But what about our childhood? The reality of SEND inclusion

Naomi Madden is our Director of Projects. She works across Grapevine’s Strengthening People strand of action – including overseeing intensive development programmes like Teenvine Plus for ages 13-18 and Help and Connect for learning disabled adults, and our non-statutory advocacy service.

Exam season is here and June’s Learning Disability and Loneliness Awareness Weeks, plus the final three months of 2022-23’s Teenvine Plus programme, are ahead. Naomi takes this moment to reflect on how we help young people thrive in today’s world and the challenges we face in aspiring to do so.

A large group of Teenviners and staff stand in front of a tree for a group photo. They are all smiling, some are cheering.
Some of 2021-22’s Teenvine Plus young people and Grapevine staff.

Values in principle versus challenges in reality

The principles of the Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) reforms back in 2014 brought so much hope, didn’t they?

More emphasis on mainstream inclusion and provision that meets need and aids development. Full of ‘musts’ and ‘shoulds’ that would improve outcomes for disabled students with or without an Education, Health and Care plan.

Nearly 10 years on, SEND inclusion looks like 52 per cent of special schools oversubscribed. The requests for Education, Health and Care plans have risen by 50 per cent as parents desperately pursue SEND provision for their children. Tribunal cases have risen by 580 per cent since the reforms, with 95 per cent going in parents’ favour.

Are these the reforms the government wanted? Parents having to become SEND warriors to enable their child to go to school and prevent them from becoming yet another NEET* statistic?

Parents constantly negotiating with school to try to enable their child to exist within the mainstream education system’s disciplinary ethos – one prized by ministers but, for many SEND students, one which creates toxic and discriminatory environments?

Five teenagers, boys and girls, sit chatting on beanbags inside a giant inflatable sensory bubble at Teenvine's summer camp out 2022.
Teenagers relax in a giant sensory bubble at Teenvine’s 2022 summer camp out in Coventry to celebrate their ‘graduation’ from the year-long programme.

In all the mess is one important notion that I think we have all forgotten – childhood.

By definition, childhood provides the foundation for all future learning, behaviour and health. Our childhood forms the building blocks for our adult life. Our experiences will shape everything we come to understand about the world and how we interact with it.

Adverse childhood experiences are linked to chronic health conditions, issues with our mental health and poverty in adult life.

So a system that leaves children struggling for years in educational limbo is a huge part of the SEND inequality story.

It risks a childhood built on a sense of disconnect from everything that is good about growing up. A childhood based on:

  • How well they struggled without the right help
  • How well they managed without friendships or a sense of belonging
  • How effectively they navigated environments that made them feel left out or stigmatised.
Two teenage firls, one black and one white, wear black tops and smile through a flower garland outside a log cabin at Teenvine's 2022 summer camp out.
Fun and belonging are two ingredients that help build resilience. Another photo from Teenvine’s summer camp out, co-organised with the young people.

Power in the ordinary

For me, a key ingredient for any youth offer is ‘the power of the ordinary’. A notion put forward by the Centre of Mental Health in their ‘Children In Need: A Million and Me’ report.

“Resilience does not come from rare and special qualities, but from the everyday magic of ordinary, normative human resources in the minds, brains, and bodies of children, in their families and relationships, and in their communities.”

A good youth offer of any kind must have added fun and happiness, easy and flexible access, a chance for creative self expression, and promote the value of relationships and belonging – key ingredients missing from overstretched services.

Designing such things into youth projects is so much easier when you develop ideas alongside youngsters. Doing with and learning from young people is what keeps me in this challenging space.

A woman with curly black hair and leopard print top sits on a stage panel speaking to the audience
Naomi Madden, Grapevine

In my experience these ingredients create meaningful and impactful projects and programmes for some of the most marginalised SEND youngsters which often see them able to forgive and re-enter the education space, take up new opportunities and begin to thrive.

I want to network with others who care deeply about – and wish to act on – the need to create positive childhoods for all children in Coventry and Warwickshire. I’m keen to share learning and new ideas.

My world is SEND youngsters. What’s yours?

Resources, links and what to do next

Find out more about our Teenvine Plus and Next Steps programmes here.

Browse a collection of our articles on this work here.

Download ‘The Power of the Ordinary’ report to read it in more detail.

Download a copy of the new interim ‘Preventing School Exclusions’ report (a three-year journey to restore relationships between schools and services in three English local authority areas) by the RSA here.

Connect with Naomi by email to continue the conversation, share your thoughts and ways in which we can shift the dial on a SEND childhood being an adverse childhood.

Mental health support for young people.

*NEET in young people stands for Not in Education, Employment or Training.