DYT CEO Chris Rossiter takes a look at recent comments by Amanda Spielman at Ofsted’s annual report launch and Nick Gibb in Conservative Home on the importance of early literacy in primary education, questioning whether their statements truly reflect the reality for children with SEND.

Amanda Spielman, Chief Inspector at Ofsted published her annual report today saying that the importance of early literacy cannot be overstated and how this is a key issues for social justice. This echoes a recent blog by Nick Gibb, Minister of State at the Department for Education, who proclaimed that not only are the significant reforms his department has made to primary education working, but that he has ‘evidence’ to prove it.  The Minister, writing for Conservative Home, made it clear that despite substantial opposition to the reforms, his changes to curriculum and assessment are paying off with ‘75 per cent of pupils now achieving the more demanding standards in reading.’ Amanda Spielman used slightly different language, citing early literacy as being a ‘central plank’ of education.

Undoubtedly, the recent changes have been implemented with the energy and adaptability we’re used to seeing with our hard-working teachers, and schools should rightly take credit for their efforts. However, are both the Minister and Chief Inspector speaking about all pupils when they claim that ‘parents can be increasingly confident that their local school is delivering higher standards of education for their children?’ If you are a parent of a child with Special Educational Needs (SEN) I’m not sure that confidence is guaranteed, and here’s the evidence to prove it.


Recent analysis by Driver Youth Trust found that despite the considerable gains in the numbers of pupils achieving the expected standard in the phonics screening check since its introduction in 2010, the same cannot be said for SEN pupils, with data indicating an emerging disparity in SEN results for phonics testing. For example, a child with an EHCP, generally those with the most severe needs, in Inner London is 50% more likely to reach the expected standard compared to a child in the North West, East or West Midlands. Just 6% of children with an EHCP in Coventry reached the expected decoding standard compared to 47% of children in Hammersmith.


The picture at the end of primary is a little better. In 2017 31% of pupils with speech and language difficulties – the single largest classified group in SEN – achieved the expected standard. Looking back at the statistical first release of 2016, 26% of pupils classified as having similar needs did so. This increase may look like progress, but it is not anywhere near outcomes for all pupils at 72% overall.

Numbers of SEN pupils

Ofsted report that there are 1.3 million pupils with SEND, which is 15% of all pupils. Of these, 250,000 pupils had a statement of SEN or an education, health and care (EHC) plan and around one million pupils were on SEN support. However, new analysis suggests that more pupils than you might think are identified as having SEN throughout their school career.

Evidence from FFT Education Datalab published this week, suggests that the number of pupils classified as SEN varies enormously; 44% of the cohort had ‘ever been classified’ as having SEN by the time they reached the end of year 11. This is backed by the Education Policy Institute, who back in November 2017 cited evidence that suggested ‘39 percent [of pupils] were recorded with SEND at some point between Reception (age five) and Year 11 (age sixteen).

The attainment gap of SEN pupils is and has been historically far below that of their non-SEN peers and yet the Minister appears oblivious to this. Although Spielman recognises that ‘children with poor literacy do worse at school’ she uncomfortably goes on to highlight attainment gaps between the ‘fastest and the slowest’. This is hardly the sort of language we should expect from someone holding such a crucial role in our education system and many parents of children with SEN will find this rather offensive.

It’s true that Ofsted’s mention of SEND and the subsequent attention it has received in the media, should be recognised as a key advancement of the education debate. Yet we need far more nuance to capture the educational experiences of the thousands of pupils with SEN up and down the country.

I whole heartedly support Gibb’s assertion that ‘every parent deserves to send their children to an excellent school’. The only difference is that some of us acknowledge that this must mean all pupils, not just those who make the ‘grade’.