Monthly Archives: October 2015

Be a Man

Not so long ago I asked Sam what he wanted to be when he grew up.  It was part of the process for converting his Statement of Special Educational Need to an Education Health Care Plan.  It’s a question I have asked children many time before, often with hilarious results, but, seeing as the previous question had been ‘where would you like to go when you finish at school?’ and I had been met with a blank look, as if the very idea of there being a life beyond the school years, that they might one day finish, was beyond comprehension, I didn’t have much hope of a sensible answer.  It was part of the form though, so I steeled myself and prepared to write down everything he said.

And, as is so often the case with my eldest child, he surprised me.  Rather than reeling off a load of old nonsense about Lazy Town or the latest (or not so latest, he is very fond of Pasha and Abby) results from Strictly, he gave me the joyous beam of confidence and roundly declared, “I want to be a man.”

Sam is delighted by his slow transformation.  Not so delighted by the spots, it has to be said, but chuffed nonetheless.  It started before I’d even realised.  There I was, lying in bed, silently bemoaning the fact that Sam was not, and that he was, in fact downstairs and playing loudly (in a successful bid to wake the rest of us dirty rotten layabouts up), and I slowly wondered to myself what the terrible noise he was making was.  In a bolt of realisation that shot me from my slumbers (although didn’t force me out from under my warm duvet) I realised that it was his voice.  It had changed.  Without us really realising it had deepened and Sam was experimenting with a kind of ‘how low can you go’ game.  Along with the deeper voice have come hairy legs, the need to shave and bodily changes that are rapidly leaving little boy-hood behind and, as his mother, a kind of bittersweet pang at the passing of an era.  My tiny boy is leaving.  He is becoming the next generation, and I, therefore, must be old.  No longer a Young Mum.

And along with the changes come the aspiration.  When he made his declaration we left it at that.  It was soon followed by a desire to have the entire collection of Eddie Stobart lorries, and, when I went to the EHCP transformation meeting there was a whole load of other things he had told everyone else, when they, too, had asked him the same question.  As we sat and gulped, and swallowed down the rush of emotion that came with such a statement I found myself asking a question.  Well possibly two, or maybe three.

What did he mean, when he said that?  He will grow up, but I wonder what he means by being a man?  Does he mean that he will go out to work, like daddy?  Drive a car, have a home and put a wife and family in it?  Does he see himself taking on the role of provider?  The man who sustains and keeps his family safe?

And why, when he said that, did we feel such emotion?  Why is it so difficult for us to see him being a real man?  A real grown up?  Is it because he will in all likelihood always need to be helped?  Is this somehow not compatible with being a man?  Is it because he is, by the nature of his difficulties, less powerful, more needy, weaker?

And what about his sexuality?  Interested in girls he most certainly is.  But, somehow, we seem, as a society, to be uncomfortable with the very notion.  When he was a baby, someone talked to me about men with Down’s being sterilised.  I can’t remember exactly what it was they said, so full was I of anger and outrage that someone should even contemplate doing that to another, that he couldn’t be expected to exercise some responsibility for himself.  The whole idea of boys like him turning into men with needs and desires seems to strike some people with horror.

I look at my son and I think about all the expectations we have of him, who he should be, in which box he should sit, and stay.  I look at him, and I say, ‘You know what Sam, you be whoever you want to be,’ because feminism isn’t just about the girls.

When my son grows up he wants to be a man.


Ofsted Speaks

Well! There I was, checking my email before I set off for home, and what should I find but a reply from the Man From Ofsted.  Here it is. (Just this once I am breaking a rule and putting someone else’s words in a post, but bearing in mind that this is an important issue to me, I thought I may as well.  Normal service will resume shortly.)  There is a link at the end to the consultation, but please feel free to use the comments below.

Dear Nancy

Thank you for your letter. You raise many important points.

Firstly let me explain that the inspectors who will carry out these inspections will have a depth of expertise in disability and special educational needs.  The team will include a HMI who is a specialist in disability and special educational needs and has received additional training in this area of inspection work. The CQC inspector is similarly a specialist in evaluating specialist children’s services. The third team member will be a local authority officer who is working at a senior strategic or operational level in special educational needs. The local authority officer inspectors will be recruited and trained specially for these inspections and, of course, will not inspect in any areas where have any connections.

Inspectors are clear that they will look for high expectations for disabled children and young people who have special educational needs from all involved. The consistent finding of Ofsted’s inspections and surveys is that this is the singular, most important feature for making the most progress. However it would not be right to say that having high expectations for progress and providing high quality health and social care are contradictory. High quality care contributes well to meeting a young person’s special educational needs and maximising their progress.

You raise the topic of identification of special educational needs. It is crucial that this is done well. The new inspection consultation paper explains that effective identification includes:
*         the timeliness of the assessment from when concerns were raised; as you explain the identification of special educational needs is not simply a matter of a young person having low attainment for their age.
*         the usefulness of the information provided by the identification, in terms of how it helps to plan effectively to meet the young person’s needs
*         how well different teachers and professional work together during assessments
*         the involvement of and understanding by the young person
*         the involvement of and understanding by parents and carers.

All of these aspects are so important and will form the basis of the inspectors’ evaluation.

Inspectors will expect to see how the local area has identified the area’s needs, based on a careful analysis of information about the special educational needs of their young people. They will then look at how well this analysis is matched by the area’s provision, in its mainstream and special schools, by specialist services and, where appropriate, through social care. This picture is the Local Offer and inspectors will ask parents about how useful they have found the published offer for their area.

Thank you for raising these matters, however, I must be very clear that it would be wrong to expect these inspections by themselves to right all of the concerns of all parents. The reforms are new and will need time to be implemented. The inspections will provide a rigorous evaluation of the whole local area, however we must be realistic that they cannot look at every concern raised by every parent. They will highlight key strengths and aspects requiring development and the inspection reports will provide a catalyst for change both in the area being inspected and to other local areas.

You included the link to the consultation in your open letter and I repeat it again here and ask as many as possible to respond:

Yours sincerely

Sean Harford HMI
National Director, Education

Next Steps

The strangest thing about being in the Palace of Westminster is that, in my somewhat hurriedly formed impression (I was there for two hours on Wednesday afternoon), it’s a bit like being at your nan’s.  There’s tea and coffee in proper china cups and saucers.  There were sandwiches (although not, I suspect, filled with tinned salmon and lashings of vinegar) with their crusts cut off.  Like every institutional building in England I have ever been, there is the faint waft of boiled cabbage.  Like every church, there is a hint of must and dead flowers long gone.

I imagine politicians from the pages of history books striding across the sunken plaques that declare their dead presence.  It’s as if time is all rolled up, crushed and stuffed into the maze of rooms at the centre of power.  The echoes of experience stalk the corridors.

There’s a room like that in every school I have ever been in, one that carries the echoes of the past, and reminds you of days gone by and how the world has changed, turning around the point of stillness.  Like the Pugin extravagance of the Houses of Parliament, these public buildings have undergone renovation over the years, but not so that they can remain, gold corbels glowing in the autumn sunshine, in an unchanged state, but instead to meet the changing demands of a twenty-first century education.

There, in the corner, hides the unchanged space; quietly frozen, an architectural testament to its time.  It’s usually stuffed with the things that only come out once a year.  Christmas costumes.  The larger of the games for the summer fayre.  The currently unused set of orchestral instruments.  Or gym mats and buckets of old plimsolls smelling of new rubber and old sweat.

It’s not usually a cupboard, although teachers’ cupboards in primary schools are treasure troves that hide the text books of days gone by, the interesting objects that might come in useful one day.  No, it is the disabled toilet (although, I have noticed, over the years, that the staff toilets are much the same in their time capsule qualities).  There it sits, the same 1980s colour on the walls, the same 1980s  lino on the floor as the 1980s day it was built.  The original soap dispenser hangs on the wall but it no longer squirts that strange smelling pink slimy stuff.

There’s plenty of room in there (hence the storage), presumably so that wheelchairs could be wheeled in.  There’s one of those uppy-downy white handle things (although there is no dangling alarm) and the taps don’t twist at the top.  They have handles (and spray that soaks your mid-section if you are particularly unlucky).  There is more than a whiff of the hospital about it.

Back in the early 80s, this was the height of inclusive technology.  New schools were ready to take on their first disabled kids.  Metaphorical sleeves were rolled up.  In 1981, when I was nine, I would have been impressed.  At that age, with rather more time spent in hospitals (one ancient, one modern) than your average Year 5, I’d have been taken in by the shininess of the taps, the ease with which you could turn them (and soak yourself) in a not-dissimilar way to my own children’s delight in those automatic soap dispensers, especially the ones that fill your bathroom up with foam.

But these days I can see that forgotten space, a room of the most basic requirement for what it is, and what it has become.  I can see how it stands testament to a fossilised view of disability; one where a person, or a child, needs nursing.  An illness to cure, a problem to be fixed.  Ramps and a couple of taps and Bob’s your Uncle.  Job done.  A single solution to a single problem.

But the well-intentioned provision of an unused space is just that.  Unused.  Unloved.  Cluttered up with the detritus of Other Stuff.  The shining veneer peeling off, the soap dispenser redundant and unused.  A funny, empty, echoing smell.

I don’t feel cross when I come across these rooms.  I don’t feel affronted at the conspicuous use of public funds.  I don’t feel annoyed in the same way I did when I was confronted by the guilded tower tops or observed the exclusive view of the Thames.  These unloved spaces aren’t for show, their purpose isn’t too impress with echoes of grandeur long gone and power dribbled away.  Or I hope they aren’t, anyway.

I’m not quite sure how it is I feel because, as I did when I came away from the launch of the Driver Youth Trust’s report, ‘Joining the Dots’, a report into the state of provision for children and young people with SEND, I wonder how it will be when the razzmatazz is all over.  When the doors have been opened, when the building gets on with its job, when the rhetoric has died down, the speeches spoken and the words that everyone knows but that no one seemed to dare to name before now, I wonder what we will do now?  What next?

I talked with a friend while I was there, this making of a world fit for my son to take his place.  We talked, and we discussed together what the next steps might be, now that the stories are being told.  We thought that it might just have something to do with us.


An open letter to Mr Harford

Dear Mr Harford,

I saw the link for a consultation on inspection for provision for children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) today while I was eating my sandwiches.  I will be responding to the consultation later, but, while it is on my mind, I wanted to put some thoughts down on paper (as it were), in case the questions in the consultation don’t quite address my concerns and my train of thought is derailed.

If you don’t mind, I’ll get straight to the point.

  • The conflation of education with care

It may seem like a small thing to many people, and there is no doubt that some students with disabilities do need an element of care, but I cannot stress how important it is that, in educational establishments at the very least, care does not form a much of a part in assessment of services or in the language we use around the subject, except where there is a medical need for that child or young person.

The reason is this: while a medical model of disability is used in the diagnosis of an SEND, it is there that its usefulness in terms of provision and expectations pretty much ends – and the excuses begin.  What children with SEND need from us is an education so that they can, as much as they are able, become useful and valued members of society, rather than dear weak souls who must be cared for for the length of their short lives.  Being kind and caring is very nice, but it doesn’t make one effective.

**Amendment** I think it is worth asking the question of people what we mean by care. I am writing about the medical sort, where people are looked after rather than empowered. This is because my son has Down’s syndrome and this is something we have come across. It’s not great.

In that case, I would ask that you would ensure that your teams of inspectors are well trained in special education, so that the very last thing that they can be accused of is of patronising either the schools or the children with a ‘poor little dears’ mentality that devalues their judgements.

I would suggest, in this endeavour, that your inspectors have some time to familiarise themselves – as well as become inspired by great practice – with the fabulous schools and colleges who are working to change lives and secure futures right now.

  • Identification

Identification of SEND is a fraught business, and, as both a parent and a teacher I have a couple of thoughts to add to the mix.  As far as a condition like my son’s, Down’s syndrome, is concerned, it is a relatively simple matter to diagnose.  An experienced midwife and a quick blood test and you’re done.  There is either an extra chromosome or there isn’t.  Where the problem lies is in how this diagnosis is communicated to parents, both expectant and very new.

Could I suggest that you take some time to look at the work of Hayley Goleniowska on the language that people working in the medical profession use when talking to new or expectant parents.  While I appreciate that Ofsted has little to do with medicine, the EHCP is where the two worlds meet, and this attitude of doom towards disability has really got to change.

As far as identification in schools is concerned, I would like you to ensure that teachers (all of them) know that SEND is not directly linked to attainment.  I am not convinced that many teachers really understand this (particularly in primary, because I work in that phase)  – and autism is a case in point.  The *amendment* average age of diagnosis for Asperger’s (that’s people with Autism who function at a high educational level) is 11-12 years old.  They have left us in primary, and have joined the secondary school – where their chances of losing the plot and being excluded are much higher.

Often, I hear of the reason why a child does not have a diagnosis of whatever learning disability it might be, is that their attainment is not bad enough.  Well, what happens when working their little socks off is not going to help them any more?  What happens when they can no longer cope?  They still have an SEND.  It’s not always about attainment by any means.

We seem to have a ‘step in when we are at crisis point’ mentality and this has to change.

  • Local area arrangements

I would like you to look at firstly how these are communicated to parents.  Putting them up on a badly designed local authority website is not good enough.  Handing out the odd glossy leaflet is not good enough.

Parents of children with SEND are often tired and hassled.  Information has a tendency to go in one ear and out of the other.  Someone needs to take responsibility for making real relationships and having enough knowledge of what is out there to make sure that the right thing gets to the right person at the right time.

At the moment it is far too ad hoc and this has to change.

In addition, I would like you to look at where activities and services are happening in relation to where the children and young people actually live.  Are they having to drive some distance so that they can access something that is suitable for their needs, or have all methods been employed to ensure that there are quality inclusive options in their area so that they can get together with their typically developing peers in sensitive and creative ways, rather than be herded together, miles away from the communities in which they live, in some sort of ‘Special Needs Club’?

If there are inclusive options, I would like you to assess their quality.  Saying that everyone is welcome is the first step on the journey but it is not enough.  I am not sure that everyone understands this and that there are some providers out there who claim to be inclusive, invite some disabled kids along (preferably the easy(!) ones) and change nothing about what they do – as part of some tick box exercise in order that they can get their funding.  This has to change.

I would like you to investigate the level of training, knowledge and understanding of SEND in our schools.  I’m not convinced that it is very good – and that has to change.

  • Inspect the inspectors

Let’s face it, the focus on attainment and progress at all costs isn’t helpful as far as inclusive practice is concerned.  Learning needs and disabilities come in many shapes and forms, they aren’t easy to understand, and neither is teaching children with them easy to do.  Sometimes it can take a child a long time to get to a place where they are capable of learning.  This needs to be explicitly understood by inspectors and good practice celebrated.  Otherwise nothing will change.

I hope you don’t mind me making this letter an open one – I have a sneaking suspicion that there are lots of other people out there who will read it – and will have something else of value to contribute.

If you are reading this and you have a story to tell Mr Harford that will help him in his endeavours to understand the state of provision for children and young people with SEND, please do use the comments.  Here is the link to the consultation.

Thank you for reading,



Here is a picture of my son reading – which some teachers believed he would never be able to do – and told me so.
A comment from a friend regarding mental health:

My concern is that many children with SEND also need support from Children’s Services for Short Breaks, Family Support, Child Protection and so on; they’re not getting it. In my own LA, an Ofsted inspection earlier this year rated Children’s Services as Inadequate and they deserved it. It’s given them such a kick up the bum that Social Workers are now trying really hard and managers are responding. For so long we’ve wanted Ofsted to get involved in SEND and expose what goes on: if they are opening files and interviewing families I think that’s a very good thing and we need to work with them to get it right.

Never Ending Laundry

Last week’s women ed conference has been on my mind.  Not in totally the best way, mind you.  It has been lurking there, tapping me on the shoulder and engendering a vague feeling of guilt at the back of my mind.  I promised I would write about it, you see, and I find that these things have more power, they contribute more to a sense of the now, especially on social media, if you can get your thoughts out there straight away.

So here’s the thing.  It is only now, a week since I waved goodbye to my internet chums that I am finally sitting down at the computer.  I have a long leggy creature (my daughter) cuddling up next to me, ever ready to start moaning that I am not paying her enough attention or to ask me some sort of hard, thought-derailing question, so I had better be quick.

It’s not for want of trying, this lack of typing.  It’s not because questions and reflections haven’t been rattling around my head in the aftermath of a long day out.  It’s that the aftermath has been somewhat, what you might call, large.

I’ve had three children to placate (where have you beeeeeeen?).  I’ve had a husband to converse with (please turn that off and talk to me).  I’ve had a mountain of housework with which to deal (you cannot leave me any more, it’s been six weeks since I was last dusted), and a real job, with real children who ask real questions from the philosophical to the mundane (What’s your real name, Miss?  Does everyone die?).  I’ve had a two part assignment to complete and hand in (check)(senco course, if you’re interested, a little project on reading practice and an impact statement).  It’s been busy and I am, I admit, a one-at-a-time kind of girl.

So what did I think of it all?

Well, I’m not sorry that I stood up for myself and my fellow teachers when I defended their feeling that if they are being a great mum then they aren’t being a great teacher and vice versa.  We just don’t get paid enough, whether we work part time or not, to pay for the kind of child care that allows us to be both.  Especially if we have partners who work long hours too.  That’s how it is for the classroom teacher.

I’m still a little disappointed that there were only two men there, and they weren’t teachers; but I take my husband’s point that I wouldn’t have found a ‘men leaders in education’ conference a particularly big draw (and I am enormously proud of him that, when he went to a mathematics conference last week he called the organisers of the pre-event dinner on the fact that there were no women there at all – they went red, apparently).

I’m chuffed to have met people I now call my friends.  I’m not ashamed of the tear that leaked from the corner of my eye when Sue Cowley spoke of the hardness that is being a woman, and a mother right now.  The pulling of every which way.

And, as I sit here, squashed into the corner of the sofa by a daughter who will, if I am unlucky, start tapping on my keys and making a mess of my sentences, I find that I am left with more questions than answers.  I feel, if not discombobulated, then uncomfortable.

Is leadership of a school something I want?  While I agree that it is a continuing injustice that the majority of head teachers, despite it being a hugely female profession, are men; while I am astounded in one sense, but tiredly sad in another, that the committees that report to the centre of power are also dominated by men (in suits), and not even men that spend the majority of their time in the classroom, I am not sure that ‘aspiring to leadership’ is the answer – well, not for me, anyway.

There was a lot of talk at the conference about being braver, about going for what you want and grasping it with both hands.  There was a real sense that day, of doing something that was important, both personally and professionally.  At my little workshop there was talk of a multiplicity of femininity – an overt acceptance that we are not all the same, and that our expressions of woman, of mother, of teacher, are necessarily different.

When I got home, I sat with R, and we watched the Blues Brothers and I thought about what really mattered to me, the things that make my heart sing.  I thought about music and writing, about my family, old(er) and young.  My faith.

I was talking to one of my young colleagues about the conference before I went.  He would like to be a head teacher.  He wants to be in charge one day.  He asked my advice on what I thought he needed to be able to do to make it happen.  I thought about all the things you have to do as an educational leader.  The meetings.  (Too chatty).  The feedback.  (Too friendly.)  The data.  (Yawn.)  The giving of your life over to the school.  And in that moment I realised that ‘leadership’ as a goal isn’t for me.

I’m more than happy to be the person who asks the awkward questions.  I want to shine a light into the dark places; to make people think.  I love to plant the seed of an idea in someone else and watch it grow.  To see friendships made and futures changed.  I don’t care if I do this for children (straightforward) or adults (tricky).

But I don’t do it because I want to be a leader.  That’s not my goal at all.  My goal is something entirely different.  My goal is change.

And now I must get back to the laundry.

Of all the things I saw, this is the thing that struck me. Talk yes, but don't forget to act.
Of all the things I saw, this is the thing that struck me. Talk yes, but don’t forget to act.