Ah, the behaviour of children. The eternal preoccupation of every parent, and certainly every teacher in the land. The subject of newspaper headlines, innumerable books, studies, and inspection reports on a local and national level. It might almost be a national obsession greater than the weather. Almost.
When we were considering the best place of education for our precious boy, back in 2004, behaviour was one of our main concerns. As a little one, our son was biddable, if random, happy (mostly) to go where he was put and do as he was told, so, knowing that children learn from each other, the thought of what he might pick up from his classmates was a concern. ‘We need him to be with good role models, not be the role model,’ we told ourselves, and duly sent him to a mainstream school.
It shouldn’t be too difficult for them to fit him in, I thought, teachers do it all the time, fit kids in. It’s called differentiation. He can have his activities, suitable for his needs, be in the class with his genetically ordinary peers and benefit from having the best of both worlds. They can benefit by learning Makaton and difference. Inclusion, working for everyone’s benefit.
Except, now that I’m back on the inside, instead of out in the playground looking in, I’m not entirely sure. You see, differentiation is a hard task master. In some schools it requires worksheets re-written five ways and pages-long, colour-coded, checked-and-approved plans that take hours and hours to prepare for every lesson (at which point you can guarantee there will be a bee and all the careful plans will fall into the dust), in others it demands reams of marking, in prescribed colours (we teachers like our colours and our stationery, especially if we can come up with a little rhyme, or better still an acronym, to go with it, like ‘pink for think’ or ‘D.I.R.T.’), because everything we do, even though we know that the best sort of differentiation is in the way we relate to our pupils, the way we talk to them, tailor what they need to do next in that instant, must be evidenced, must be written down somewhere where the inspectors can see it, mark it for approval.
It’s the reason why many primary schools have gone down the road of setting for ability in Maths and English, at younger and younger ages. In many ways it makes sense. If you can put the children together who are working on the same kind of thing at the same kind of level you will be able to pin point your teaching, and everyone will get along quicker, right? Your teachers will be teaching to a smaller bandwidth of ability, making their lives less complicated, won’t they? Makes life easier for everyone, doesn’t it? Yes?
Except where the set is the same for Maths and English. That’s a tricky one. The thing is, that some children will be good at both subjects and some children won’t. Some children will show a marked preference for one or the other and what do we do then? Put them up a set, and they struggle in a class where the work goes too quickly, their confidence in their abilities slowly eroding? Put them down, where they will be alright in one subject but bored and un-stretched in another?
And what about the children like mine, those who could just as well go to the local special school as the local mainstream? Or the children who are new to English, working hard to make sense of an alphabetic code that doesn’t tally with the one they have already started to learn? What about them? What happens if they are in Year 6, but they still need some of the kinds of activity that go on in Year 1, or Reception even? What do we do about them? Do we send them down to the other end of the school, a giant perched on tiny chairs? What does that do to their self esteem?
And, when it comes down to the nitty gritty, what about their learning needs? Children are complicated little creatures, and, when they are in a great school with great teachers and they’re in every day and yet they still don’t seem to be getting along as they should, then something must be at the bottom of it. It’s easy to see with my son, after all, his condition has been named and studied for a long time; it is instantly recognisable when you meet him. But the others, the other children with hidden things, like ADHD, or Autism, or any other number of –isms or delays, or the even more invisible, the unquantifiable consequences of neglect or abuse, of poverty or parenting that doesn’t quite make the grade, what about them? Do we lump them all together, place them in a group designed around a letter or a number, or do we concede that it’s a little bit more complicated than that.
Again and again, I have seen and read reports that talk in disparaging terms of setting on grounds of ability. While it might be nice for the academically able, the ones who will get As and A*s when they are barely out of the womb, the ones in the classroom with the teacher, what about the ones who find themselves swimming around the middle or the ones who scrape the bottom of the barrel, out in the corridor, what happens to them, what do they learn?
Do they learn how to listen to other people, to take turns, to apply themselves when they find something difficult, to ask a friend or teacher for help, to battle on through no matter how great their challenges? Or do they learn to hide the gaps, the holes in what they know with silliness, with low, or high level disruption, with behaviour that throws us off the scent, distracts us from finding out what is really the matter? Are they hiding the bitter suspicion that, even at nine years old, they aren’t in the high flyers pile, but already sneaking onto the scrapheap?
There are many reasons that we chose a special school for Sam’s secondary education, and, to be perfectly honest, if I’d known then what I do now, I think I may well have been tempted to make the jump a hell of a lot sooner; the fantastic facilities, the dedicated, knowledgeable staff, the high expectations of children living with the greatest of difficulties, the priority placed on learning for an independent life, all these things played a part.
But you know what? In the mix, a big part of the mix was setting. Just as when we were looking for a school in the very early days the same old chestnut kept rearing its ugly head. In a system that plays lip service to inclusion, where the way to provide a personalised curriculum is to group the children, ostensibly by ability, but often, in practice, by behaviour, just what, exactly, will he be learning?