According to the Independent Schools Council’s (ISC) latest census, around 16% of pupils in its independent schools have special educational needs or disabilities (SEND). Within that figure, the most common difficulties are learning-specific conditions, such as dyslexia and dyspraxia.
Although independent schools will have SEND policies, with a head of learning support or SEND specialist teachers on staff, there is still a reliance on external agencies to provide the professional support many SEND students require.
But with Covid-19 restrictions preventing external bodies from entering schools, how can independent schools ensure that their students receive the support they need without over-burdening their teachers?
The current problem with SEND support
Securing the right support for a SEND child is integral to both their academic success and their integration within the school environment. If a child feels unsupported or out of their depth, school can become a negative experience, challenging behaviours emerge and academic potential becomes harder to achieve.
At the present time of uncertainty and disruption, many SEND children will be finding school particularly difficult. Teaching staff shouldn’t be expected to fill the gaps left by the specialist agencies.
A SEND child might require physical, emotional and learning support, or assistance with mental health concerns or communication issues. No school can hope to cover all of these areas in-house. And there’s a very real threat of long-term impact should today’s SEND children not receive the help they need in the months to come.
What are the potential issues associated with the delay of SEND support?
Communication problems aren’t just an academic concern. The inability to freely communicate, whether verbally or in written form, can seriously impact social integration, a student’s sense of belonging and even family relationships. Children who don’t fit in within the school environment are also more likely to face social exclusion.
Studies have found that over 80% of children with Social, Emotional and Mental Health (SEMH) conditions may also have undiagnosed communication problems. These need to be dealt with for children to reach their full potential, academically and socially.
Dyslexia is one of the most common of the Specific Learning Difficulties experienced by SEND students. Around 10% of the population are dyslexic and another 10% have dyspraxia, with a 52% crossover between the two. The conditions can reveal themselves in numerous ways, from speech sound difficulties to problems reading and writing. Without support, academic development can be significantly impacted.
While dyslexia can affect written communication, speech disorders have far-reaching effects, damaging confidence, obstructing the building of relationships, and even laying children open to bullying. Children with speech difficulties need to be provided with access to a cohesive and consistent support programme to help them find their voice.
Is there an answer to the SEND problems posed by Covid-19?
External support agencies are investigating ways to facilitate the return to schools with the adoption of full PPE, observing the two-metre rule, and working in restricted areas. These measures are necessary, but have their drawbacks, creating a barrier between the pupils and their support workers.
As external agencies would also be visiting multiple schools in a single day, this can present the risk of spreading the virus from school to school, therefore potentially causing students further disruption in the event of a localised lockdown. At the beginning of September, 20 British schools were fully closed due to Covid-19.
Technology presents an alternative solution. Tech is already a part of school life. It’s being used for a wide variety of purposes. And there’s very real potential for it to be embraced for SEND support. During lockdown, over 70% of children who required speech therapy through Mable Therapy were able to continue receiving support online.
And this was possible because technology is already an intrinsic part of the modern child’s day-to-day life, for example speaking to grandparents on video call or engaging with online tutoring during lockdown. And, of course, as we’ve already seen through the first lockdown, technology is the one way to ensure uninterrupted support, should schools be required to close again.
Integral to wellbeing
SEND provision is integral to the wellbeing of so many children. Even in the current climate, it’s unacceptable for any child to be left without the support they need.
How that support is provided is a matter for each individual school to decide, but there are solutions such as the use of technology which can help overcome these challenges. We are left in little doubt that action needs to be taken, so children are given the consistency of support they need and pupils are not left behind.
Recommended resources for support and information:
Supporting a child returning to school after lockdown: Young Minds
Supporting deaf education during the coronavirus pandemic: resources from BATOD members and others
Schools Guide to implementing an online therapy provision: Mable Therapy
Coronavirus – education and school: National Autistic Society
Coronavirus – how we can help you: Royal National Institute for the Blind