5 key takeaways: Special educational needs and disabilities in early years and education | NCFE

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5 key takeaways: Special educational needs and disabilities in early years and education

We recently held our third virtual education and childcare student conference, which focused on special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) in early years and education.  

Our event was hosted by Stacy Mann, Subject Specialist for Early Years at NCFE, and welcomed expert speakers who shared their knowledge and experiences of working with SEND learners: 

  • Janet King, Sector Manager for Education and Childcare at NCFE 
  • Angie Rogers, Subject Specialist for Teaching and Learning   
  • Gill Childs, Systems Trainer at NCFE 
  • Natalie Showell, Headteacher, and Emma Harris, SENCo at Low Hill Nursery School 
  • Matt McArthur, Assistant Headteacher at Frank Wise School 
  • Mrs McCormick and learners Halima and Kofi at Ullswater College. 

Here, we summarise 5 of the key takeaways and messages from the event.  

1. A child-centric approach is key 

Stacy Mann set the scene for the conference by opening with a poem titled ‘A Child of the Dales’ by Gervase Phinn. This carried an important message about how essential a child-centric approach is when working with children or young people with SEND – a theme that was reiterated by all speakers during the event.  

When discussing how SEND is threaded through all of NCFE’s qualifications at every level, Janet King said: “At the heart of SEND, we’ll find child-centred pedagogy that appreciates the individual, values them and advocates for them.”  

Halima and Kofi, learners at Ullswater College, highlighted how following a child-centric approach is key to being able to recognise children with SEND. Through interaction and communication, we can identify which learners may need more support and provide early intervention.  

2. Listen to the child’s voice even when they don’t have one 

An essential part of the child-centric approach is understanding the child’s needs and listening to what is right for them, especially in the case of learners with SEND. Mrs McCormick and the Ullswater College learners discussed why hearing what a child, as well as their families, have to say is vital in providing the best support for them. This was echoed by Low Hill Nursery School, which stressed that parents and carers know their child’s needs best and that we should work with them closely to ensure we’re combining this information from what we gain through our own observations.  

Natalie Showell, Headteacher at Low Hill Nursery School, made another important point about non-verbal children, explaining: “Just because a child can’t communicate through speech, doesn’t mean they don’t have a voice. As educators, we’re the advocates for these children and moving forward, we’re in a really powerful position as the educators of tomorrow to ensure learners with SEND get the support that they need.”  

3. Better support for children and young people with SEND is at the heart of levelling up 

A summary of the government’s SEND and alternative provision green paper published in March 2022 was shared by Stacy. The paper revealed a vision for a single, national SEND and alternative provision system including proposals such as new national standards across education, health and care, and a simplified Education and Health Care Plan. It also outlines an aim to improve workforce training to support SEND learners.  

Stacy added that NCFE’s revised Level 3 Award for Special Educational Needs Coordinators in Early Years Settings covers the wider teaching and learning to take account of the new developments in SEND, and that we offer progression through the Level 4 Award in Special Educational Needs and Disability (Send) Leadership and Management in the Early Years. 

The improved provision for SEND learners will support the national levelling up plan by supporting these individuals to gain valuable education and find meaningful employment.

With over 17 years of experience working in a special school, Matt McArthur emphasised that the aim of SEND education should support learners to be confident and leave school with a clear sense of direction, to become active members of their community. Matt said: “The bottom line in special schools should always be about how we are preparing children for life outside school and when they finish school.” 

4. We need to be inclusive 

The theme of this year’s Deaf Awareness Week was inclusion. Creating an inclusive approach towards supporting those who are deaf aims to support the mental health and wellbeing of those who may feel underrepresented, either in education, workplace, health settings or within the community.  Angie Rogers therefore asked attendees to take some time to reflect on how it might feel to be deaf and shared some best practice and myth-busting about deafness.  

One of the myths was ‘deaf people can’t enjoy music’, which Angie explained as being incorrect as these individuals have their own unique ways of enjoying music – such as through reading, writing and visuals. A learner then shared in the webinar chat about how she’d seen an inspiring video of a girl who was deaf and would place her hand on the speakers to feel the vibrations and understand the music.  

Being inclusive can be applied to all areas of SEND not just deafness and we must provide equal opportunities to all learners. Janet touched on an important message about how we need to remove social barriers to ensure full inclusion in order to empower and value children and young people, depending on their specific learning difficulty, medical condition or disability.  

5. Celebrate learners with SEND 

Angie shared video clips from an inspiring learner named Amelie who has a condition called pathological demand avoidance (PDA). Amelie shared her own definition of PDA as ‘proud, different, awesome!’ We need to ensure we celebrate SEND learners so that they don’t feel worried or scared about their conditions as Amelie was when she first received her diagnosis, and learn to be proud of them, just like Amelie is now.  

Reflecting on the core purpose of the school he teaches at, Matt shared that this is to ‘seek to educate, motivate and celebrate learners’. The focus isn’t on achievement rates, but on celebrating small wins each day from every learner and ensuring that they’re encouraged to continue their educational journey.  

Kofi and Halima also commented on the importance of celebrating differences rather than focusing on difficulties, as well as providing the right support for learners so they can gain independence and do things for themselves. Their teacher Mrs McCormick ended with a fantastic quote: “We need to help all our children to reach for the stars.” 

The closing line of the poem that Stacy read to open the conference reads: “Yes, that less able child could do ALL those things” †. This is a perfect example of why we should celebrate all a child’s successes, even if they may be different to their peers.  

You can catch up on the full conference on our YouTube channel and will find news of our next student conference on our social media channels. You can also find some useful resources on Siren Films and more on our qualifications in this area on our qualifications pages.

† Source: The other side of the Dale, ‘A child of the Dales’ by Gervase Phinn (2009) 

 Just because a child can’t communicate through speech, doesn’t mean they don’t have a voice. As educators, we’re the advocates for these children and moving forward, we’re in a really powerful position as the educators of tomorrow to ensure learners with SEND get the support that they need.

Natalie Showell, Headteacher at Low Hill Nursery School
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