Autism Spectrum Disservice – the wait to be assessed and the way forward for schools

I put this Tweet out in early October:

This tweet seemed to be received with empathy – 1500 Retweets, 4,000 likes. The Tweet was seen 350,000 times. Of comments shared in response to the Tweet (follow the link here if you should wish to), I saw these 10 things in the responses:

  1. It’s a disgrace.

Plenty of people are ashamed of the current situation and concerned about the impact on their children or their students. Adults talked with sadness about their feeling of missing out on the opportunity for self-learning, self-advocacy and accessing services that can come with a diagnosis. Plenty of people put the blame for this at the hands of the Government.

2. It’s (almost) a national disgrace.

It’s a postcode lottery. Some Local Authorities see the patient within 12 weeks; others who live in the neighbouring Authority will have to wait years.

3. It’s an international issue.

Tweets from the US and Australia echoed the issue of unacceptable waiting times.

4. The wealth gap prevents parity…

Those who can afford it, get seen within weeks and have a diagnostic report in a handful of months. Those who can’t afford it go without.

5. …but going private doesn’t always help.

Even for those who can afford private assessment, there are NHS services that give less weight to a privately-sought diagnosis – the National Autistic Society share this as a concern on their website.

6. COVID’s made it all worse.

If waiting times were bad before, as this British Medical Association report from 2019 suggests, they’re really dire now.

7. We shouldn’t blame CAMHS.

Many people came out in defence of the individuals working with total professionalism, skills and commitment within under-resourced CAMHS services. Funding shortages, coupled perhaps with an increased awareness of the symptoms of autism (as well as, arguably, an increased social acceptance of autism) leads to more requests for assessment and less capacity to meet those requests.

8. Frustrations don’t end with diagnosis.

Frustrations with the service don’t end when you get diagnosed; plenty of people note the lack of services to support people even when they do have the diagnosis.

9. We’re pathologising our children.

One response was critical of people’s rush to diagnose, rather than to comfort, support or understand. Though not indicative of the majority of responses, it argues that fewer people should be seeking diagnosis in the first place.

10. 4 years isn’t atypical – and it’s not the worst either.

24% of respondents in a recent Autistic Girls Network study waited over 3 years for a diagnosis. Almost unbelievably, 7 children in the same study were found to have waited over 8 years for assessment.


Where solutions were offered, they tended to be in one of 2 directions:

  1. Complain.
  2. Add capacity.

The British Medical Association report, itself tellingly called Failing a Generation, is startlingly similar in its summing up of how to improve the situation:

Solutions that support school leaders

Neither of these solutions offer immediate solutions for schools though. While systemic change and additional resources are needed in order to assess the high number of children in UK schools currently on waiting lists, school leaders cannot wait for systemic change. They need to act now, ensuring they can:

  1. Recognise the symptoms of autism in young people, making an informed judgement on whether or not an autism diagnosis may be likely if assessed.
  2. Understand the types of support that would benefit a particular individual who is pre-assessment.
  3. Create a school environment in which autistic children and young people, irrespective of diagnosis, can thrive and belong.

This is no mean feat. A positive step would not be under-qualified or inexperienced SENDCOs diagnosing their students with autism. I write this ss someone who started as a SENDCO knowing far too little to do the job well. However, progress would look like:

  1. A much wider range of autism services being open to working with children, young people and their families pre-diagnosis. This would include Local Authority outreach services working to support SENDCOs with their provision for a child, even if the child has not yet had an assessment for autism.
  2. Closer clinical partnership between education and clinical settings, i.e. for SENDCOs to discuss the children and young people they believe would qualify for diagnosis, gaining feedback from (i.e.) a paediatrician as to likely causes of, and supports for, the difficulties they describe. This might be a form of triage service, which all school leaders can access at the point of referral.
  3. Subsidised training for all SENDCOs and school leaders who wish to access it, to support them to recognise the symptoms of autism, putt in place support for children who may be autistic, and to create a suitable school environment for a neurodiverse school population.

Practical ways to meet parents/carers 3 times per year

“Where a pupil is receiving SEN support, schools should talk to parents regularly to set clear outcomes and review progress towards them, discuss the activities and support that will help achieve them, and identify the responsibilities of the parent, the pupil and the school. Schools should meet parents at least three times each year.”

SEN Code of Practice, 2014

How to do it

As SENDCOs, we have a duty to do many things, including meeting parents 3 times per year. But meeting parents takes a lot of time. In spite of its many benefits, finding the time is not always easy. The National SENCO Workload Survey reported such meetings as being the second most time-consuming task for SENDCOs. As you look ahead to how you want to work with parents and carers, consider some of the following as your ways to meet all parents/carers of children on the SEND register, at least 3 times per year:

a. tell parents that your door is open. It’s up to them to come, should they wish to. Doing so, you’ll see some parents a great deal, but others not at all.

b. hold coffee mornings or information events explicitly for parents of children with SEND. This way, you can provide support and guidance, as well as some peer support.

c. latch on to appointments that parents are having with teachers anyway. When particular parents come in to review a PSP, return from an exclusion or receive a Headteacher’s award, go along also. Parents can find this more convenient; it also provides joined-up thinking.

d. latch on to whole-school events, where you know parents will be attending anyway – a parents’ evening, an end of term assembly.

e. provide a weekly appointment slot (i.e. 20 minutes on a Tuesday morning, 2 slots available, bookable through your school office)

e. arrange appointments for all parents 3 times per year – a ‘SEND parent review day’ where all parents/carers get the chance to sit down with you or a colleague. Some thoughts follow on the logistics of this, and on ways to ensure that it can be a success.

SEND parent review day

It’s a rush, but you get lots of easy wins – the chance to tell a child that they need to read at home in front of their parent; the chance to request from a parent that they ensure their child has the right equipment for school, in front of their child; the chance for parent (and child, where appropriate) voice to be genuinely heard. How do you make this realistic, especially if your SEND register has 100+ names on it?

  • Get administrative support wherever possible. Even if you don’t regularly have administrative support, try to source some for this purpose at least. The ‘statutory duty’ argument goes a long way with some Headteachers.
  • Share out the load amongst other staff if possible – could your line manager in school take some appointments? Would you be able to share some out with support staff?
  • Don’t make them long appointments in most cases. Try to stick to 20-minute appointments, in which you review and update the child’s pupil profile/1-page summary of need (having this piece of paper, though it may sound unimportant, helps to facilitate the meeting and provide focus). Children with EHCPs will of course also have separate, longer meetings through their annual review.
  • Use parents’ evenings as the middle time you meet with parents.
  • Keep meetings very focused – a chance to set/review specific targets. Know your own limitations and don’t try and solve every problem the parent may have – use your local SENDIASS; know contact details for the local Housing Association, for early help services in your Local Authority, for Citizens Advice, for free legal advice.
  • Although keeping the meeting focused (i.e. around strategies and targets for the year), make sure you are genuinely listening to the parent in those meetings.
  • Make sure you fit in time to be giving positive messages to parents about their child’s progress.
  • Book an appointment with the parent even if there is nothing in particular to report. Parents will mostly be happy having a meeting that doesn’t have any negative headlines!
  • Be careful not to define the child by their SEND. For a parent, their child’s SEND may be something they disagree with, or deny, or are fearful of, or saddened by; it will certainly only be a description of one aspect of them, rather than the thing that defines them. Show that you know there is much more to their child than a particular area of deficit.

Every year, I’m aware of the need to improve parent/carer partnership further. In a busy school, it’s easy to forget to make time for the people who aren’t normally in front of you in the way your pupils are. But by making a plan for the year, it can help you to ensure that parent meetings do happen, that you meet your statutory duty and that these vital stakeholders help you to do right by the children on your SEND register.

Changing SEND provision for the better – writing your development plan

It’s important to put in writing what you want to drive next year, in terms of your provision for children with SEND. This helps you to remain proactive and attuned to the bigger picture, strategic priorities; not purely the day-to-day. You might be grappling with your development plan currently, trying to work out what your priorities should be for the next year. How do I make SEND provision better in my school? How do I decide what constitutes a priority? How do I work out what change will look like and how to bring others on the journey of change with me? There are experts in change management with books aplenty to guide you through the process. However, if you won’t have time to read them (along with everything else), try this brief guide to get you started.

  • Use data. I wrote in a previous blogpost about what data a SENDCO should have access to. By knowing what you’re below national average for (attendance, exclusion and progress come to mind), you’ll know what the numbers say is a priority. In addition, is there anything of relevance in your school’s most recent OFSTED report, or within the new OFSTED framework, that should be on your radar? Data is not the whole picture, but it’s an important step along the way.
  • Conduct a fact-finding exercise through your Department, perhaps using a SWOT analysis (or just tea and biscuits!) to find out what your closest colleagues think needs improving.
  • Complete a self-audit of SEND provision at your school. To assist you in this, you might use the Whole School SEND resources on SEND Gateway, ranking your provision in 8 areas. You could decide the answers to all these statements yourself, or from within your own Department. In an ideal scenario though, you’ll cast the net as widely as possible – it’s important to look through the statements and get comments from those in your Department, from your Headteacher and SLT, from full-time classroom teachers; even from parents and pupils if possible/where appropriate. Your impression of provision may well be different from others’ views; your views on the priorities for SEND in your school may differ from how others see it.
  • Speak to your predecessor (or your predecessor’s line manager) if you’re new to the SENDCO role or to a particular school. Learn from them what last year’s priorities were, as well as what progress was made against these priorities. If you’re not new to the role, look at your own priorities for the previous year. If you’ve ticked them off as complete, are there natural next steps? If you’ve not achieved those priorities this year, should they be rehashed or is there something that will still make this priority unattainable?
  • Know the whole-school priorities. The SENDCO who has their own isolated priorities, totally removed from the whole-school priorities, is less likely to achieve success. The SENDCO who has close alignment with the Headteacher’s vision is much more likely to achieve lasting change. This is especially true if you’re reliant on others to help you to meet that priority. If you want all teachers to pre-teach their vocab, does the Teaching and Learning Lead in your school agree? If you want restorative conversations to help children understand and move on from a sanction, is it something your Headteacher is willing to direct their staff to do? For obvious reasons, whole-school impact only comes if your priorities join up in some way with the change being driven by others within your school. That might mean you need to work with your Headteacher on why you see your priorities as vital; better to do this than to work in futile isolation.
  • Aim for conciseness. Your development plan should be a live document focusing on priorities, not a record of everything you do. Aim for 2-3 pages.
  • Share it. Consider all the stakeholders who are key to you reaching the goals listed on your development plan. If you’ve done your job well as a whole-school SENDCO, your success will require many people to contribute to bringing provision forward. Ensure these people know how they are involved – those above you, all the way to Governors; those within your Department; colleagues across the school; perhaps even parents. If you share with parents that we want students of all abilities reading appropriately levelled books at home, some parents will take that on as a priority for themselves, or seek advice about how to support this objective.
  • Keep it live. Have a dog-eared, well-thumbed copy of it pinned to your noticeboard. Bring it to line management meetings, even if you don’t always discuss it. Make sure you have someone (your line manager, Headteacher, Link Governor, a group of parents) who will be a listening ear and critical friend, as you update them on your progress throughout the year. Talking it through regularly will help maintain your focus on these priorities, while forcing you to reflect on progress frequently.

What to do about data

In various schools and for various SENDCOs, there is too much or too little data, data that’s not well-shared or data that requires a degree to interpret. What follows hopes to guide you to know what you might look out for in terms of your context, your attendance, your behaviour/exclusions and your academic outcomes. Nothing replaces knowing your students and being responsive to their needs, but knowing the numbers will allow you to plan strategically and, in many cases, feel comforted about the job you are doing.


Start with the context. You need to know what you’re looking at, in terms of SEND in your setting. The data-gathering bit of this is quite straightforward, as most of what you need to know here is reported to the DfE each year through the annual census. From the information that someone in your school has had to send off anyway, you’ll be able to see:

a) what types of SEND (SpLD, MLD) feature most prominently in your school.

b) to what extent boys do (or don’t) dominate on the SEND register

c) to what extent students who qualify for pupil premium feature (or not) on your SEND register

d) whether particular year groups dominate your SEND register.

Once you know this context, you can do a few things:

1. You can look at your other bits of data in more detail (i.e. is it my SEMH students who need to be my attendance focus?)

2. You can ask yourself questions that present from looking at your context, i.e.:

– do I need to be putting more resource into this particular year group?

– Do I need a greater whole-school training focus on SLCN?

– Do I need to look at a potential issue with under-identification of students with SpLD, and look at how to solve this?

– Do I need to push my Headteacher to employ a part-time counsellor, using the balance of my SEND register as evidence for this?

To really understand what the numbers mean it can be very useful to compare to national. This information is released every year by the DfE, in their ‘first statistical release’ for SEN. You can quickly see whether your context places you above or below national average, i.e. for students at SEN support, students with EHCPs, etc.


Once you know your context, you can begin to look into the dataset for this group of students, starting with attendance. Your school attendance figures will be known by whoever is responsible for sending the DfE data each year; you may have a data manager who can give you the most up-to-date figure, and can set up a system where you are given this attendance data at the beginning of each week, month or half-term.

In England, there is a gap in attendance between those with SEND and those without, details of which can be found here. The gap is currently 4.4% for students with EHCPs and 2.2% for students at SEN Support, with national attendance for SEND being 91.3% and 93.5% respectively in England (as of 2018-19). This means, for you, asking:

1. Am I above or below national average?

2. Is the gap between attendance of SEND and attendance of those without SEND in my school above or below national average?

3. Is poor attendance of students with SEND explained by one or two students with a chronically low attendance, or is it indicative of a wider issue that needs to be addressed?

4. Do I, as the SENDCo, have actions in place to support poor attendance? Do students with SEND get support and/or sanctions from whole-school systems, aimed at supporting attendance, and do these systems work satisfactorily for students with SEND?

Behaviour, including exclusions

In England, the proportion of exclusions accounted for by pupils with SEN is 45% (DfE, 2017-18 data). As with attendance, data on exclusions is all reported through the census, and will be kept by someone in your school. When comparing with national data, you can ask yourself a similar set of questions to that which you asked about attendance:

1. In terms of students with SEND getting fixed-term or permanently excluded, am I above or below national average?

2. Is there a gap between the proportion of students with and without SEND getting an exclusion, and is this gap in line with national average?

3. Are poor exclusion figures for SEND explained by one or two students with several FTEs, or is it indicative of a wider issue that needs to be addressed?

4. Do I, as the SENDCo, have actions in place to support poor behaviour? Do students with SEND get support and/or sanctions for their behaviour, and do these systems work for students with SEND?

Your school is not obliged to release data on its own behaviour systems (which students are getting detentions, etc), but it may well keep these somewhere, allowing you to do some data analysis in a way that may be much more useful for you than exclusions data, which will only be for the more extreme cases. You will want to ask yourself if a student with SEND in your school picks up more sanctions than other students in your school, and – if so – ask yourself what work you can do to try and address this (i.e. targeted social skills work; a homework club; whole school work on tolerance and respect, etc).

Academic outcomes

You will certainly be expected to know your headline academic figures for SEND. Make sure you find these out if you don’t know them already. In primary, this will be your percentage of students with SEND:

i)  achieving the Early Learning Goals by the end of reception

ii) passing the year 1 phonics screening

iii) passing the year 2 SATS

iv) passing the year 6 SATS

In secondary schools, this will be your Progress 8 and Achievement 8 scores in Key Stage 4 and equivalent scores in Key Stage 5.

In all settings, a comparison with national will make your understanding of your data much more informed. For example, Progress 8 scores for students with SEND in year 11 sit at around -0.61 (2018, England), which gives you a benchmark. This benchmark needs to be raised but is indicative of the current situation in terms of the progress of students with SEND. Often it is reassuring to discover that, in spite of frustrations, you have e.g. above national average outcomes in your phonics screening outcomes. SEND outcomes nationally are low but knowing the national data should make it easier for the SENDCo to recognise successes. Where you are below national in some areas, look at your 3-year trend; this may give you reason to be more positive. You can also make comparisons to the average for your Local Authority.

When looking at academic outcomes, you could go into almost endless levels of detail, i.e.

a. by subject area (do Maths do better than Science in terms of academic outcomes for students with SEND?)

b. by need type (do students with SLCN do better than those with MLD?)

c. by individual staff member (is there a teacher who gets lower outcomes for students with SEND, and has a training need?)

d. by individual child (are there students with SEND who are achieving so well that their need may have changed? Could that child come off the SEND register? Are there students who are not on the SEND register currently, but who are achieving at a very low level and should be considered for some assessment of SEND?)

In a small school, this level of detailed analysis will lack the numbers to be statistically significant, but will paint a picture on some level as to how students are achieving in your school. This level of detailed analysis will perhaps be reserved for the externally reported data, but there should be a system whereby you look at data from each data drop that takes place in your school – i.e. what can you learn from the year 5 mid-year tests, to help you to boost end of year outcomes?

Numbers are not the whole story

Finally, it should be said that numbers are only ever part of the story. There may be a child with 50% attendance who affects your figures but that is the most they can get into school currently, irrespective of intervention. You may have a child who achieves Entry Level qualifications at Key Stage 4 and does nothing for your performance tables, but has a real sense of achievement and goes on successfully to a college placement. Data is vital to a SENDCO doing their job well, as long as a sense of perspective and a moral compass go alongside.

Starting as a SENDCO in September? Find 10 hours to do these 10 things before you break up for the summer

If you’re embarking on your first SENDCO role in September, you will not get to the summer holidays with total readiness. But if you can find 10 hours to do these 10 tasks, in no particular order, you’ll give yourself the best headstart possible.

  1. Look at your current SEND register (1 hour)

Work out who you need to make a particular effort to get to know once you’re in the role. Make a list of these students and make them your priority for seeing in class and reading up on from September.

2. Make a realistic reading list and begin to read it (2 hours)

Don’t feel you need to read everything out there (and there is a lot!). My top 3 in your position:

  1. The SEN Information Report of your school, available on your school’s website
  2. Natalie Packer’s book The Perfect SENCO or my own book The Lone SENDCO
  3. SEN Code of Practice, Chapter 6 (referring specifically to the duty on schools)

There are also some gems of recommendations on Twitter if you follow @NataliePacker, @sendcosolutions, @sencochat to name but 3.

3. Enrol on a NASENCO Award (1 hour)

Look at local University providers as well as distance learning providers. If you’re really not sure, put the feelers out on Twitter or Facebook for local recommendations, or ask SENDCOs in your local schools where they did their course. You don’t need to start on the course immediately; consider whether you want the professional learning support immediately or would rather settle into the role first.

4. Have a handover (2 hours)

The current SENDCO is the most important person for you to get feedback from but there are advantages also to casting the net wide here. Consider the benefits of asking for 20 minutes of the time of an experienced TA, with a senior leader or with an NQT for their experience of SEND provision in your school. These types of handover (if that’s the right word) can be just as useful as speaking to the outgoing SENDCO.

In your conversation with the outgoing SENDCO, you’ll know instinctively what you feel you need more information on. It might be the inside-info about particular children and families; the interventions overview; priorities for this year and whether progress was made with those priorities; who you can lean on for support within the school; key external contacts and key dates throughout the year. Use the information from this conversation to begin identifying priorities for next year.

5. Make a list of your stakeholders (30 minutes)

Gain reassurance that the job is doable by writing down who can provide you with some support along the way (using the outgoing SENDCO to support you in formulating the list):

  • Who can you work with when pastorally supporting children and families?
  • Who can you look to for some administrative support when you need it, even if it is from within your own TA team?
  • Who is going to be your advocate on SLT?
  • Which teachers can you go to when you want to see excellent practice in school?
  • Which parents/carers will give you a sense of how families are feeling about the support being given in school?
  • Which children and young people will be good indicators of whether pupils with SEND are thriving in your school?
  • Which SENDCOs in other local schools can you go to for advice when you need it?
  • What can you get from online communities (Whole School SEND Community of Practice; the Facebook group ‘SENCO/SENDCO Support (Professionals)’ or ‘SENsible SENCO’; the Twitter community)?
  • Who can help you wade through data to understand the SEND context of your school better?

6. Invite feedback (1 hour)

There is never a better time than when you’re new to be honest about your naivety. Find a way to invite opinions from anyone who has them about the quality of the SEND provision in your school. This might be through creating a staff or parent survey, or simply putting a notice in your staff/parent bulletin inviting people to get in touch.

7. Prevent information being lost (1 hour)

Look at how information about pupils is currently shared with teaching staff – most likely through a 1-page summary of need, sometimes called a pupil profile or pupil passport. Ask for as many people as possible to suggest edits to these documents, for the children they have worked with this year.

This way, you’ll capture the bits of information that will really help the staff working with these pupils from September (things that motivate a particular child, strategies that have worked for that child, etc.).

8. Get your head around some data (90 minutes)

You may or may not be a SENDCO, or a person, who is naturally inclined towards data. There are clear reasons why it’s important to use data, and the larger your school environment, the more important this becomes. I would strongly encourage you to think about who else can make this bit of your job manageable, be it a data manager; an administrator; even the Headteacher. For specific bits of data, perhaps the attendance lead has already got the information you need? Or the behaviour lead has already reported to Governors about the behaviour of various groups, including those with SEND? Although you could lose your life in data – there is always another spreadsheet you could create for yourself that would tell you something new – the main bits you’ll need can be split into 5 categories:

  1. SEN context (how many EHCPs, most prevalent need type, etc.)
  2. Attendance
  3. Behaviour (including exclusions)
  4. Academic outcomes
  5. Data gathered from interventions

Get as much information as you can about this before the summer break, so you can get a clearer idea of what you’ll be trying to drive next year.

9. Embrace your unreadiness (no time limit on this!)

You might feel unready for the role for a range of reasons. You might feel inexperienced as a teacher of children with SEND. You might be new to having a whole-school responsibility, feel inadequate about your SEND knowledge or lack confidence about supporting colleagues to improve their practice. The only reassurance I can offer is that all these things were true for me.

Often it’s not a specialist in the role; it needs to be someone with an inclusive approach, with empathy and with a willingness to learn.

10. Look forward to becoming a SENDCO (all the time!)

I used to be a Head of Year in a secondary school and found myself issuing sanctions for much of my time. I began to avoid the staff room to avoid colleagues wanting to vent about the behaviour of children in my year group. I then became a SENDCO; I became the person people come to when a child needs support, not when they need a telling off. It’s a privileged role. I hope you enjoy it.

Sharing a label?

In my last blogpost, I discussed lengthy waiting times for SEND assessment and the implications for children, families and SENDCOs. But once the child has a label, what do you do with it? Are we advocating a need-to-know basis or ensuring total awareness of a diagnosis? Likewise, when a child is placed on an SEND register, how much should we be sharing that information and in what way?

I have argued passionately for total transparency about an SEND register. Ensure the child, family and staff all know about a child being on an SEND register and why. That way shame and stigma are removed and everybody advocates for the child so they can reach their full potential.

Seeing only a label

What though of the argument that all this does is reduce the child to a category. ‘He’s SEMH, she’s SLCN, they’re GDD.’ What of the need to understand the individual? What of the stigma attached to being on an SEND register, discussed in the excellent videos by Made by Dyslexia, and the consequent impact on a child’s self-esteem?

“I can remember the burning resentment of having to carry round this folder with a different coloured top”

Kiera Knightley

What also of studies that show that children make more or less progress based on whether we label them as low or high ability?

A 1966 study by Rosenthal & Jacobson argued that there is a self-fulfilling prophecy happening within education. They chose children, at random, from across the attainment range within a school and gave these children a fake label: ‘bloomers’. Teachers were told that these ‘bloomers’ had potential for excellent academic achievement.

When IQ tests were readministered months later, the ‘bloomers’ had made significantly higher IQ gains than children who had not been singled out as ‘bloomers’.

The researchers concluded that if you tell a teacher that a child is able, they will teach them as if they are able and the children will make faster progress. Applied to SEND therefore, what of the argument that a label places limits on our expectations, places a cap on what is possible socially or academically and ultimately lowers academic outcomes for those children?

The problem with transparency

In keeping with the Code of Practice, I have tried to put children and parent voice at the centre of provision in school – meeting 3 times per year; keeping dialogue open about interventions, etc.

As part of this duty, I have phoned many parents, to ensure they know we believe their child should be on the SEND register. I have heard the sadness in their voice and seen the resultant defensiveness, i.e. in conversations about academic progress, completion of homework or behaviour in class.

As part of this duty, I have set up and sat in many meetings with parents and children, ensuring their voices are at the heart of what we are doing. For a child with MLD, I have seen their shoulders drop as they hear you talk about why the meeting is taking place (i.e. that it is linked to them being on the SEND register). Even with my most rehearsed speech about what that means (‘you can achieve your full potential; you may need some types of support to achieve it, it is our job to give you the support to help you to get there’), I can’t help but think the child leaves that meeting with a lowered expectation of themselves and what is possible for them.

As part of this duty, I’ve discussed progress with teaching colleagues, where they’ve gone through their class list and talked about a lack of progress for children with SEND. The low progress has come across as inevitable – they have SEND, so they will not make progress. I can’t help but think that placement on an SEND register, for the wrong teacher, becomes an acceptable reason for that child not making progress.

The Code of Practice

Perhaps this debate is in part redundant. To refer again to the Code of Practice, SENDCOs need to make sure that  (1.3) ‘parents and young people are involved in discussions and decisions’. It encourages ‘a positive dialogue between parents, teachers and others’  (1.7) and promotes total transparency about a child’s SEND:

6.49 All teachers and support staff who work with the pupil should be made aware of their needs, the outcomes sought, the support provided and any teaching strategies or approaches that are required.

As SENDCOs, the question around transparency is answered for us by the Code of Practice – we should ensure total transparency about placement on an SEND register; transparency with the child themselves where appropriate and with families and school staff in all cases.

This assumes though that all stakeholders are able to take this information – about placement on an SEND register and/or about a diagnosis received – and allow it to support a positive change for them in school.

Self-advocacy as the key to success

I’ve been most pleased when overhearing a child with SEND advocate for themselves. For a child with a visual impairment to politely demand that the handout is in a bigger font; for the dyslexic child to politely demand their extra time in an assessment. Conversely though, I’ve also heard a child’s label or their placement on an SEND register used as an excuse for failure. For example, I’ve heard children declaring a complete inability to control their anger or impulse, rather than explaining that these things are harder for them and that they need more support with some of these things than other children.

None of these things are straightforward. It’s asking a lot of a child to advocate in the right way from a young age, to know the weight to give the label. It’s asking a lot of a parent or carer to know how to advocate for their child in a way that keeps aiming high but doesn’t become excusing. It’s our job as educators – be us SENDCOs, Teaching Assistants, teachers or school leaders – to ensure we see the child first, irrespective of label, and support that child to believe in their own ability to succeed – in spite of, and in many cases because of, their label.

Label me?

Parents waiting 3 months for a CAMHS appointment, 6 months to see an Occupational Therapist or 2 years for a diagnostic assessment for autism. Secondary school children on an SEND register with no chance of seeing an NHS Speech and Language Therapist unless they have an EHCP. Families who can’t afford a dyslexia assessment at £500+. All these circumstances limit the family’s chances of being able to put a name to their child’s difficulties. How much should this stand in the way of children making progress in school?

Parents’ responses to diagnosis

A diagnosis of ADHD for one family will begin a journey of acceptance, understanding, environmental adaptations and advocacy from the child, family, school and community in serving the interests of the child. It will be the catalyst for an approach that says ‘I find X more difficult. Therefore, I need to work harder than most people at Y and it would help me if you could do Z’. They look back on the day of diagnosis as the day that transformed their child’s life for the better.

A diagnosis of ADHD for another family will begin a journey of grief, denial or lowered expectations. Instead of a recognition that advocacy – and eventually self-advocacy – is needed to help the child have their needs met, there begins a reluctant acceptance that the child cannot succeed, rather than a conversation about how the child can succeed. They look back on the day of diagnosis as a trauma.

I make no judgements on the second family. The grief that families can experience in these circumstances is very real. Parents of children with SEND will have their own process to go through and may well be entering a world about which they know very little; they need to be listened to and supported by schools.

So the acceptance of a diagnosis is not straightforward. But in many cases, neither is the journey towards that diagnosis, which often takes a great deal of persistence, a lot of patience and in some cases a significant price. The result of course if that many children who might receive a label don’t. What are the implications of this? It’s easy to argue that waiting lists should be shorter and access to services simpler and free. Of course they should. But that won’t be happening fast. What are the implications for school professionals when our children don’t get diagnosed?

SENDCOs’ responses to delayed diagnosis

I read a Huffington Post article last year about unacceptable waiting times for autism assessment and the subsequent damage this does. The frustration felt by a parent waiting to find out if their child meets the criteria are totally understandable. But as school professionals, shouldn’t we in many cases be able to look at the child’s strengths and struggles and use the assess-plan-do-review cycle to attempt to support the child, irrespective of their diagnosis?

If every person with autism is different, every child with autism needs a personalised response to the things they find difficult. That means that, irrespective of label, we still need to treat them as an individual. We still need to support them in a bespoke way, which may do no good at all to the next child with autism. This bespoke approach means understanding the child. And if you understand the child, why the need for a label?

Seeing a child, not a label

It is true that, in many cases, you need a diagnosis in order to access services. To get an EHCP, to access funding, to see a specialist – you need a diagnosis. But the danger here is inaction from professionals.

For a SENDCO working with colleagues to support teaching and learning, there is a clear advantage to being able to say ‘these are the students with ADHD. That means they’ll find X difficult; this means we should all do Y to support them.’ However, there is a danger in that approach. Though it may be seen as a way to get messaging out about a large number of children quickly, it has a danger attached to it that the condition comes first and the child second. That a teacher treats all children with ADHD the same, without appreciating that some will need a check-in every 2 minutes while others will find it intrusive; some will benefit from a seat at the front while others need a seat right at the back.

The way forward

This is a sensitive topic. I’ve met parents who won’t go near a clinical assessment and other parents who work tirelessly for a label for their child. I’ve been delighted and frustrated by both approaches in equal measure. I’ve met teachers who reject labels and others who put a child’s label at the forefront of their planning and delivery in class. I’ve also been delighted and frustrated by both approaches in equal measure.

The answer to all this of course is to be guided by labels but not governed by them. To know the child as an individual first and then to use any diagnoses as steers towards what they might find helpful/unhelpful, rather than as labels that define them.

A label only carries the weight you give it. But in an overstretched system where those who perhaps should receive a label don’t, SENDCOs need to feel confident in their judgement to agree what support the child requires, irrespective of a label. They need to use the assess-plan-do-review cycle and be dynamic in how they respond to the children in front of them. They need to know the support that a label can bring but focus on supporting the child and family first, and pursuing a label second.

Parents: supporting children with SEND during home-based learning. 5 tips to support reading, writing, routines.

I’m a teacher. It can be really hard getting pupils to work consistently well, to the level where they make great progress.

I’m a parent. It can be really, really hard getting your child to work consistently well, to the level where they can make some progress.

Both these statements are true whether or not a child has a Special Educational Need or Disability.

I’ve put 5 quick tips below for supporting your child with routines, the development of reading and the development of their writing while they are at home with you. Some of the tips are about working closely with them; others are about promoting independence where possible. I think there is something in them for both primary and secondary. They are aimed at children with SEND but I hope will be appropriate for many, regardless of SEND status. I hope there is a flicker of something in what I’m suggesting that is useful for every parent and carer at the moment. Links at the bottom of the page.


1. Set a timetable with your child. Review this every week or two – it will get stale and need refreshing. Listen to your child on what needs changing. Show sympathy but know what your non-negotiables are also.

2. Agree something with your child about mobile phone use. Try to trust them to have it in the room if they need to; the proof is in the work they produce.

3. Don’t expect perfection.

4. Start each day by going through what needs to be done. Don’t be militant if your child is working hard but doesn’t complete everything they aim to.

5. Try to support autonomy wherever possible. Allow your child to consider how they produce a piece of work, when a break is appropriate, etc.

Tips to support reading:

Consider whether the purpose of the task is to develop reading or to access curriculum content.

If the purpose of the task is the development of reading, you may help by:

  1. Insist on 10-15 minutes of reading per day. This reading should be out loud to an adult. It will hopefully be from a book the child is motivated to read. Make it quality, distraction-free time between you and your child as much as possible.
  2. Use the super skills for reciprocal reading (predicting, clarifying, questioning, summarising).

If the purpose of the task is to access curriculum content, you may help by:

  1. Reading the text (i.e. the instructions, the source, the pages of the textbook) for your child.
  2. Download the App ‘Seeing AI’. Your child will be able to hover over a piece of text from a screen or a book; the App will read it aloud for them.
  3. On Microsoft Edge, use the book icon in the URL to see options for making a website more accessible (text-to-speech, coloured background, etc). On Microsoft Word, you can change the colour of the page on the Display tab (page colour) to make reading easier. You can also highlight text and it will read it aloud for you.

Tips to support writing

  1. Try to understand the quality of your child’s writing when they’re at school, by looking at their school books or speaking to their class teacher. Make sure you know the level of difficulty versus the level of reluctance.
  2. Discuss the child’s work with them. Make some notes while you are both talking. Leave your child with those notes to help them to scaffold their writing.
  3. Put a small mark in your child’s book. Let them know that, by the time you check again, they should have reached your mark with their writing. Having small, achievable goals like this can really help reluctant writers.
  4. When looking at your child’s writing, focus first on the positives. Where improvements are possible (handwriting, spelling, grammar) don’t ignore the things you can praise first. As soon as you recognise improvements in these things, show that you have noticed.
  5. Consider whether typing or handwriting is the most helpful thing. offers a free touch typing programme if that could help to develop typing fluency. On the newest versions of Word, there is a ‘Dictate’ button to allow speech-to-text.

Reciprocal reading strategies

Seeing AI

Typing club


Accessibility in Microsoft Word

Accessibility in Internet Explorer

Accessibility in Google Chrome

How to ensure effective parent-school partnership when schools reopen

In the last blogpost, I mentioned some of the literature that shows fairly definitively that parent/carer involvement is a highly significant factor in children making progress in school. I pointed to some of the research that shows it being particularly true for children with special educational needs and disabilities. What does best practice look like for parental partnership? With a unique transition from home to school this year following the impact of coronavirus, what will good practice look like from SENDCOs interested in outstanding parental partnership?

We now know that transition will begin for some after May half-term . There is some excellent material being written about managing this transition back to school for pupils with SEND, such as from Natalie Packer and Lynn McCann. They rightly consider the vital question of how to support children in their return. But what of the parents? If we know their involvement is key, how do we prepare them to be active partners in their child’s return to school, in such a potentially anxious time for parents?

To consider what good practice in this context looks like, it is important to know what good practice looks like under normal conditions.

Outstanding parent partnership under normal circumstances

  1. Ensure the basics of communication are done well – parents must know who they should contact and how they should contact them. They require written communication about targets, interventions and progress. Taking a whole-school approach (DfE-00205-2013), communication must come from the wider school staff, not merely the SEND team.
  2. Move beyond three times per year – have a frequently open door, with opportunities for parents to meet the SENDCo at least 6 times per year. This will be a combination of 1-to-1 meetings and more informal, group meetings or coffee mornings. Be wary of reducing communication when children are in secondary school, as typically occurs (Povey et al, 2016) when children leave primary school. Consider on a case-by-case basis which parents need a regular phone call or chance to meet, above and beyond what other parents require.
  3. Educate and support parents – provide sessions for parents about the school curriculum and about their child’s SEND (Kreider et al, 2007). This should include opportunities for the parents to network with one another, sharing their experiences. Consider parents’ feelings here, which may (but may not) be negative towards their child’s SEND (CACE, 1967). Communication with parents, particularly around the beginning of a process that involves the child going on the SEND register, should be particularly thoughtful and conducted in person where possible.
  4. Use parents – Interventions can be further supported at home. Whenever parents are being informed about an intervention or target, be explicit with ideas about how this might be supported at home. Get parental input on the advice that is given to all teachers about meeting their child’s need, bringing them in in some cases to meet with the child’s teachers. Use parents’ knowledge of the child to help the school to understand them more fully and to better meet need (DFEE 1994a, 2:28).
  5. Co-produce with parents – Consult with parents when changes are being proposed to provision, and learn from them about whether they believe changes should be made (Lindsay et al, 2016). This may involve establishing an SEND parent group that meets regularly, as well as having SEND parent representation at the school and/or MAT Governors’ level.

The principles of good parent partnership aren’t abandoned because of school closure and the eventual return to the school building. However, there are nuances to what these principles look like in practice, which are worth considering.

Outstanding parent partnership as schools reopen

  1. Be clear and be neutral

Make sure the plan to keep children as safe as possible in school (hand washing, class sizes, etc) is put into writing. Let parents have this and reference it often.

Be neutral where possible about your school’s and/or the Government’s decisions around reopening. Show that you are the person enacting the decision and helping it to happen as safely as possible, rather than the person responsible for national policy. Keep personal opinions for your Headteacher (and if necessary the unions!)

2. Be communicative

Review your normal communication with parents. It will need increasing dramatically for the majority of schools. Consider how to do this in a realistic manner:

A group text or email about the day, to a large group of parents (i.e. of children with SEND or all parents)

Putting slots on your own calendar that you dedicate for meeting with parents (i.e. 5 x 20 minute slots per week). Make these slots known to parents. Parents will take comfort from the opportunity even if they don’t take it up. It will help them to know that your door is open.

Praise praise praise. Ask everybody everyday which child did something praise-worthy. Use your school systems (postcards, merits, certificates) to go heavy on the praise. Make sure these school systems allow parents to see this praise.

3. Be supportive

Allow opportunities for peer support. It may be appropriate to hold some kind of coffee morning for parents (in person or online), or to use an engaged parent to set up a WhatsApp group independent of the school.

Identify a small number of parents who need much closer (i.e. daily) contact from school. Consider how this might be shared for different children, i.e. between colleagues, the child’s class teacher, etc.

Ask your parents what support they need. Offer appropriate sessions, either via resources going home, an online meeting or in person, as appropriate. These might be on wellbeing, managing behaviour, managing stress, personal wellbeing (i.e. the wellbeing of the parent).

4. Be appreciative

It will feel like more of a risk than normal sending their child to school. When the time comes, and without putting undue pressure on parents, acknowledge this with a thank you.

5. Be balanced

Continue your systems for those not able to attend: year groups not yet invited back; the medically vulnerable; etc.

The principles remain but the actions need some nuance. With a nuanced approach based on a sound and supportive set of principles, parents and carers can feel an empowered, involved and reassured part of the transition process.


Department for Education/Department of Health. 2015. Special educational needs and disability code of practice: 0-25 years. DFE-00205-2013.

Department for Education and Employment. 1994. Code of Practice on the Identification and Assessment of Special Educational Needs.

Kreider, Holly; Margaret, Caspe; Kennedy, Susan; Weiss, Heather. 2007. Family Involvement in Middle and High School Students’ Education. Involvement Makes a Difference: Evidence that Family Involvement Promotes School Success for Every Child of Every Age. Harvard Family Research Project. Volume 3.

Lindsay, G., Ricketts, J., Peacey, L. V., Dockrell, J. E., & Charman, T. 2016.. Meeting the educational and social needs of children with language impairment or autism spectrum disorder: the parents’ perspectives. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders. Volume 51, Issue 5.

Plowden, B. 1967. Children and their Primary Schools. London: A report of the Central Advisory Council for Education.

Povey, Jenny, Campbell, Alice Kate, Willis, Linda-Dianne, Haynes, Michele, Western, Mark, Bennett, Sarah, Antrobus, Emma and Pedde, Charley. 2016. Engaging parents in schools and building parent-school partnerships: The role of school and parent organisation leadership. International Journal of Educational Research. Volume 79.

Time to get school-parent partnership right for children with SEND

It’s really time to get school-parent partnership right. If we hadn’t realised already that parents and carers are the vital cog in the wheel of successful provision for children with special educational needs, school closure should be a timely reminder of the need for a truly partnered approach for any school that prides itself on successful inclusion.

Schools are now totally reliant on parents to ensure children receive any kind of education. Parents are no longer the poor relation, the after-thought. They are the teacher, the motivator, the problem solver. As well as the parent. And in many cases, the person trying to balance parenting with working from home with trying to decipher curriculum content.

For a SENDCO, good communication with parents and carers is vital if a school considers itself to have an excellent provision for children with SEND. But schools have been closed since March 20th. What lessons can be learned from school closure in terms of communicating with parents of children with SEND?

Effective parent partnership is essential

Parental involvement is positively associated with achievement (Hill and Tyson, 2009), socioemotional development (Kreider et al, 2007), behaviour in school (Powell et al, 2010) and longer-term positive benefits (Kreider et al, 2007):

‘It is generally accepted that without the positive cooperation of family and school, it is not possible to reach the high demands set for educational outcomes by a demanding society’

Government guidance on this has been clear for over half a century, with educational legislation consistently promoting parents as equal partners in a school’s provision for all children, but especially for children with SEND.

Parent partnership for children with SEND is key

As spelt out very clearly in the Provision Map webinar on supporting pupils and families, parental partnership is particularly important for children with SEND. By treating parents as experts, it helps the school to understand the child (Gwernan-Jones et al, 2015). By keeping parents informed about curriculum work, it allows school work to be effectively consolidated at home (Dale, 2008). By supporting parents, it helps parents to feel confident in supporting their child’s needs at home. It ultimately makes a ‘significant difference to what can be achieved’ (Bartram, 2018). An engaged parent improves outcomes for children with SEND (Eleftherakis et al, 2015).

Schools need parents more than ever

More than ever, schools are reliant on the cooperation of parents and carers for the successful education of the children and young people on their roll. Parental experience of a school’s communication during school closure is of course varied, but in the best cases parents now have communication from a school professional at least weekly, as opposed to 3 times per year (recommended in the Lamb Report and enacted within the Code of Practice 2015). How are parents finding this (in many cases) increased contact? What is this communication looking like now?

Schools are closed – but contact is up

I conducted a couple of polls on social media 4 weeks into school closure, looking to find out whether contact with schools had increased or decreased since learning became remote for the vast majority of students. I asked this question to both SEND professionals and parents/carers of children with SEND, as 2 distinct groups (but not discriminating by sector and stage). 140 parents/carers answered; 101 SEND professionals.

Parents and carers of children with SEND:

SENDCOs and SEND professionals:

Full results are shows in the tables, but in a nutshell:

  • The most common response was that contact had increased since school closure (67% SEND professionals; 43% parents/carers)
  • SEND professionals believed in greater numbers that contact had increased, suggesting a difference in perception between themselves and parents/carers (67% – 43%).
  • 80%+ of parents and professionals acknowledged a difference now in the frequency of contact since school closure.

What kind of contact?

So what of this increased contact? Parents who left a comment on the poll talked of weekly phone calls, of schools using Twitter accounts and Google classrooms. Of work packs and Zoom calls. Now clearly these things won’t be needed in the same way when we go back to ‘normal’. But will we just go back to working with our pupils and leaving the parents out of the picture, as we’re so guilty of?

I don’t want to take a moral high ground here. I’ve frequently, during a busy week in which most of the things on my list remained incomplete, failed to take the time to inform parents of changes, let alone listen to parents and use their views to inform the work we do in school. Failing to use parents makes my work as a SENDCO less effective.

An opportunity for change

I’m convinced we can change school-parent relationships as a result of the current school closure. I’m convinced that creative approaches, with parents at the centre of them, will be needed if we’re to successfully transition students back into full-time schooling. I’m convinced that empowered parents, with an even better awareness of their child’s ability and attitude to learning and with better-developed relationships with school staff, won’t accept anything less than being a full part in provision.

The Lamb Report (2009) called for:

‘a radical recasting of the relationship between parents, schools and local authorities to ensure a clearer focus on the outcomes and life chances for children with SEN and disability’ (Lamb, 2009).

If the nation’s schools closing isn’t the catalyst for this radical recasting, I’m not sure what is. Contact three times per year? I strongly suspect this is no longer acceptable.

In the next blog: how to ensure effective parent-school partnership when schools reopen


Bartram, David. 2018. Great expectations: Leading an effective SEND strategy in school. Woodbridge: John Catt Educational Ltd.

Dale, Naomi. 2008. Working with families of children with special needs: Partnership and practice. London: Routledge.

Department for Education/Department of Health. 2015. Special educational needs and disability code of practice: 0-25 years. DFE-00205-2013.

Eleftherakis, Theodoros G., Kourkoutas, Elias, Vitalaki, Elena and Hart, Angie. 2015. Family-School-Professionals Partnerships: An Action Research Program to Enhance the Social, Emotional, and Academic Resilience of Children at Risk. Journal of Education and Learning. Volume 4, Number 3.

Gwernan-Jones, R., Moore, D. A., Garside, R., Richardson, M., Thompson-Coon, J., Rogers, M., Cooper, P., Stein, K. and Ford, T. 2015. ADHD, parent perspectives and parent–teacher relationships: grounds for conflict. British Journal of Special Education. Volume 42. Issue 3.

Kreider, Holly; Margaret, Caspe; Kennedy, Susan; Weiss, Heather. 2007. Family Involvement in Middle and High School Students’ Education. Involvement Makes a Diference: Evidence that Family Involvement Promotes School Success for Every Child of Every Age. Harvard Family Research Project. Volume 3.

Lamb, B. 2009. Lamb Inquiry Special Educational Needs and Parental Confidence. Annesley: DCSF Publications.