SEN – five ways to offer personalised support

Written by: Amy Cook | Published:

Schools are getting to grips with the new SEN and Disability Code of Practice. Amy Cook looks at five ways to create a personalised system of support – a defining aspect of the new way of working

We are now one term into the new 0 to 25 SEN and Disability Code of Practice. In my role as a senior researcher specialising in SEN, I have investigated a range of issues, from the impact of personal budgets on special schools to what effective outcomes should look like in the new Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs).

I am particularly interested in how schools are putting young people and their families at the centre of the support offered – a defining feature of the new system. Here are five ways to create a personalised system of support in your setting, taken from some of the most innovative and impressive practitioners in the field.

Get to know your children early

Early identification and intervention is championed in the new Code of Practice. Not only might it prevent the need for more costly interventions at a later stage, but it is also important for pupils' self-esteem and confidence.

One way to achieve early identification is to undertake home visits before children start school. In Islington, for example, schools are encouraged to ask parents whether they have any concerns about their child's development.

Parents are also asked about their child's interests. What does she like or dislike? What is her special toy at the moment? How do you think she will settle into school? These queries are far from trivial (for a breakdown of these questions, see further information). The code states that "parents' early observations of their child are crucial" and home visits are a great way to build family engagement into your setting from the very beginning.

Getting to know your children early can have a real influence on classroom practice. Reflecting on teaching pupils with SEN, HMI inspector Gulshan Kayembe believes that tailoring your curriculum around children's interests doesn't mean you are watering it down: "It's about making the content engaging for all pupils irrespective of their needs."

Hammond Academy, a Teaching School in Hertfordshire, operates a similar system. I met its two parent support workers (warm, bubbly individuals with lots of personality), who visit the homes of all new pupils before they start school. They pick up on anything that might be useful for class teachers to know. If they spot speech and language needs during their visit, they can check if the speech and language service has spaces, and support parents to go to the drop-in sessions before the child starts at school.

This can save a lot of time, as one of them told me: "If we waited until the child started at school, they could be waiting half a term before being able to see someone." Both workers are designated child protection officers and one co-ordinates SEN in the school. They continue to be the point of contact for parents after their children start school.

Teach backwards

Rob Carpenter is the headteacher of Foxfield Primary School in Greenwich, where 72 per cent of pupils are eligible for free school meals and more than 50 per cent of pupils are from ethnic minorities. Four in 10 pupils have English as an additional language. It is not so much SEN that is an issue at Foxfield, but underachievement.

At Foxfield, the overarching principle when working with all children is "teaching backwards". There are no schemes of work. Instead, teachers plan for quality outcomes and show children both what they look like and how to get there. Children are then taught the skills needed to get to their destination. This teaching backwards approach is personalised by finding out each child's starting point, his likes and dislikes, and planning from there. All teachers assume that every child can reach the planned destination: it is the starting points that are different, not the end result. This is what Mr Carpenter refers to as "No limits learning".

Build quality relationships

For Mr Carpenter, personalisation also means finding out what it is that helps each child to have a really positive experience in school every day. This is especially important in a community where children are battling with difficult situations at home.

At Foxfield, each vulnerable child has a named person who is responsible for making sure that each school day is good. In one instance, this means that a girl has a mug of hot chocolate (her favourite drink) with her named person every morning before school starts. She comes in early and by the time her peers arrive, she is ready to face the day.

The effects on this little girl's learning have been remarkable. Every member of staff in the school can be a named person and members of the senior leadership team are encouraged to take on this role. Crucially, says Mr Carpenter, children choose this adult themselves.

The aim is to establish trust between adults and children so that teachers can have a meaningful and quality dialogue with pupils about their work. When working relationships are excellent, adults can say "this piece of work wasn't good enough", and move forward constructively.

Children know that it is okay to make mistakes too. Teachers and pupils learn together. Teachers and teaching assistants see themselves as learners and model mistake-based learning.

Adults can honestly say "I know that this will be difficult but you will be able to do this, because I did it too". Relationships are personalised but the learning is shared.

Pen portraits

At Chadsgrove School in Worcestershire, an "outstanding" special day school for children between the ages of 2 and 19 with physical disabilities, pupil-centred planning centres on pen portraits.

Personalised portraits explain how the child communicates, what he or she likes and dislikes and outlines their medical/learning needs. Not only are all members of staff expected to familiarise themselves with each child's portrait, they are also encouraged to conduct their own research into how they might best support the medical, social and emotional learning needs of the children they look after.

The pen portraits are the starting point for identifying lines of research enquiry. There is no reason, the chair of governors told us, why this approach cannot be transferred to mainstream settings.

Setting their own goals

Staff at Avocet House in Norfolk incorporate a "no-limits" philosophy with personalisation. It relies on re-exciting children with the idea of learning, starting with the child's strengths, talents and passions as the gateway to success. Learning becomes something one does for oneself, rather than something someone else does to you. Avocet House is both a residential special school and a registered children's home. Young people come to Avocet House because of their need for a 52-week integrated, therapeutic, residential placement with highly specialised education. Often they come when all other placements have broken down.

I talked to Robbie (a former student) and Michael Sturman (a care team worker) about how this philosophy works in practice.

One example that might be adapted to any setting is "the boys' meeting". Here, boys and the key people around them set individual targets and they can be as minor or ambitious as each pupil chooses.

A baseline is set, a SMART target (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely) is defined and progress is monitored. For Robbie, tasks varied between "niggling his peers less often" to cycling 483 miles in six days. These meetings are an illustration of a 24-hour learning philosophy – a fundamental way that staff seek to engage children who have not formerly been in full-time education. "You can list numerous educational learnings for any activity and take part in them at any time of day,"Mr Sturman added. One of Robbie's last goals was to drive his own car to his first day of further education college. It is a great example of this philosophy in practice. He learned both how to drive and to repair a car. He also learned independence – absolutely crucial for his life after Avocet House.

  • Amy Cook is a senior researcher at The Key, which offers support for school leaders and school governors in England and Wales.

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