Changing ideologies and the role of the educational psychologist

Lorna Selfe on a career spent swimming against the tide of segregation.

I look back on the period following the 1981 Education Act as one of the most positive and fulfilling of my career as an educational psychologist. However, by the end of the decade, there was a radical change in ideology and direction.

Whereas the 1981 Act was intrinsically child-centred and individual needs based, the 1988 Education Reform Act was designed to make schools competitive; to raise academic standards and to make them more accountable to parents as consumers. The ideological stance of the 1981 Act was about education as a right, whereas the 1988 Act saw education more as a commodity. This swing has only gathered momentum with the Academies Act, which has had huge implications for children with Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND), and the educational psychologists who work with them.

Here, I look back on lessons from 50 years of developments in special education, considering how shifting sands have affected the climate children are schooled in, and how we as psychologists advocate for their needs.

Rural beginnings
My career as an educational psychologist began in the early 1970s, working for a local education authority (LA). My ‘patch’ was largely rural. I was responsible for educational psychology services to 37 schools (7 secondaries and 30 primaries). This was shortly after the 1971 Handicapped Children’s Act abolished the notion of ‘ineducability’. Previously children with severe learning difficulties were provided with suitable care, but not education, and were the responsibility of Health Authorities. All children became the responsibility of the LA. There were 10 categories of ‘handicap’ according to the Handicapped Pupils and Special Schools Regulations, 1959: the blind, visually impaired, deaf, partially hearing, educationally subnormal, epileptic, maladjusted, physically handicapped, delicate and those with a speech defect.

Prior to the 1981 Education Act, children with special needs were ‘ascertained’ by a school medical officer and assigned a category of ‘handicap’ and, in many cases, sent to a special school. Parents had few rights. At that time the LA where I worked had dozens of children in residential out-of-county special schools at least 50 miles from their homes. There were several special residential schools within the geographical area I worked in, and most were run independently. There were three special day schools and a handful of units located in mainstream schools controlled by the LA.

This system seems archaic now, and even at the time most educational psychologists had deep misgivings about procedures that labelled, stigmatised and then consigned children to residential establishments miles away from their families and communities. So I was delighted when, following the publication of the Warnock Report in 1978, the 1981 Education Act took pupils with difficulties out of the dark ages of ascertainment and categorisation, into an enlightened and positive era of translating difficulties into ‘special educational needs’ (SEN). The LA was responsible for the assessment of children with learning and behaviour difficulties and for meeting their needs. Assessments were to be multi-professional, in which parents had a major input. A statement of special educational needs was drawn up as a contract between the LA and the parents of the child, and special provisions identified and progress reviewed every year.

A guiding principle of the 1981 Education Act was inclusion as a basic human right and a necessary and attainable goal. There was a cogent argument that the best preparation for adult life was education in the community alongside ordinary peers, and Norwich (2010) argued that a central goal of education ‘was to enable active social participation and responsible social contributions’. Ordinary models of language and behaviour lifted the horizons of children with SEN educated alongside typically developing peers. Moreover, all pupils were made more knowledgeable about the full spectrum of children in their community (Brown, 2014).

The ‘Inclusion’ movement gathered momentum in education across the developed world (Fredrickson & Cline, 2009). In Denmark concerns were raised about the inclusion of children with severe learning difficulties in mainstream schools, but segregated special schools were not considered to be any sort of solution. The challenges imposed by inclusion were addressed by new arrangements that provided for better training of staff, higher pupil/staff ratios and improved resources in mainstream schools (European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education, 2020).

The challenge to inclusion
The principle of inclusion was reiterated in legislation on education over the next 30 years. In 2006 the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) published a report entitled Inclusion: Does it matter where a pupil is taught? which examined the factors that promoted good outcomes across a range of different provisions for pupils with learning difficulties and disabilities. It found effective provision was distributed equally between mainstream and special schools when certain factors were securely in place. However, more ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ provision existed in resourced mainstream schools. It stated that: ‘Mainstream schools with additionally resourced provision were particularly successful in achieving high outcomes for pupils academically, socially and personally.’  The fundamental change in legislation in 1981, assessing the child’s needs rather than assigning labels and categories, led to substantial changes in provisions.

Within the LA I worked in, from the early 1980s segregated special schools started to close. Provisions and resources in mainstream schools proliferated. This was a national trend which continued for decades, yet by the end of the 1980s the ethos of education more broadly had begun to change. Until the 1980s, governments were largely sympathetic to the value of state intervention and Keynesian economics. This included the provisions of the Welfare State, ideas of collective responsibility and public ownership. State education was part of this ethos. In the 1980s Mrs Thatcher’s government challenged this, drawing on the ideas of Hayek, Friedman and others, who advocated the importance of the operation of market forces, free enterprise and consumer choice. This government adopted monetarist and neo-liberal economic policies, which were then introduced and adapted to the public services including education.

The 1988 Act introduced a compulsory National Curriculum. Other changes included the open enrolment of pupils in schools and financial delegation whereby schools would be responsible for their own budgets and funded by their pupil numbers. Schools were required to publish their academic results and a new inspection regime was established (Ofsted). The Act set up the mechanisms whereby schools could opt out of LA control and be maintained by central government. Academic performance became increasingly important in the judgements made about a school’s success.

Since pupils with special needs were unlikely to enhance a school’s academic results it was inevitable that there would be disquiet about their position in the new marketised system. Nevertheless, inclusion remained a central plank of further legislation throughout the 1990s and schools largely remained under LA control. But the seeds of irreconcilable dilemmas for schools and LAs had been sown…

Academies and free schools
I retired in 2006 and then spent many years working as an expert witness in the Family Courts. In 2014 I worked as a consultant to a local secondary school and discovered that special needs provision in my old patch had changed radically. There had been significant government legislation affecting provisions for SEND. In the Conservative Party manifesto, 2010, it was stated that, ‘we will call a moratorium on the ideologically-driven closure of special schools. We will end the bias towards the inclusion of children with special needs in mainstream schools.’ A whole new ideology was in train and the new Conservative government quickly enacted some radical changes. The most far reaching was the Academies Act and the establishment of free schools in 2010.

The Academies Act extended provisions set up by the Labour government. All secondary schools were expected to apply for academy status. Academy schools in England are directly funded by the Department for Education (DfE), and their number rose substantially following the Act. As the new academies had independent status there was no longer LA control taking a broader view of local needs or operating agreed policies.

Co-operation between schools on issues such as SEND, exclusion, intake, curriculum and specialisms waned. At the same time LAs were hit by swingeing financial cuts. The support services they provided to enable schools to work effectively with children with SEND, largely disappeared. Literacy support, behaviour support, speech therapy and physiotherapy in schools were vital services which promoted inclusion. Teachers in mainstream schools were regularly supported by staff from the LA and this often made a difference to their attitudes and motivation to include pupils.

League tables were published and parents invited to choose a school for their child. The hope was that competition would engender improved results, but the cost was the perceived status of pupils with SEND. The results achieved by such children were included in the school’s performance data. Schools owed their continuing existence, and the teachers their jobs, to achieving high outcomes on national tests. Inevitably some schools have become less accommodating to pupils with SEND and this was revealed in the figures on permanent exclusions. National statistics for the 2016-17 academic year showed that pupils with identified SEND accounted for just over half of all permanent exclusions and fixed-period exclusions.

The local impact
As part of an LA review in 2019, I was able to examine the impact of recent legislation on provisions for pupils with SEND. In my LA a few comprehensive secondary schools had already changed their status but, as a result of the Academies Act, 2010, a further number became academies, independent of LA control. SEND provisions in these schools and in their feeder primary schools had withered. I found that some special units in the new academies were disbanded or reorganised. In some instances, parents of children with SEND had been discouraged from sending their child to their preferred mainstream school and, where pupils were already attending, some parents had been told that there was no special provision for their child, and they should try elsewhere.

In line with the national trend, more pupils with SEND were being excluded and, as the LA was responsible for meeting the needs of pupils with SEND, the inevitable decision was to expand the number of places in the segregated provisions that already existed. My LA had retained three special schools, originally for pupils with severe learning difficulties, but the population of pupils in these schools has more than doubled in the last ten years. As a consequence, the sites are now too small and overcrowded and there are plans afoot to build new provisions on larger sites. Pupils with moderate learning difficulties have been placed into these schools. These are the children who frequently come from the poorest homes and whose parents would not have the means or confidence to oppose their child’s placement in a special school.

It is unclear exactly how many children are now home educated, because the parents of such children are not required to register their child with the LA. Nationally available statistics reported by BBC News in 2018 suggested that the number has increased in England by 40 per cent in three years. In my LA the number of registered pupils had been static for many years, around 100 pupils. In 2018 the number was over 180 and a growing number were children with SEND.

The current situation
All of these changes in legislation have contributed to the current situation for SEND. Both in my LA and nationally we now have:

  • LAs with budget cuts and extended responsibilities
  • Reduced oversight from the LA in the development or maintenance of SEND provisions in mainstream schools
  • Rising exclusions of pupils with SEND More parents of children with SEND educating their child at home
  • A reduction in the number of special units in mainstream schools
  • Pressure on the LA to make use of existing special school provision for many more pupils resulting in a ‘catch all’ provision sometimes termed ‘broad spectrum’
  • Children with moderate learning difficulties frequently being placed with children with severe learning difficulties

In 2019 the government announced its intention to expand the number of special free schools it had established since 2010, from 88 to 125. Free schools are run as independent charitable companies and since their inception in 2010, they do not have to follow the National Curriculum or employ qualified teachers to work with their pupils. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (2017) has drawn attention to the halt in Britain’s progress to include pupils with SEND.

So much ground has been lost in the last ten years in championing the right for pupils with SEND to be included in mainstream schools alongside their peers. The new agenda appears to be one of exclusion and segregation for our most vulnerable children into institutions where teaching qualifications are not necessary. The Conservative MP Robert Halfon, who chaired the Committee of Inquiry into SEND in 2019, called this ‘a national scandal’.

It’s certainly a sad and socially divisive state of affairs. In those early years I was fortunate to work with teachers in a joint endeavour to include and provide programmes and resources that would enhance learning. As a result our knowledge and understanding of cognition, learning and social and emotional development flourished. It must be so much harder to advocate positive interventions for children with SEND in the current climate. Today if educational psychologists wish to argue for inclusion they will find they are swimming against the tide.

- Dr Lorna Selfe lives in the West Midlands
[email protected]

Illustration: Ana Rosa Louis

Key sources

Various acts via
Brown, J. (2014). Rights and legislation. In C. Cameron (Ed.) Disability studies: A student’s guide (pp. 129-131). SAGE Publications Ltd.
European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education. (2020).
Frederickson, N. & Cline, T. (2009). Special educational needs, inclusion and diversity. Oxford University Press.
Education Committee. (2019). Special educational needs and disabilities (House of Commons).
Issimdar, M. (2018, April 26). Homeschooling in the UK increases 40% over 3 years. BBC News.
Norwich, B. (2010). A response to ‘Special educational needs: A new look’. In L. Terzi (Ed.) Special educational needs: A new look (pp.47-114). Continuum.
Ofsted. (2006). Inclusion: Does it matter where pupils are taught?
Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. (1978). Special educational needs: Report of the committee of enquiry into the education of handicapped children and young people. (The Warnock report).

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