5. Involving children, young people and families in decision making
Pupils at primary mainstream schools and special schools generally felt well listened to by teachers, and gave examples of being able to learn in a way that suited them.
While most pupils at mainstream secondary school did feel listened to, a few did not. A few felt that teachers didn't make the adjustments they needed. Conversely, some pupils in ASN bases within mainstream secondary schools felt strongly that their opinion was asked for and valued.
Almost all parents felt that they were involved in decision making relating to their child's education. However, some did not feel involved in choices about which school their child went to, or what support their child received at school.
Local authority officers indicated that the views of children and young people were reflected in Child's Plans and Individualised Learning Programmes.
Almost all school staff felt that children were able to express their views and have these heard at school. However, at one primary school staff felt that young people's needs were largely identified by adults.
Local authority officers and school staff agreed that involvement worked best if it was ongoing and planned, with support for the child to engage in a flexible way. However, they felt that meetings could be daunting; it could be hard to evidence and undertake meaningful engagement; and that the school culture needed to recognise the importance of hearing children's voices.
Local authority officers and school staff said that parents and carers were involved through attending relevant meetings and having their views reflected in plans. School staff indicated that engagement with parents and carers was very important in supporting pupils to thrive at school. Again, involvement was felt to work best if it was ongoing and genuine, the school and local authority could be flexible in meeting needs and if parents were seen as equal partners (with support provided as needed). However, it could be hard to balance the views of children and parents, and support parents to understand the range of options available.
5.1 This chapter explores how children, young people and families are involved in making decisions around meeting additional support needs. It draws on the opinions of children and young people, families, teachers and local authority officers.
5.2 It is worth noting that this research is qualitative. While this chapter gives an in-depth understanding of the experiences, feelings and perspectives of those who were involved in the research, its findings cannot be extrapolated to the wider population.
Children's views on involvement in decision making
5.3 Pupils at primary mainstream schools generally felt well listened to by teachers, and gave examples of being able to learn in a way that suits them; choose their activities in the class; discuss and influence the behaviour management system; take part in show and tell; and talk to teachers informally as they check in on how they are doing.
"In class we get lots of chances to say what we think should happen."
Pupil, 9, mainstream primary (in mainstream class with support)
5.4 While most pupils at secondary school did feel listened to, a few did not. A few felt that there were not many chances to talk to teachers about their needs, and that things did not change when they raised issues. Some felt that they couldn't work with teachers to make small changes, like to where they sit in the class. A few felt that teachers didn't make the adjustments that they needed.
"I feel like I'm not listened to when I say that things aren't working."
Pupil, 16, mainstream secondary
"Sometimes things have to reach crisis stage before some teachers will listen."
Pupil, 16, mainstream secondary (with one to one support at all times)
5.5 Conversely, some pupils in ASN bases within a mainstream secondary school strongly felt that their opinion was asked for and valued.
"We're treated as adults, as equals… its more of an independent style of learning."
Pupil, 16, mainstream secondary (in ASN base)
5.6 Pupils generally felt well listened to at special schools. In class, pupils felt able to ask if they could change the classroom environment (for example to make it quieter) and to ask to play with their favourite toys. A few pupils were involved in the pupil council, which they felt could change some of the things that happened at the school. However, a few pupils felt that teachers did not listen and said they were too busy.
5.7 Most parents also felt that their children had been involved, to some extent, in the decisions made about their education.
Parents' views on involvement in decision making
5.8 Almost all parents felt that they were involved in decision making relating to their child's education. Only a few did not feel involved. Almost all felt involved in reviews and updates relating to their child's progress.
5.9 When asked if they felt involved in choices about which school their child went to, most parents did feel involved. However, some (just under a quarter) did not feel involved. These parents indicated that they were not aware of any other options, were not consulted about what school options would be suitable, and were often just told by the local authority that their child would be attending or moving to a particular school. A few were quite upset about the need for their child to move schools. Some were unsure how they system worked.
5.10 Some (about a quarter) also did not feel involved in decisions about which support their child received at school. Some of these parents felt that their child was adequately supported, they just weren't involved in the decision making process. A few said there wasn't much choice, or they just took the maximum support the school could offer. One parent said they hadn't seen their child's individual learning plan, and another said they constantly had to push for the support that had been agreed. A few parents said they needed to trust that the school would do the best for their child.
"To a certain extent you need to put your trust in the school."
Parent, primary school
Reflecting the views of children and young people
Local authority views
5.11 Local authority officers indicated that the views of children and young people were reflected in Child's Plans and Individualised Learning Programmes.
5.12 Local authority officers felt that involvement of children and young people worked well if it was:
- ongoing and planned - thinking about transitions at an early stage;
- supported - with advocacy, support from peers or families, and with someone to challenge if there is no evidence of the child's opinion in the decision making process;
- flexible - with space for pre-meetings, written responses or other ways to be involved.
In one area, the local authority randomly identifies a selection of schools each year. A check of a sample of Child's Plans is done, to ensure that children have been consulted. They then talk to the school about making sure that children are involved and that it is evidenced clearly. A paper is also produced each year about the quality of Child's Plans.
"Children would be involved as long as it wouldn't be distressing for them. And we would make an effort to capture their voice if they couldn't come to the meeting."
5.13 The challenges included:
- meetings - which could be daunting, full of adults, using jargon;
- evidence - consistently recording children's views and evidencing involvement, particularly where needs are complex;
- meaningful engagement - which does not put an adult interpretation on children's views;
- school culture - schools need to buy in to hearing children's voices and recognise the importance of this - which most felt was improving.
"It's about respecting the views of young people, not imposing our views unnecessarily."
In one area, a young person with cerebral palsy was being educated in specialist primary school provision. At transition to secondary school she wanted to go to mainstream school. Most of the adults in the team did not understand this or think it was feasible. The young person spoke up at a planning meeting and said that she would not expect a university to build a special campus just for her, so why should she have to go to a specialist secondary school. The local authority took her views into account, and identified a mainstream secondary school which was suitable and "she is now thriving."
5.14 Almost all school staff felt that children were able to express their views and have these heard at school. However, at one primary school staff felt that young people didn't really have a voice and that their needs were largely identified by adults.
5.15 School staff highlighted that they gathered the views of children and young people through regular review processes, which fed into formal plans. Informally, schools also gathered views through discussing each day how pupils felt in class (most often in primary school), and through pupil surveys, pupil voice, pupil councils or world café events.
5.16 Teachers also involved young people in regular, ongoing communication about their progress towards targets, and - in some cases - what topics and activities they wished to focus on.
"They take the learning in amazing different directions, and we go with what they are interested in."
Teacher, special school
5.17 Overall, school staff felt that approaches worked well where:
- engagement was on a regular, ongoing basis;
- teachers were able to be flexible in meeting needs;
- teachers were open, non-judgemental and had a positive mindset; and
- schools followed the rights of the child model.
In one ASN base, pupils can complete a short evaluation sheet at the end of every period they have at the base. It is meant to be a quick, simple way to get immediate feedback on how they feel that lesson went. It can be challenging to get them to complete it, but it does provide useful feedback to teachers.
5.18 Approaches worked less well where children struggled to identify and communicate their own needs, and where pupil and parent views are different.
"Pupil views can be lost in overbearing, oversensitive parental views. So we don't always explore pupil views if we feel it might rock the relationship with parents."
Head teacher, special school
"Even the pupils who are verbal struggle to reflect and express their views and opinions on things."
ASN teacher, secondary school
5.19 One school found it hard to access independent interpreters to allow deaf pupils to express their views.
Reflecting the views of parents and carers
Local authority views
5.20 Local authority officers indicated that parents and carers were involved through attending relevant meetings and having their views reflected in plans. Involvement of parents and carers worked well if:
- the local authority was flexible and willing to listen;
- skilled facilitators were involved in the discussions;
- involvement is ongoing, open, pragmatic and genuine;
- parents are seen as equal partners; and
- parents receive support.
"We pride ourselves on the way we work with parents. We try to be as flexible as possible with people around the placement. We do a lot of work to mediate concerns and to avoid tribunals or disputes."
5.21 The challenges included:
- everyone recognising the importance of parental involvement;
- supporting parents to understand the range of options available;
- the use of jargon and the complexity of discussions; and
- getting a range of parent views at a strategic level.
5.22 School staff indicated that engagement with parents and carers was very important.
"The ones that thrive best are the ones that we work more with the parents."
Deputy head teacher, special school
5.23 School staff gathered the views of parents and carers through a range of methods, including attendance at learning reviews and planning meetings; parents' nights; daily communication through diaries, emails, phone calls and social media; events to increase engagement with the school such as open days and learning walks; and parents' focus groups and surveys. A few schools mentioned that they had a dedicated post to engage families.
"We have close relationships with our families as we are problem solving on a daily basis."
Head teacher, special school
"I often phone people at 8am when I know they will be in, as I prefer to have close contact with parents or carers."
Principal teacher, secondary school
In one primary school, there are weekly learning together sessions between 9am and 11am, where parents and carers are encouraged to come into school and learn with their child. Parents are also encouraged to come to the reading recovery group, and four out of the eight parents have attended.
5.24 School staff felt that parental engagement worked best if it was regular and ongoing. A few mentioned that parents may expect only negative feedback, and that it was important to give feedback in a non-judgemental way and to give positive feedback too.
"I call parents regularly to share good news about their children. This gives the children a wee boost."
ASN teacher, primary school
5.25 School staff found it hard to involve parents if their views were overbearing, or did not recognise the views of the child. Schools also had to work hard to managed expectations, in line with the available resources. Schools worked hard to overcome parents' own experiences of school, which could often be negative. And many mentioned that formal meetings could be daunting and intimidating for parents.
"A lot of our parents had negative experiences at school and therefore don't want to come to school. Others feel too embarrassed to come."
ASN teacher, secondary school