How do we achieve an inclusive education system?

As we come to the end of another academic year, I thought it was timely to focus on one of my priorities for my presidential year; to set out our ambition for an inclusive education system that enables all children to fulfil their potential. The 2022 Schools White Paper gave us a number of opportunities to set the foundations for a more inclusive system but these have not been taken forward now that the Schools Bill (which carried the required legislation) has been dropped. The three major national reform programmes, Children’s Social Care Review, Special Educational Needs and Disabilities/Alternative Provision (SEND/AP) Green Paper and the Schools White Paper were complimentary and gave a system wide blueprint. However, this will not be delivered if reform to the broader education system is not taken forward.

The SEND/AP improvement plan, recently published by government, describes a very welcome ambition to rebalance the system with mainstream inclusion at its heart. Whilst I fully support this ambition what is not clear is how that will be achieved. At the heart of this problem is a lack of recognition of the barriers to mainstream inclusion that have been driven by education policy in recent years which focuses on a purist drive to raise educational standards. The unintended consequences of this has led to more children moving out of mainstream education into special schools, alternative provision, home education or falling out of the education system all together. It is also no coincidence that the number of pupils falling out of mainstream education before the end of key stage 4 is disproportionately higher in areas with greater levels of poverty, driving further educational inequality.

I should be absolutely clear that the focus on improving educational standards is obviously a good thing and we should continue to strive towards that aim for all children. The challenge has been created by a narrowing of the curriculum, particularly in the secondary sector and the accountability framework that sits around it. There has been a lack of consideration of the impact on the growing number of pupils who have struggled to engage with secondary education and no systemic approach to improve outcomes for all.

There are now significant barriers to mainstream inclusion including resources, curriculum, inspection and the accountability frameworks our schools are subject to. To take just one example, the concept of a ‘notional budget’ for SEN support in schools has always been flawed. It was set at £6k per pupil when it was introduced 10 years ago and not increased with inflation, it is also not ringfenced or allocated at child level, meaning that schools really struggle to provide support below the level at which an Education, Health and Care plan (EHCP) is needed.

The way in which it was implemented, by top slicing centrally held inclusion funding, penalised inclusive schools at the expense of those who were less welcoming to children needing additional support. Those differences have now become entrenched, meaning schools who want to be far more inclusive are struggling to fund the additional support that children need with the inevitable consequence of escalation to EHCP and often specialist provision.

We also need to look at the accountability framework and understand the unintended consequences it creates. Is it any surprise that secondary school inclusion has become a greater challenge when measures such as Progress 8 can penalise inclusive schools and carry such weight in the system? There have been some welcome steps to have a greater focus in the inspection process on inclusion but that needs to go much further. There are also other opportunities through the government’s Academies regulatory and commissioning review to build in levers around inclusion.

I would like to see the ambition that was set out in the Schools White Paper for high quality inclusive schools and trusts to be the foundation for our future system. To me, for a school to be genuinely described as inclusive, its pupils should fully represent the local community it serves in all ways and meet the needs of all local children. It would be quite straightforward, and revealing, to develop an inclusion profile for each school and compare it to local demographics!

ADCS is currently developing a position paper setting out our vision for an inclusive education system and I look forward to launching that later this year. Our education system should be for all children not just those who fit the prescribed expectation established in the current approach.

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