Civil War

A couple of months ago I filled in an online questionnaire.  It’s not an out of character thing for me to do (although it has to be said that it is usually because I hope to profit from my time by being entered in a draw for some sort of Ladies Nice Clothes voucher), but this one was close to my heart in a different way.  It was a questionnaire from Mencap for parents of children with Learning Disabilities (such as Down’s syndrome) about their children’s experience in school.  They were particularly interested in experiences of mainstream school, and, as Sam stayed there until the end of Y6, I felt that I had something to contribute.

The main findings of the survey are published here in their press release.  Key statistics are:

  • 908 parents took part in the survey.
  • 435 reported having a child with a learning disability in mainstream education, of any stage.
  • 81% said they did not feel fully confident that their child’s place of education was helping them reach their potential.
  • 66% of parents who have a child with a learning disability are not confident that teachers understand how to teach pupils with a learning disability at their son or daughter’s mainstream school.
  • 65% think the way that the education system works means that their son or daughter receives a poorer education than children without SEN.
  • 64% say their son or daughter was taken out of class or activities because of their learning disability.

When asked what one thing they would change about the current system:

  • 35% of parents said that teacher training needs to improve.
  • 20% also thought the support their son or daughter currently receives needs to improve.

There must have been something in my comments that caught someone’s eye, because last week I was asked if I minded being interviewed on behalf of the charity’s ‘Hear My Voice’ campaign.  An hour into the phone call, I found that I could go on at some length about the State of Education Today and What This Means For Children Like Mine. (Thank you Twitter for helping me to think through my disquiet.)

You see, I think there is something rotten in the State of Education.  I think there is a deep hypocrisy at work in our system, and we, teachers and parents, need to start banging on about it as loud and as long as we possibly can; and for why?Because our young people matter.

I don’t just mean bright young things from the wrong side of the tracks who otherwise would face a life of limited options and shattered dreams.  I mean all  of them; from the brightest little tool in the box who needs a teacher to understand him rather than squash him, to the slowest of little tortoises who need a different kind of education altogether.  We owe them all a good start in life.

And to be honest, the way the system is set up, I don’t think that’s what they are getting – let alone their poor, harried teachers who are all at sea with what to do, which demand to meet next, or their poor, anxious parents who want so desperately to believe the best in their children, who need to believe the best in them so that they can carry on and be the best they can for them.

On the one hand, we have the vastly rushed but good at it’s heart new SEN Code of Practice.  There are some really great things in there, like ‘every teacher is a teacher of special educational needs’.  I love that.  No more sending them out into the corridor with a TA and saying that’s good enough.  No more allowing teachers to not know their special kids just as well as their ordinary ones.  It’s great that the worlds of Education, Health and Social Care are brought together in the interests of children whose lives straddle these three areas.  And it is wonderful that there is a clear expectation that most children, regardless of SEN will be educated in mainstream schools, as part of a drive towards a more inclusive society.

But when you contrast that with the other side of the coin, of targets for schools from the Department for Education that the overwhelming majoroty of children leaving primary school should have reached a standard of Level 4 (ok, I know the levels are no more, but I’m talking a language we understand here) in English and Maths, end of KS test results are published in national newspapers and lists of the worst performing schools in the country are named and shamed on the BBC, what are we to do?  Heads Will Roll if schools don’t knuckle down to these ‘aspirational’ targets, and secondary schooling, with its focus on the GCSE, is no better, with strict targets for English and Maths at GCSE, combined with pass rates based on KS2 test results.

And what about the new performance descriptors for the new National Curriculum?

  • Mastery standard
  • National standard
  • Working towards national standard
  • Below national standard

I mean, really, how do these sit with an inclusion agenda?

Is it any wonder that parents like me, and teachers like me, are worried about how children with SEN and learning disability are being served by an education system at war with itself?  Is it any wonder that parents of children with learning disabilities are voting with their feet and leaving mainstream education behind?

It would be very easy to turn this story into one of failure and concern.  But mainstream schools are, not by anything they have done, merely by the position they find themselves in, ground into the dust by opposing demands.  Teachers rapidly become whipping boys in the press for any number of societal ills for which they must be responsible, and I am heartily sick of that, even though this report speaks to me of a lack of trust.

But not entirely.

For when we take our children out of mainstream education, they don’t disappear into thin air.  They rock up at special schools and time and time again I see our experience reflected, particularly in the online Down’s syndrome community.  Happier children included in a peer group that means something to them.  Independence and life skills prioritised and a truly personalised curriculum.  Schools and teachers who listen, who understand some of the day-to-day difficulties we forget, while we are in the middle of parenting, that are, actually, difficulties.

If I was a press officer, or a journalist, even, I’d write a different headline to this one.

I’d write this:


I would say that special schools employ people with special skills and we in mainstream education need access to them and their knowledge so that we too can do our best for the special kids we teach.  I would say that we mainstream teachers want to know more and be better, and that we parents want that too.  I would say that the real ability of special schools to personalise a curriculum is what we want to see in mainstream, not exam factories, systems I am not  convinced are putting the interests of the children they serve first.

I would say that the DfE is giving with one hand and taking away with another and in the process it is waging a war of unrealistic expectations on our schools, the victims of which are the most vulnerable children we have.

What say you?  Are we at war?



15 thoughts on “Civil War

  1. Yes – we are at war – and yet I might be perceived as someone who is urging forever higher standards being linked as I am to phonics promotion and direct, explicit teaching and so on.

    I have just completed the consultation document for ‘performance descriptors’ for Key Stage One and Key Stage Two – and I have completely damned the suggestions and urged them to abandon the notion forthwith.

    The descriptors linked to the headings of ‘below national standards’, ‘working towards’ ‘national standards’ and ‘mastery’ are a classic example of ‘Double Think’ and beggar belief. The descriptors are simply steps of learning and not appropriate for reporting to parents with such negative language based on ‘national standards’ that has been proposed. What have we come to in the quest for raising standards?

    If you read, for example, the ‘below national standards’ for ‘reading’, you will note actually an overall positive description of a reader – and yet this is labelled as ‘below national standards’ and who would want any child labelled in such terms? Surely not anyone in the teaching profession and surely not any parent?!

    And who will be judge and jury of these ‘national standards’ – I’ve likened them to ‘How long is a piece of string’ for a start. Judgement of some of the descriptors would be entirely arbitrary.

    The descriptors are actually positive steps of learning and even aspirational such as ‘the love of reading’ but how can ‘loving reading’ be a ‘national standard’ per se?

    We don’t even assess/judge adult teachers on their detailed levels of knowledge and skills in the core subjects. I wonder how many actual teachers and teaching assistants do not know their English alphabetic code all that well – quite a few I imagine! I can point out many, many basic errors in academic books and phonics programmes themselves about the English alphabetic code for a start.

    I’ve pointed out that some teachers will make quick and gut-feeling judgements and some teachers will be extremely anxious about the accuracy of their judgements based on the level descriptors of these core subjects. And has anyone done the time-management studies for being accountable for accuracy for these ‘standards’? And how quickly do young children change and grow – or even regress between lessons (there is so much to cover in maths for example).

    I always agree with what you write, Nancy, you are very gifted and very intuitive.

    With regard to knowing each child and catering for every child – there is such a diverse range of opinions about what ‘special needs’ amounts to and how children should be catered for.

    I have just been in a huge dispute with the treatment of a child with regards to a school’s provision for a child with apparent special needs. We did not agree with the school’s conclusions nor the treatment. We did not agree with the ‘triggers’ of certain behaviours, with the labels linked to the child’s needs, with the analysis of the child’s needs, and with the suggestions for addressing the child’s needs. The school excluded the child for every morning and the afternoon timetable looked more like the timetable of a performing monkey with its ‘fun games and activities’ to address the child’s ‘learning style’. The child was allocated a velcro-assistant – in the corridor, in the playing field, anywhere but the classroom.

    I have gone through three levels of complaint against Ofsted for condoning this extensive and punitive part-time exclusion from school whilst judging the school to be ‘outstanding’. To no avail. The school considered its provision to be nurturing. I/we considered the provision to be punitive and amounting to non-provision.

    I can categorically state from various experiences with Ofsted over a number of years that this organisation cannot be held to account. Clearly – end of.

    However, the school followed local authority advice regarding the provision. What happens when someone with ‘expertise’ suggests provision which is the exact opposite to what the parent or others would suggest? How can this be challenged?

    It can be challenged of course, but there is no transparent and effective mechanism to hold anyone in authority to account.

    When it comes to provision for children with various needs, we have a hidden scenario in England of illegal exclusions. The Children’s Commissioner, Dr Maggie Atkinson, has looked into this issue in depth and concluded that no-one in authority wants to be held to account for this – no organisation – although Ofsted paid lip-service to this issue with reassurances to Maggie Atkinson that Ofsted would take this issue very seriously.

    In my experience, this has not been the case at all, and to this day I have had no explanation as to the mindset of a lead inspector who judged that the school’s provision for a particular child was unacceptable – I would suggest illegal. I have words in my vocabulary now that I would not normally call upon – such as ‘stonewalling’ and ‘obfuscation’.

    I have drawn attention to the greatest hypocrisy regarding parents taking their children out of school for family holidays being rebuked and fined – Sir Michael Wilshaw himself is very strong on this issue – but when I have queried a school treating an infant-aged child by excluding the child every morning for nearly eight months, I have had no satisfactory explanation to this date.

    I’m with you Nancy. I get you. Every time you write something – I get you.

    1. Thanks Debbie – and I you. I have probably been labelled as a wishy washy progressive type, but when it comes down to it, I think we are all a mix. You should get me going on handwriting. Traditional in the extreme! 😉
      Thanks for the excellent and detailed comment, with which I whole heartedly agree. I was asked about illegal exclusions…

  2. I agree with you Nancy about a mix of traditional and progressive – and have said so via blog ‘comments’ a number of times. You will find that other phonics proponents will also say they are neither traditionalists nor progressives – but they are simply full of ‘common sense’ – something that seems sadly lacking nowadays.

  3. Nancy and Debbie, I agree wholeheartedly with the pair of you! However in my experience as SENCo in mainstream, we are finding it increasingly problematic to find special schools able to meet the needs of our SEN cohort – there is always an issue. Academically too able, academically too poor, not able to cope with meltdowns, we don’t ‘do’ his/her area of need. I really feel for the parents as the schools do little to promote a feeling of “this is the correct setting for your child”. I don’t have an answer, and I haven’t worked outside mainstream so am not privy to the issues faced by special schools.

  4. Great article Nancy.
    “Are we at war?” A few thoughts from our blog -
    Since writing this post we’ve been able to clarify that the governments of Singapore and China have mapped out a new ‘direction of travel’ for their education systems, but change is sometimes slow, especially when schools and teachers are reluctant to embrace change. It’s hard to imagine our government admitting that the war they’ve been fighting was misconceived, and so change may need to happen in schools in spite of our top-down system of governance with its emphasis on central direction, high stakes testing, league tables, etc. Thankfully there are already many good schools and great teachers who have either embraced or have never let go of the notion that learning should be personalised, holistic, related to the real developmental needs of children and above all meaningful and enjoyable. Inspirational blogs such as yours are essential to the long march towards a better system.

  5. Great article Nancy. I feel between a rock and a hard place with Natty. Mainstream fits less and less and special school doesn’t seem right for her needs either. I almost feel forced into home ed as many parents do. The solution will come to me eventually, but right now it’s tricky.

    1. I know what you mean,Hayley. There were many times when I wished that I could have been more in the driving seat with Sam’s primary schooling, but with two younger babies following him, I wasn’t in a position to. It’s a difficult balancing act, keeping your child in mainstream school. On the one hand, is the benefit to all, not just the child involved, of having them at the same school as everyone else, and on the other, there is the difficulty of providing them with the education they need in a way that they need it. Not all children with Down’s syndrome go to special schools – there is certainly the possibility of having split placements, if mainstream isn’t fulfilling all of Natty’s needs right now.
      It’s such a shame that mainstream schools simply aren’t up to the job of catering for children with complex learning needs – and this is in the most part because they are caught between the twin, and opposing demands of an inclusion policy and a draconian accountability one…oh, and a lack of funding fro training and resources too. *sighs deeply*

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