Anyone with an interest in caring for and educating children with special needs should read ‘The Costs of Inclusion’ by professors at Cambridge University Faculty of Education. Commissioned by the NUT and published in April 2015, it is the second of two reports focusing on children and young people categorised as having special needs, ranging from the physical and medical, to behavioural and learning difficulties.

It highlights the ‘growing number who have been helped to survive through advances in medical knowledge and technology, including children born very prematurely, who encounter a range of health and psychological challenges as they mature, challenging the skills of teachers and parents, and often puzzling experts as well’.

Although an easy, and riveting, read of 60-odd pages, if time is a constraint, start at Chapter 7 (Key issues) on page 60, with Recommendations on pages 65-67.

Essentially, it questions mainstream educational inclusivity, and the pressure on teachers, when some children can find it threatening or difficult, and whether alternative, more differentiated, provision would be better. For example, data from 2002/3 concluded that statemented children were nine times more likely to be excluded, and the rate for black Afro-Caribbean pupils is 20 times higher than for other ethnic groups. Even children who were well integrated in primary school can experience insecurity and distress when they enter secondary school, with curriculum and testing pressures leaving them marginalised, subject to anxiety and depression.

Key issues include:

  • There is a widespread practice for teachers to give special needs pupils almost entirely into the care of Teaching Assistants , very few of whom have appropriate qualifications or the expertise needed to make a classroom lesson relevant or accessible to a child with SEN, leaving them to ‘mother’ their charges instead of educating them;
  • Teachers can spend a disproportionate amount of time planning or adapting materials, arguably at the expense of time which could be spent planning for the whole class;
  • Extreme forms of behaviour disturbs other children, as well as diverting teachers’ attention from learning issues;
  • In some cases teachers are dealing with acute medical conditions, including incontinence, which puts a huge strain on them and is a distraction from teaching;
  • Some schools find themselves pressurised to accept a greater share of SEN children when other schools refuse (because of their potential impact on overall attainment), making effective teaching ‘nigh on impossible’;
  • Delays in ‘statementing’ can mean schools accommodating children with complex needs, but without the necessary advice or support;
  • Training is largely inadequate, being developed ‘on the job’;
  • Attainment benchmarks which may be inappropriate for some children should be reviewed;
  • Policies lack multi-agency collaboration; and
  • There is an urgent need to review school leadership (including the SENCo role and status) and resource implications.

In summary, the report concludes that ‘there is an unarguable case for more intelligent and targeted resource provision… inclusion can only work in a culture of collaboration in which there is sharing of resource and expertise.’

Governors do, of course, have a vital role, to be ‘fully appraised of developments, with continuous feedback’. This is not necessarily as straightforward as it sounds; governor training is limited, yet oversight is demanding.

As the SEN governor at my primary school I have spent the last few months attempting to get to grips with all these issues, attending two County Council training sessions (superficial, rather than in depth) and going through several pages of my ‘responsibilities’, as well as engaging with the SENCo through curriculum assessments with other governors, and reading endless reports.

Having done my homework, I recommended to my fellow governors that we needed to have a full review of provision, since our school, which is doubling in size, is one of those pressured into taking an ever larger SEN cohort, and we are concerned at the impact this is having on education as a whole. We also have two specialist units attached to the school which are very expensive and labour-intensive, with one pupil costing £27,000 a year.

Since we wanted a completely independent, objective, overview, I approached the responsible Cabinet member at Essex, our neighbouring county. He generously quickly authorised his education team to carry out an excellent review, undertaken by highly regarded Ofsted inspectors.

To say they were impressive would, frankly, be an understatement – reporting back in days, they clarified all our concerns, providing a route map which we have adopted. Interestingly, much of what they concluded is reflected in ‘The Costs of Inclusion’ report. A happy, fulfilled, team of qualified teachers, working with their communities, bring results.

As a top Head Teacher said to me recently, ‘it’s back to the future’. Special schools still have their place and full inclusion can only be applied when it works for everyone. Children and young people with special needs deserve to be treated as special if they are to realise their full potential, and that means having an inspired leadership with vision and strong communication skills, supported by well trained, knowledgeable, teachers who focus on the ‘whole child’. There must be high expectations for all children, whatever their abilities, and the right motivation for them to learn.

Of course, those with special needs include high achieving pupils, the gifted and talented, who require extra attention and support to keep them engaged, fulfilled and nurtured as they progress through all stages of learning, ultimately heading for Oxbridge – even if they don’t realise it – to become our pioneering future leaders across the professions.

As evidence of how co-operation can bring results, not only was Essex CC invaluable in providing direction, but my primary school on a council estate, is also sharing knowledge and expertise with another, Ofsted rated ‘very good’, primary. We have also developed a strong relationship with a leading public school over a couple of years, and for the first time ever two of our top pupils have just won scholarships there for the autumn.

Proof perhaps of ‘Education, Education, Education’ in action – and not just for the affluent few.