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Selection by ability – Bad for the most able, but fine for everyone else?

Illustration of a lineup of anonymous figures, one of whom is coloured red and being picked out by a crane

Selection by ability is in decline where higher achieving pupils are concerned, notes John Galloway – but the same can’t be said for students with SEND and many others…

John Galloway
by John Galloway
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There are only around 170 grammar schools remaining in England, and despite various initiatives from the Conservative government, that number has remained fairly static.

Even senior Tories, such as Michael Gove, have spoken out against opening more. There seems to be a tacit acceptance that our system should be comprehensive, with schools providing for all learners regardless of background or ability – but is that always the case?

It’s not just pupils who could be considered more able who have their ability and capacity to learn assessed before being a placed. The same can apply to learners with SEND, with those who are assessed for, and issued with, an education health and care plan (EHCP) liable to find themselves in similar situations.

Economies of scale

Over the course of this process, parents have the right to have a school named in their EHCP as the place their child attends, giving them a statutory right to that place. However, there are caveats in the SEND Code of Practice of 2015 that can mitigate this if the school, “Would be unsuitable for the age, ability, aptitude or SEN of the child or young person; or the attendance of the child or young person there would be incompatible with the efficient education of others, or the efficient use of resources.”

That seems fair enough. You would want a child to be educated in a place that can meet their needs, and in a way that won’t stop others from learning. Readers will, however, appreciate that these are fairly imprecise descriptors, and potentially open to accusations of schools ‘gaming’ the system.

That said, they do point to some of the reasons as to why children and young people with more complex and challenging SEND are often brought together in specific provisions. Concentrating knowledge, skills and expertise, along with specialist spaces and equipment produces economies of scale and benefits whole school communities, rather than small cohorts in mainstream classrooms.

Some may, for instance, require teaching staff possessing specialist skills and training, or who carry out regular medical interventions, such as tube feeding. It therefore makes sense to bring those with similar needs together – often in a special school, sometimes in a specialist provision attached to a mainstream school.

The issue, however, is that what’s available, and the criteria necessary to attend such places, varies considerably across the country. That’s part of the thinking behind the recent SEND Green Paper, which talks of creating national standards that include guidance on the, “Appropriate provision that should be made available for different types of need.”

It clarifies that this will, “Set out the full range of appropriate types of support and placements for meeting different needs,” along with “the support that should be made ordinarily available in mainstream settings…whether their needs should be met in a specialist setting….[and] greater clarity in when a special school is appropriate.”

Direction of travel

The intention is therefore to clarify, perhaps stratify, which learning needs will be met in what way, but this will entail a considerable challenge. In part because of the variations in how SEND provision is structured across localities, but more because of the variations in the abilities, aptitudes and learning needs of those with SEND. It’s very difficult to be precise, and many individuals’ abilities may change over time.

The general direction of travel has seen a shift away from grammar schools, towards an acceptance of comprehensive, inclusive education as being ‘the norm’; where children and young people of all abilities and backgrounds learn alongside – and from – each other.

It would be a pity if the greater clarity sought in providing guidance on appropriate provision for those with SEND ended up inadvertently entrenching selection by ability in one area of the system, when it’s becoming less attractive elsewhere. Currently, there’s an expectation that a mainstream school will be the default placement for those with SEND. We need to guard against moving to a position where hard thresholds put this out of reach, and make
aspirations for inclusion more challenging.

John Galloway is a freelance writer, consultant and trainer specialising in educational technology and SEND

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