Can the wrong provision ever be the right provision?
This is not an easy question to answer, because ideally I would say no. However experience has taught me otherwise.
It is a constant narrative within SEND circles about the right and wrong provision, which is of course very valid. However for me in Leadership it is more about the right and wrong leadership than the right and wrong provision.
The right leadership will make better decisions, their policies will be more attuned to the needs of children with special needs, and the right leadership will not be professionally curtailed by funders, to accept a student they know will not excel in the environment their school or service offers.
The reason I say leadership is key, is borne from experience. When I started my teaching career having trained in a secondary school with one of the largest SEND populations in the UK. I still did not understand what it means to work with children with special needs. I had the academic knowledge but I was to find out through the course of my career, academic knowledge accounts for about 20% of operational knowledge, when it comes to helping young people and adults access curriculum and excel.
My first Headship post was a flagship Special Needs School in the south of England. On paper we were able to accommodate learners with what was then BESD, Autism and ADHD. The reality was very different and it was the students who taught me this, no outside experts, just the students. We started with a small cohort to embed the school. With learners from 12 – 16. OFSTED had praised our policies upon registration and for all intents and purposes they were excellent policies. However their operational effectiveness would be tested by the combination of different types of young learners who joined us. Hindsight is always 20/20 and I can with confidence say now, these policies were not fit for purpose for the student population, that the school reported on paper they could accept and manage effectively.
After a number of months we were making good progress with a number of students, all of of which were SEMH and 70% of which were from care backgrounds. Some fostered, some still in children’s homes close by. The approach was always effective to help manage their behaviours and it worked. That was until a young man called Perry joined us. Perry was 14 he had been out of school for 18 months, excluded for throwing a chair. His paperwork described an aggressive young man, who struggled at school, became aggressive with staff quickly and often was in fights with other children. His needs were identified as ADHD as primary need and SEMH.
We agreed to take Perry but were informed by LA that he would not attend interview but would start school on a PT basis. Something we had negotiated as our mandatory process was interview. His reluctance to attend interview concerned us, but given his lack of access to schooling and his profile we proceeded. When Perry arrived on day 1 we knew he was in the wrong provision. By the end of the first day he had already had an altercation with another boy and was agitated and aggressive going home. He would not speak to me nor my staff. His mother explained to us the other learner had bullied Perry for not wearing socks (something he couldn’t do due to severe eczema all over his legs and upper body).
At the end of the day we had a staff debrief to look at how we would manage the situation. Staff raised concerns that Perry was actually unable to write despite being 14 years of age. None of this was detailed in his paperwork. They explained they had to take him to one of the work units to complete his introduction pack, so he was not embarrassed by the other boys. When they did take him in his ability to hold the pen was closer to a 4 year olds. My concerns grew the more my staff fed back to me. They also mentioned his verbal reasoning fell far short of his profile on paper and asked me to ascertain if he had ever had speech therapy. We decided as a staff to second a male member of staff to work with him looking at possible vocational routes. To not isolate him we would do his form session with a female member of staff then off to male staff member.
These were the days before TA were in great supply, we were working with incredibly low staff levels.
As the first week progressed – more and more challenges emerged. Perry was becoming agitated even being the same room as other boys, and his mum and dad reported that at night he would not come out of his room and refused to eat.
I had to face something I had never had to encounter before with all my SEND experience – Perry was in the wrong provision. I decided to tell my staff that Friday afternoon at training we would not be continuing Perry’s placement as it would invariably affect the whole school and subject the child to further trauma.
When we sat down to Friday CPD session, we completed the company training rota and sat down to discuss each student and their progress to date. I was ready to explain to my staff that we would be going back to the LA to state the provision was not the correct one for Perry. Before I could, one of my female teachers, stated she felt Perry was misdiagnosed. Elisa was a Romanian national and a qualified child psychologist in Romania. She had come to UK to train as secondary teacher, with a view to building a life in UK. Boy was I glad she made that decision. Elisa explained to me she felt Perry was on the autism spectrum, and that all his behaviour traits were actually sensory related. Even with my background, exposure and SEND training, I had never thought to question the diagnosis. I mean why would I. Elisa is probably one of the most intelligent professionals I have ever worked with, and in my gut whilst I didn’t understand fully, I trusted her judgement completely. Our vocational tutor went on to corroborate Elisa, Andrew explained that whilst Perry lacked fine motor skills when writing, his ability to work with fine motor skills and produce an incredible wood work, had actually astounded Andrew in the workshop. He explained he was able to do this very well with Health and Safety ear muffs on, and was very focused
. I made a decision at that point that I have never regretted.
Given the fact Perry had been out of school for over 18 months, I felt we couldn't fail him again. I decided to keep him on roll and work out a very structured plan for Perry over the next 6 week period. To effectively see if we could offer him the right provision within the wrong provision. With Elisa’s advice as a staff body, we almost implemented what I would call now a sensory environment specific for Perry. He had a structured timetable, with different start and stop times to the day. Primarily to avoid prolonged interaction with other boys who seemed to like to irritate him when he wanted to work. Never at break or lunch, just when he wanted to work. Funny how kids can quickly tap into another child’s need quicker than professionals at times. Verbally he became less agitated and was less stressed when speaking. He was more open to communication and able to explain what he wanted. Over the weeks he formed a strong relationship with Andrew especially, and produced some incredible work for him. Perry was less convinced with the female staff and would often imitate the SEMH boys who would have called us bad names behind our backs. Perry was honest enough to do it to our face. As you can imagine we of course disciplined privately, but we knew it was not Perry’s disposition to call someone names, rather a way of masking socially. Perry was actually one of the sweetest students I have ever worked with. There were many many funny moments, but what Perry taught me as a professional I can never forget.
Sometimes you are not the right provision, but also not the right leadership
The right leadership may be able to make the wrong provision more accessible
Of course I don’t encourage parents to continue to place a child into a provision which is causing any trauma at all, and there is most definitely school based trauma. I have worked with many children since with trauma from being in the wrong provision with the wrong staff. However often children who have limited advocacy will find themselves at mercy of incorrect diagnosis, and poor commissioning strategies. It is then leadership should step up and reflect proactively and immediately about the type of environment the provision offers the student.
The most amazing point for us with Perry’s journey was he left us with 4 GCSE’s and a vocational qualification, after being out of school for half of his Key Stage 3 journey. This was a direct reflection of our approach as a staff body to look at his needs 360 within the environment, and curriculum we were offering. We were also beyond delighted one day when mum bounced into my office, full of joy to explain for the first time in 8 months Perry had decided to wear socks, as his eczema was reducing on his feet and lower legs. She believed it was because he was much less frustrated and agitated and was accomplishing for the first time since primary school!