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I’m not hiding, you just can’t see me: understanding how schools help learners with hidden learning needs

Written By: Helen Ross
8 min read

Following the Children and Families Act in 2014, access to resources within ‘Special Educational Needs and Disability’ (SEND) legislation in England is changing. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), which requires a medical diagnosis, is the documented need on 28.8% of ‘Education, Health and Care Plans’ (EHCP) – the highest proportion of any ‘diagnosis’ (DfE, 2018).  Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLD), meanwhile, only account for 5.1%. The expectation that most learners’ needs will be met in the classroom through high quality teaching and reductions in numbers on SEND Registers suggests that accessing specialist provision may be problematic for learners with hidden disabilities such as SpLD.

This article explores how recent changes in legislation relating to Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) provision within mainstream schools in England have affected young people with ‘hidden disabilities’. A working conceptualisation of ‘hidden disabilities’ is given and related to current guidelines surrounding provision within the English policy framework. Research undertaken in schools is outlined, and then its implications for those with SEND – in particular hidden disabilities – is discussed.

For some young people, who do not experience physical or medical impairments, identifying their learning need may not be straightforward.

What are hidden learning needs

“A child or young person has SEN if they have a learning difficulty or disability which calls for special educational provision to be made for him or her.” (DfE, 2014: 5)

Where an individual has needs that may constitute a ‘disability’, they are afforded associated rights under the Equality Act 2010. However, Thompson et al. (2015: 1130) argue that such rights are confined to those with medicalised conditions and that the act “does not address societal attitudes towards poor literacy”. It seems that a ‘diagnosis’ of difficulties or an impairment is necessary to secure support for young people. For some young people, who do not experience physical or medical impairments, identifying their learning need may not be straightforward. Riddick (2000: 664) noted that, “in the case of hidden impairments such as dyslexia, autism and dyspraxia, one of the first functions of a label is to prove the legitimacy of the impairment by demonstrating its constitutional origins”.

A limiting factor in ‘proving’ this legitimacy is that these are examples of a “hidden impairment where there are no obvious physical markers which will identify the child” (Riddick, 2000: 657). This is further exemplified when exploring the ‘diagnosis’ of dyslexia and other specific learning difficulties (SpLD). Elliott and Grigorenko (2014) argue that dyslexia is not a ‘diagnosable’ condition as there is no unified definition of it, and its characteristics are contested. Therefore, within a provision framework, where medicalised ‘diagnoses’ allow for relatively straightforward identification of need and/or impairment, identifying dyslexia and other SpLD becomes more problematic if they are viewed as contested and inconsistent. However, pragmatically, the difficulties in obtaining a ‘diagnosis’ tend to be more frequently linked to a lack of resources and funding rather than than a lack of common definition of the learning need (Lehane, 2017). In the following section, schools’ responsibilities and duties are discussed.

What should schools do to support children with hidden learning needs?

Governmental discourse outlines four broad areas of need (DfE and DfH, 2015): speech, language and communication (SCLN); Cognition and Learning; Social, Emotional and Mental Health (SEMH) difficulties and Sensory and/or Physical Needs (SPN). Within documentation, reference is made to difficulties such as Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLD) such as dyslexia, dyscalculia and dyspraxia and their effects on a young person’s ability to access learning (DfE and DfH, 2015; UK Government, Undated). However, the means for identifying these needs is not clarified within this documentation. What is clear is that the current framework for SEN expects most young peoples’ need to be met in the classroom through differentiated teaching, with teachers “at the heart of the new SEN support system” (DfE, 2014: 4).

The Special Educational Needs (SEND) and Disability Code of Practice (DfE and DfH, 2015: 99) states that “High quality teaching, differentiated for individual pupils, is the first step in responding to pupils who have or may have SEN”. This builds on the 2010 standpoint (DfE, 2010: 60), that the needs of young people with dyslexia should be met in the classroom, through differentiated classwork. It is important to note here that, while new OfSted inspection guidance does not promote “unnecessarily elaborate or differentiated approaches” (OfSted, 2019: 10), for those with dyslexia, differentiation can take the form of pre-printed notes, for example, which can be used for the whole class, rather than separate resources. For those with needs such as autism, differentiated practice may mean that learners have a particular seating arrangement or those with ADHD may have movement breaks. Thus while initially seeming at tension, the Code of Practice and proposed OfSted Guidelines need not be in conflict as support in place for those with dyslexia can be used for all learners. It is also made clear in the Code of Practice that support and/or additional interventions cannot bridge a gap if classroom teaching is of poor quality and the onus is put on schools to “regularly and carefully review the quality of teaching for all pupils, including those at risk of underachievement” (DfE and DfH, 2015: 99).

Young people with hidden disabilities may be noted as being ‘at risk of underachievement’ and whilst high-quality teaching may support them to some extent, where that alone does not meet the needs of young people in the classroom, the school Special Educational Needs Coordinator should coordinate responses to need. Where it is found that young people do have SEND that require specialist provision, parents/carers and the learner should be consulted regarding that provision (DfE, 2014). It is important to note however, that learners are not always adequately consulted due to opacity within structures. Jones (2015) for example makes a salient point in relation to the Children and Families Act 2014 and the SEND Code of Practice (DfE and DfH, 2015) that despite the expectation that the views of young people should inform decisions relating to provision for them, young people with autism are rarely consulted about the support interventions they receive in school. Whether this is linked to their particular needs is unclear, but it raises questions as to whether other young people, particularly those with hidden disabilities, are consulted in relation to their provision in the light of this relatively new policy framework. When exploring how to better equip the teaching workforce to support young people with Autism, Jones (2015) also noted that the Local Authorities’ input was critical in meeting learners’ needs.

The role of SENCOs

Pearson et al. (2013), whose work focussed on SENCOs, found that cuts in Local Authority (LA) funding impacted on schools; their costs increased as fewer services were provided by LAs, forcing schools to acquire them at a cost. Like Lehane (2017), Pearson et al. (2013) also found that there was significant regional and local variation in provision, which they attributed to a lack of clarity within legislation. Pearson et al. (2013) found that there was tension between documentation and reality relating to the role of SENCO and how provision for young people should be delivered. SENCOs’ knowledge versus their authority to lead often meant that they could not fully meet the requirements of both of these areas within policy. However, SENCOs noted almost unanimously that there would be a wholesale reduction in the number of pupils on school SEN Registers. This links to governmental discourse, in that the needs of young people, such as those with dyslexia, should be met in the classroom. However, it is unclear within this research as to whether needs arising from hidden disabilities are met in the classroom, through high-quality teaching, or whether due to cuts in funding and resources, these needs were undiagnosed and subsequently undocumented.

Other work focussing on the views of SENCOs highlights the effects of reforms on in-school practice. Curran et al. (2017) also found that the number of young people on SEND registers had decreased in the schools focussed on in this study. The consulted SENCOs described the main changes made to their in-school practice as relating to bureaucratic and policy-based rather than in relation to working with young people directly. Although the study found that SENCOs were anxious about being able to meet learners’ needs in a climate of austerity and academisation of state schools, there was little mention of provision for young people whose needs were met in the classroom. The study did note that significant numbers of SENCOs had re-framed their understanding of the meaning of SEND. This may suggest that where young people did not have specialist provision, they were not necessarily included on the SEND register. If this is the case, teachers risk being unaware of the needs of young people with hidden disabilities. This then runs the risk of young learners with needs such as dyslexia, SpLD or ASD who do not need specialist provision not being afforded small, ‘reasonable’ adjustments which facilitate their access to the curriculum.

High-quality teaching is at the centre of governmental discourse relating to provision for young people with SEND in the current system.

Supporting hidden needs

It appears that much research relating to SEND provision policy reforms has focused on the role of the SENCO, the structural support for young people with needs as provided by the Local Authority and the capacity of schools to meet needs in a climate of increasing austerity. The studies focussed on in this paper highlight the importance of SENCOs, Local Authorities and classroom teachers in meeting the needs of young people with SEND. However, as suggested by Lehane (2017) and Jones (2015), whether current policy allows for the needs of young people with hidden disabilities to be met effectively is doubtful. While SEN registers are ‘shortening’, expectations on classroom teachers to meet more diverse needs are heightened (DfE, 2010; DfE 2014). Hidden disabilities such as SpLD or ASD comprise significant proportions of documented needs in schools: 15% and 5.7% respectively at SEND support level (UK Government, 2018). To meet these needs, teachers must have guidance and support from their SENCOs so that needs can be met in the classroom, where there are not further resources provided.

Where learners’ needs are not such that they need specialist provision, but that small adjustments in classroom practice facilitate learning, I believe that these needs must be documented. Teachers given guidance as to how to appropriately support these learners. High-quality teaching is at the centre of governmental discourse relating to provision for young people with SEND in the current system. In order to be able to implement high quality teaching, appropriately tailored to meet the needs of young learners with SEND, teachers must first be aware of any impairments, disabilities or learning needs that individuals in their classes have (DfE and DfH, 2015). Teachers cannot make provision for needs of which they are unaware.

While not all learners with SEND will have an EHCP or be classified as SEND Support (DfE and DfH, 2015), there may be learners whose needs pose a barrier to their learning but can much more easily engage with learning with small changes to presentation of information such as pre-printed notes, extra time to process oral information or talking through their ideas before committing them to paper. Within the current climate, I believe that SENCOs need to ensure that members of staff within their schools are fully aware of all students’ ‘diagnosed’ needs so that they can make sure that provision is presented appropriately for all learners. This may mean that SEND registers increase in length again but through graduated lists, where different levels of provision are detailed and staff members are empowered to support learners through information about their needs.

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