Reflections on the Five Nations meetings: A blog from Daniel Stavrou

In September, representatives from the Five Nations met in London to discuss a number of topical issues in the SEND world. Amongst the topics, we discussed the increase of autism diagnoses. Across the nations, diagnoses are indeed increasing, while systems are grappling with an attempt (or aspiration, or the beginnings of an inclination) to move away from labelling as a means for accessing appropriate support.

The phenomenon is international. In the States, the Centre of Disease Control and Prevention (also known as CDC…) has identified a marked increase in diagnoses, including amongst girls, and children under 4. CDC relate this growth to increased awareness as well as environmental factors. Similarly, a UK study from 2021 pointed to a clear and significant increase in diagnoses, citing ‘increased reporting’ as the driving factor, rather than ‘growth in prevalence’.

In our session, we heard that all nations are facing a marked increase in diagnoses of autism, with Northern Ireland for example putting the prevalence amongst school aged children at 5%. As educationalists, diagnosis per se is not our natural terrain, but the issue is important as it raises two questions: what do we know that might help plan better for provision? And: is some of the increase in diagnoses linked to unmet need?  

Regarding the first question, it is worth noting that autism is unique amongst ‘primary types of need’ in that a larger proportion of those diagnosed are in receipt of an EHCP than those on SEN Support (with the exceptions of PMLD and SLD which one would probably expect in our educational system) at a ratio of roughly 3:4. This demonstrates why understanding diagnosis trends is so important for resource planning; indeed, why autism is a policy preoccupation across the five nations. I think this statistic also speaks to the second question I posed: why are such a high proportion of those diagnosed with autism not having their needs met at the universal and targeted levels? Part of the answer might be in reports I hear (which are anecdotal, if persistent) of increase in acuity of need, and of frequent co-occurring mental health needs. It strikes me that we nonetheless need to explore how might we meet more of these needs as part of ordinarily available provision, or SEN Support. The Improvement Plan aims to address these concerns, and on the 29 January the SOS confirmed in Parliament that the need to better equip teachers to understand autism is clear to policy makers and that practitioner standards for this are being developed.

In late January, the Welsh representative arranged a virtual session led by academics from across the nations, interrogating policy challenges. At the centre of the presentations and discussions was a study which set out to investigate differences in the way policy conceptualises and addresses inclusive practice.

Going back to the fundamental question ‘what is inclusion’ was a reminder for me, that in June it will be 30 years since the Salamanca Statement.  The statement went some way to cementing a common understanding of, and commitment to, inclusive education. One of the characteristics of inclusive practice being: education systems should be designed and educational programmes implemented to take into account the wide diversity of (unique characteristics, interests, abilities and learning needs) these characteristics and needs.

Considering England’s approach to inclusion and the nature of special needs, the study highlights a gap between some of the declarative language and the policy approach to inclusion and the identification of special needs. It characterises English policy as having a ‘deficit approach’: pointing out that the Code refers to ‘areas of weakness / difficulty’ and places a heavy accent on the need for specialists and ‘expertise’, including those external to schools, and commissioned as part of a ‘business approach’ to SEND. This carries the risk of ‘othering’ those with SEND and leaning towards a medical model of understanding SEND. On the other hand, the policy framework set out in the Code is explicit and ambitious in its commitment to equality: “Our vision for children with special educational needs and disabilities is the same as for all children and young people” (DfE/DoH,2015, p. 11). I would add that the same ambition is a recognisable tenet of the SENDAP Improvement Plan, going a step further and linking SEND policy with wider societal aspiration for change: “Our ambition is to create a society that celebrates, encourages and enables the success of all children and young people, including those with SEND” (DfE, 2023). The question is, then, how might policy makers match this welcome ambition with practical steps to move towards a truly inclusive future?

The findings on the curriculum are worth paying some attention to: the English curriculum is found to be the most prescriptive of the five nations in setting out what learners are expected to learn and achieve at every key stage, as exemplified in KS1 phonics screening checks and later timetables checks. There is some concern this system is too rigid to allow disabled children and those with SEN to learn at a pace suitable to their progress, and experience success and recognition. Indeed, the authors of the study state that in “England’s curriculum documentation there is little acknowledgement of adjustment or modification of these standards for learners with additional needs”. In our session, we learned about the recent reforms of the Welsh system, where they are moving away from Key Stages all together in favour of a more flexible system which can adapt itself to a range of learning needs. On a conceptual level, this means that pedagogy is released from the shackles of a ‘normative’ approach, where all achievements are compared with a set, rigid, ideal of a learner.

Curriculum and assessment are complex and politically charged topics. But it is important to acknowledge that some policy makers are paying attention to the need to reconsider their current shape, for example the recent House of Lords report. While it doesn’t explicitly relate to issues around SEND, it demonstrates a convergence of the utilitarian approach (what is best for all learners, what policies might be better suited to recent technological developments; what will support the economy and labour market) and the calls from the SEND sector. For example, the call for a wider, more varied curricular offer and a move away from the rigidity of high – stakes one-off examinations (see also the work of the Rethinking Assessment group). Could the Welsh model possibly be worth considering for our children and young people as well?

And turning back to inclusion: all the academics involved in the session pointed to the need for an agreed-upon definition of inclusion, and there seemed to be a consensus that Article 24 of the UNCRPD is a good place to start. I’d like to end by turning back to my days as a teacher, when I found that one of the most powerful inclusive instruments – a differentiation tool – was silence… affording what teachers call waiting time after every question presented to the class. This way, those with slower processing and those relying on support have a fair chance of giving a response in class. The reason I think this is an important example, is that it is practice which is inclusive without segregating, calling attention to, or ‘othering’ those with SEND; in fact, it is helpful for all learners. Florian and Beaton (2028) provide a definition of inclusion in the same vein, with which I will end:

Inclusive pedagogy… is a response to individual differences between pupils that avoids the marginalisation that can occur with differentiation strategies that are designed only with individual needs in mind.