I have been working in the area of special educational needs (SEN) for over 25 years and had never contemplated trying to categorise parents in order to change their behaviour and develop or implement policy.
However this is what a firm of consultants, employed by Wirral Council to find ways of reducing spending on the transport of children with special educational needs, has suggested. The consultants advise the Council that “understanding what drives customer’s’ behaviour will impact on your ability to change behaviour”.
The consultants have used a “value modes” methodology to gain a greater understanding of parents of children with SEN. Using this methodology they identified three broad types of parent: the “prospector”, the “settler” and the “pioneer”. Find out which you are here.
After receiving responses from 200 parents to a questionnaire the consultants estimated that in Wirral 60% of parents of children with SEN were “pioneers”. They advised that this would “present an excellent cohort to implement changes” adding “this indicates a widespread interest in alternatives, if presented appropriately”.However on a more serious note this approach and some of the recommendations in the report raise some important issues:
- Was it really necessary to categorise parents in this way? The consultants completed 352 interviews with parents about transport and this seemed to provide a reasonably sound information base to consider options. But did it really matter if parents who shared a common view on an aspect of SEN transport were “prospectors” or “pioneers”? Is Brian Lamb OBE now kicking himself for not using the “value modes” methodology during the Lamb inquiry into “SEN and Parental Confidence” for the government.
- Is it really appropriate for a local authority to “change” the behaviour of parents with SEN as suggested in the consultant’s report? I am aware of such approaches being used in other contexts such as a campaign to promote healthier lifestyles. But is SEN the right context? Government policy is urging local authorities to work in partnership and in collaboration with parents of children with SEN. It does not mention changing their behaviour.
- How reliable is the categorisation in terms of ease of passage of the changes proposed by the consultants? For example the report explained that “to make a real step change the Council should take a bolder approach to reducing the number of statemented children, using the single Education, Health and Care Plan as an opportunity”. Government ministers have given assurances that the introduction of the new Education, Health and Care Plans was not about reducing legal entitlements to support. So faced with such a controversial proposal, I wonder how “pioneers” in Wirral will respond. Will they display the “avoid conflict” behaviours anticipated from “pioneers” or is there within them a latent “settler” who will be “inflamed by threats”?
And finally and most importantly, where was the focus on the needs of the child with SEN? The lengths the consultants went to consult parents was commendable (over 5,000 attempted phone calls). However, I was surprised by the lack of analysis on the needs of the children. The focus should not be on the characteristics of parents and trying to use this to change their behaviour. Neither should it be on looking at comparative data and simply concluding that because statementing rates are higher in Wirral can children’s needs be best met by removing statutory entitlements. Parents are important, but my overriding concern is that the focus must be on the children and what they need to fully participate and make good progress in their education.