Why the gap? SEND and exam attainment in UK colleges

4 minute read

Illustration of a female student pondering exam results
Illustration of a female student pondering exam results
Illustration of a female student pondering exam results
Illustration of a female student pondering exam results

On average, SEND students attain four grades lower than their peers during their time at college. That’s according to recent government research conducted into UK schools.

This isn’t an insignificant gap. When a single grade can be the difference between a place at university and not, four grades are a relative mountain.

But why, and how do we correct this?

There are no simple answers to either of those questions, unfortunately.

It’s a combination of factors which has led to the gap becoming so wide, and where there are lots of problems, lots of solutions are needed. We’ll consider some of those here.

Challenges can begin pre-diagnosis

Getting a diagnosis for disabilities and learning disorders in the UK can be challenging. Waiting lists are notoriously long, and getting a private consultation isn’t an affordable option for most people.

It means the gap can often form well before diagnosis, as a SEND student may not be identified and provided additional support until well into their academic career.

Ultimately, that means by the time they make it to college and do get the support they need, it’s already a game of catch-up: the time left to close the gap isn’t long at all.

Lack of adequate resources

Diagnosis is one issue, but then getting the support needed is another entirely. SEND students oftentimes require specialist support, such as assistive technology or additional support staff.

Many colleges struggle to provide this assistance. Budgetary constraints and competing priorities due to inadequate funding mean colleges cannot provide the specialist support some SEND students require.

Given some schools are quite literally falling apart it’s no surprise colleges struggle to finance all areas.

The people who miss out here are the SEND students who don’t get the support they need. Without it, they can be left disadvantaged compared to their peers, making academia an uphill battle.

Lack of awareness

Creating an inclusive teaching environment is absolutely essential, but many educators don’t have training on how to do this for SEND students.

Teachers need to understand the specific needs and learning styles of their SEND students to provide appropriate accommodations and adjustments. Professional development opportunities for educators are essential to bridge this knowledge gap.

It’s critical to note this is no fault of educators. There needs to be more widespread availability of training available to help upskill staff on SEND.

Social issues

Unfortunately, lack of awareness spreads to the peers of SEND students.

Research shows that SEND students are significantly more likely to experience bullying than other students.

This can be a traumatic experience which only compounds academic troubles, as difficulties in socialising can lead to feelings of isolation and lower motivation

This can’t be underestimated as a factor in the grade gap. Addressing the emotional and social aspects of SEND students' lives is just as crucial as addressing their academic needs.

Transitioning into college

The move from school to college can be tough for anyone; it’s why 8.7% of students end up dropping out in the first year. This transition can be especially challenging for SEND students.

Differences in the learning environment, teaching styles, and support systems can disrupt their educational progress. Adequate transition support and coordination between schools and colleges are essential to help SEND students adapt successfully.

What can be done?

There’s no easy solution when it comes to closing the attainment gap in colleges. It’s not rooted in any one cause, meaning there needs to be a lot of change.

A few steps in the right direction would be:

  1. Early Intervention: Identifying and diagnosing SEND students at an earlier age allows support to be in place when it’s needed.

  2. Increased Funding: Proper financing is needed to ensure SEND students get the additional support they need to succeed.

  3. Teacher Training: Continued professional development and training for educators to improve their understanding of SEND and inclusive teaching practices.

  4. Individualized Education Plans (IEPs): Developing and implementing IEPs tailored to each SEND student's needs gives them the best chance at doing well academically.

  5. Inclusive Curriculum: Ensure that the curriculum is flexible and can be adapted to accommodate different learning styles and needs.

  6. Emotional and Social Support: Promote a positive and inclusive school culture to address the emotional and social well-being of SEND students.

This is by no means a comprehensive list, nor are they easy changes to make. But, action needs to be taken to begin reducing the gap between SEND students and their college peers.

A long way to go

It’s clear that there’s plenty of work to do to provide equal opportunity to SEND students in UK colleges.

The gap of four grades has emerged over time, stemming from issues in diagnosis, limited funding, lack of understanding, and inadequate support transitioning to college education.

None of these issues are insurmountable by any means. The process of overcoming them is a slow and challenging one, but a necessary one to give every student the chance to succeed.

Marketing Executive

Curtis is a former student with the University of Leeds, and now hopes to help current students get the most out of their studies. Prior to Booost Curtis worked in the energy industry, where he supported disabled customers during the COVID-19 pandemic before making the move to marketing.

Marketing Executive

Curtis is a former student with the University of Leeds, and now hopes to help current students get the most out of their studies. Prior to Booost Curtis worked in the energy industry, where he supported disabled customers during the COVID-19 pandemic before making the move to marketing.

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