Removing the Rose-tinted Spectacles

I was reminded today of this post. I wrote it, one day in May, in my pyjamas, sat at my kitchen table. I don’t write much of this blog in the kitchen, it has to be said, most of it is written from this sofa, in front of this fire, my family crowded around me (well, the first drafts, anyway). I like to think of myself, in my I’m-a-novelist-fantasy moments as a bit of a Jane Austen, but without the cap. For one thing, the kitchen is far too cold, even in May. But that Saturday morning I had a bee in my bonnet, and I had something to say that would not wait. Tonight, despite the fact that I have eaten too much chocolate log (it was on special offer), I feel the same way.

The original Secret Teacher, and the accompanying debate around inclusion and how difficult it is, is doing the rounds again. It’s too hard, these children are too difficult. They make life miserable for the mainstream and should be separated off so that they can make friends with their own kind, it seems.

Funnily enough, I have a lot of sympathy with much of that view.  It is hard to work with children and young people with SEND. Children with complex difficulties (and even those without), my own son included, can be disruptive influences. He deserves the chance for a meaningful peer group as much as anyone else. When it goes wrong, when relationships crumble (and that’s just the adults), when the support that classroom teachers need to do their jobs properly isn’t there, when knowledge is weak, the whole thing can rapidly descend into a nightmare. If you’re going to do inclusion, it needs to be done properly.

The thing is, though, that much of the debate centres itself around what is good for adults, namely teachers, and the needs of the mainstream population to live their lives untroubled by the needs and difficulties of children with difficulties – and that’s where my problem lies.

Oh, I’d love for life to be easy. I’d love it to have turned out differently, and I’d have the kind of children who went to bed and cleaned their teeth without supervision, who did their homework with no complaining, who never got ill and aced all the tests. It would be great if I didn’t lose sleep every August, waking in a cold sweat, worrying about the term to come. The stresses and strains of the teaching life, even though I am the part-timer; if I had a magic wand I’d reduce those a bit.

But I do not deceive myself. I do not pretend that it would all be better if only those troublesome kids weren’t in my class, in my school or in my home. I make no claim, even though my son goes to an exclusive school, that the use of an educational sorting hat is somehow an answer. Because I know it’s not.

I don’t look at these stats very often. My son has complex and profound learning difficulties, Down’s syndrome, and, in order to live every day, to make my home a happy one, one that is not dominated by fear and anxiety for the future, I indulge in a little selective looking. But because I think this is important, because I think looking beyond the school gate and the school years is a necessity for those of us who work in education, I’m going to break a rule and I’m going to lay it on the line.

Children and young people with SEND – and that’s all of them, not just boys and girls like mine – are twice as likely to be bullied at primary school as you were.

They will be six times more likely to receive a fixed-term exclusion from school than you.

They will be eight times more likely to receive a permanent exclusion from school than you.

Once they’ve left school they will be seven times less likely to work than you.

If they are lucky enough to work, it will probably be part-time. It will probably be poorly paid.

They are one and a half times more likely to live in poverty than you.

They are over four times more likely to have mental health problems as a child than you.

They are more likely to have children with their own learning difficulties than you.

They are at least three times more likely to end up in prison than you.

Children and young people like my son will die at least 15 years younger than you will. And before you try to comfort me with talk of heart defects and early onset Alzheimer’s (thanks for that) let me tell you about the story of the uninvestigated, unexpected deaths of many people with learning disability in one NHS trust. Let me tell you about the little boy with Down’s syndrome who went into a hospital one morning with sickness and diarrhoea and ended up dead by the end of the day.

We might like to tell ourselves that a little bit of segregating will make life better for everyone and everything in the garden will be rosy – but that’s what we already have and it’s not rosy, not by a long chalk. Issues around inclusion need debating – there is no doubt about that. Labelling and its effects, the use of TAs, data that shows so many children on SEN registers because they were born in the summer, accountability measures and financial cuts that make it difficult to make children’s education the most important thing in schools; all these things are worthy of debate without recourse to fear of who we might offend.

But let’s not kid ourselves that out of sight and out of mind is the answer; someone else’s problem. Let’s not pretend, play the demonising game with a little bit of them and us, let’s not kid ourselves that we don’t have a part to play, that we haven’t got the wherewithal to make a necessary change. We have. And we must. Lives depend on it.


With grateful thanks to Jarlath O’Brien for the stats.  Like I say, I don’t tend to look.


12 thoughts on “Removing the Rose-tinted Spectacles

  1. Thank you. This needs saying, again and again. And most of all, it needs saying because none of this dystopian past, present and future is inevitable, necessary, or beyond the capabilities of a truly civilised society to address.

    1. Yes, yes and a thousand times yes! It’s in our hands. We can do something about it. And Twitter and blogs, are helping, strangely. Great comment on the other blog, btw.

    1. I agree – and it’s one of the reasons we sent our son to a special school. He would have found negotiating his way through a large mainstream comprehensive school extremely difficult (for a start) and what kind of inclusion is that?
      My argument remains, in all of this debate, that we (attempt to) do what is best for the vulnerable – not because segregation makes life easier for us, or for other children, but because, in a pragmatic sense, for some children, it gives them a better chance of a more meaningful (if you like) adult life.
      I feel strongly about the way that we have this conversation. Children and young people – and the adults they become – have enough to contend with without being demonised in the process.

  2. I’m not generally a big fan of sweeping generalisations as I struggle to understand what is best for my own child in terms of education, let alone others, but I do think these stats are important to consider and to share. Mainstream education isn’t necessarily the best choice for every child but I don’t see that as segregation or exclusion, just as finding the right solution for each child. In many cases, the ‘right’ solution doesn’t even exist (certainly not in our county) and many are driven to home educating when they really would rather not be. Inclusion is a great ideal but means different things to many so I’m sure the discussion will go on. It’s important to keep talking about it though, and I feel sure that times are changing, as ever, and society will continue to progress as long as voices like yours are heard!

  3. One of the things people with little experience of special education don’t realise is the range of needs that some generic Special Schools need to cater for. At least as broad a range as any mainstream. In a rural area with limited settings to chose from a cognitively able child with autism and a child with pmld could be in same setting if mainstream schools not able to adapt. Or a cognitively able child with complicated physical disabilities might be excluded from learning alongside her peers.

    1. This is something that becomes really clear in the DS community when people ask round about the choice between mainstream and special. The choice was easy for us – but it isn’t clear cut for very many other people.

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