One of the things I get asked, every so often, is what Sam’s mental age is. I understand the question, I really do. It comes from a desire to understand him, to give the asker a framework upon which to build a relationship. All of us have had contact with children, in one way or another, at some point in our lives. When we talk about a three year old, we have an image in our collective imagination. We think of Thomas the Tank Engine, or digging and making mud pies in the garden. When we talk about our ten year old, we know it means Minecraft and stories, falling out of tress and a growing sense of the world around them, and their place in it. To ask someone’s age is a way to understand a person, or an attempt at it, anyway.
But the thing is, when I am asked this question about Sam, I can’t really answer. He is fifteen (not sure how that happened), and in many ways he is typical of his age group. He plays terrible music far too loud. He slams the bedroom door. He is slowly and steadily eating us out of house and home. He is that weird mix between independent and vulnerable. He says, and does, things that are both annoying and endearing, thoughtless and hilarious all at the same time.
In many ways, though, he is anything but. It is terribly easy, when one is engaged in a bit of Down’s syndrome advocacy, to infer that there are no real, no substantial differences between his development and that of his typical peers – but that wouldn’t, to be totally honest, be honest. It’s a complex and contradictory thing to try to explain (thank goodness I like a bit of nuance and paradox), but I’ll give it a try.
He likes loud music, but it could just as well be the musical times tables he’s had for years, or Christmas tunes (I have to admit they get on my nerves a bit when they are blaring out over the July garden), as the latest pop tunes to strut the hit parade, by bands/artistes I don’t know, and have no desire to know either.
He is interests in cars, but he doesn’t want a poster of a red Ferrari on his wall. He’d rather play with his collection of toy lorries and line them up in intricate patterns on the floor. When you ask him what he wants to do when he grows up, or who he wants to be, when he says, ‘Eddie Stobart’, it isn’t clear whether he means he wants to be a lorry driver, or star in YouTube video and sing the Eddie Stobart Twelve Days of Christmas.
That’s the funny thing about Down’s syndrome. In many ways it’s a magnifier, a slow motion lens that allows you to see the details you would otherwise miss. It throws the things you already half-knew, the thing you felt in your gut into to relief; you can get them out and examine them in detail. When I look at my other children, my younger two, or I think about the classes I have taught over the (ahem) twenty or so years I have been a teacher, I can see that they, the typical and the not so ordinary, are not so different after all – but not in the way you might first think.
At first, when you meet them, the massed ranks of Year 4, you could reasonably assume that they are broadly similar. For a start, they are roughly the same size. They (usually) fit the furniture. The stories we tell them appeal to their age group, the things we teach them fall into a similar patter, year on year.
And yet, when we get to know them, just like Sam and my younger two, you realise that the boxes you had assigned to them don’t quite fit. Lego, and interested in girls. Voracious reading, disappearing into the imagination, and an interest in the world that surrounds; endless chatter, but no capital letters or full stops when it is written down. A desire for independence, with cuddly toys and bedtime stories.
I’ve been looking at the way we assess children in school for work, you see. I’ve been thinking about how we have moved away from the broad brush description of development that the levels used to be and into an age of expected standards for year groups, regardless even, of the month of birth.
It’s a difficult thing to describe, a child’s journey through a national curriculum, in the same way that a mental age is an inadequate way to talk about my son, because despite their similarities (and yes, we are more alike than different), they don’t all meet developmental milestones all at the same time and all int he same way on one morning in the May when they are seven, or ten years old. And the new descriptors in the Rochford Review, pushing the possible standard met in Year 6 to six, for me, rather begs the question of whether the expected standard is to be, well, expected.
And I suppose this is the thing. It is all well and good to summarise, to quantify at the end of a school career (or at specified points within it – and for Sam, this is once a year at an Annual Review), what a child can do. But, accountability aside, when we turn the language of progress into one of expectation related to age, and there is more to be said about what a child cannot do, about the way that they have not met expectations, I am disturbed.
I wrote about the removal of National Curriculum levels here: https://notsoordinarydiary.wordpress.com/2013/11/20/filling-in-forms/
I’ve written about assessment in my book, Inclusion for Primary School Teachers, available here : https://www.amazon.co.uk/Inclusion-Primary-Teachers-Outstanding-Teaching/dp/1472921143
I wrote about assessment and SEND here : http://www.specialneedsjungle.com/honest-and-useful-assessment-for-children-with-send-is-not-just-about-attainment/