing Leaders of Learning.  Her own teaching career spans early years to post grad in the UK and overseas and Anita lives her why through her belief in the joy of learning and the power of purpose.  In 2017, Anita was awarded the prestigious international Influential Educational Leaders Award for her SEND Leadership Pipeline strategy developing professionals from initial teacher training to advanced and experienced SENCOs.  Currently a PT PhD student, Changemaker Education Consultant & Founding CEO of #TeamADL (a not-for-profit) In 2019, the team were selected as finalists for The Disability Awards alongside some top multinational companies. More recently, working with NASBTT, Anita has written the first SEND book for Early Career Teachers.  #TeamADL have also launched in 2020 SEND Leaders Connect Advanced and SEND Leaders’ Appreciation Day.

Leadership, SEND

Successful SEND Leadership – Is it enough to just copy good practice?

By Steve Pendleton

Peer-to-peer professional support and school improvement are two different processes.  Naturally, there is some overlap, in terms of change management and transformation. However, in the current educational climate, we are seeing an increasing confusion between the two.  Peer-to-peer support is a process of cooperation between professionals who have interests in common and experiences to share. Specialist school improvement is where developments are planned, carried out and evaluated with external advice, and where there is clear accountability for outcomes.

In this blog, I unpack some of the myths around using good practice to establish high quality provision.  I do so, from a school development perspective and I will use the case study of social emotional and mental health (SEMH) provision to highlight the key points.

One of the things I have learned from working with school leaders over the past 17 years is that good practice in one place doesn’t inevitably lead to good practice somewhere else. Context is more important than is often given credit. Underneath the surface schools vary considerably.  Schools may have similar systems, classrooms, and curriculums, but function differently because each has a unique community culture which is strongly influenced by the organisation’s beliefs and values and the geographical location of the school.

A useful metaphor to explain this can be found in gardening.  Like transplanting a thriving plant from one garden to another, there are differences, invisible to the naked eye, that can cause it to struggle. The plant might need additional help to survive in its new setting because the soil may have a different level of moisture, acidity or minerals. To ensure a successful transplant, the soil may require additives. It is possible that the transplant may never be successful because the essential conditions cannot be recreated.

Differences between schools which appear physically very similar are hard to spot when you are a successful leader in one school and have developed systems which work well in that context. The benefit of engaging with external support and school improvement trained professionals, is that you can have your assumptions challenged. This is important when you need to see the interplay between the effective approach and the context in which it is working. An external view can help you establish whether you can provide the essential conditions for a new approach to be successful.

Case study:

Jane, the head of a highly successful Warwickshire primary school opened a SEND specialist resource provision for key stage one children with social emotional and mental health (SEMH) needs in October 2020.  Jane sought my input as school improvement specialist to help her discern between good practice (the seed or plant, to extend the gardening metaphor) and the culture (the soil and other variants, unseen to the eye).  As part of the preparation we jointly visited an award-winning independent special school across the border in Leicestershire. Places in this school are in high demand because of the successful outcomes and added value for children with SEMH needs This has helped transform the lives of the children and their families.  

Our intent was to distil the elements of good practice that could be applied to the new school in Warwickshire.  So that the children could experience high outcomes too. Clearly, the two organisations are vastly different and serve different communities. One is a mainstream primary in Warwick and the other is an independent primary special school in Leicestershire.

Five things we discovered through this process:

  1. Even though the age range for provision deferred, many of the children felt like failures at their previous school or setting. Many of the children had unmet needs, causing further distress and in some cases, leading to trauma.  This was common (to varying degrees) across both school communities.
  2. The Leicestershire school clearly has effective systems and processes that enable these vulnerable children to flourish.  However, these cannot simply be replicated, as they have evolved over time.  We had to flesh out the principles underpinning the systems and processes and ask key questions to understand the interplay of the whole system.
  3. When the Leicestershire school employs staff, it looks for people with the values and beliefs that will enable them to cope emotionally with distressed children. Jane will adopt the same approach for her provision. Staff can be trained on how to help children learn. It is harder to give them moral purpose.
  4. Leaders in the Leicestershire school prioritise their own emotional well-being by making sure they have access to external support. Jane and her colleagues will need to do the same. When the going gets tough, the leader is the last line of defence and needs to be available to help and protect staff.
  5. The Leicestershire school has found that traditional rewards and sanctions are not effective at helping children with SEMH needs to cope. This led Jane to wonder whether her school’s behaviour policy was effective. Replacing it with something radically different was a bold step and took courage. Jane needed reassurance that it was the right thing to do and the support of other leaders in the school to make it work.

We will continue to update you on the development of the school in Warwickshire.  In the meantime, a few thoughts for reflection:

  • What do you see as the main differences between peer-to-peer support and specialist school improvement support?
  • What are the strengths and challenges of each?
  • At this point in time, would your setting benefit from peer-to-peer support or specialist school improvement?  Further reflect on why.  We would love to hear your thoughts, so do feel free to comment below.

About Steve Pendleton

Steve Pendleton is a school improvement specialist for #TeamADL with expertise in the education of vulnerable and disadvantaged children. After a successful career as a teacher and leader in secondary schools, Steve became a school inspector, improvement adviser, virtual head, SEND Commissioner and senior leader for a local authority in the West Midlands. His specialisms include leadership development, and strategic approaches to impact delivery of provision for behavior SEMH, attachment and trauma needs.

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