Echoes of the Past: Tracing the Evolution of Special Educational Needs (SEND) Education in the UK

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Disclaimer: This post is drawn from a committee report published in 1978, SPECIAL EDUCATIONAL NEEDS
Report of the Committee of Enquiry into the Education of Handicapped Children and Young People: Chairman: Mrs. HM Warnock. The language used is of its time, if you are offended by historical context language please do not read any further.

The report was ahead of its time, why does so much resonate today?

The history of special educational needs (SEND) education in the United Kingdom is a journey marked by gradual progression and transformative shifts. This blog post provides a condensed exploration of the historical backdrop, tracing the emergence of institutions catering to different categories of disabilities, the gradual expansion of educational provisions, and the early seeds of change that laid the foundation for the inclusive landscape we see today.

Early Developments to 1870

The emergence of special education for the handicapped in Great Britain was marked by the establishment of schools that were pioneering in their time. The first schools for the blind and deaf appeared as far back as the 18th century, addressing the needs of these specific groups. Vocational training was a central focus, with institutions such as the School of Instruction for the Indigent Blind and Mr Braidwood’s Academy for the Deaf and Dumb serving as early examples. These institutions, though limited in scope, laid the groundwork for more comprehensive educational endeavours.

1870-1902: Progress Amid Challenges

The Forster Education Act of 1870 established school boards responsible for elementary education, though provisions for disabled children were not explicitly included. Despite this, some school boards recognized the importance of providing for disabled children. The London School Board initiated classes for the deaf, while schools for the blind began to take shape within ordinary schools. Special classes for physically and mentally handicapped children gradually emerged. The principle of universal elementary education, coupled with the growing advocacy for disabled children’s rights to education, set the stage for further reforms.

The Education Act 1902: Shaping Special Education

The Education Act of 1902 marked a significant shift by abolishing school boards and introducing local education authorities. The functions of the school boards, including those concerning special education, were transferred to these new authorities. This transition created a two-tier system for elementary and secondary education, resulting in a reshuffling of responsibilities. The Act also granted county and county borough councils the power to provide secondary education for various categories of disabled children, setting the stage for future developments.

Expanded Duties: Education Acts of 1914 and 1918

The early 20th century saw a deepening commitment to special education. The Elementary Education (Defective and Epileptic) Act of 1914 converted previously conferred powers into duties for educating mentally defective children. The Education Act of 1918 extended these duties to physically defective and epileptic children, completing the scope of compulsory provision for different categories of handicapped children.

Diverse Provisions and Voluntary Efforts

The period between 1902 and 1944 witnessed the emergence of diverse provisions for disabled children. Open-air schools, day and boarding schools for physically handicapped children, schools within hospitals and convalescent homes, and trade schools all contributed to expanding facilities. Examples include the Heritage Craft Schools and Hospital at Chailey, the Swinton House School of Recovery at Manchester, and the Lord Mayor Treloar Cripples’ Hospital and College at Alton. Special schools catering to different disabilities, such as epilepsy, also began to emerge, enriching the options available to local education authorities and parents.

Mentally Handicapped Education: A Time of Evolution

For mentally handicapped children, this period was marked by transitions. The Royal Commission on the Care and Control of the Feeble-Minded (1908) recommended institutional provision and specialized training. However, this approach evolved, and the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913 mandated local education authorities to ascertain and certify mentally defective children aged seven to 16. Those unable to be taught in special schools were transferred to local mental deficiency committees. The Mental Deficiency Committee (Wood Committee) in 1924 proposed a more integrated approach, advocating for a closer association between mentally deficient children and mainstream education.

1944-1955: The Evolution of Special Education Legislation

Shifting Perspectives on Legislation

The period from 1944 to 1955 witnessed significant shifts in the legislative approach to special education in the United Kingdom. The foundations for reform were laid in the years leading up to the Education Act of 1944, reflecting changing attitudes toward the education of handicapped children.

The Education Act 1944: A New Framework

The Education Act of 1944 marked a pivotal moment in the evolution of special education. Part V of the previous Education Act of 1921, which treated special education as a separate category, was replaced. Local education authorities were mandated to address the needs of handicapped children through special educational treatment integrated within their broader obligation to provide primary and secondary schools.

Diverse Educational Settings

The Act broadened the range of educational settings available for handicapped children. Less severe cases were now allowed to receive education in regular schools, not limited to special classes. Meanwhile, children with more profound disabilities would still be educated in special schools whenever feasible. The Education (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1953 further expanded the options to include independent schools, although subject to ministerial oversight.

Inclusive Approach and Ascertainment

One of the Act’s significant changes was the shift from certifying defective children within the education system to ensuring access to education for all children deemed educable. The Act removed the certification of defective children and established the right of access to schooling for any child considered capable of education. It also standardized the lower age of compulsory attendance at special schools to five years and extended the right to remain in education beyond the age of 16.

Parental Involvement and Guidance

The Act recognized the importance of parental involvement and expert guidance. Authorities were empowered to require medical examinations for children from the age of two to determine their eligibility for special education. Although specific provisions for parental appeals against an authority’s decision were not included, parents could appeal to the Minister against a refusal to withdraw their child from a special school.

Scotland’s Unique Approach

In Scotland, the Education (Scotland) Act 1945 echoed many aspects of the Education Act 1944 but also introduced some unique features. The Act highlighted the importance of early detection and treatment of disabilities, emphasizing the role of educational psychologists. It empowered education authorities to establish child guidance services to aid the assessment and education of handicapped, backward, and challenging children.

Expanded Categories and Special Needs

The Education Act of 1944 heralded a significant expansion of categories to encompass the diverse needs of handicapped children. The Handicapped Pupils and School Health Service Regulations 1945 introduced 11 categories, including blind, deaf, delicate, diabetic, educationally subnormal, epileptic, maladjusted, physically handicapped, and those with speech defects. Notably, maladjustment and speech defects emerged as new categories, reflecting a more holistic understanding of children’s needs.

Tailored Provision for Each Category

The new framework prompted the development of specialized provisions to address the needs of each category. Comprehensive guidance from the Ministry of Education delineated appropriate strategies. For instance, blind and deaf children were recommended to attend special schools, with residential options for some. Partially sighted and partially deaf children could attend either special or regular schools, depending on the severity of their condition. Delicate children, especially those not in hospital schools, were advised to be educated in open-air day schools or boarding schools, with a focus on transitioning them back to ordinary schools.

Addressing Specific Conditions

Children with specific conditions were provided with tailored recommendations. Diabetic children, capable of attending regular day schools, could benefit from special hostels if home-based care wasn’t feasible. Epileptic children needing regular medication were recommended for boarding special schools. Aphasic children, those with speech defects beyond mere articulation, were suggested to attend schools for the deaf due to limited knowledge of treatment methods. Other speech-defective children were to receive clinic-based treatment while continuing their education in their own schools.

Experimentation and Special Classes

The framework recognized the evolving nature of addressing educationally subnormal children. As methods were not well-established, experimentation was encouraged to uncover the most effective strategies. In smaller urban areas, a greater portion might require boarding special schools. For regions with insufficient numbers to support dedicated special classes or schools, the emphasis shifted towards integrating these children into regular classrooms within ordinary schools.

Meeting Initial Objectives

The years immediately following the implementation of the Education Act of 1944 witnessed considerable progress in the expansion and refinement of special education provisions. The guidance provided in Pamphlet No 5, issued in 1946, laid out ambitious targets for accommodating different categories of handicapped children. Estimates ranged between 14% and 17% of the school population needing special educational treatment. However, the immediate task was to address post-war shortages in school infrastructure, which had been exacerbated by the interruption of construction during the war and the impact of bombings.

Expansion of Special Schools and Categories

To address these shortages, local education authorities repurposed country mansions and other large buildings, which led to an increase in the number of special schools. Between 1945 and 1955, the number of special schools expanded from 528 to 743, with a corresponding increase in full-time teachers. The range of categories expanded, accommodating a broader spectrum of disabilities, including blindness, deafness, epilepsy, physical handicaps, speech defects, and more. As advancements in technology and understanding took place, approaches were tailored to cater to the specific needs of each category.

Advances and New Frontiers

Advancements in medical and educational fields further informed the provision of specialized education. The emergence of speech therapy services and standardized training helped address speech defects more effectively. Meanwhile, improved methods for treating epilepsy and a growing willingness among teachers to accommodate less severe cases led to more satisfactory placement options for epileptic children.

Persisting Challenges

Despite remarkable progress, the educational needs of educationally subnormal pupils remained largely unmet. Continuous expansion of places in ESN special schools since 1945 has resulted in a doubling of enrolment. However, the demand still outstripped availability, with over 12,000 children awaiting placement, underscoring the constraint on ascertainment by the limited special school capacity.

Teacher Training for Special Education

Early Developments

Historically, no specific training requirements were established for teachers of blind and deaf children following the enactment of compulsory education for them in 1893. Three separate voluntary colleges acted as examining bodies for teaching the deaf, but they were not recognized by education authorities. Recommendations for training colleges under government supervision emerged in the late 19th century, and by 1907, a unified examining body was established for teaching the deaf and blind.

Illustrating the transformative journey of SEND education blend of old and new, with vintage classroom

Regulations and Qualifications

Regulations set by the Board of Education in 1908 stipulated that teachers in schools for the blind and deaf must acquire an approved qualification within two years of their appointment. Despite these early developments, comprehensive training for teachers of the handicapped was not firmly established until later.

Recommendations and Expansion

The McNair Committee (1944) and the National Advisory Council on the Training and Supply of Teachers (NACTST) in their Fourth Report (1954) examined teacher training for the handicapped. NACTST recommended additional training for teachers of handicapped children, particularly for those dealing with blind, deaf, and partially deaf students. By 1956, specialized courses at institutions like Jordanhill College of Education and Moray House College of Education in Scotland started offering training for teachers of mentally defective children.

Mixed Progress and Future Considerations

While recommendations for additional qualifications were accepted in principle, practical challenges impeded their widespread implementation. For example, teachers of partially sighted children were suggested to need additional qualifications, but this was not universally put into practice. Instead, a range of in-service training courses remained available to teachers of handicapped pupils.

In Scotland, specialized training for teachers of the deaf transitioned from being offered in Manchester to establishments like Moray House College of Education. This culminated in the establishment of the Scottish Centre for the Education of the Deaf in 1972, further solidifying the foundation of specialized teacher training.

Discovery, Assessment, and Recording of Special Educational Needs

This chapter underscores the importance of discovering and assessing a child’s special educational needs as early as possible. Recognizing the need for a broader framework, the chapter proposes reforms to the existing methods of identifying special needs. The focus extends to children of all ages, necessitating more adaptable processes. The chapter elaborates on a system for recording special educational needs, with particular attention to severe, complex, and long-term disabilities. The collection of statistical information regarding children requiring special education is also addressed.

Discovery of Special Needs

Discovery of handicapping conditions, often implying special educational needs, can occur at various stages. Some conditions are identified at birth or during infancy, while others are recognized in early childhood by parents, healthcare professionals, teachers, and others. The chapter stresses the importance of improving existing discovery processes, considering parental input, professional roles, and communication systems.

Role of Parents

Parents are often the first to notice signs of handicapping conditions or special needs. Promoting awareness of child development patterns among parents is essential. This can be achieved through various means, such as antenatal clinics, broadcasting, and magazines. The chapter recommends wider dissemination of child development information to parents, emphasizing regular health reviews for children and involving health visitors in facilitating contacts.

Health Surveillance and the Role of Health Visitors

Periodic developmental assessment by trained healthcare professionals is crucial for early handicap recognition. The chapter supports a basic health surveillance program for all children, focusing on developmental progress. The use of risk registers to identify children at risk due to medical or other factors is discouraged, as it may lead to overlooking children and causing undue anxiety to parents. Health visitors play a vital role in identifying disabilities and delays in development, but their effectiveness is sometimes hindered by time constraints and staff shortages.

Record Keeping

Personal Folder for Progress Records

To ensure clear, accurate, and up-to-date records of each student’s progress, we propose two types of personal folders for schools. The first folder, inspired by the Plowden Report’s recommendations, should contain factual details about the child’s family, illness history, work samples, and educational results. This folder, available for consultation, will provide a comprehensive view of the child’s strengths and areas needing attention. This practice, initially suggested for primary schools, should extend to all primary, middle, and secondary school students. We recommend creating and maintaining such folders for every student, facilitating early detection and ongoing assessment of special needs.

Access and Involvement

Parents should have the right to access their child’s folder and be involved in updating information. Students should also have access to their folders and contribute to the materials included. The folder should be accessible to primary class teachers and secondary personal tutors, ensuring informed educational approaches. In cases of special needs assessment, professionals contributing to the assessment should access the folder. Information, especially about special needs and interventions, should be shared when students transfer schools, with the Plowden Report’s emphasis on direct staff-parent contact. Folders should aid career consultations and further education planning.

Confidential Folder for Professional Consultations

Another type of confidential folder is required for professional consultations and sensitive information, including medical details from health authorities. Controlled by the head teacher, this folder would offer access to professionals dealing with the child’s needs. Confidentiality protocols are discussed further in Chapter 16.

Monitoring of Student Groups

Continuous teacher observation should be complemented by procedures to identify students with special needs. Approaches outlined in the Bullock Report, such as testing age groups at specific stages, should be applied to entire age groups rather than perceived high-risk groups. Similar methods can be used to identify various educational and behavioural challenges. As some education authorities already practice these procedures, we recommend their wider adoption, with local education authorities monitoring age groups three to four times during students’ school years.

Assessment of Special Educational Needs

Legal Framework

The Education Act 1944 and the Education (Scotland) Act 1962 (as amended) outline the process of “ascertainment” for children requiring special education. Ascertainment involves three stages: discovery, diagnosis of disabilities, and assessment of educational implications and individual needs. Local education authorities are obligated to ascertain children needing special education and provide suitable provisions if necessary. Formal procedures for ascertainment, including medical and psychological examinations, were initially designed for cases where parents objected to special schools. However, the need for formal procedures has decreased.

Timely Diagnosis and Assessment

Immediate diagnosis and assessment are crucial when a child exhibits disabilities or special needs. As handicapping conditions can emerge at any time from birth, there should be no age limit for addressing special educational needs. Although current practices typically commence after a child reaches two years old in England and Wales, Scotland operates differently, allowing authorities to ascertain children from birth. Psychological examinations are essential alongside medical evaluations, as indicated in Circular 2/75. Teachers, educational psychologists, and other professionals contribute to thorough assessment.

Multi-Professional Assessment

While cooperation between parents and authorities is desirable, enforceable procedures are necessary for disagreements. A statutory procedure should be applicable from birth and encompass multi-professional assessment, acknowledging the diverse expertise required. Local education authorities should possess the power to mandate multi-professional assessments after notifying parents and be obligated to fulfil parental requests for such assessments. Ideally, authorities would rarely exercise this power for very young children. Parents should be informed of their right to request such assessments, with the Named Person, explained in the next chapter, serving as a contact point.

Effective Assessment Requirements

1. Parental Involvement: Parents’ participation is integral. Their input is crucial for a comprehensive assessment, and their cooperation is essential for crafting effective educational plans. Involvement should commence early, except in exceptional cases where it may not be in the child’s best interest. Parents’ insights must be included, and consultations about assessments involving external specialists should include parents.

2. Holistic Observation: Assessment should focus on a child’s learning and responses over time, not just isolated instances. Educational psychologists, for instance, need time to observe the child across various contexts, considering elements like curiosity, focus, and reactions to different environments. Insights from teachers and others familiar with the child are also vital.

3. Thorough Investigation: The assessment should delve into any performance concerns. While some cases require limited specialist involvement, others demand a broad range of expertise. Assessing specific disabilities, like impaired hearing, necessitates input from diverse specialists to evaluate how the disability impacts all aspects of the child’s functioning.

4. Family Context: Family circumstances must be considered. Health visitors, home-visiting teachers, and educational psychologists can provide insights, and social workers often contribute to ensuring no essential familial aspect is overlooked.

5. School Factors: Certain conditions, especially behavioural disorders, can stem from or be intensified by school-related factors. In such cases, assessment may encompass the institution, classroom environment, and teacher in addition to the individual child and family. This holistic approach is vital for comprehensive evaluation and planning.

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