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How do students with SEND experience life in mainstream school?

Written By: Rob Wester
8 min read

Little is known about the educational experiences of pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) over time, and how inclusive these experiences are relative to those without SEND. This matters, because the more we know we about how pupils’ experience the classroom, the better equipped we will be to ensure the contexts and conditions in which they learn are organised to optimal effect, and are appropriate for the pedagogies we use. It matters most for pupils with learning difficulties, because the research evidence tells us that certain widespread approaches to organising teaching and learning affect them more profoundly than their peers who do not have SEND.

What research/evidence is there in this area?

Since the 1970s, defining features of classroom life have been captured with particular effectiveness via a method called systematic observation. Systematic observation allows researchers to obtain valid and accurate snapshots at regular intervals. Mutually exclusive categories of activities and behaviours, and the contexts in which they occur, are coded on a consistent basis, typically minute-by-minute. Results from studies using systematic observation provide valuable objective insights into what happens in classrooms, which are often unavailable to everyday experience or received opinion. Such studies have made a substantive contribution to our understanding of how classroom behaviours relate to achievement (Walberg 1991; 1995), and how teachers can improve their classroom practices (Good and Brophy, 1974; Stallings, 1980).

Systematic observation provides a relatively straightforward means of obtaining descriptive data, but the picture of classroom life it paints is typically achieved using broad strokes. Results, therefore, can lack nuance.

Barrow (1984), for example, claims it is unable to capture important features of teaching, such as creativity. While it is also a labour-intensive method of data collection, its power comes from the numbers it produces through an iterative and methodical process, which in turn, allow for reasonable generalisations. Where systematic observation methods have degrees of commonality (for example, they use the same coding schedule), stable measures of activity and behaviour can build objective descriptive pictures of classrooms in ways that can elude other data collection techniques.

Webster (2015), for example, provides an analysis of data from six large-scale systematic observation studies of the classroom experiences of primary-aged pupils with and without SEND, conducted between 1976 and 2012. An early study by Croll and Moses (1985) found little difference in the amount of classroom interaction pupils with and without SEND had with teachers and peers. But results from studies conducted from the 1990s onwards (Galton et al., 2002; Pollard et al., 2000; Blatchford et al., 2009; Webster and Blatchford, 2013) show an increase in the proportion of time primary school pupils with and without SEND spent interacting with teachers. However, relative to their non-SEND peers, that increase was more moderate for pupils with SEND.

Also, while pupils without SEND have experienced an increase in the amount of peer interaction over time, there was almost no change in the proportion of time those with SEND spent talking with peers (Webster, 2015). The increase in the number of teaching assistants (TAs), employed and deployed to assist the learning and inclusion of pupils with SEND from the late 1990s onwards, emerges as a key observable influence on the difference between the classroom experiences of the two groups over time.

Separation and segregation

One of the six studies included in the analysis above was the Making a Statement (MAST) study, which focussed on pupils with the highest level of SEND in mainstream settings (Webster and Blatchford, 2013). Based on 650 hours of observation of 48 pupils with Statements and 151 average-attaining pupils (all in Year 5), the results show how the lives of pupils with Statements was strongly characterised by a high degree of separation from the classroom, their teacher and peers. Compared to their average-attaining peers, they spent the equivalent of over a day a week away from the main classroom. But even inside the classroom, subtler form of separation was noted. Firstly, lower-attaining pupils and those with SEND tended to be grouped together for TA-led learning, replacing teacher input. And secondly, highly frequent interaction with TAs throughout lessons cut across and reduced opportunities for pupils with Statements to interact with the teacher and their peers.

Compared to research in primary settings, there is a paucity of systematic observation studies from secondary schools that include pupils with SEND. One of the earliest systematic observation studies in secondary schools was the research reported in Rutter et al’s (1979) seminal text, ‘Fifteen Thousand Hours’. The title referred to the amount of time children spent at school between the ages of five and 16. Researchers observed 402 lessons across 12 schools as part of a multi-method study investigating the broader patterns of life and learning environments in secondary settings. The focus of attention for observations was teachers, rather than pupils. Rutter et al. found that, on average, teachers spent half their time addressing the class or walking around the room interacting with pupils. On average, 37% of lesson time was comprised of ‘silent working’. The proportions of time teachers spent interacting with groups or individuals was not specified. Large-scale observation studies in the USA (Sirotnik, 1983; Waxman and Huang, 1999) have found similar patterns of passive activity in secondary (high) school classrooms, with the majority of classroom time spent with teachers delivering whole-class instruction, or with pupils working independently, and thus not interacting with anyone.

The more recent SEN in Secondary Education (SENSE) study in the UK offers up-to-date and detailed data on pupils with Statements/EHCPs. It builds on the MAST study, investigating whether the experiences of pupils with Statements found in mainstream primary schools are replicated in mainstream secondary schools (Webster and Blatchford, 2017). The study involved 49 pupils with Statements/EHPCs (30 of who appeared in the MAST study) and 112 average-attaining pupils.

Almost 700 hours of systematic observation from the SENSE study confirm results from elsewhere on the prevalence of grouping by ‘ability’ (Francis et al., 2017; Ireson et al., 2002). Schools in the study adopted approaches to pupil grouping very similar to ‘streaming’. Within classes, the results show that despite being taught for half the time (54%) in smaller classes of 16 or fewer, pupils with Statements/EHCPs did not get more time overall with teachers compared to average-attaining pupils, who were taught almost always in classes of 17 or more. And as in primary schools, they experienced less peer interaction and fifteen times more lesson time interacting with TAs than average-attainers did. Again, the strong conclusion was that high amounts of TA support came at the expense of interaction with teachers and peers.

Taken together, the school experiences of pupils with Statements/EHCPs, as revealed by the systematic observations conducted as part of the MAST and SENSE studies, were characterised by separation and segregation. This is a particular concern, firstly, because this pattern has been shown through other research to be associated with poorer learning outcomes: the more TA support pupils with SEND receive, the less well they perform academically, compared to pupils who have little or no TA support (Blatchford et al., 2009). Importantly, this lack of progress was not attributable to pupils’ underlying SEND or prior attainment. Secondly, although schools tend to justify the use of ‘ability’ grouping as part of a wider strategy for organising teaching for pupils with SEND and lower-attainers, research going back 50 years has consistently found that while ‘high ability’ pupils benefit from all the positive affirmations of being top of the class, there is a corrosive effect for those in ‘bottom sets’, in terms of their confidence, self-concept and how they view their place in school (Kutnick et al., 2005; Taylor et al., 2016).

The pupils with Statements/EHCPs in the MAST and SENSE studies do not represent the full constituency of pupils with SEND. This research focussed on pupils whose primary need was related to cognition and learning, and so the results cannot claim to represent the full range of complex and sometimes co-occurring needs for which Statements/EHCPs are granted. Furthermore, there is very little comparable research that tells us about the experiences of pupils with SEND who do not have a Statement/EHCP; a group that makes up about 80% of the school population identified as having SEND. Another limitation of systematic observation studies focussing on SEND is the broadness of their approach. Other studies (e.g. Galton et al., 2002) have looked in more depth at the type of interactions taking place and teaching and classroom management approaches used; however, these studies have not focussed on pupils with SEND as a specific group of interest.

Implications for schools

So, what are the implications for schools of the findings from these systematic observation research studies?

First, they should consider reviewing the institutional arrangements and classroom practices that prevent pupils with SEND receiving high-quality teaching. Inclusive practice must be characterised by pupils being ‘of’ the class, actively engaged in learning, not merely present ‘in’ the class, but disconnected from what is going on.

Second, improve the social mix. Schools could take the bold step of introducing mixed attainment grouping for at least some subjects, if this is not something they do already. Compared with ‘ability’ grouping, mixed attainment teaching has the potential to improve outcomes for all pupils (Taylor et al., 2016). At the least, teachers should ensure pupils with SEND are not routinely put together for paired or group work, and they should create opportunities for them to work with, learn from and interact with others.

Third, school leaders should rigorously define the role and contribution of TAs as an effective part of – not the sole solution to – SEND provision. A good place to start is the free guidance produced by the Education Endowment Foundation.

Research questions to address in your setting

  • What proportion of classroom time do pupils with SEND in your class(es) spend interacting with the teacher, TAs and peers?
  • How representative is this of: (a) pupils with SEND in other classes; and (b) pupils without SEND?
  • How could you find this out in a reliable, systematic way?
  • What additional research questions might the results prompt?
  • What are the appropriate data collections methods for addressing these questions?

Further reading

Croll and Moses (1985) One in five: The assessment and incidence of special education needs, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul
The first major survey of the nature of the difficulties that children with SEND experience in mainstream junior schools, the research reported in this book relates to the Warnock Committee and to problems of definition and assessment.

Croll (1986) Systematic classroom observation, Lewes: Falmer Press
Authoritative text on policy, research, methodology and technology in systematic classroom observation, including the relationship of classroom observation to school and classroom effectiveness, and the assessment of competence. 

Delamont and Hamilton (1986) Revisiting classroom research: A cautionary tale, in: M. Hammersley (Ed), Controversies in classroom research, Milton Keynes: OUP
A critique of systematic observation methods, arguing that systematic observation techniques do not take account of the nuanced aspects of classroom interaction, such as the teacher’s intentions and pupil behaviour.

Rutter et al. (1979) Fifteen thousand hours: Secondary schools and their effects on children, Mass: Harvard University Press
Reports on a three-year study of urban secondary schools. An early use of systematic observation in secondary settings to collect data, which informed analyses of how schools promoted the academic and social success of pupils.

Webster and Blatchford (2017) The Special Educational Needs in Secondary Education (SENSE) study final report. A study of the teaching and support experienced by pupils with Statements and Education, Health and Care Plans in mainstream and special schools. – Available online (pdf)
This report present results from the MAST study alongside those from the SENSE study. Taken together, the MAST and SENSE studies amassed 1,340 hours of classroom observation, making it the largest observational research project conducted in the UK on pupils with SEND.

  • Barrow, R. (1984) Giving teaching back to the teachers, Brighton: Wheatsheaf.

  • Blatchford, P., Bassett, P., Brown, P., Koutsoubou, M., Martin, C., Russell, A., Webster, R. and Rubie-Davies, C. (2009) The impact of support staff in schools. Results from the Deployment and Impact of Support Staff project, (Strand 2 Wave 2), London: Department for Children, Schools and Families.
  • Croll, P. and Moses, D. (1985) One in Five: The assessment and incidence of special education needs, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
  • Francis, B., Archer, L., Hodgen, J., Pepper, D., Taylor, B. and Travers, M-C. (2017) Exploring the relative lack of impact of research on ‘ability grouping’ in England: A discourse analytic account, Cambridge Journal of Education, 47(1), pp, 1-17.
  • Galton, M., Hargreaves, L., Comber, C. and Wall, D., with Pell, A. (2002) Inside the primary classroom: 20 years on, London: Routledge.
  • Good, T.L. and Brophy, J.E. (1974) Changing teacher and student behavior: An empirical investigation, Journal of Educational Psychology, 66, pp. 390-405.
  • Ireson, J., Hallam, S., Hack J., Clark, H. and Plewis, I. (2002) Ability Grouping in English Secondary Schools: Effects on Attainment in English, Mathematics and Science, Educational Research and Evaluation, 8(3), pp. 299-318.
  • Kutnick, P., Sebba, J., Blatchford, P., Galton, M., Thorpe, J., MacIntyre, H., and Berdondini, L. (2005) The Effects of Pupil Grouping: Literature Review. Research Report 688, London: Dept. for Education and Skills. 

  • Pollard, A. and Triggs, P., with Broadfoot, P., McNess, E. and Osborn, M. (2000) What pupils say: Changing policy and practice in primary education. Findings from the PACE project, London: Continuum.
  • Rutter, M., Maughan, B., Mortimire, P. and Ouston, J. (1979) Fifteen Thousand Hours.
  • Secondary Schools and their Effects on Children, Mass: Havard University Press.
  • Sirotnik, K.A. (1983) What you see is what you get: Consistency, persistency, and mediocrity in classrooms, Harvard Educational Review, 53, pp. 16–31.
  • Stallings, J.A. (1980) Allocated academic learning time revisited, or beyond time on task, Educational Researcher, 9(11), pp. 11-16.
  • Taylor, B., Francis, B., Archer, L., Hodgen, J., Pepper, D., Tereshchenko A. and Travers, M-C. (2016) Factors deterring schools from mixed attainment teaching practice, Pedagogy, Culture and Society, DOI: 10.1080/14681366.2016.1256908.
  • Walberg, H.J. (1991) ‘Productive teaching and instruction: Assessing the knowledge base’, in Effective Teaching: Current Research, eds. H.C. Waxman and H.J. Walberg, Berkeley: McCutchan.
  • Walberg, H.J. (1995) ‘Generic practices’, in Handbook of Research on Improving Student Achievement, (Ed). G. Cawelt, Arlington, VA: Educational Research Services.
  • Waxman, H.C. and Huang, Shwu-Yong L. (1999) ‘Classroom observation research and the improvement of teaching’, in New Directions for Teaching Practice and Research, eds. H.C. Waxman and H.J. Walberg. Berkeley, CA: McCutchan.
  • Webster, R. (2015) The classroom experiences of pupils with special educational needs in mainstream primary schools – 1976 to 2012. What do data from systematic observation studies reveal about pupils’ educational experiences over time?, British Educational Research Journal, 41(6), pp. 992-1009.
  • Webster, R. and Blatchford, P. (2013) The educational experiences of pupils with a statement for special educational needs in mainstream primary schools. Results from a systematic observation study, European Journal of Special Needs Education, 28(4), pp. 463-479.
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