Through the  

Looking Glass:  

Is universal  

provision what  

it seems?


Through the Looking Glass: is universal provision what it seems?



©  2017 Driver Youth Trust

This report is published by  
the Driver Youth Trust, 2017.  
Charity number: 1167893. 
Report author:  
Christopher Rossiter,  
Director of Driver Youth Trust

Design and production:  
Kindlemix Communications

Foreword 2
Executive summary 


Our recommendations 


 Influencers and policy makers








Introduction – Why this piece of work? 


  Our hypothesis 


  Why does this matter? 


  Is universal provision what it seems? 


  How successful is our approach to universal provision? 


Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) 


  SEND affects more learners than you think


  Where are most children with SEND educated? 


  What are the outcomes for SEND learners compared with their peers? 


  Comparing progress of SEND learners to those eligible for Free School Meals  


Where do we start? 


 With those who influence public policy


  How have recent policies and initiatives recognised children with SEND?  


  Design and methodology 


Exploring our themes 


  Disadvantage 18


  Love of reading 








Discussion 30
What did we find?


  Why does it matter? 


  The way ahead? 


References 34

The Driver Youth Trust has consistently been 
concerned with addressing the needs of 
those who find literacy difficult, many of
whom will be dyslexic. As well as devising 
our flagship school programme, Drive for
Literacy, we focus on policy work and
commission research. In 2014 our report
Fish in the Tree asked ‘Why are we failing
children with dyslexia?’ and focused on 
the need for teacher training, whilst a year 
later Joining the Dots looked at the impact
of educational reforms on those learners 
with a Special Educational Need or 
Disability (SEND).

Through the Looking Glass, written by our 
Director, Christopher Rossiter, examines the 
recent reports on literacy that inform the 
education agenda and asks – is universal
provision what it seems? We look at what
we mean by literacy, by being 
‘disadvantaged’ and ask where those
learners with SEND, most of them in 
mainstream school settings, fit into the
picture. Are the conventional assumptions 
accurate, or is the ‘Looking Glass’ world
very different?

All the reports we analysed are well-
intentioned and aimed at raising literacy 
standards. However, if we are not precise 
with our language, if we don’t examine 
the nuances and complexities behind the 
definitions we use and if we don’t include
children and young people with SEND in 
our aspirations, we will not raise general 
literacy standards. In addition, we will not 
use the limited funds available wisely, and 
most importantly, we will fail those learners 
with SEND who are capable of great 
success even though their reading and 
writing skills may not be comparable to
those of their peers.

Our aim is always to be practical. 
Therefore we have made a series of 
recommendations that we believe, if 
followed, will make real changes to the
literacy landscape and to those learners 
with SEND, particularly those with literacy 
difficulties. We pride ourselves on being
collaborative and so we welcome the 
views and opinions of others on the issues 
we have raised.  

Sarah Driver 
Founder and Chair of Trustees,  
Driver Youth Trust

Through the Looking Glass: is universal provision what it seems?

Executive summary


Executive summary

This report looks at our aspiration as a
society for all children and young people 
to have literacy skills and questions why we
fail to achieve this. It explores what we 
mean by literacy and questions what our
ambitions should actually be. It concludes 
that until we address literacy skills for those
with Special Educational Needs and 
Disability (SEND), within the school setting, 
we will fail to deliver on our goals. 

An analysis of the text in 21 strategies, 
policies and initiatives from some of  
the leading educational and policy 
organisations in the country identified  
the following key themes: 

• Confusion over which children and 

young people are the true focus of 
literacy improvement.

• Lack of clarity around what is meant by 

disadvantage and a limited discussion 
of SEND. 

• Considerable positivity around the 

aspirations for children and young 
people, with suggestions for practice. 

• Strategies that more readily focus on 

those children and young people who 
can ‘catch up’ with limited support,  
at the expense of more specialist 
strategies appropriate for SEND learners.

• Family background as the supposed 

reason behind failure to make progress, 
when in reality it is the failure to address 
the requirements of children and young 
people with SEND within the mainstream 
school system. 





When funding or considering research pieces 
on literacy, ask whether the work includes
those children and young people with SEND 
who are likely to need specialist support.

When funding literacy initiatives, include 
specific funding criteria that will encourage
bids from those looking at truly universal
approaches and/or approaches that make
best use of specialists.

Consider your language – are you
inadvertently contributing to a culture of 
parental blame for low literacy?


Where are the specialists?

During 2017, audit the 
availability of specialist 
provision needed to support 
learners with their reading, 
writing, speaking and listening
requirements to include:

•  The specialist dyslexia 

teachers that were funded 
following the Rose  
Review (2009).

•  Speech and language 

therapists working with
children and young people.

•  Educational psychologists.

This audit should consider:

•  Geographical gaps.

•  Waiting times for state 


•  The size of private sector 

provision and resulting 
inequity in access.

Consider alternative models 
for access (including pooling 
budgets to employ specialists 
between schools).

With such a view, develop  
a Specialist Support  
Strategy that:

•  Is embedded within the 

school system thereby 
delivering evidence-based 
specialist practice to 
support staff and learners in 
mainstream settings, with 
the aim that advice is given 
within one half-term of a 
concern being raised. 

•  Considers the timescale for 

developing new specialist 
support staff, ensuring those 
previously trained re-enter 
the job market, with a view
to reaching the national 
need by 2020.

•  Builds specialist staff input 

into all initial teacher 
training (ITT) and continuing 
professional development 
(CPD) for teachers and 
teaching assistants, 
ensuring that specialist  
skills can be built into
teaching practice. 

This Specialist Support Strategy 
should publicly state that it is a 
given that some children and 
young people will need more 
funding than their peers to be 
able to read, write, speak and
listen. This should also 
recognise that measuring the 
impact of interventions should 
not solely emphasise a cost-
benefit for each individual
child, because this implies that 
the requirements of all
children are equal.


Join things up

We need to ensure that any 
SEND and literacy strategies 
join up, with a particular focus 
on how schools will support 
those children and young 
people who may never reach 
‘mandated’ standards in
reading, writing, speaking and
listening and yet are still able 
to achieve success either 
academically or vocationally. 
The statement of how these 
children will be supported 
should be published on a 
school’s website.

Further, a consideration of 
alternative models for access 
(including pooling budgets) 

could enable schools to fund 
specialists between schools or 
across groups of schools (for 
example within Multi-
Academy Trusts). 

Share good practice

Acknowledging that school-
to-school support has 
empowered groups of 
teachers to improve their 
practice, there is a place  
for more targeted sharing  
of effective practice in 
relation to literacy between 
for example, SENCos,  
faculty and subject leaders 
across curricula and 
educational settings. 

Ask for help 

Many third sector 
organisations, including Driver 
Youth Trust, actively seek
collaborations with schools 
sometimes for very little or no 
cost, particularly when trying 
to develop new initiatives. 

Question your own 

unconscious bias

Consider carefully the 
assumptions that are  
bound up in the terms 
‘disadvantaged’, ‘SEND’  
and ‘literate’, and the  
learners to whom you  
apply these terms.

Influencers and policy makers

Is policy adequate for 

national literacy?

Review current and proposed 
government strategies for 
literacy and ensure that they:

•  Have realistic goals that are 

relative to the needs of all 
learners including those 
with SEND for whom the 
challenges of reading, 
writing, speaking and
listening are likely to require
specialist input.

•  Review the role of the 

special educational needs 
coordinator (SENCo) to 
ensure that the current roles 
and responsibilities actually 
deliver evidence-based 
practice for SEND learners. 

•  Address the requirements of

those learners for whom 
reaching the SAT or GCSE
standards (or other state-
mandated standards) 
around literacy will always 
be out of reach. Ensure that 
not being able to read, 
write, speak or listen due to
an impairment is not 
equated – explicitly or
implicitly – with a lack of
potential, aspiration or 
effort on the part of the 
learner or their family.

•  Ensure that any 

government strategy on 
literacy is coherent with 
SEND Code of Practice  
and vice versa. 

Language matters

Develop clearly agreed 
government definitions of key
terms including, but  
not limited to:

• Disadvantage

• Special Educational Needs

• Disability 

to ensure that debate and the 
resulting outcomes are based 
on a shared understanding of 
the groups under discussion 
and by doing so create a 
more nuanced debate that 
recognises the significant
variations within these ‘labels’.



Through the Looking Glass: is universal provision what it seems?

Our recommendations

Our recommendations



Through the Looking Glass: is universal provision what it seems?


Introduction – Why this piece of work?

The goal of ensuring that 100% of children 
and young people acquire literacy skills is
a noble one. It is an important ambition, 
both for individuals and society as a whole 
but, even in the UK, 100% literacy appears 
to be out of reach. In part, this may reflect
our measurement of literacy – the ability to
read, write, speak and listen – which is
increasingly pinned against a very narrow 
definition of success linked to GCSEs and
end-of-Key Stage tests. Many children may 
not reach these accredited standards but 
will still have the literacy levels that they 
need to thrive. 

Others will never achieve all or some of 
these skills at a level that will allow them
independently to access the curriculum or 
other aspects of life in the same way as 
their more literate peers. Most of these 
children will have some significant
disability, including those with severe 
specific learning difficulties. Accepting this
reality is not to lower our standards for 
these children. Far from it. Rather, it speaks

of the need to consider other approaches 
– both to help children develop the skills
where possible, or help them circumvent 
the need for those skills.

This report explores in part what we mean 
by literacy and questions what our
ambitions should actually be. Its main aim 
is to consider whether policy development 
– as led by think tanks, charities and other
leading bodies – is too heavily skewed
towards those who can reach these 
arbitrary end-of-Key Stage and GCSE
standards. We will explore whether papers 
that claim to be about getting all children 
to be literate mean, in reality, only those 
who can reach those standards without 
specialist help. We also explore how these 
papers address the issue of young people 
who will never reach these levels even  
with specialist intervention.

Truly universal strategies consider the entire 
population. So in terms of literacy, a universal 
strategy might look like this – see Figure 1.

Figure 1:  A truly universal literacy strategy  
would meet all four levels of the pyramid

General population can reach targets with relative ease using 
universally available provision – i.e. a local school.

Delayed learners who are behind but can catch up and reach 
standards with some simple targeted support – e.g. more reading at
home with parents, or reading with volunteers in school.

Learners who need specialist help. These learners are behind  
but can reach targets with specialist support provided by their school.

Learners who will never reach targets but can still access aspects 
of curriculum and life with help and support, both from school 
and outside agencies. 



Catch up


Our hypothesis

Our hypothesis is that most influential
papers, including those written by think
tanks and charities, have a theory of
change that assumes strengthening the 
universally available offer of teaching 
phonics or grammar, and creating more 
literacy-enriched classrooms, will support 
all children and young people to reach  
an ‘appropriate level’ of literacy.

Our guess is that these papers are 
presented as being for all when in fact 
they are targeted only at the lowest two 
levels of the pyramid – which represents
between 80% and 90% of children, i.e. 
those who will be able to read, write, 
speak and listen with relatively low-cost
support and limited specialist input.

Why does this matter?

Approaches that focus on widely available 
models, such as good classroom teaching 
of phonics, handwriting, vocabulary 
building or targeted interventions (e.g. 
volunteer one-to-one reading and 
parental engagement), are of course 
immensely valuable. On the whole, they 
do benefit all children. However, what they
will not do is ensure literacy for all.

Therefore, our premise is that those position 
papers that claim to be universal and for 
all actually focus on solutions for the first
two groups of children and young people 
(see Figure 2) and ignore a significant
number for whom literacy represents the 
greatest challenge. 

The implications of this are that funding 
and policy decisions that have been 
developed in response to these papers 
may be poorly formed and only partially 
successful because of the failure to join the 
specialist and SEND approaches with the 

universal literacy agenda. This is a 
significant factor in our entrenched  
low levels of literacy. 

What does this paper cover?

Through the Looking Glass will therefore:

•  Outline the current statistics around 

literacy levels and remind us why 
literacy is important. 

•  Explore what we mean by ‘literate’  

and by the notion of a universal  
offer for literacy. 

•  Present the findings from an

examination of the top position papers 
from influential charities, think tanks and
other key stakeholders, such as the
government and Ofsted. 

•  Consider to what extent these findings

support or challenge our hypothesis. 

•  Discuss whether wider work is needed

on how to craft a truly universal offer.

•  Make recommendations to inform:

influencers, charities and think tanks;
funders and commissioners; and  
those who design and deliver  
literacy interventions. 

Figure 2: Most published papers 
focus only on the needs of between 
80% and 90% of learners

Catch up





Through the Looking Glass: is universal provision what it seems?


Is universal provision  

what it seems?

For the purposes of this report, universal 
provision is defined as:

The entitlement to receive an education 
that is both effective and accessible to  
all children. 

This definition is in line with the Human Rights
Act (1998) as well as other obligations laid 
out in legislation and international 
agreements, such as the Salamanca 
Statement (1994), which proclaimed that:

‘Every child has a fundamental right to 
education, and must be given the 
opportunity to achieve and maintain an 
acceptable level of learning.’ (UNESCO, 
1994, p.8) 

As a society we place enormous value on 
literacy attainment, particularly through 
our education system. Vast amounts of 
educational funding have been, and 
continue to be, invested to ensure that 
every child can and should reach age-
appropriate levels in four skill areas:
reading, writing, speaking and listening.
Through research reports, strategies and 
literacy campaigns, the government and 
its agencies talk about teaching these skills
to all children – universal provision for every
child across the country.

Yet despite the value we place on literacy, 
and despite the numerous initiatives there 
have been over the years, something isn’t 
working. And this means something needs
to change.

The focus of the Driver Youth Trust is on 
literacy. As this report will show, when we, 
as a sector concerned with literacy, talk
about every child, we tend to mean only 
those who can meet the expectations laid 
out by the government within its existing 
education agenda.

What tends to get forgotten is that some 
children and young people are at risk of 
never achieving these expectations.  
These are the 1.2 million (DfE, 2016b, p.13) 
children and young people with SEND, 
including those with dyslexia, the majority 
of whom are educated in mainstream 

The requirements, indeed the very existence,
of these children can appear to sit beyond 
the realm of mainstream educational 
thinking, discourse and planning. Their
needs are addressed in separate strategies 
and approaches (if at all). So begins a 
divergence between what these children 
need and what we have to offer, and 
between what they can achieve and 
what we aspire to on their behalf.

It appears that ‘universal’ is not universal 
after all; it is not applicable to all and is  
not inclusive.

If we genuinely want to improve literacy 
standards in this country, then universal 
provision needs to apply to all pupils and 
we need to include those with SEND in the 
agenda. We also need to clarify our 
language about the issues and our 
aspirations for these children to ensure that 
instead of a repetitive litany of the 
problems, we actually address the issues in 
schools and classrooms across the land, 
making a practical difference for the
learners sitting in them.

How successful is our 

approach to universal 


The impact and the cost of failing to 
address poor literacy, as reported widely 
in the sector, are a damning indictment of 
educational policy and practice over 
many years. These extracts illustrate a 
narrative that is all too familiar. 

‘KPMG conservatively estimated that 
failure to master basic literacy skills costs 
the public purse £5,000 to £64,000 over an 
individual’s lifetime. This amounts to 
between £198 million and £2.5 billion 
every year.’ 
(National Literacy Forum, 
2014, p.10)

‘48% of offenders in custody have a 
reading age at or below the expected 
level of an 11-year-old. Similarly, in a 
survey of prisoners’ self-perception, 47% 
of prisoners said they had no 
(Morrisroe, 2014, p.7)

‘Over the years, there have been many 
attempts to place an economic value on 
the cost of illiteracy in various nations. But 
the fact remains that it costs the global 
economy more than $1 trillion dollars each 
year because up to one in five people 
worldwide struggle with illiteracy.’
Literacy Foundation, 2015, p.4)

‘Negative experience at school is 
also a key factor linking literacy to 
crime. Those with low literacy are 
more likely to be excluded from 
school and more likely to truant. 
9% of very poor readers are 
persistent truants compared to  
2% of those who are average or 
above average readers.’
(Morrisroe, 2014, p.7)

‘17.8 million adults (56% of 
the adult working 
population) in England are 
reported as having literacy 
skills below GCSE grade C, 
with 5.2 million of these 
reportedly lacking 
functional literacy.’ 
(Beanstalk, 2013, p.8)

‘The UK is the only economically 
developed country where 16 to 24-year-
olds have the lowest literacy skills of any 
age group in society. In England 14.9% of 
adults aged 16-65 lack functional literacy 
skills. This equates to 5.1 million people. 
The challenge is intergenerational and 
closely linked to poverty.’
(Vision for 
Literacy 2025, National Literacy Forum, 
2014, p.10)

‘Low literacy is 
associated with  
lower earnings and 
employment rates, 
particularly for women.’ 
(Morrisroe, 2014, p.10)


 …these children can appear 

to sit beyond the realm  

of mainstream educational 

thinking, discourse and 






Through the Looking Glass: is universal provision what it seems?

Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND)

SEND affects more learners 

than you think

Defining the label of SEND and then
applying it to children and young people is 
a complex issue and can be arbitrary.  
In 2010 the number of pupils identified  
with SEND in the UK was five times the EU
average. This led Ofsted to review how 
children were being identified and
supported in schools. They concluded that 
‘as many as half of all pupils identified for
School Action [support] would not be 
identified as having special educational
needs if schools focused on improving 
teaching and learning for all’ (Ofsted, 
2010, p.5). 

The Children and Families Act (2014),  
the catalyst for the largest reforms in 
decades, mandates a new system of 

This defines someone as having  
a SEND when:
They have a learning difficulty or disability 
which calls for special educational 
provision to be made for them (Section 20).
Special educational provision is provision 
that is additional to or different from that 
which would normally be provided for 
children or young people of the same  
age in a mainstream education setting  
(Section 21). 

Such a definition is problematic, however,
because what ‘learning difficulty’ and
‘additional’ or ‘different’ provision mean is
open to subjective interpretation. 

As a result of these changes, the numbers 
of children and young people identified as
having a SEND have been declining, from 
over 1.5 million in 2010 to around 1.2 million 
in 2016 (DfE, 2016a, p.1). It is interesting to 
note, however, that the number of children 

who have a ‘statement’ (now an
Education, Health and Care Plan – EHCP)
has remained consistent over this time at 
2.8%. The decline in children identified as
having a SEND has therefore focused on 
children without an EHCP. These are often 
children without multiple issues, though 
arguably children whose needs 
significantly impact on their learning. Most
learners with dyslexia will be in this category. 

The Act is accompanied by the SEND 
Code of Practice, which emphasises a 
graduated approach of ‘assess, plan,  
do, review’ to identify those children and 
young people not making expected
progress (DfE and Department of Health, 
2015, pp.86-87). For all learners, the 
cyclical process of the graduated 
approach enables teachers to spot 
difficulties in learning using a combination
of observation and formal measurement, 
always beginning and ending with Quality 
First Teaching – thus answering the
criticisms put forward by Ofsted in 2010 
that too many children and young people 
were being identified as having a SEND, as
well as providing a consistent code of 
practice within a legislative framework.

Special Educational Needs  

and Disability (SEND) 

Where are most children  

with SEND educated?

What is often missed in discussions about 
SEND is that the vast majority of children 
and young people with SEND will be in a 
mainstream school. 

Data from the Department for Education 
(DfE, 2016a) show that of the 1.2 million 
SEND learners, 51.5% (619,095) are in  
state-funded primary schools and 33.8% 
(406,430) are in state-funded secondary
schools. Far fewer of these learners are 
educated in special schools (only 8.5%
104,305) or in other settings such as pupil
referral units (6.5%, 77,995), although the 
incidence of SEND in these settings is 
substantially higher. 

So whilst many papers and commentators 
focus on children and young people who 
have EHCPs or attend special schools, the 
vast majority of SEND children and young 
people receive their education in a 
mainstream school. 

There are children and young people, in  
all settings and phases of their education, 
who face the same demands from 
curricula and assessment as their peers, 
but with varying levels of support. They will 
not meet thresholds for specific
identification or labelling, even when
systems and processes are in place to 
identify them, as with the graduated 
approach. What this means is that many 
may not be on the SEND register, despite 
the fact that they have a special 
educational need, often one that affects 
their literacy skills. These children will  
not, under the present system, fall within 
the remit of the SEND Governor and  
SEND funding.



What is often 

missed in 

discussions about 

SEND is that the 

vast majority of 

children and 

young people with 

SEND will be in a 



of teachers surveyed said training in 
dyslexia was important to them



The aim to reduce the number of learners 
identified with SEND is all well and good if
there is the necessary training and support 
in place to ensure their needs are met, or 
in the words of Ofsted (2010) ‘if schools
focused improving teaching and learning 
for all’ but, in our view, this has been the 
missing link. Many schools don’t have the
joined up policies and resources to 
support these learners and we know there
is a gap in meeting the training needs of 
teachers. In 2014, the Driver Youth Trust
published its Fish in the Tree report, which 
demonstrated the dearth of training in 
teaching children with dyslexia, despite 
84% of teachers surveyed saying this was
important to them. It is vital that both 
teachers and Special Educational  
Needs Coordinators (SENCos) are 
equipped with the knowledge and  
skills they need to deliver on the
requirements of these learners.




Through the Looking Glass: is universal provision what it seems?

Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND)

What are the outcomes for 

SEND learners compared  

with their peers?

Children with SEND do not benefit from the 
same level of scrutiny or accountability as 
those deemed ‘disadvantaged’ because 
they are in receipt of Free School Meals; yet 
by comparison, their results are far worse.

As the most reliable source of national 
outcomes data, the Department for 
Education statistics provide demonstrable 
evidence of the enduring scale of progress 
and attainment of children and young 
people eligible for Free School Meals (FSM), 
i.e. those children who are considered 
socially or economically disadvantaged. 
The Department has a further definition of
disadvantage in relation to children who are 
‘EVER6’, i.e. pupils who have been eligible
for FSM over the last six years or have been 
looked after by their local authority.

However, whilst statistics are collected for 
children and young people with SEND, 
those children are not necessarily classified
as disadvantaged (because ‘disadvantage’
is defined specifically in relation to socio-
economic status). Furthermore, as the 
Driver Youth Trust noted in its Joining the 
 report (2015), funding for children with 
SEND is not scrutinised or ring-fenced in the 
same way as specific funding for learners
from deprived backgrounds who are
eligible for the Pupil Premium Grant.

In other words, despite the fact that 
children with SEND get far worse results 
than those eligible for Pupil Premium (see 
right), we are failing to target and address 
this in the same way, somehow deeming 
one type of ‘disadvantage’  
more worthy of attention than another.  
This reflects our attitude to universal
provision as being relevant only to some, 
not all, of our children and young people. 

Figure 3: Percentage of pupils reaching expected standards in 

reading, writing and mathematics by pupil characteristics, end 

Key Stage 2, 2011-2016 (DfE, 2016c)

Figure 4: Percentage of pupils achieving 5+ A*-C GCSEs or

equivalent including English and mathematics (DfE, 2016d)

All pupils

Free School Meals (FSM)

Special Educational Needs (SEN)







































































Comparing progress of SEND 

learners to those eligible for 

Free School Meals 

14.3% of children and young people are
eligible for Free School Meals (FSM) (DfE, 
2016b, p.1). The outcomes for these 
children are rightly concerning (see Figure 
). Over the last six years, the attainment 
gap at Key Stage 2 between FSM/
disadvantaged children and the national 
average has remained at least 14% in
mainstream settings (DfE, 2016c, p.16). But 
look at the results for children with SEND.

When we examine the outcomes for those 
with SEND, for example at GCSE (see
Figure 4), the attainment data 
demonstrate undeniably that children and 
young people in mainstream settings have 
worse outcomes in educational standards 
than any other group, including those 
eligible for FSM. This has been the case for 
many years, without exception. 


Despite the fact 

that children 

with SEND get 

far worse results 

than those 

eligible for Pupil 

Premium, we 

are failing to 

target and 

address this in 

the same way, 


deeming one 

type of 


more worthy of 

attention than 



Through the Looking Glass: is universal provision what it seems?


Figure 6: Progress scores in reading, 

mathematics and writing by pupil 

characteristics (DfE, 2016c, pp.18-22)

























Other than English





all other pupils


No identified FSM




all other pupils


No identified SEN

The narrowest attainment gaps are 

first language and gender

The widest attainment  

gap is for SEN

0  10    20    30  40   50   60










Figure 5: Average attainment data (Attainment 

8 score) by pupil characteristics at Key Stage 4

(DfE, 2017a)











Figure 5 shows average attainment data 
from 2016 with a gap almost twice as high 
for SEND learners as those eligible for FSM 
or otherwise disadvantaged (DfE, 2017a).

SEND learners not only have lower 
attainment than their peers, but they also 
make far less progress in reading, writing
and mathematics (see Figure 6). In all 
instances progress for SEND pupils is lower 
than for those considered disadvantaged, 
and is at least half the percentage scores 
for this group (DfE, 2016c). 

The difficulty with attainment and progress
data is that it shows only those dimensions 
that you have chosen to compare. What is 
hidden in the comparisons between the 
groups, who appear to be clearly defined
and distinct, is that for the most part, they 
are neither of these things. For instance:
•  One in seven children and young 

people (14.3%) are eligible for FSM 
– that’s around 1.1 million children and 
young people (DfE, 2016b). The number 
of children and young people with SEND 
is 14.4% or 1.2 million children (DfE, 
2016a, p.4). 

•  The percentage of children and young 

people eligible for FSM who also have 
SEND is: 27.1% in primary, 24.8% in 
secondary and 36.5% in special schools; 
this is known as the ‘double 
disadvantage’ (DfE, 2016a).

The overly simplistic language used to 
describe the characteristics and 
requirements of groups of children and 
young people, such as ‘SEND’ and 
‘disadvantaged’, hides complex issues. 
Some children will be either SEND or 
socially-economically disadvantaged, 
whilst others are both. In addition, within 
the SEND category, there will be children 
with clearly defined difficulties as well as 
children dealing with a range of issues. 
There is little consideration of how the 
impact of these complexities plays out in 
national data sets, let alone in day-to-day 
educational experiences. 

Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND)


In all instances 

progress for SEND 

pupils is lower 

than for those 



or 1.2 million children 

and young people 

have SEND


In summary, this data provides 
demonstrable evidence that the 
performance of children and young 
people with SEND is much lower in  
GCSE and end-of-Key Stage tests when
compared to their peers, including those 
who are identified as disadvantaged
socially or economically. It is not possible  
to discern from this data the educational 
outcomes of children and young people 
who are both SEND and socially or 
economically disadvantaged. What  
we can say, however, is that approaches 
for tackling the impact of social and
economic disadvantage appear as a  
high priority in public policy, funding and 
even classroom practice; whereas
children who are disadvantaged by 
having a SEND are not similarly prioritised.  

Through the Looking Glass: is universal provision what it seems?



With those who influence 

public policy

In order to develop our thinking and
practice in relation to our understanding of 
how terms of SEND and disadvantage 
apply to literacy, we need first to consider
our language and second, consider who is 
influencing policy and practice.

In recent years there have been numerous 
reports, strategies, policies and initiatives 
from government, think tanks and other
education and third sector organisations, 
all with a wealth of good intentions and 
expertise, and all aimed at improving 
literacy. The organisations represented in 
our sample texts are noteworthy for their 
influence across the education sector and
on public policy more generally. 

We reviewed them to see:

•  To what extent universal education 

really means universal.

•  Whether SEND features as part of their 

thinking on how to close attainment
gaps and improve educational practice 
in literacy.

•  What language is used around issues 

and aspirations for all children and 
young people. 

The 21 documents we analysed  
were published by: 
•  Ofsted
•  All-Party Parliamentary Group  

for Education

•  Department for Education
•  Parliamentary Office of Science  

and Technology 

•  The Sutton Trust
•  Education Policy Institute 
•  The Education Foundation

•  National Literacy Forum 
•  Beanstalk
•  World Literacy Foundation
•  National Literacy Trust
•  Save the Children.

How have recent policies 

and initiatives recognised 

children with SEND? 

Evidence presented in the numerous 
reports about literacy leads to the 
conclusion that failing to attain the 
requisite level of literacy inhibits
educational and occupational success 
and is associated with poorer outcomes in, 
amongst others, health and longevity. 

But do the reports we analysed make clear
the complexities that underlie the literacy 
statistics? And what do they tell us about 
how to close attainment gaps and 
improve educational practice so that it 
universally benefits all children and young
people, including those with SEND?

There is no doubt that a proportion of 
children underachieve and these children 
have similarities in terms of the social and 
economic status of their families. The 
attainment of these ‘disadvantaged’
children sit below the average in a normal 
distribution; they are ‘the tail’.


simply looking at attainment and grouping 
these children as ‘disadvantaged’ by 
social or economic status hides a greater 
disadvantage: that is, that 27.2% of them 
have a SEND.

Within the published texts we examined, 
there is a lot of focus on literacy in relation 
to disadvantage in terms of poverty. Yet 
from the statistics, it is clear that children 
with SEND do much worse than their peers 

Where do we start?

Where do we start? 

who are defined as ‘disadvantaged’ in
terms of Free School Meals. So if we are 
really going to tackle the issue of literacy,
then universal must mean universal. We 
need to develop effective strategies to 
support children with SEND in our schools, 
in addition to those in receipt of FSM.  
And as with Pupil Premium spending,  
there needs to be accountability for the 
associated expenditure and the results 
that go with them. 

Design and methodology

Given that the focus of this report is on
literature published by the education  
and third sectors, a traditional search  
for literature using academic databases 
was not appropriate. However, using the 
principles set out for systematic reviews  
of so-called grey literature, we identified
and selected 21 publications on literacy 
since 2010. 

The texts were analysed using the 
guidance from Krippendorf (2009) on 
Qualitative Content Analysis (QCA). QCA 
as a method is systematic, whilst also being 
able to reduce large amounts of data. 
QCA involves the development of a 
systematic description of the data by 
assigning sections to categories in a 
coding frame. Categories are found 
inductively by grouping material together 
which is mutually exclusive and exhaustive.

The analysis process itself can be broken
down into several sequential steps that at
all times attempt to reduce the data whilst 
trying to retain its essence. Segmentation, 
using a formal criterion, was applied to 
separate parts of the data. Paraphrasing 
these sections allowed comparisons to be 
drawn and grouped together when 
identified as being related to the same
theme or topic. The distinction between 

topic and content is made by referring  
to the former as what is talked about,
whereas the latter is the substance of  
the message. An example from the 
publications would therefore be the topic 
of disadvantage whilst the content related 
to a waste of potential. This is important as 
it feeds in to the deductive classification
system used when all the paraphrases 
were categorized into groups, therefore 
generating data-driven subcategories for 
all of the main topics. 

The analysis identified six themes from the
selected texts on their goals and vision for 
educating all of our children and young 
people through universal provision.  
They are:

•  Disadvantage

•  Achievement

•  Love of reading

•  Schools

•  Families

•  SEND.

We examine these themes and the 
language within them to see if they add 
anything to the issues and whether the 
implications add value to current policy 
and practice.