On the frontline with a learning support assistant

A learning support assistant tells Sarah Aston about the unintended effects Labour’s inclusion policy is having on mainstream schools over a decade after it was introduced. Illustration by John Levers

By Civil Service World

21 Apr 2015

I am a senior learning support assistant (LSA) in a small Catholic secondary school, working with children with special educational needs (SEN). This includes students with physical difficulties that affect their motor skills, students with Asperger’s syndrome, autism, severe dyslexia or those with visual or hearing impairments.

There is no “average day” – the role varies depending on the child, the teacher or the subject being taught – but my work includes preparing learning materials and working with students one-to-one, or within a small group, to help those that need support with understanding certain words that are unique to a topic being studied, reading, spelling or social communication. For instance, a GCSE maths class with a child with dyslexia, requires setting out instructions in a way the student can follow, but an A Level politics class with a student with severe Asperger’s requires more nuanced support, helping the student communicate with classmates or the teacher.

I thoroughly enjoy working with students, and the most rewarding aspect of the job is watching someone who has struggled in Key stage 3 (age 12-14), reach their potential by the end of Key stage 4 (age 14-16). A personal highlight has been seeing three students with varying levels of Asperger’s syndrome go on to study at university and live on campus. For young people struggling with Asperger’s, that is an amazing achievement.

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If I was running the Department for Education, however, my priority would be to tackle the assumption that a mainstream education is the right answer for students with special educational needs. While a policy of inclusion sounds positive, many mainstream schools do not have adequate support systems in place to ensure children with severe disabilities are able to integrate with other children. Not only is this unfair on students with special needs, it also often impacts the entire class’s ability to learn.

Although inclusion as a policy has been around since 2001, over the last decade schools have come under increasing pressure to accommodate more serious forms of disability as a result of many specialised units being closed. This is frustrating. While students with dyslexia or mild forms of autism or Asperger’s have benefitted from being mainstreamed, those with more severe disabilities have really struggled.

Last year, the government attempted to improve SEND provisions by setting out which departments and authorities are responsible for children and young people with learning disabilities, but I believe there are many alternative avenues to educate and integrate that are more appropriate to these students.

A couple of months ago, Katie Price was criticised for using government funding to send her son to a special school in London. While everyone focused on the headlines, they missed the key point that there are no specialised schools near her home. Although Price now sends her son to a London unit, other parents similarly affected have opted to try mainstream schools first.

Something else which isn’t often considered is the impact that mainstreaming can have on teachers. With the teaching profession becoming more popular in recent years, more and more young people straight out of university are entering the Teach First training scheme. Although this is fantastic, and I am pleased so many people are choosing to teach, young teachers on their first job often struggle to cope with the pressures of teaching a class of 20 students, let alone a class that includes two or three children with mental or physical disabilities.

This has been exacerbated by the current government’s decision to raise the floor target, which measures school performance against a universal standard for pupil attainment. While results targets are an easy way of measuring a school’s success, often children with special needs require more than just academic attention, and in many instances unrealistic targets have resulted in distress for students. Raising the targets also means that LSAs like me are placed under pressure to meet often very unrealistic expected grades, and are judged if these are not achieved.

Given that we are allocated only one hour per week to complete reports on students’ progress and come up with lesson plans to help individual students, working towards higher results becomes unfeasible as the number of SEN students rises. As a result, most of my colleagues work at home or come in early to prepare properly for lessons, something that is only going to increase as targets continue to rise.

While I can see the benefits of raising targets and ensuring the standard of maths and English is improved, I wish the government would focus more on improving the standards of specialised education for those that need it. The government should reassess whether inclusion is the right policy and reverse the long-term trend of closing special schools.”

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