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The new SEN reforms have, more than ever, placed the emphasis on all classroom teachers to be ‘teachers of SEN’. This is not new information; in fact it is a sentence that has been repeated in almost every discussion about the reforms. It is the impact of this catch-all statement that will really be news.

Increasing numbers of children who would have been considered to have additional needs, and would be placed at either School Action or School Action Plus will now simply be members of the class. But this does not mean that their additional needs will have been waved away by a magic wand. Instead, their additional needs, their barriers to learning, will have to be addressed within regular classroom teaching.

Early identification

The best way to deal with a barrier to learning is to identify it early; intervention is much more effective the younger a student is and the less entrenched the difficulties and coping strategies are. Interventions can then be put into place to empower that pupil to overcome their barrier.

It all sounds nice and neat, doesn’t it? This system sounds lovely in theory, but is rather more difficult in practice. Increasingly, pupils’ barriers do not fit into easily definable categories and challenge the most imaginative of classroom teachers or SENCOs to determine what intervention is needed.

Internal or external?

While traditional schools have thought of barriers to learning in terms of academic, social or behavioural, perhaps it is time to think of barriers in terms of internal and external. Internal issues come from within the pupil: poor self-esteem or specific issues such as ASD, ADHD and dyslexia.

External barriers are when processes, activities, resources and situations themselves create barriers to someone accessing the learning opportunity. For example, a pupil with dyslexia will struggle with a word search.

So an activity that may well be seen as a fun way to explore new vocabulary by most children may be viewed as confusing and threatening by others, leading to at best a lack of learning and at worst, poor behaviour to mask the fear and avoid the work. The task becomes the barrier.

Thinking of barriers in this way stops the tendency to place all the difficulties within the child, to lay responsibility for the barrier at their door. This has, in the past, led to high levels of disengagement and a sense of distrust for the systems that are supposed to help these vulnerable pupils.

By acknowledging that both sides can present barriers, a more collaborative approach can be taken. Both pupil and school can meet each other half way and begin to overcome the barriers together.

The new SEN agenda will continue to place demands on already stretched classroom teachers. Planning a lesson and then determining which parts of that may present barriers to individuals within the group may seem like an onerous chore.

But understanding the link between the task that demanded too much dexterity from the pupil with dyspraxia, which made her feel foolish and belittled, which in turn led her to lash out at another pupil, so now you have lost your dinner hour to supervise a detention; will make that extra five minutes of thinking-through the lesson and planning for the needs of the group seem much more worthwhile.