Using open evenings to co-ordinate SEND provision
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There are many different types of school. In terms of the number of students they teach, their relationship with local parents and carers, and the provision for pupils with SEND, no two school leaders will be in exactly the same position.
Some would argue that competition is good and drives up standards, while others suggest that it creates a divisive system that offers fewer options for vulnerable students and those with complex needs.
I am no marketing expert, nor as SENCO do I want to be. However, I have always been acutely aware of the need to ensure that parents and carers have open lines of communication with school, irrespective of the school's circumstances.
Our research indicates that it is best to ensure:
- that we keep parents and carers informed about provision
- that they know who to contact and how they can do so
- that we provide honest communication – there is no long-term benefit in providing anything but the truth
- that we listen to parents and carers, giving them time to discuss and explain so we can work together (co-production)
- that we avoid uncertainty or misinterpretation.
(Morewood & Bond, 2012)
One of the most important documents all schools are required to have is the SEND information report. This is a statutory document, and something Ofsted will specifically look for prior to any inspection or visit. It should explain what systems the school has in place to meet the needs of pupils with SEND. It is the 'outward-facing' presentation of a school's SEND provision, which should give parents and carers a clear picture of what they can expect.
Information on what to include in the SEND information report can be found in Schedule 1 of The Special Educational Needs and Disability Regulations (2014). This list is similar to the list included on pages 95 and 96 of the SEND Code of Practice (2015) but also includes:
- a requirement to identify additional support for learning that is available to pupils with SEND
- the contact details of support services for the parents of pupils with SEND including those arrangements made in accordance with section 32 (notices sent by a local authority in regard to mediation)
- information on where the local authority’s Local offer is published.
There are thirteen statements in Schedule 1 that must be included to ensure that the SEND information report complies with legislation. However, it is important to keep checking the statutory documents and regulations as they are updated, and moreover to make sure that your SEND information report is developed in close partnership with parents and carers. Remember that this should not be a box-ticking exercise. It's a core element of your approach to SEND.
At this time of year, many schools will be holding open evenings for prospective pupils and their parents. I often wonder as to the historical reason for organising these events, and why they are useful.
- If the school is on a journey of improvement, an open day/evening could be a good opportunity to ‘sell’ the new vision to parents and carers.
- Families who are new to the area may benefit from opportunities to ‘weigh up’ competing local schools.
- From a SENCO’s perspective, they are a good time to field questions from prospective families on the school's ethos and provision for SEND, rather than holding several separate meetings during a very busy period of the school year.
Your school should have a clear vision for how it supports the progress of young people with different starting points and specific SEND. The article I wrote for Inclusion Now Magazine is still pertinent to our inclusive philosophy.
Any open day or evening should be an opportunity for parents to see and hear first-hand what the SEND information report shows: the document should reflect the reality.
That said, nothing beats an opportunity to experience the attitudes and values of staff in person, and talk to specialists about individual needs.
We have just had our open evening, and our tried-and-tested formula involves pupils and key members of staff explaining how the school operates and ‘what it is really like’. Our aim is to provide an open and transparent opportunity for young people and their parents. As our research into parental confidence showed, there is absolutely no benefit in offering anything but trust and an open honest dialogue.
We try to make sure that the evening is relaxed, as for many parents and carers it has been a struggle to secure appropriate provision or a diagnosis. We strive to offer all the information and support they need during their visit.
The key to this is offering positive role models from the existing pupil population and keeping key staff available to answer specific questions.
We also make sure that we have enough copies of our parent and carer guide printed off, as people always like to have physical copies to refer to!
We set up a coffee morning event, with plenty of hot and cold drinks and snacks, various activities and games for the young people to play, demonstrations of the technology we use to support access and promote independence and leaflets and information to support discussions.
In addition, our Faculty pet tortoises (Jake and Doodles) make regular appearances. They are always a massive hit with young people and adults alike.
The initial conversations that take place that evening will pave the way for an individual appointment in the subsequent weeks, to allow for a more specific and personalised discussion.
However, if the initial engagement is approached correctly, young people and their parents and carers will be far more relaxed when these second discussions take place. We can begin co-producing individual plans and support mechanisms that inform the wider whole school approach.
I hear many people asking why we need to have an open evening, but during the event itself and through subsequent conversations the answer is plainly obvious. Parents and carers enjoy seeing and hearing from current pupils and staff, as it helps them to consider how provision will match their child’s specific needs.
Over the next few weeks we will see individual families at follow-up appointments, which were scheduled at the open evening, to start planning for September 2019 and beyond.
If I have learned anything in my many years as SENCO, it is that working in partnership is a powerful position.
If I have learned anything in my fifteen years as SENCO, it is that working in partnership is a powerful position
Co-production is often banded about, when in reality only lip-service is paid to the engagement. Ensuring proper joint working together right from the start is one of the most positive steps SENCOs can take.
Open evenings are important regardless of your school context: whether for selling a new message, or as the first foundation block in a truly positive partnership for the years to come.