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Five Tips for Delivering Outstanding SEN Provision in International Schools | Sam Garner

When I began working with international schools, SEN (Special Educational Needs) seemed to be very much an additional service, a separate department where children went to be ‘fixed’ or to ‘catch up’. There also seemed to be a culture of not wanting to talk about SEN or advertise how it was supported because schools did not want to be thought of as an ‘SEN school’. Fortunately, this approach is changing, as we can see by the increase in demand for discussions around SEN and high-quality CPD. Many schools now understand the importance of delivering outstanding SEN provision, recognising the impact of neurodiversity on learning, and also understanding the positive impact for all pupils when robust SEN provision is a central component of a school’s strategy.

The Education Endowment Foundation, a charity providing evidence-based research to help schools improve teaching and learning, make five recommendations for SEN provision. If you are looking to improve your SEN provision, these recommendations are a good place to start.

1. Create a positive and supportive environment for all pupils without exception

In short, a commitment to developing an inclusive environment for everyone, ensuring that supporting SEN is everyone’s responsibility, not just the SEN department, and a commitment to embrace neurodiversity, from top to bottom.

At the top, Senior Leaders must make a commitment to reduce all barriers to learning and participation by analysing data to ensure that SEN pupils are equally represented in all aspects of school life and working to develop inclusive teaching. At the bottom, this can consist of making simple changes such as working towards low arousal supportive environments and developing a standardised dyslexia friendly format for written information to be used through the school. It also means embracing assistive technology to help neurodiverse students work independently. For example, if a dyslexia student struggles with spelling, continuing to provide interventions and tests has been likened to continually asking a physically disabled child to walk.

2. Build an ongoing, holistic understanding of your pupils and their needs

It is important that we do not just use a deficit model approach to SEN. It is not about what students cannot do, it is about understanding their areas of difficulty but also understanding their strengths and using that knowledge effectively; it is about involving the pupil themselves, doing ‘with’ not ‘to’. Involving parents and working in partnership to improve outcomes is also imperative to achieve this end.

3. Ensure all pupils have access to high quality teaching

This is potentially one of the most challenging areas to address and requires looking at how we can adapt what we do in the classroom to be more inclusive as well as examining how we can develop a range of teaching strategies to be used flexibly in response to pupil needs. Part of this requires us to develop our own growth mindset and being open to self-reflection.

Differentiation or Universal Design for Learning does not mean more work, nor does it mean doing one thing several different ways. It means being open to improving what we do and working smarter not harder.

4. Complement high quality teaching with carefully selected small-group and one-to-one interventions

Inclusive environments and high-quality teaching will not mean there is no need for any interventions. Rather, it means that fewer interventions will be required, and they can be more effective rather than focusing on ‘catching up’. Where interventions are needed, it should be ensured that they are appropriate to the need and that staff are given the appropriate training to facilitate the intervention. We actively select appropriate interventions, not just stick to a few ‘old favourites’ because that is what we have always done.

5. Work effectively with Teaching Assistants

The final recommendation is that Teaching Assistants work effectively with SEN students. Research has shown that how a teaching assistant works is vital in outcomes for pupils. If a teaching assistant is only focused on task completion and only works with SEN pupils, then outcomes are likely to be negative. If they work on supporting learning and developing independent working skills, as well as working with ability pupils to allow the teacher time to work with SEN pupils, then outcomes are more likely to be positive. The most qualified person in the classroom should work with the students with the highest level of need.

I understand the desire to be more inclusive has to be balanced with still attracting pupils to your school. SEN is still considered ‘taboo’ in many cultures, and we know some parents will avoid a school that has a reputation of being ‘SEN’. By creating a positive and supportive environment for all pupils without exception, we are supporting SEN without singling out individual pupils. Through this, we will reduce the negative impact of being SEN.

We can also change the language we use by talking about individualised learning needs, or neurodiversity, about strengths and challenges. We can embrace assistive technology to help with challenges and reduce the impact of pupils’ SEN. We can have a positive impact in our community through awareness campaigns, scientific research and again, by highlighting famous people who have SEN and/or are neurodiverse.

Delivering outstanding SEN provision is a journey. Achieving full inclusion may be a long way off but incremental change leads to transformational change. It all starts with a commitment to improve outcomes for all pupils.


This article was written by Sam Garner, a Mental Health and Inclusion Consultant. To learn more about Sam's experience with SEN provisioning and the consulting services she offers, see Samantha Garner Services Ltd.

Join Sam Garner at the upcoming Outstanding Schools Europe 2023 Conference, taking place in London between the 28th February and 1st March, for the panel discussion 'Maintaining Momentum: How Can European International Schools Create, Sustain and Measure Whole School Approaches to Inclusion?'.