Why all voices are important in improving Special Educational Needs and Disabilities systems

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In early July, Dr Richard Baron and I, Dr Tracy Laverick, hosted a knowledge exchange event here at Leeds Trinity University. We were delighted to have 16 leaders from 10 local authorities and four representatives from the Department for Education in attendance. They all came together to listen to the opinions and feedback of staff from local authority Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) teams, whose voices have been missing from policy and research for the last decade.

As a Senior Educational Psychologist as well as a lecturer, I am passionate about how research can be used to inform better practice in the future to the benefit of children and families. I work closely with SEND teams and families, and wanted to explore how a better understanding of differing viewpoints might inform a more effective system going forward.  

We gave a presentation about the SEND officer research findings and, most powerfully, read out quotes they had provided us with. We could see the impact that they had as people realised it wasn’t just them or their service, but a much wider issue. Our visitors were then tasked with examining what this means for local authorities and thinking about how the situation could be improved.  

We explored questions on a range of topics including who wants to work for SEND Teams, what keeps them in the role and why they leave. This provided insight into the passion that the staff have for supporting families and ensuring that the correct provision is in place for children. However, the experiences they face on the job can make it difficult for them to stay, which has a knock-on effect for children and families as their key contact changes.  

We spoke about the experiences and challenges of new employees in SEND teams, including unmanageable caseloads and limited induction periods and training in the role. This raised the question of what do teams understand about the role of a SEND Casework Officer? At present, it varies from one local authority to another and, in some cases, even between Officers. This paints a confusing picture for new Officers but also for those trying to understand the system, such as parents and agencies.  

Finally, we asked the big ‘so what?’ question. How did these leaders want to take things forward? How can we use the research to inform guidance for services that will be better for the officers and better for families? This led to requests for conferences, support with developing communication documents for families and agencies, improved information for families on the local offer and, importantly, a desire to make sure that the officers know about the research and see their voices represented and heard.  

We still have a lot to do. The data collection took place in December 2022 to January 2023, but with the SEND and AP (alternative provision) Improvement plan having been released in March, we needed to get moving.  

This summer will see the research formally written up for peer review. We will also be working on the comments made at the development day and collating these into a document to share. Most importantly, we will be looking to action the responses to the ‘so what?’ question by getting out and meeting SEND Teams to assess how we can support teams, children and families and other agencies to create a more effective and less stressful system for all. 

Dr Tracy Laverick is a Lecturer in the Institute of Childhood and Education (ICE) at Leeds Trinity University.  

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