The changing face of SEN in international schools

International schools do not share the best reputation when it comes to meeting Special Educational Needs (SEN) but that is all changing.

Special education needs learning the alphabet
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The number of UK children with Special Educational Needs (SEN) rose to 1,244,255 last year and is likely to increase with better diagnosis. Among international schools, the demand for SEN support in schools has reached new levels. We went along to the 37th  COBIS Annual Conference in London to find out the issues at play.“SEN is becoming more internationally recognised and teachers are struggling less with differentiation,” said Samantha Garner, director of Garner Educational Services. “As schools, we have a responsibility to lead change and inclusion to promote better outcomes for our young people.” As a Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCO), teacher and mental health specialist, Ms Garner is aware of the variation in SEN support country to country and how it can have an impact on both parents and their children. 

Barrier to entry?

One concern Ms Garner mentioned was the hesitation parents feel when completing admissions forms. “In some countries, if parents have SEN declared, their child may not be accepted by their school of choice, so they often don’t declare it. This creates a downward spiral,” she said. She reported that many schools that had young children with learning difficulties emerging later were catered for but that older students with similar profiles were at risk of being denied admission.Explained Ms Garner, “SEN is not an add on. There is still a lack of understanding of SEN in some schools and not enough inclusion in the classroom taking place but it is changing with the SEN code of practice.” She also warned that international schools need to prioritise differentiation. “We need to audit and use current staff knowledge, cascade training, develop a resource bank and remember that the class teacher is the first line of support,” she said. 

Promoting independent working and inclusion  

On best practice for SEN support, Ms Garner advised against labelling. “Parents and schools must avoid labelling. Expectations of staff change with labelling and expectations within ourselves change when we are labelled.”She noted a need for the correct use of teaching assistants or learning support assistants, rather than seeing them as a way to palm off SEN students which could obstruct inclusion. She also explained the long-term implications of inadequate support, stating that SEN students are over six times more likely to suffer mental health issues later in life. “SEN has to be embedded into a school’s culture,” she said. “SEN students simply have a different way of learning and we have to adapt to that. An inclusive school will benefit all students, not just those with SEN and EAL [English as an Additional Language]. Teaching assistants are the holy grail in SEN but we should encourage independent learning and working.” In order to do that, “Schools need to rely less on a SENCO or private tutor to go and fix things,” she added. Instead, Ms Garner called on consultants to take a more sustainable outlook and develop a culture of how to deal with SEN, not make themselves indispensable.
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Advice for parents

Positive about the increase in SEN recognition, Ms Garner highlighted that the best international schools for SEN worked closely with parents, used positive language, assistive technologies and encouraged independent working and problem solving.She also stressed the importance of schools that offer a range of opportunities for individual talent to excel, adding that parents with children who have ADHD and ASD should ensure schools provide a safe space during unstructured times.“Ultimately, children with SEN need autonomy, a sense of purpose and a feeling of belonging through relationship building,” she said.Another issue raised was exclusive to parents. Ms Garner recalled that some parents can refuse to acknowledge their child’s SEN, in turn delaying their child’s development. With some parents suggesting teachers simply needed to work harder or that acceptance of the diagnosis would mean them failing as a parent, or lead to their child being victimised.She urged parents to do their research on international schools and the ethos of the institution, noting that schools and parents would be better off not focusing on diagnosis but tackling the “presenting behaviours”.Having worked in various countries, her final observations were not to assume which countries would offer the best SEN support.“In Belgium for instance, parents have a deep-rooted trust of the Belgian education system and are less likely to judge the quality of SEN support in schools,” said Ms Garner. “In the Middle East, parents are very active on the topic as they know it is not historically well catered to so they’re more alert to make changes. But SEN is generally becoming more widely embraced. The Dubai government has now set out an inclusion education framework in their 2020 vision and in places like Singapore, there is a growing dyslexia association and awareness of SEN.”
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