Too many children in our primary schools are struggling without the learning support they need.
This group of children do not readily tick a ‘special need’ box and the process for identifying their needs is too complex and lengthy. I call them the lost low achievers.
I’m sure it’s not the same everywhere. However, in the school where I am a Learning Support Assistant, which is a very good, large outer London primary; I would estimate that the group of children I refer to account for 4 to 6 children in a class of 30. They are firmly in the ‘lows’ and have no care plan (EHCP) in place, no diagnosed disorder like ADHD, Autism, Asperger’s or Dyslexia. Many of them have changed primary schools at least once. For them school is a daily struggle to keep up with their classmates. This group probably takes up most of the teacher’s ‘one-to-one’ time in class, explaining and simplifying so they can access tasks. The harsh truth, is that most of these children do have an undiagnosed learning difficulty and should have a care plan in place. I believe the reason that these children don’t have the right support is because the process for establishing need is too complex, bureaucratic and takes too long, frequently as long as two years.
The length of time it takes is of particular significance because if a care plan is not in place by Year 3 or 4, there is a good chance that it won’t happen at all. For primary schools with limited resources, they are faced with difficult choices. They could channel time and money into ‘fighting’ for a care plan for a Year 3 or 4 child but by the time they get one, the child will be moving on to secondary school. Sadly, it’s a terrible thing to write, it is just not worth the effort which can be better deployed by focusing on younger children. To say that the school should act earlier is to fail to understand these problems. Quite often the barriers to learning are not fully evident until the child is 7 or 8 years old. And if the school where I work is typical, it is fairly commonplace that parents move children who are not doing well around Year 3 and 4. They arrive at our school without any diagnosis and it takes a term or two for that child’s learning level to be properly established. It is often too late to do anything other than take an informal ‘make do and mend’ approach until they leave at the end of Year 6. This means people like me doing our best to unofficially help out in class, working with the teacher to try and work out what their barriers to learning are and adapt lessons accordingly.
The other key factor, the complexity of the diagnosis process, means that often only the most tenacious and determined parents are able to fight to get their child’s needs met. For parents who speak English as a foreign language, face difficult personal circumstances or have their own learning difficulties it can seem like a mountain that it far too high to climb.
Furthermore, the perceived stigma around special needs mean that sometimes parents are too embarrassed to seek help and support from the school or other parents. In my son’s infant school we have a particularly open culture amongst the parents and teachers when it comes to talking about and diagnosing learning needs. I am sure it is no coincidence that many children do have care plans, TA support, structured interventions. In sharp contrast, my sister-in-law is feeling very much in the dark because at her school there just is not that willingness to talk amongst fellow parents, it’s seen as an off-limits topic.
It is easy to explain and account for failures but clearly it is harder to rectify the problem. I am no expert but I am sure a good start could be for schools to better educate parents about how to access additional support if they have worries about their children. I would also argue that funding should be altered so that Head Teachers of all state primary schools are allocated a standard SEN pot of funds according to school size so that they have responsibility for channelling funds directly where they are needed. This could significantly speed up the current process of trying to access a Local Authority pot.
I feel strongly that the ‘lost low achievers’ represent a significant problem. All our school children deserve to have the support they need to reach their potential.