Changes to special needs education may shut out parents

Parents often know best how to help their kids overcome barriers to learning. Olesia Bilkei/Shutterstock. Cognitive development photo

How schools should support students with special educational needs and disabilities is a controversial area of research. Debates continue over whether certain conditions exist or not, or if they are “over diagnosed”. In North America, there have been discussions about whether ADHD is real. While in the UK, the use of the term dyslexia has been called into question by academics who ask whether the term is “helpful” for supporting pupils with reading difficulties.

From September 2014 the way that schools in England and Wales support pupils with special needs and their families is set to change. But there are some concerns among parents that the changes could damage communication between families and schools.

A new Special Educational Needs Code of Practice, currently in draft form, will be introduced to replace the current code that has been in use since 2001. The changes outlined in the new document will represent an important shift in the way that schools work with pupils and families, and highlights family involvement.

The new code is being introduced to fix a faltering system. The 2009 Lamb Inquiry found that a system built to support learners was instead creating negative experiences for parents and families. Parents reported that they wanted open and honest communication with schools. They wanted access to the information they need about their child’s education and better systems for assessing pupils’ educational needs.

Families at centre

There is a growing body of research showing an association between parental involvement in education and a positive impact on learning and achievement. But several studies have shown that while working with families within schools is highly desirable, it can also be a challenge.

While the new code states that families should be fully involved in decision making about their child’s education, some researchers argue that the processes it outlines could prevent schools and families working well together.

Families have to make a lot of decisions when their child has a special need or disability. They have to decide on the best school, how to get the best support once at school and how they will know educational progress is being made.

They need to know how to communicate with a range of professionals and how to read official paperwork from school and the local authority. There is evidence that this kind of involvement is incredibly stressful for families. Some families feel excluded because they do not feel involved in making education plans or because key decisions about provision or interventions were not communicated to them.

The new code suggests schools and local authorities will now be able to develop record keeping and communication processes in their own way. While it may sound as if this flexibility might support better relationships and communication, there are concerns it could mean that provision will become more variable both locally and nationally.

Communication key

At the University of Bristol and Monclair State University in New Jersey we have been discussing some of the potential challenges families may face in light of the changes to the code of practice. Parents we have talked to are concerned that these proposals could damage good relationships between schools and families.

There will inevitably be an adjustment period as local authorities and schools get to grips with new procedures. Changes are proposed in defined “areas of need” that could increase misunderstandings in how to identify special needs.

For example, “behavioural, emotional and social needs” will change to “social, mental and emotional health”, which could result in some children and young people’s educational needs relating to their behaviour no longer being accepted.

Changes in the ways that special needs and disabilities are monitored mean there will no longer be a requirement for schools to use an individual education plan. New ways to communicate targets will inevitably develop, but the standardised way of communicating to all families will be removed.

Local authorities will be required to publish a “local offer” to outline how they plan to support all pupils with special educational needs and disabilities. There is still uncertainty about what this “offer” will entail. Hundreds of parents and families across the country will be unsure how the needs of their children will be met in the coming months and years, and whether the current level of provision they receive will be maintained or even possibly cut.

However, the fact that these revisions to the code of practice highlight the importance of parental and family involvement is to be welcomed.

The most important message at the heart of these changes is the recognition that families have the best insight into the ways in which special educational needs and disabilities can impact on the life, learning and achievement of their child. This is one important reason why families continuing involvement in special educational needs provision is vital if schools are to continue providing the best support possible.

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