A neighbour whose son has autism shocked me recently by saying that the learning support team at our local secondary school had advised her not to send her son to the school. They simply did not have the staff to provide the support he needed, she was told, because of the way funding cuts had decimated their team of LSAs (learning support assistants).
Our own daughter Anna, who also has SEND (special educational needs/disabilities), had attended the same school. She left just two years ago at the age of 16 to do a foundation course at a local college, and I was alarmed to hear those opportunities that had been open to her were now being denied to others with similar educational needs. The decision to send Anna to our local mainstream secondary school was one we’d taken carefully after weighing up all other options, but it had felt, on balance, like the right one. She has intractable epilepsy and associated learning difficulties, with emotional and behavioural problems too, so we had investigated what specialist provision was available.
None of the special schools we visited felt quite right for her: one seemed just to offer more of what she’d been doing at primary school, with no specialist expertise apparent; one had a focus on EBD (emotional and behavioural difficulties) beyond the level she required or would have been comfortable with; and another would have entailed more than an hour’s commute each way. So we had plumped for the local option. There were definitely times, particularly in her last year or two there, when we wondered whether the stress of a big mainstream school was just too much for Anna. But it had been, we felt, the best choice in a far-from-ideal range of options. She benefitted greatly from the mixed environment – learning to co-exist with different kinds of children and to cope with the everyday problems thrown up by mainstream school life. It was also very reassuring to know she was just a ten-minute walk from home in the event of a sudden seizure or other crisis.
Anna’s time at secondary school was made possible by the support of a dedicated team of LSAs, who are sometimes described as the ‘lifeblood’ of a school. For good reason. The LSAs were, invariably, women who wanted to work around their own children’s timetables, and so had chosen to take jobs in a school. Because of this, they were often skilled professionals with transferrable expertise from previous work roles. One, a former accountant, ran a small maths group to support students like Anna whose number work was so far behind that of their peers. An ex-primary teacher did the same for humanities, teaching some basic history, geography and religious education to students who would have been overwhelmed by the rigours of GCSE studies in those subjects.
There were individuals among the learning support staff who supported Anna emotionally when school became overwhelming, and she needed time out or a chat with someone sympathetic and familiar. There were other staff who sat with SEND pupils at lunchtime, helping to make a big noisy school dining hall a less intimidating place for them. And there was one LSA in particular who was skilled in design, and worked patiently alongside Anna, recognising her passion for art and understanding how best to unlock it. Thanks to the hours this LSA put in supporting and encouraging her, Anna, who was not enrolled for any other formal exams, left school with a GCSE in Art.
LSAs made it possible for Anna to integrate into a mainstream school; but with little else that headteachers can slash from their already stretched budgets, this army of LSAs has unsurprisingly taken the brunt of real-terms cuts to education over the last decade or so. According to a report last year by the GMB, the union for school support staff, a staggering number of teaching assistant jobs – 11,400 – had been lost in secondary schools since 2011/2012. And a report by Ofsted showed that children with SEND are worst affected by these cuts.
We’ve seen not just how Anna has benefitted from being educated in an inclusive setting, but also how the presence of other children with SEND has enriched the classroom for Anna’s two ‘neurotypical’ siblings. It was hard enough to find the kind of education that would (sort-of) work for a young person with complex needs – so the worry is that with the loss of so many learning-support staff, other families will find the door is closing for them even more. Or that aspirations for creating truly inclusive learning environments, with the enormous benefits they bring, will be lost. Penny-pinching that impacts educational opportunities for children with SEND will only lead to the state having to pick up a much bigger tab later on, if these children grow into adults who cannot live independently or work. As an Institute of Health Equity report discovered, our society is already ‘failing to be fair and supportive to its most vulnerable members’, with the consequence that people with learning disabilities die 15 to 20 years sooner on average than the general population. The message is clear: we should be broadening opportunities for these vulnerable people, not breaking them down.