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 https://www.mencap.org.uk/news/article/parents-mainstream-schools-are-failing-our-children-learning-disability 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. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/pupils-with-special-needs-are-being-failed-by-mainstream-schools-says-mencap-9923366.html
I’d write this:
SPECIAL SCHOOLS ARE THE JEWEL IN THE EDUCATIONAL CROWN AND WE WANT MORE SCHOOLS LIKE THEM.
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?