I would talk six thousand pounds….

Increasingly I am hearing of schools prevented or delayed by Local Authorities from getting an Education, Health and Care Assessment for a child they believe needs one,  by insisting any requests must be accompanied by:

a) a demonstration the school has already spent £6k on that child and;

b) documented evidence of the Assess, Plan. Do, Review (APDR) Cycle over a number of terms (the number of terms varies across Local Authorities).

c) a recent report from an Educational Psychologist (This won’t be covered in this blog as I have written about this here).

There is nothing wrong with producing any of this as part of a request for an EHC Assessment and it can provide good evidence. However, none of this is required by law and schools can and often do have enough evidence for the child to meet the legal threshold for an assessment without the above. Insisting that schools provide evidence that is over and above what is required in law can delay the child from receiving their legal entitlement, interfere with Schools duty towards that child under the Equality Act 2010, can cost schools considerable but unnecessary sums of money, and prevent the child from accessing a specialist placement if required.

Under section 36 (8) of the Children and Families Act 2014, the Local Authority must consider whether the child or young person has or ‘may’ have special educational needs; and whether they ‘may’ need special educational provision to be made through an EHC Plan. There is nothing in law that requires spending of £6k to be demonstrated or information about the APDR cycle.

Under section 36(8) the Children and Families Act 2014, the local authority must secure an EHC needs assessment for the child or young person if, 

(a)the child or young person has or may have special educational needs, and

(b)it may be necessary for special educational provision to be made for the child or young person in accordance with an EHC plan.

If a school does wish to provide evidence of APDR, that can be helpful (though not legally necessary) but it is important to understand that it isn’t time-bound and it is possible to document a few cycles over just a couple of hours if it provides evidence enough for a child to meet the legal test for an EHC Assessment (for example where a child’s behaviour could make them at risk of exclusion). Similarly, if the school has already committed funds towards a child’s provision, this can submitted as evidence.

Increasingly many Local Authorities are insisting schools access some offered (paid for or free) support or provision before they will agree to assess for an EHCP for a child who qualifies for one. This is also unlawful. If the child or young person meets the legal test for an EHC Assessment, the Local Authority must carry out an assessment within 16 weeks of the initial request for that assessment. It is not lawful to put in provision instead of assessment (though there is nothing wrong with utilising this resource during the Assessment process or even having it specified in the EHCP if it meets a child’s assessed need).

Should there be a concern that the Local Authority is unsure of the law and will refuse a request for assessment if it doesn’t meet their own locally applied threshold, there are steps you can take to remind them of the process.

  1. Support an parental application for a request for an EHC Assessment. Either ask them to make it or provide them with the documentation to submit. Include a letter of support from the school.
  2. If the request is refused because the APDR documentation doesn’t meet the Local Authority standard, you haven’t demonstrated £6k spend or utilised free or paid support offered then support the parent in an appeal to SENDIST. This is purely a paperwork exercise and all that happens is the same paperwork that was sent to the LA is sent to SENDIST. Parents do not have to attend a hearing. Include a letter of support from the school.
  3. SENDIST order Local Authorities to assess for a EHCP in about 90% of parent appeals, but this is likely to be closer to 100% if the reason given is lack of £6k spend, missing APDR info or take-up of in-reach (which are not requirements in law) and the school sends a letter of support for the assessment request.

Of course at the end of an assessment the Local Authority may find that a plan is not necessary, and the school and parents will have to make a decision whether they agree with that decision or whether they ought to appeal again to SENDIST. However, at least you will have ensured that there has been a good assessment of need within weeks and not years, as is the child or young persons entitlement.

Further information on EHCP myths can be found here in a document produced by The SEND Organisations Information Groups who include: ACE Education; Contact; Downs Syndrome Association IASSN; IPSEA; NAS; NSCS; Kids; Network 81; SENSE; SOS-SEN. This blog refers to Myth 6 in this document.

A model letter for a parental requesting an EHCP Assessment can be found here.

 

(Disclaimer: I am not a legal professional and it is recommended that anything considered advice here is checked with a legal professional or one of the legal charities such as IPSEA or SOSEN or one of the organisations listed above)

Advertisements

Education Select Committee & Parent Voice

Tuesday morning whilst on buses and in cafés, taking my daughter to a Young Carer’s activity, and trying to keep her younger brother occupied, I was probably being one of those parents often criticised for ignoring their children whilst using their phone. I was trying to watch or at the very least listen to the Education Select Committee on SEND Reform.

money spent on the Reforms had at least partly been wasted

Now I have to declare up front, that I am a big fan of Matt Keer and his work. As is typical for him, he stuck to the facts and shared data and information that illustrated the points he wanted to make and only when pushed conceded more emotive points such as yes he felt the money spent on the Reforms had at least partly been wasted if culture change was the aim and that having to go through the SENDIST process had caused him incredible financial and emotional strain. I will come back to both of these points.

What struck me as particularly odd whilst I was watching, was why he had to do this work. I know him to be fully employed in a completed different industry, so why was he presenting data and information he admitted he’d had to glean from Freedom of Information requests and by bringing together data from different Government departments for comparison? Why was this information collection and monitoring not instead a part a the design of the SEND Reforms, (given how much money was provided for them)? The Government should already know what he shared, and it’s systematic collection over the past four years should have shaped the Reform development and implementation. Embedding will be impossible without it as people continue to argue over whose fault it is the Reforms are not working in the absence of any evidence (and they really according to The Guardian on 22nd Oct 2018). Scrutiny, auditing and accountability is what is really what is at fault here, but what about Culture?

They had money to change their ways of working, but they blew it!

Matt was quoted by Ben Bradley MP for Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, to have submitted as a part of his written evidence that ‘The SEND system is still incapable of channelling this funding in ways that meet needs lawfully. They had money to change their ways of working, but they blew it!’ Matt explained that he was referring to the approximately £600m given to Local Authorities to implement the reforms, and stated that  ‘And yet it appears that at ground and operational level, there appears to be very little change in the way Special Educational Needs Administration works.’ Matt then went on to express his surprise that that much money had been provided without ring-fencing or any meaningful effort to ascertain impact.

The Chair asked Matt if he was saying that this £600m was wasted. Matt answered with ‘If its initial ambition was to enable the process of change from one legal system to another and also, as I remember Edward Timpson saying at the time to enable a process of culture change that puts the child or young person with special educational needs at the heart of the process, yes, I would say, that money has probably been wasted.’

when we think we’ve got provision within the authority that we want to use and therefore the floodgates argument becomes a strong one

In part 2 of the proceedings the Chair asked two Local Authority representatives if they thought that a lot of money is wasted by councils in terms of tribunals and legal action. Dr Jackie Lown, Head of Children and Young People, East Riding of Yorkshire Council, responded with ‘Where the expense of the money that would be required to make a placement that the parent wants which might be an independent specialist provider, would take a great deal of money out of our system when we think we’ve got provision within the authority that we want to use and therefore the floodgates argument becomes a strong one’ (Italics my emphasis).

The questions that went through my head were; Where is the child’s needs in this statement? Why is there an implication that a parent ‘wants’ something, rather than a child ‘needing’ something. Why is it that an independent specialist provider ‘would’ take money out of the system any more than an in-house provider might, especially if that in-house provider cannot meet needs in a way that an independent might to lessen that child’s dependency on the system as an adult or later in their educational career? Why is a Local Authority forcing parents to tribunal because they ‘think’ they’ve got provision within the authority and why on earth must they force one family who is only interested in the life chances of their child to fight at tribunal for that chance as if they were fighting some giant war against the Local Authority on behalf of all families. They are not, and hurting families as if they were is cruel.

Further, it will be interesting to see if any of these claims are substantiated in the written evidence as I’m certain Matt’s will be, or as I suspect, this is another case so typical throughout the SEND Reforms and during the planning stage of parents or parent representatives bringing evidence that can be substantiated with sources for follow up and Local Authorities making unsubstantiated claims but not being asked to substantiate it and never will be.

parents rarely if at all go through the tribunal process if they have not exhausted all avenues already and have become desperate

When asked if Local Authorities use Barristers against parents, Dr Lown replied that they chose to use a Barrister largely when the parent was also bringing a barrister, and that the expense then becomes very high. That might seem fair (though I’d like to understand what was meant by ‘largely’) but parents rarely if at all go through the tribunal process if they have not exhausted all avenues already and have become desperate for their child to not or any longer be failed. That some who can afford to might seek some support with what is an extremely complicated process for them but bread and butter for Local Authorities is hardly a basis for blaming them for Local Authority tribunal costs. But what is the cost to parents of this attitude?

When the Chair asked the panel if parents are really able to afford Barristers, they replied that yes they are, and David Clarke, Deputy Director for Education, Oxfordshire County Council included ‘increasingly’. Now I very much doubt that parents are ‘increasingly’ able to afford to use Barristers, but what I think this reflects is that parents are ‘increasingly’ desperate. Most parents I come into contact with who use Legal services do so through desperation and make sacrifices that reflects that desperation driven by absolute fear of the consequence to their child should they not.

For example:

Where are my wedding and engagement rings? They are in the bank account of an Independent Educational Psychologist.

Where is my 3rd bedroom (desperately needed with 3 kids of different genders), my garage and driveway? They are with a SEND Legal firm.

Where is my career? It changed to unpaid and increased hours grappling with SEND law, complaints processes, creating complicated childcare logistic arrangements to jump the arbitrary hoops set by Local Authorities to produce the evidence they pretended they needed to actually offer some support occasionally.

Where is my husbands promotion? It is with the Local Authority meeting organisers who would make meetings about meetings even less about Outcomes without his presence.

Where is my pension? It’s via my husband, ensuring that I must stay married for the rest of my life through dependency rather than choice.

this despair is created through the culture within Local authorities that perpetuate attitudes that parents have wants rather than that their children have needs

I consider myself one of the lucky ones. Through my considerable sacrifices (and sacrifices made on behalf of his siblings) my son has a chance. But these sacrifices were made from despair, not greed. And this despair is created through the culture within Local authorities that perpetuate attitudes shown in this Education Select Committee, that parents are considered to have wants rather than have their children’s needs at their hearts, that parents claim more than their fair share of funding if they use the legal process, or that they are a homogenous group, working together who must be stopped lest one parents successful securing of something their child needs leads to other parents recognising their child is entitled to that too.  In actual fact, The Special Educational Needs and Tribunal Services (SENDIST) can only ever order a child’s legal entitlement regardless of what a parent might demand, and that is the maximum that can be gained from what Matt described as a process that had caused him incredible financial and emotional strain.

And yet I have sat in a number of Local Authority meetings where there is an air of belief amongst the professionals that parents pay for large bundles of evidence that the Local Authority simply can’t compete with, and that the solution to keeping within their High Needs Funding is to simply get better at tribunals. At one point David Clarke appeared to suggest that parents win 86% of SENDIST tribunals because they hire Barristers. Another unsubstantiated claim not up to the quality of figures and data presented by Matt.

The Chair asked whether parents were awarded costs for their tribunal wins. David Clarke responded that they can in certain cases, and this is correct, but those cases are only where the parents can prove clearly that the tribunal process had been unnecessary and a simple win is not enough. When the Chair asked where parents might get the money to afford Barristers, Ian Mearns, MP for Gateshead replied that they can access Legal Aid. This is untrue.

Legal Aid is available to those families without any assets including owning a home regardless of the size of the mortgage and can only apply for support preparing a case, not for representation during a case. It is in short supply and the amount available does not cover the usual cost of a case, so parents usually only have access to a paralegal often without specialist knowledge in SEND.

they had decided to home school because they had waited so long to have Education and Health Care Plans (EHCPs) put in place

And those who are unable to access legal aid, make such sacrifices or bear to navigate the system or simply cannot repeatedly, what happens to them? Well it is hard to say. It is likely that with the soaring numbers of families who are now Home Educating that many of the children with SEND for whom their parents did not feel adequately resourced to fight the system are amongst them.

Indeed Thelma Walker MP for Colne Valley told the Committee that she has recently had a delegation of parents of children with SEND come to see her and each of them said they had decided to home school because they had waited so long to have Education and Health Care Plans (EHCPs) put in place. When questioned on this, Dr Lown responded that ‘delays can be perceived as delays by parents’ implying that parents weren’t correct in their assertions and yet from the data presented on transfers to EHCPs from statements we know that delays are very much a part of the SEND process.

The culture changed so desperately needed clearly hasn’t happened and never was going to happen.

It is unsurprising to me, that when pressed, Matt conceded that he felt the money for the SEND Reforms had been wasted. The culture change so desperately needed clearly hasn’t happened and never was going to happen. Memorandums submitted by parents and parent groups in 2013 to inform the Children and Families Act 2014 Bill such as this I co-authored with Dr Debbie Sayers seemed to have been largely ignored in favour of those who lobbied on behalf of Local Authorities and concerns raised by Every Disabled Child Matters (EDCM) and IPSEA’s call for a moratorium also were ignored. In short, the parent voice wasn’t listened to. But what of Parent Carer Forums (PCFs)?

There is either no will, or no capacity among decision-makers to really listen and respond to parent voices

Well, SEND Family Voices, the PCF or Richmond and Kingston in their closing statement said: ‘We have spent considerable time trying to find a satisfactory way forward by discussing our position and the concerns we have for the parent community with Contact (who administer the funding and support for PCFs), the DFE, AfC, our Local Councillors and MPs’ and ‘There is either no will, or capacity amongst decision-makers to really listen and respond to parent voices even though parents and young people were supposed to be at the heart of the SEND Reforms. Furthermore, we believe that continuing to operate as a Parent Carer Forum in this climate risks lending a veneer or legitimacy to decisions taken by service providers that we feel is undeserved’.

And they are right. Even at the top, there appears no appetite for the voice of Parents and Carers. Consider the forthcoming Westminster Education Forum on 6th December 18 entitled ‘ The next steps for SEND policy – high needs funding, local SEND service provision and improving outcomes’ where James Frith MP for Bury North (who was present at the Education Select Committee), is a Keynote Speaker. The agenda states that there will ‘be an opportunity to discuss key themes emerging from the Education Select Committee’s SEND inquiry, and to assess what more might be done to address concerns from teaching unions and local authorities around the level and distribution of high needs funding’. Was the parent/carer voice deliberately omitted from this or are their concerns simply not and never were considered relevant to this discussion topic?

Matt told the Committee near the beginning that families he supports who are navigating the system now, ‘are facing exactly the same issues of difficulty in acquiring the support our children need happen for the same reasons that they happened under the 1996 Education Act set up’.  The system has simply not budged.

When later, Lucy Powell, MP for Manchester Central asked the panel: ‘Have you got any ideas about how we can flip that system in that way?  A brave system with a maybe a bit more money in the mix to flip round.’ Justin’s Cooke from Ambitious About Autism responded similarly to  Matt’s at the beginning, that there is no auditing or tracking of how SEND money is spent. But I’d like to offer something to Lucy.

How about we go back and look again about what parents and parent organisations were saying in 2013 about why the SEND Reforms wouldn’t work? How about we look again at the good analyses of what was ‘wrong’ in the first place by those and reported in the Lamb and Bercow reports, and actually link them this time to changes going forward from here?

Why don’t we actually listen to parent voice in its genuine raw state?

Why don’t we put in proper regulation of the legislation, as well as audit and accountability systems that means instead of fighting parents with tribunals, Local Authorities fight them with demonstrable outcomes for their children, with transparency for their decision-making and funding decisions, with parent confidence in local provision through invest-to-save priorities that ensure children get the provision they need early enough to head of future costs and before parents have lost faith? Where transparency and accountability is clear, only then can the true cost of SEND be uncovered as well as wastage and as well as the cost of not investing. Why don’t we actually listen to parent voice, in its genuine raw state, and not sifted and interpreted by those reliant on Government funding contracts which tell them how they must report it?

Lack of money is the consequence of the failures of the SEND Reforms

Only in such a culture that we currently have can the money be wasted or cuts be able to happen to the extent they have. Consider what might happen should new money be found? Would it be put into services for children, or legal services to fight against ‘floodgates’ for example. A quick check of how some Local Authorities have spent their SEND Reform Implementation Grant would answer this. Lack of money is not and never was the cause of the failures of the SEND Reforms. Lack of culture change, lack of innovation and ambition, obfuscation and poor accountability was the cause.

And this failure is predominately due to the lack of service client voice at the planning and implementation stage in anything other than a tokenistic or channelled viewfinder where it can be interpreted by public services unsubstantiated and unchallenged.

 

To EP, or not to EP, that is the question;

Increasingly I am hearing of schools prevented by Local Authorities from getting an Education, Health and Care Assessment by their insistence that any requests must be accompanied by a report from an Educational Psychologist (EP) which the Local Authority subsequently prevent access to any time soon.

Well, there is an easy solution to this;

Under section 36(8) of the Children and Families Act 2014, the Local Authority must consider whether the child or young person has or may have special educational needs; and whether they may need special educational provision to be made through an EHC Plan. There is nothing in law that requires an Educational Psychologist to recommend or assess at this point.

Under Regulation 6(1)d of the Special Educational Needs and Disability, it is the Local Authority and not the school, who is required to seek advice from an Educational Psychologist within this 16 week timeframe.

However, if the answer is yes, the child or young person has or may have SEN and yes, they may need special educational provision to be made through an EHP Plan then the Local Authority must carry out an assessment within 16 weeks of the initial request for that assessment. Under Regulation 6(1)d of the Special Educational Needs and Disability, it is the Local Authority and not the school, who are required to seek advice from an Educational Psychologist within this 16 week timeframe.

There is nothing wrong with commissioning a report from an Educational Psychologist to submit as a part of the request for an assessment, but it is worth considering whether this would be a good use of school resources given that the Local Authority MUST seek their own advice from an EP as a part of the Statutory Assessment. In some cases the Local Authority will be able to make a saving in then not having to commission their own, however this is only the case if all parties agree that the report is fit for purpose (covering needs, provisions and outcomes) rather than simply classroom observations.

Should there be a concern that the Local Authority is unsure of the law and will refuse a request for assessment without a EP report there are steps you can take to remind them of the process.

  1. Support an parental application for a request for an EHC Assessment. Either ask them to make it or provide them with the documentation to submit. Include a letter of support from the school.
  2. If the request is refused because of a lack of EP report, support the parent in an appeal to SENDIST. This is purely a paperwork exercise and all that happens is the same paperwork that was sent to the LA is sent to SENDIST. Parents do not have to attend a hearing. Include a letter of support from the school.
  3. SENDIST order Local Authorities to assess for a EHCP in about 90% of parent appeals, but this is likely to be closer to 100% if the reason given is lack of EP report (which is not a requirement in law) and the school sends a letter of support for the assessment request.

Of course at the end of an assessment the Local Authority may find that a plan is not necessary, and the school and parents will have to make a decision whether they agree with that decision or whether they ought to appeal again to SENDIST. However, at least you will have ensured that there has been EP involvement within weeks and not years, as is the child or young persons entitlement.

 

(Disclaimer: I am not a legal professional and it is recommended that anything considered advice here is checked with a legal professional or one of the legal charities such as IPSEA).

t to carry out an EHC needs assessment.’

Special Educational Needs & Disability (SEND) Governance Review

Last night I was asked to speak at the Driver Youth Trust’s Launch event for the SEND Governor Review Guide having been honoured with the opportunity to contribute to its development. The perspective I brought to the project was derived from being a SEND link governor for an Outstanding Teaching School with an ASD provision, a trustee of two schools with very different cohorts and as a parent of a child with a number of diagnoses who has attended a range of school placements.

Whilst every teacher is a teacher of SEND, every governor is also a governor of SEND

Given that approximately 17% of children in a mainstream school are likely to have SEND at any one given time (and this percentage is rising as Local Authorities seek to keep children in mainstream schools for longer), it is important to consider that whilst every teacher is a teacher of SEND, every governor is also a governor of SEND, as children with SEND are not separate from but a part of, their whole school community.

Governors can have a variety of experiences and journeys into Governance, and schools themselves, each have their unique place and set up. However, despite our differences we are all bound by a common requirement to ensure that our policies, procedures and systems are in place, monitored well, and deliver the intended impact consistent with the vision, ethos and the strategic direction of our schools, but also the relevant legislation which includes amounts others, the Equality Act 2010 and Children and Families Act 2014.

However, when I first began the role of SEND link governor, I very soon became frustrated. Whether it was the reality or not, I felt it was very difficult to ask the challenging questions I knew I had to without it appearing to fulfil a personal agenda given my experiences prior, as a parent of a child with SEND. I felt disadvantaged and I struggled to stay on the right side of the line that separated the strategic from the operational.

I scoured the internet to see if I could find a document outside of me to help direct my questions and depersonalise them, and ensure that I was able to follow good practice and importantly, convince the Governing Board to support my challenge. I was also keen to raise the profile of SEND across our Board and spread the expertise beyond one isolated Governor. Though I did find some information, it was often disparate and spread over sites.

It is in the operation that the strategy is tested, and I feel that this is especially pronounced in SEND

I was therefore delighted when the Driver Youth Trust’s Chief Executive Chris Rossiter asked me if I would contribute to the development of the SEND Governor Review Guide, a single document where good practice could be brought together in one place that was free to schools. Not only that, but it is explicit in its message that children with SEND are the corporate responsibility of the Governing Board. And, by contributing to this document I further began to understand better where I was struggling before, that whilst governors operate at a strategic and not an operational level, it is in the operation that the strategy is tested, and I feel that this is especially pronounced in SEND. Questions and challenge can really uncover the effectiveness or otherwise of both the policies in themselves, and of their contributions to Inclusions and Equality in your school.

So if we want children with SEND to be successful in our schools, we have to set and test the parameters of our policies so that they can be. The alternative can be hours of interventions or meetings to try instead to make those children fit in with our policies. I very much hope that this guide will help support and promote discussion and reflection to enable schools to achieve this, and learners with SEND to access the high-quality provision that they deserve.

The Parent Typo

Last week the @tes published a very strange article about parents of children with SEND with lots of typos in it.

Angry

Pandering

Non-engaging

Here it is if you are interested: https://www.tes.com/news/send-working-challenging-parents. It then made suggestions about successful strategies for DEALING with parents of children with SEND.

Anyway, it made absolutely no sense to me, so I thought I’d write my own. Only one adjective needed:

The ‘Respected’ Parent

You will know this parent as the parent of a child who thrives with school-based targets which are linked to the goals the parents have for that child during the 83% of the time that they are not in school.

This parent will not always get everything right and sometimes will need to be brought in for a discussion about something that isn’t working which they themselves might be contributing to, but they will come in willingly because when they last raised a concern with something you were doing, you openly listened and tried to work together to address it.

This parent forgives you when you get something wrong, and believes you are trying your best. This is because you trying your best is communicated well and comes with an invitation for suggestions to improve.

This parent has lower anxiety than they might have, because interactions started early and information about their child was taken on-board enthusiastically, before you had yet identified the concern they raise for their child yourself. They then trust that the manifestation of whatever it is they are concerned about, will be reduced in impact due to preventative measures and your understanding when it appears.

Because of your work in listening, working in genuine partnership and respecting their voice, this parent will be a better parent than they could have ever been otherwise, leaving their energy wholly available for their children, and not by necessity focussed on trying to force you to understand how simple, zero-low cost adjustments can help to combat just a little of the huge number of disadvantages their children face.

ABA – Starlight’s Position Statement

ABA – My Position (currently unreferenced)

 The ABA row is complex and underpinned by the suggestion from some that it is manipulative intervention that parents use on their autistic children who are unable to accept them as autistic. Interwoven with this stance is the general and ongoing behaviourism vs cognitive psychology row that exists in psychology in general, and the fact that access to EIBI (the type of ABA that is often given to children in the early years) in the US, is funded from health insurance and so to qualify has to be called ‘treatment’ which in the UK we sometimes consider has an aim ultimately of cure. However, in the UK, the application of Behavioural Analysis in schools is the dominant practice and practitioners have strived to make this adaptation successfully, and the independent schools that utilise a developed education model are almost all judged Outstanding schools.

 

History

The history of ABA can be said to have started with Skinner, who looked at the behaviour of animals. Through his work he uncovered natural laws of behaviour and this is well documented and evidenced. At the same time there was the psychoanalysis movement and cognitive psychology which tended to focus on cognitive processes which could not be observed, so had to be theorised. These were criticised by behaviourists to be irrelevant for that reason. For example. you can suggest someone has slow processing but then what? If on the other hand you define it as the behaviour you see, i.e. latency of response, you can design an intervention that gives someone practice at responding faster. Skinner’s work was purely about how organisms behaved and nothing about autism.

Lovaas was a Psychoanalyst who developed Skinner’s work for autism. He began using it for mental health disorders originally, and in amongst them was, at that time, homosexuality. The idea that you could reinforce non-homosexual behaviours and punish homosexual behaviours as he was attempting to do, is quite alarming to thinking about in our times now. The idea that a similar model could be applied to autism also sounds quite frightening in that context.

At that time, and until well into the 80s, our stance on disability was to cure people from them or if they were to be in mainstream society, to normalise people as much as we could. Prosthetics were made to look ‘normal’ despite the fact that the technology existed to make them actually useful to people with disabilities, and people were encouraged to use them or wear them to be accepted. This ideology still exists in some cultures and sections of society. Where ABA was used for children with autism, it often followed similar lines. It was very effective and enabled children to ‘look’ like they fitted in and ‘perform’ as typically developing peers. Not-ABA approaches also followed similar lines but was less effective.

Also, during this time, corporal punishment was used in mainstream schools to punish children who couldn’t or (considered wouldn’t) conform. ABA also used corporal punishment as it was standard educational practice.

Adults who received ABA as children were predominately educated during these years. Many of them report mental health problems and attribute that to ABA. However, many autistics who did not receive ABA also report mental health problems, from a predominately unaccommodating unfriendly anxiety-ridden school experience.

Education has moved on (though we appear to be in a blip where we might be going backwards). ABA has moved with it. In addition there are now 15 years of quality research to show that punishment has nowhere near the effect that positive reinforcement has on changing behaviours.

Changing behaviours means not accepting autism

So, now we might move on to an argument some make that we have no business changing the behaviour of autistics because that means not accepting them. I would argue that the purpose of ALL education is to change behaviour.

Young children do not know how to use a knife and fork, put socks on, sit in a classroom, respond to a teacher until they have engaged in adult-directed teaching. Tantruming toddlers are ignored and distracted and praised for demonstrating preferred behaviours. It’s how they learn and how we instinctively teach. Our education ideology now is that children should learn to be autonomous independent and contribute and that they need certain skills to do this, and so we frame our teaching through behavioural methods that we just use but haven’t applied scientifically in order to teach them.

For typically developing children reinforcement and occasional punishment comes in the form of social praise or punishment. It works because kids care what their parents, teachers and others think of them and of their behaviours. Social praise is internalised and self-reinforced often. Children pick up the small smile or eye contact that teachers give and actively seek it to check they are on the right lines. That is they use their social environment and the clues from other people to enable them to be successful, and behaviourists would say reinforcement and punishment influences their thinking behaviours too. Some others would say it is nothing to do with behaviour but some kind of intrinsic motivation, or maturation (though the rare studies of children brought up by wolves suggest maturation as it is described, without social engagement is unlikely to happen). Unclear also how intrinsic motivation is learned if not learned through behavioural reinforcement, -though some say it is genetic stemming from inherited internal morals or perhaps spiritual granted by God.

Children with autism are often not reinforced (or punished) by social behaviours in the same way, and so need more extrinsic reinforcement until they learn the value to them of social reinforcement. Teachers often wonder why a child continues their behaviours despite being told off. It isn’t because they are rude it is because that has no meaning for them. Earning a token for a preferred activity or a marble for their marble run for sought behaviour has a better effect (provided they are reinforced by something meaningful to them), and eventually this can be paired with and then superseded by adult praise. They just need that extra step of help.

ABA is about normalising 

Another criticism, similar to above is that ABA is used to teach skills to make them more like NTs so that they can navigate the world on NT terms, when instead we should be changing the world to accept people with autism. Understanding about behaviour means that you can use behavioural principles to reinforce behaviours we want to see more of and reduce those we do not. There is concern from autistics that NTs are using their understanding of behaviours to force autistics to override their own instincts and suppress their fears in order to avoid punishments, or in order to be reinforced. A misunderstanding of ABA is often that absence of reinforcements are punishments, but this is no more true than a teacher not saying ‘well done’ is a punishment.

But there certainly are ethical questions to be asked about WHAT is taught. Should eye contact be taught? (There is broad agreement that it should not, but have you ever tried ordering a drink at a busy bar without it? I guess one solution is to have a bar ‘end’ that was autism friendly perhaps.) Should choice be taught? Should non-vocal be taught how to verbalise? Should a reluctant writer be taught to use a pencil. These are ethical questions yes, but actually have very little to do with the methodology used. If you decide it ought to be taught you’d just simply go for the most effective way.

To an extent all models of education are still about normalising, or at least about standardising. All children need to learn to follow the rules of a school in order to be effectively taught in those environments, and some will find that easier than others. In my opinion reasonable adjustments should have mental well-being at the heart, not low expectations or excuses.

No Excuses

Another backlash against behaviourism is because of the recent media reports of schools with zero excuses and strict behavioural models who align traditional education with behaviourism. However, I do not see much behaviourism in their approaches, only control. Behavioural interventions need to be about individuals, not whole school conformity. So consideration of what will reinforce a particular student’s learning behaviours so they can get closer to their goals of independence, self-study, confidence speaking out loud, comprehension understanding etc. If you insist on tracking the teacher with your eyes you need to take data on the effectiveness of that on the learning outcome and the mental well-being of the individual learner. Whole school behavioural policies can appear to be more for the benefit of the teachers than the kids.

ABA and LAs

As young children learn exponentially, there is a lot of pressure on families to find some form of effective early intervention before gaps widen between their children and their peers. In the UK very little is offered that has any evidence base for teaching skills, nor commits much in terms of hours or parental training at the very time post diagnosis when parents are most motivated to act, but ABA does. Unfortunately, LAs can find it convenient to listen to the concerns raised above and in many cases reinforce the behaviours of those raising them through promotion until they have become quite authoritarian on the topic and hold positions of power and influence.

SENDIST almost always find in favour of ABA when it reaches that stage but parents have had to usually fund it for some considerable amount of time themselves, in order to evidence that it works for their individual child. This is not necessarily because it doesn’t work for ‘some’ children, but because the particular set up for their child’s programme is individual and based on what the parents can resource. They don’t request ABA in general, they request a particular version, with a particular number of hours etc. that they can produce the evidence for. As a result of these win’s, LAs are then often faced with considerable costs. A programme of learning for one child may reach 40 hours a week with a number of tutors, a supervisor and a consultant, and run 52 weeks of the year. Often though parents start out asking for just 12 hours in term time, or simply for a BCBA to oversee their child’s TA,  but as the battle grows and evidence is generated it gets much bigger. But ABA itself isn’t a programme. Direct Instruction, Precision Teaching, PECs etc all come under the science of ABA, as can reward charts, Functional Behavioural Analysis, ABC assessments if conducted by people who understand what they are doing.

Some LAs are starting to acknowledging the fact that they need to develop a strategy. Richmond has a mainstream school with an ABA unit attached. Essex and Thurrock and Reading all have maintained schools which use ABA methodology. Many Independent Specialist schools have Board Certified Behavioural Analysts (BCBA) on their staff. Eagle House, Beyond Autism (aka Rainbow), Treehouse, Jigsaw, Snowflake and both Southwark’s Head of Autism outreach and Head of Communication and Language are BCBAs, and Newham is now developing in-borough provision through their EP service.

However, Local Authorities are often reluctant to promote or advertise any forms of ABA, even when models exist to show that it can be provided with better outcomes for lower cost, as they suffer from the same competition laws that govern schools. If they are seen to be providing good quality provision, or provision that families want for their children with SEND, they risk becoming the national or London provider as desperate families will often move to access it. This creates a very hostile stance towards parents seeking it and an incentive to perpetuate as many myths as possible to deny it.

Conversely, this seems to be occurring at a time when CAHMS are under extreme pressure to not medicate for ADHD, and in some cases not to diagnose, whilst looking to their Education Colleagues to provide positive behavioural support strategies (recommended by NICE) in which they have not been trained, leaving children without either medication or effective behavioural management provision which is likely to trigger increasing applications for EHCPs and TA support.

Regulation

As from above it is fairly clear that only parents who are both wealthy and desperate are able to access ABA for their children. Whilst in the US, ABA practitioners are plentiful, extensively trained and paid at similar rate to TAs in the UK, here they charge up to around £30 an hour for very little training and experience. BCBAs are often expected in the US to have completed up to 5 years of clinical experience post qualification before they can become a supervisor, let alone a Consultant. Here, many become Consultants as soon as they receive their BCBA certificates. Parents are at the mercy of what is available (Which is of variable and often questionable quality) and what they are charged. Until Educationalists and LAs start to pay attention, develop in-house skills and learn about what it can offer and stop fudging kids provision with ‘eclectic’ which appears to mean unspecified, unmeasurable, unaccountable provision that they make up according to what they want to do whilst blaming lack of progress on the child, then children who have very real potential will be failed both by the state, and by ABA practitioners of dubious quality. I notice in the Journal from the College or Teaching entitled ‘The science of Learning’ there was no mention at all of ABA.

Finally

Finally, many good schools do use ABA in their provision (through both trial and error and system design), often without realising it, or knowing that is what they are doing, and with subsequent good impact. Many Special Schools who will tell you they don’t agree with ABA but use PECS to enable children to communicate for example. Many mainstream schools use reward charts/pegs, marbles in a jar to reinforce behaviours, which mean they agree with the concept in principle but somehow feel it is abusive to differentiate for a child with autism and give them individual reinforcement that is meaningful to them when marbles are not. I’m pleased there is a movement now for more critical thinking in teaching and I hope that we can move on from a blind acceptance that behaviourism is somehow ‘how we used to live’ and I hope when we do, there is quality Supervision and Training for delivery.

Footnote: If you’d like to see an example of how ABA ought to work in practice and the refusal of that request simply because it was recognised as ABA, see previous blog: ‘Consultative SALT‘.

Spectrum Sunday

 

Consultative SALT

When Kipper (diagnosed with ASD) was in Nursery we were told that a Consultative model of Speech and Language Therapy was the gold standard. Nevertheless as a result of a lost tribunal where provision was thrown at him in an attempt to head off any consideration of a personal budget for what we knew worked, Kipper received weekly direct therapy for an hour a week as well as full-time 1:1 TA support. It’s not what we wanted. This is what we wanted:

Kipper had a very keen interest in fruit at the time and it was our wish that he could hand out the fruit at snack time to practise the conversation skills of turn-taking, listening and responding. We wanted him to be supported to ask each child what they would like, listen to their response and hand them their chosen fruit. Kipper had none of these skills at that point but evidence had showed that with support he could learn this quickly. This would give him 30 opportunities to practice a day and the task would hold his attention due to his special interest. He would be able to practise fluency and as his skills developed he could learn additional skills such as greeting peers by name, or varying his language.

Should he become bored or distracted, a well-trained TA could note his particular excitement about bananas and have the children known for choosing them placed in the line spaced to keep the interest going.

It was our wish that once he had mastered this skill with fruit he could move onto handing out pencils or coloured paper or even playground equipment. This would not only give him many opportunities to practice and become fluent in interactions with peers, but increase his peer esteem as the ‘giver of things’ and establish their habits include asking him for things outside of the therapy tasks, to help him generalise his skills of conversation.

But our request was met with a sigh, and an agreement that he could give out one piece of fruit a day, creating for him the possibility to learn in a month (which was unlikely due to the slow pace and lack of fluency expectation), what he could have learned in one day. His TA instead of supporting him would stand well back, trying to enable him to somehow develop independence and peer interaction all by himself, taking him once a week to a SALT direct therapy session where the Therapist would scroll though different board games to try to get him interested enough to take his turn with her which was slow and ineffective mostly.

The nursery was unwilling to listen to us, or to our suggestions which were modest. We only went to tribunal because we knew we would be ignored by them and so wanted a Consulting professional who would be credible with them funded to oversee his learning in the way we knew he needed.

What progress he could have made if they’d listened!