One of the unexpected side effects of having a baby with Down Syndrome was that I spent the first eight or so years insulated from the kind of playground competition that is the bane of many parent’s lives. I don’t know if it was that Sam was particularly cute (he was), whether I am blessed with especially wonderful friends and family (I am) or whether I give off the kind of vibes that stop people from boasting about the achievements of their progeny in case I either burst into tears or punch them in the face (possible), but whatever it is, there is a tacit acceptance around him and me that making comparisons with his ordinary peers doesn’t work.
I really enjoyed being in this protected space, partly because it made such a refreshing change to the world I inhabit as a teacher. Education operates within what we call a ‘deficit model’, you see. We teachers have in mind a set of skills we want to teach our charges, a destination towards which we are journeying, and, in order to get there, we constantly assess what the children can’t do yet. When we mark their work, we always point out the things that they got wrong, or could change to make their work even better; very little unalloyed pleasure and celebration in their achievements is allowed.
When I had a baby who needed me to teach him almost everything, I found that, all of a sudden, I wasn’t working to this model any more. Anyone who has ever held a little baby in their arms, regardless of disability, knows instantly that they are an empty book, an unwritten page – there is not a lot of point in listing what they don’t know, because they don’t know anything yet. When I learned that my baby had a serious learning difficulty, correcting mistakes wasn’t part of the equation; celebrating the small steps along the journey of child development was.
I think that’s one of the reasons why I quite like the ‘levels’ we use as teachers, in order to describe the stage at which our charges have reached in their educational journey, even though Sam has spent most of his educational life on P-scales (they are a set of descriptors used by teachers to assess the learning of a child who hasn’t made it onto National Curriculum levels yet). In the day-to-day work of a classroom teacher, we can get very bound in tracking the progress that children make in their learning, but when it comes down to it, when the children we have nurtured throughout their primary years leave us, we give them a number, something that indicates to them, their parents and their next teachers, in broad terms, what they can do.
It’s all set to change, though, along with the new national curriculum in September 2014. Instead of levels, we will be working with ‘below’, ‘at’ and ‘exceeding’ ‘age-related expectations’. In a way, I can see what the Department for Education (or whatever it is called these days) is trying to get at. Most parents want to know that exact thing that my friends so sensitively refrain from discussing with me – how are their children doing in relation to their peers. This is all very well when your children are at the top of the class (who doesn’t like basking in a bit of reflected glory?), but my heart aches for those who are bumping along at the bottom.
As a teacher, I have always known that kids with SEN know very well where they sit in the class pecking order, and that the very last thing they needed was to have it shoved down their throats all over again that they were well below where they should be. It’s one of the reasons I detest those beautiful little wall charts that many teachers spend so long creating that aim to show the progress the children are making, as they shoot up into the stars, or over the rainbow; because there are always the same little faces who never reach the crock of gold, there, for all to see. Sometimes they don’t even make it off ground zero.
So when I hear that the new way to measure the progress our kids make in school is to put them into some sort of public ranking order, I feel disturbed.
One of the first things I discovered, when I started on my journey towards being a fully-fledged teacher, was the power of self-belief, of motivation. I vividly remember the little girl, who, according to her reading level, shouldn’t have been able to tackle the book of bible stories she determinedly read to me, because someone had forgotten to tell her that she was working at well below the expectations for her age. I took this lesson with me (along with a lot of other ones, I freely admit – maybe one day I’ll write about those too) when Sam was born. If he believes he can, if he really, truly wants to, then he can, as far as I’m concerned. (I would put whatever it is here, but I am wary of making such a broad statement. He might want a tattoo.)
Many people will accuse me of living in a state of perpetual denial, I’m sure. But when the future is a scary place I find it a much safer thing to live in the present, and take each day as it comes. Which is why filling in forms like the application for DLA (Disability Living Allowance) is such a difficult thing to do. In it, I have to put down in black and white all the things that my son can’t do, all the times I have to help him with something his peers can do, all the ways in which our lives are made more difficult by that tiny little extra chromosome. Instead of joyfully celebrating the fact that he can read the instructions on the Wii, or the Sky+ menu, I must engage fully with that deficit model. I must broadcast to all and sundry that my son, my beloved boy, is far exceeding his peers in his lack of progress towards, well, everything.
So that’s my big problem with the new way of assessing children, of assessment without levels. To hell with the fact that we teachers will have to invent a new language with which we can speak to each other, another layer of obfuscating jargon so that we can understand what we mean when we pass a child along to the next in the line. To hell with the parents who insist on engaging in a pissing contest in the playground over which colour label book their child is on, or which spellings they are doing, or which classroom they go to for Maths. At the heart of my disquiet lies the child who will be told that they are not good enough, that they are below the norm; the child for whom below expectations is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Because, as I once said to the late John Peel, there is no such thing as a normal child.