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Is it possible to deliver quality SEN care without outside agencies during the pandemic?
Schools have had to overcome no end of challenges throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. But beyond virus control, perhaps the most pressing ongoing concern is supporting children with special educational needs (SEN) at a time when many children are already experiencing anxiety and disruption.
SEN provision can be testing at the best of times, as schools seek to find the very best support for the children in their care. But while outside agencies are prevented from entering school grounds, SEN Coordinators (SENCOs) and school leadership teams are left struggling to find ways to provide much-needed support with much-reduced resources.
Is it possible for schools to continue to deliver high-quality SEN care without overburdening an already stretched teaching staff? What are the issues? And how can they be tackled?
Why is SEN provision such a challenge right now?
One of the ongoing difficulties with the provision of SEN support is that it covers such a wide range of needs. Children who require physical, emotional, or specific learning support. There are those with difficult home lives. And those with mental health concerns. No single school can hope to provide all of the necessary expertise in house. With external agencies prevented from entering schools and a reduction of resources – such as sensory areas – SENCOs are at an immediate disadvantage.
So, what options are available, and how can schools find the support they need to ensure that no children are let down as the pandemic continues to run its course?
Where can schools turn to for SEN support during the COVID-19 restrictions?
As with every other organisation, external support agencies are currently working to find new ways of operating during the pandemic. Observing the two-meter rule and wearing PPE is an integral part of this. Only accessing designating areas within schools is also under discussion. But there are drawbacks to these moves. Children need to be able to relax in the company of their SEN support workers. They need to be able to connect with them and feel comfortable. PPE – mask-wearing in particular – can be a real barrier to that.
A resumption of established SEN services also carries the threat of further disruption should a second lockdown occur. Indeed, at the beginning of September, 4% of UK state schools were classed as “not fully open” because of Covid-19, and around 20 schools were closed outright for COVID-related reasons. This poses the risk of further upset for SEN children.
The use of technology within the educational setting has become increasingly widespread throughout the pandemic, often providing the only means for schools to continue supporting children in their learning journey. But it has not yet been widely embraced for SEN.
Because the current generation of children have grown up around technology, its use is second nature to them. They don’t feel awkward or confronted when dialling into a Zoom call, because they’ve been FaceTiming their grandparents since birth. For this reason, technology shouldn’t just be an extension of a child’s learning and support resources, but an integral part. And within the COVID-19 climate, it offers a consistency that is lacking elsewhere. During lockdown, over 70% of children who required speech therapy through Mable Therapy were able to continue receiving support online.
And technology can be used to support a wide variety of needs. From communication and speech therapy – over 80% of children with Social, Emotional and Mental Health (SEMH) concerns may have undiagnosed communication problems. And without support, this can lead to frustration, behavioural issues and a failure to thrive. To Autism, where a disruption to routine can cause anxiety and challenging behaviours.
Technology can not only fill these gaps and deliver these services on a temporary basis, but become a simple, cost-effective, and educationally/emotionally valuable tool within a school's long-term SEN strategy.
SEN support has always been a difficult area for schools to get right. But the current situation with the global pandemic has made things so much more difficult. And there’s no quick fix. But equally, children cannot be left without support, and teachers cannot be expected to carry the extra burden. For now, schools should turn to their local authority for advice. And if they already have a Service Level Agreement in place with an external agency, they need to find out exactly what that agency can do for them. But technology and online support should also be seriously considered as a means of providing some services, to avoid an interruption in the event of a second wave or localised school closures.
Martha Currie, Clinical Director of Mable Therapy
Recommended SEN resources for support and information: