This week I wrote my weekly column on why we desperately need to start properly assessing prisoners for special educational needs (SEND) when they come into the system.
In the Education Select Committee on Tuesday we were discussing prison education with the heads of a number of charities, and I wanted to ask about SEND. Data reports that 30% of prisoners have learning difficulties. When I asked around the individual witnesses, there was consensus that this figure is a drastic underestimate given that it relies on self-reporting when an offender comes into prison.
I believe we need to do proper assessments to get a much more accurate picture.
There are two reasons for this. Firstly, if we have an accurate picture of the numbers of those coming into prison with SEND from early on in their sentence, then we will be able to tailor prison education directly to those offenders throughout their time behind bars. Education in prison is a crucial aspect of the rehabilitation of our prisoners and the goal that when they come out they might contribute to society in more valuable ways than they previously had done. It is therefore very important that we get this right.
Secondly, and what I believe is of the greatest importance, if we get a more accurate depiction of the levels of SEND amongst the prison population, then we might be more fully aware of the implications of the underfunding of SEND in our education system today. Until we get every person tested, then we won’t know the true scale of the problem and how to move forward.
As someone with dyspraxia and dyslexia myself, I know how fortunate I was to have been diagnosed early on at school and get the support I needed to go on and excel in my education. When I was 12 I actually had the reading and writing age of an 8 year old and I myself at that point in my life wasn’t happy with my situation. I was often angry that no one seemed to understand me and couldn’t understand why I was different from my peers and falling behind everyone else.
For people who aren’t diagnosed, the fact that their poor school attainment is often attributed to inattention, distractibility, or laziness can negatively reinforce behaviours and ensure these children are left behind. If someone feels that the system is failing them as an individual then it is not surprising that over time they turn against the system; it is not surprising that there is this link. We desperately need to make sure that this doesn’t continue to happen.
When it comes to providing first class support for SEND, while not everything is about money, making sure we have sufficient resources going in at every stage isn’t just the right thing to do at a moral level, but at a societal level as well. Ultimately it is unmet needs which makes it more likely that these people end up in the criminal justice system. It is not just bad for society, but for the exchequer in the long run as well.
Get it right and you can utilise the talents of unconventional thinkers which is great for our society. Get it wrong and you end up with more people in the criminal justice system.
Yesterday I led a Westminster Hall debate on the impact of Covid-19 on Education. I did this as part of my role on the petitions committee, where petitions which receive over 100,000 signatures are debated in Parliament.
This has been a topic of central focus throughout this year on the Education Select Committee, and in my role on the APPG for Dyspraxia. I have been fortunate to have been in regular contact with teachers and schools in Ipswich over the course of this pandemic to get a sense for how the pandemic has affected students.
I wanted to raise a number of points on behalf of the petitioners, but I also wanted to thank teachers for the incredible work they have been doing this year.
There is an important point that we shouldn’t make assumptions or generalisations about how students have been affected during this pandemic. Every single child has been affected differently by this pandemic and if we want to ensure that students who have lost out on learning over this year make it up, we need to ensure that catch-up is tailored to individual students and their needs.
It is also clear that the pandemic has taken its toll on student’s mental health. I really believe that we must be careful of the words we use for the sake of student’s mental health. Some of the words used by the media, for example, refer to a ‘lost generation’. We shouldn’t belittle the scale of the challenge, but we need to be positive about the future, and be sensitive to student’s anxieties that they will be able to achieve their full potential.
I also wanted to address SEND students who have been incredibly affected, particularly those who do not have an EHCP plan and so could not go into school for additional support but rather had to undertake online learning. These are unconventional thinkers who often need to be able to ask teachers for points of clarification or explanation on tasks and who might require more tailored learning to reach their potential. I’m encouraged by what I’ve heard about the new tutoring system, that a lot of SEND specialists have contributed to the programme. This is positive.
This is relevant to those students who do not speak English as their first language as well. We have a large Roma community in Ipswich who are not first language English speakers and lots of schools in our town were making tremendous progress with these pupils before the pandemic. Unfortunately, over the school closures there are concerns from headteachers that this has gone backwards so it is vital that these students are given the resources and attention to get back to where they were.
Some students also prefer to sit exams because they might be unconventional learners who consolidate their knowledge during revision and they rely on the opportunity to prove themselves in exams. With exams cancelled, this year has been hard on these pupils, and I believe that it is crucial that they are given a voice when it comes to how their attainment is assessed.
It is important that headteachers and teachers who know students best are given as much flexibility as possible to decide how best to assess student’s attainment, whether it is in mock exams, in class assessments, or coursework. It is also vital that the students themselves are able to feed into this decision to ensure that they get the opportunity to reach the grades they deserve.
Last week I spoke in a backbench debate on education on the Government’s plan for assessments. I welcomed the reopening of schools on the 8th March.
In terms of SEND students, many have struggled with online learning. As I know from my own experience, many people with dyslexia and dyspraxia value examinations because they do not learn in the same way as their peers. Being unconventional learners, they have the opportunity to surprise people in exams because they can consolidate their knowledge in their own way. I believe that when teachers are deciding whether their pupils should do tests or not, the pupils should feed into that decision as they may want their attainment to be reflected by in-class assessment. I would like to see more clarity from the Government on whether schools will make these decisions for all their pupils collectively or whether different methods can be used for pupils with different needs.
I also noted that in terms of the impacts school closures, the most disadvantaged have been the hardest hit. This especially applies to pupils from the Roma community in Ipswich who do not have English as their first language. Lots of schools in Ipswich were making tremendous progress with these pupils before the pandemic but unfortunately rates of participation in online learning has been lower amongst this group than the average and as a result there are concerns that progress has gone backwards. Therefore, when we talk about ensuring pupils catch up, an element of that is providing resources to schools to help these kids get back to where they were.
I also expressed my excitement about the FE white paper and my desire to see Suffolk included in the Trailblazer Schemes for the new skills improvement plans. I have spoken to so many businesses recently who tell me about the jobs they have coming down the pipeline who want to be able to capitalise on a local skills base.
Special educational needs is one of things I’m most passionate about. Since my election I became a member of the Education Select Committee in Parliament and locally I have become an Associate Governor of the Sir Bobby Robson school on Lindbergh Road which started up this September and provides tailored support for those with social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) needs.
The Sir Bobby Robson school has made a positive start and will hopefully turn the lives around of many of the young adults who have started there this September. However its a sad reality that not everyone who could benefit from a place at a special school such as the Sir Bobby Robson school is able to get a place. This academic year in Ipswich we are seeing two new special schools but we need more. We also need to ensure that those with special educational needs who are within a mainstream school get the support they need, I did but many don’t this is a great unfairness that I’m determined to be part of addressing.
Bit surprised to have been nominated by constituents for the MP of the Year Awards for my work on supporting children with SEND. I wasn’t aware of this awards scheme before being nominated but it’s a good opportunity to keep raising the profile of the issues affecting these children.
It’s an honour to have been nominated for this award. But actually delivering more support for children with SEND will remain the only measure of success that matters to me.
You can vote in the awards here: https://patchworkfoundation.org.uk/peoples_choice_2020_votesopen/
As someone who struggled and continues to struggle with dyspraxia and dyslexia, I’ve said before I’m passionate about using my position in Parliament and on the Education Committee to raise awareness of the need to support young people with SEND.
It was therefore a privilege to be asked to become an Associate Governor of the Sir Bobby Robson School in Ipswich and have the opportunity to be involved in this issue at the level where that support must be delivered. When the Sir Bobby Robson School opens in September it will offer specialist places for youngsters with complex social, emotional and mental health needs.
The school will be based on Lindbergh Road and it couldn’t be more important that we get it right. If the young people are given the support they need then there is no reason why they can’t go on to live a good and fulfilling life and make a major contribution. We should be ambitious for everyone at the school. However, as we’ve often found in the past it is often those with SEND who, when they don’t get the support they need, can go down the wrong route.
Adam Dabin, the Headteacher, and the team at the Sir Bobby Robson School are making plans to adopt an almost therapeutic approach to welcoming vulnerable students to school in September, with a focus on their well-being during the Covid-19 outbreak. They all would have been out of school for many months so the transition back to the classroom, a social environment and the routine will be very important. I’ve already asked the Education Secretary to support this approach in Parliament and I’m looking forward to working with the School over the coming months to overcome the challenges of opening for the first time during Covid-19.
Getting young people with special educational needs and other disabilities the support they need is something that is very close to my heart as someone who struggled with dyslexia and dyspraxia at school. And in Parliament today I raised the Sir Bobby Robson School in Ipswich which will open its doors for the first time in September to youngsters with social, emotional and mental health needs.
I’ve had the privilege of being asked to become an Associate Governor at the School and I know that the excellent team at the School are working incredibly hard to welcome pupils in the best way possible given the particular disruption caused to vulnerable youngsters by Covid-19. They plan to take an almost therapeutic approach to helping them integrate back into school life with a clear focus on pupil well-being.
I called on the Secretary of State to provide the Sir Bobby Robson School and other special schools with the support and any external expertise they need to do this and ensure vulnerable young people have the brightest possible future.
I’ll continue to raise this issue on the Education Committee as well and I hope the Secretary of State will look closely at what exceptional support can be provided to get vulnerable young people’s education back on track with a particular focus on their well-being.
My view is that no school should be awarded a Good our Oustanding rating unless they provide adequate support for those with Special Educational Needs. Today as part of the Education Select Committee I quizzed the Chief Inspector of Ofsted (the body that scrutinise and assess our schools). I asked a number of questions but perhaps the most important was the one I asked about the extent that they place importance on SEND provision in schools. I have to say I was slightly concerned to find out that under the new Ofsted framework a school can still be awarded a Good or Outstanding classification whilst also having significant deficiencies regarding SEND provision.
Personally I think unless a school can at least meet expectations when it comes to supporting those with special educational needs then they shouldn’t be getting a Good or Outstanding rating. There is much that is good about the new Ofsted framework but its very important that all schools are strongly incentivised to provide first class SEND provision and are properly held to account if they don’t. A number of teachers in Ipswich and parents have raised concerns with me about the way the previous Ofsted framework worked in this respect and the current one needs to be more than just a slight improvement. I will be writing a follow up letter to the Chief Inspector seeking a range of assurances.
Yesterday I had the pleasure to be the guest on the BBC Radio Suffolk Lesley Dolphin show. During my interview I discussed a range of topics including my first week in Parliament, opportunities for people with special educational needs, closures to the Orwell Bridge and long term fixes to our rail network. You can listen to the full interview below.