The Identification of SEND: Why early? Why accurate?
As the CEO of nasen, I am routinely asked to provide an update on the national picture in relation to SEND. A common feature of those updates over the past five years has been my plea for the identification of SEND to happen as early as possible and to be as accurate as possible. Whilst this might seem like common sense, it does not always happen in practice, and the consequences of getting it wrong can be severe.
The rationale for early identification is that provision can be put into place sooner before gaps in progress and development between children with and without SEND become too wide. It is in the early years phase of education (age 0-5) where the identification of SEND could first occur, but there are logical reasons why this does not happen as often as it should.
It can be incredibly difficult to distinguish for young children the difference between SEND and typical variations in early childhood development (Boddison, 2020). Identifying SEND where it does not exist risks incorrectly labelling a child, as well as the unintended consequence of reducing the overall level of provision available to those who may need more support.
We should also consider the strain and pressure placed on the early years workforce by suggesting they undertake this responsibility for early identification. Early years is arguably the least-well funded phase of education and it is comprised of a workforce with a significant diversity of experience and qualifications (Curran, 2020).
If we want identification to take place in the early years, we need to properly fund and support the workforce. Routine early identification would mean that early years practitioners are more likely to be the first to have a formal conversation with families about their children’s needs. This must be a positive experience based on accurate identification for families to have sustained confidence in the years that follow.
If the identification of SEND does not take place in the early years, it next becomes the responsibility of those operating in the primary phase of education. However, I have heard numerous primary school SENCOs talk about the challenges that prevent this from occurring. An example would be local bureaucratic barriers that are seemingly put in place to slow down the rate of identification with the aim of delaying the financial costs.
The irony is that these delays in the identification of SEND likely result in increased future costs. High Needs budgets are already under significant pressure across the country (National Audit Office, 2019), but delaying identification is financially unsustainable and can mean limited current resources are spent on legal fees rather than provision.
The Timpson Review (Timpson, 2019) considered whether a child is more likely to be permanently excluded from school if they have a particular type of SEND compared to having no SEND. For children at the level of SEN Support, permanent exclusions were most significantly higher where the SEN type was not recorded.
This demonstrates the direct relationship between inaccurate identification of SEND and permanent exclusion and I would encourage any school seeking to reduce permanent exclusions to scrutinise the accuracy of SEND identification. It seems logical that the needs of learners must be known and understood if there is any chance of effective provision being put into place.
Early and accurate identification of SEND are prerequisites for sustainable, ethical and effective SEND provision. This demands adequate funding for the early years and primary phases of education as well as the removal of barriers to access high needs funding without delay.