How to fix a broken inclusion system

In the first blogpost, I argued that the system of supporting children and young people with complex needs is broken. It punishes schools whose Headteachers see inclusion as their duty, rewarding those who put up barriers to inclusion. What would a fairer system look like? What incentives would need to exist for balance to be restored into the system?

Can schools be shamed?

A table of schools within one Local Authority was sent round to me last year, with each school’s number of EHCPs on roll. Of these non-selective, mainstream primaries, 7 schools had over 10 EHCPs; 1 school had 21. 16 schools had fewer than 5 EHCPs on roll; 1 school had 0. It is hard to argue a reason for such variation within 1 authority. Some schools are inclusive, many are not.

Amongst SENDCOs, the exclusive school gets a bad name. However, beyond this, there seems to be little impact on a school’s reputation. If the public knew more about a school’s level of inclusion, would change be more likely? Society has the potential to make moral decisions when a reputation depends on it. Bars will stop using plastic straws; supermarkets will stop throwing away unsold food; companies will turn their lights off at night-time. They do this because they care about the planet and humanity. And in some regard, because their positive actions get celebrated and their negative actions get shamed; in short, their reputation is at stake. Could this be applied to schools? What would happen if there was public celebration of a school’s level of inclusion? If prospective parents had an awareness of whether their local school fulfils its duty to educate local children, regardless of need, would more schools start ‘doing their bit’?

This is difficult of course. Some schools are quite content picking the educational cream of the crop – children who in some cases provide less complexity and who in many cases are more likely to get to age-related expectations. Likewise, some parents and carers are quite happy sending their child to a school where they know their child will sit alongside peers who are likely to present neurotypically. For these reasons, celebrating inclusion (and by definition, shaming schools who fail to be inclusive) is unlikely to be enough, and may only serve to further entrench the idea that some schools cater for students with SEND, while others don’t have to.

If publicising data around inclusion may only serve to further entrench these difficulties, what about providing financial incentives to being inclusive?

Could it actually pay to be inclusive?

A school can fight hard not to admit students with complex SEND; they receive neither shame nor consequence for taking such a stance. The school has no incentive, other than a moral one, to become more inclusive. Unless you cut its budgets. Every school receives an SEN notional budget based on factors relevant to its cohort, including deprivation in the local area, but not linked to the number of EHCPs or to the size of its SEN register. If this budget were boosted in schools that are inclusive in their practice and reduced in schools that are not, could this be enough to redress the inclusion imbalance in a local area?

It is not my argument here that neurotypical children should suffer because their school leaders are hesitant to serve the needs of children with SEND. However, the inclusive school needs and deserves the SEN notional budget more than the school that has fewer children with EHCPs. Those schools who are more inclined to accept children with more complex needs should be rewarded, not punished for doing so. I see no reason why this shouldn’t be at the expense of those who are less inclusive, through a recalculation of the following year’s SEN notional fund allocation. Take money away from schools who aren’t inclusive, in order to allow schools working inclusively to be properly funded to do so.

But if you’re financially rewarding inclusive schools, how do you measure inclusion?

Measuring inclusion

Inclusion cannot be measured according to the size of an SEN register. We have seen before that if you incentivise a large SEN register, schools are far more likely to load their register irrespective of need, having no incentive to reduce or to accept when children no longer need specialist support. Furthermore, if you count only the amount of EHCPs in a school, you are doing a disservice to those schools who are less desirable to parents. Parents of children with EHCPs can ensure that consultation paperwork is only sent to more desirable schools – this too is not of itself a fair measure of inclusion. If you only use exclusion rates or academic attainment of children with SEND as your measure, schools are given yet another incentive to err away from accepting children with the most complex needs.

The calculation for inclusion needs therefore to be broader than this. It could be an equation that factors in:

  • % of students on roll with EHCPs and the difference between this and your Local Authority average.
  • % of EHCP consultations responded to positively – i.e. saying that you are able to meet need (regardless of whether or not the child ends up on roll at the school)
  • % of children with an EHCP by the end of year 9, who remain on roll until the end of year 11 (removing the temptation for unofficial off-rolling)
  • Attendance and exclusion rates of children with SEND

The resulting score from this equation would see some schools scoring highly for their inclusive practice, while others drop down the inclusion league table, as schools that don’t do their bit for inclusion.

I’m heartened by the similar work that Mime (Making information Matter) has done, in conjunction with NASEN, to publish an Inclusion Index for Local Authorities. However, unless such statistics dial down to the individual school level, there will continue to be a feeling that some schools are doing their duty – in spite of the financial and academic-outcomes reasons not to – while others look the other way.

Reputation + OFSTED + budgets = change

If the resulting score were known locally, published by Local Authorities as part of the school application process and celebrated with an ‘inclusive schools’ Kitemark, change might be possible. If OFSTED considered it of relevance to their inspection, change would certainly be possible. If budgets were affected as a result of a school’s level of inclusion, change would be unavoidable.

Inclusion: the system is broken

The school system works best for schools who have no children with SEND on roll. Schools who aim for inclusion have greater budget struggles, a tougher time impressing on performance tables and as such greater difficulty getting to OFSTED Outstanding. There’s no equity. Society would largely agree that schools should be inclusive of the needs of children in their local area, irrespective of level of need. But what is the consequence when schools decide not to, putting up barriers to either not admit such pupils or to move them on: through official exclusions, unofficial off-rolling, early annual reviews of EHCPs or merely making the school environment unconducive to neurodivergent children, and therefore a less appealing choice for parents and carers? Could the system be changed so that consequence was felt? What would a system look like that actually incentivised schools to be more inclusive?

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The financial cost of being inclusive

Picture the inclusive school. It accepts many students with EHCPs onto their roll. It makes the adjustments to ensure they stay there throughout their school career. It learns about students’ needs, where students don’t already have an EHCP, and takes steps to ensure that statutory assessment for an EHCP can be undertaken. It makes reasonable adjustments to ensure successful outcomes wherever possible. Financially, it finds the first £6000 from its own SEN notional budget (More info on SEN notional budgets here, for the uninitiated) to pay for the provision listed. It receives high-needs funding but that is likely to cover only a fraction of what it costs to put in the resource required, perhaps a second adult in the classroom for that child or some other form of specialist support. It therefore has to dig further into its SEN notional fund, shrinking the pot for students at the SEN Support level. Every time the school accepts a child with an EHCP/successfully applies for an EHCP, its high-needs funding increases but this is outweighed by paying the first £6,000 from its SEN notional fund and making up the high-needs funding shortfall. Financially, it would have been better off being less inclusive.

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The results suffer

Keep picturing this inclusive school. As fewer children with SEND meet age-related expectations throughout the school system, the inclusive school is likely to have poorer results by many measures. It is therefore less likely to be given a judgement of Outstanding by OFSTED, for whom attainment data forms a not insignificant part of their judgement (see the inevitable correlation between outcomes and OFSTED judgements here). If your school is exceeding national attainment averages for students with SEND, you might have 40% at age-related expectations at the end of Key Stage 1, 30% at the end of Key Stage 2 and a Progress 8 score of -0.4 at the end of Key Stage 4. Rather than a pat on the back, try getting percentages like these through OFSTED; particularly important in a small school that might pride itself on being inclusive, and for whom the results of students with SEND could hit the performance data hard.

Better off financially being exclusive

Picture a school that is not inclusive. It tries hard to have a low number of EHCPs and is hesitant to apply for new ones. The parents of children with SEND go elsewhere, where their children’s needs will be better met. Those children are replaced by children who may not have need. The school’s SEN notional fund – which will be the same as the neighbouring school that has 20 children with EHCPs on roll – remains largely untouched. This school doesn’t need to find the first £6,000 of provision from their own budgets for each child with an EHCP, as the inclusive school does. Not ringfenced, the school can spend their SEN notional fund wherever they need to. The school’s academic results will, in many cases, be higher without the presence of children with complex SEND. This is especially relevant in primary schools, where the primary measure of success is still attainment rather than progress. Despite the focus on curriculum in the new OFSTED framework, first-hand evidence and anecdotal experiences tell me that your externally-reported data is the strongest tool, or greatest weakness, that a school has. The exclusive school is more likely to become/remain Outstanding than the school that works hard to meet its duty to children with SEND. With this attainment factor, alongside the financial incentives to find a way to close your school gates to children with need, universal inclusion within the mainstream school system will remain a fantasy.

In the next blog: how to fix the system