Tag Archives: Education

Inclusion is dead. Long live education.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this here consultation on how the SEND reforms, in the form of the Children and Families Act, have been going (in a nutshell, not well), and I’ve been having what I like to call ‘teacher moments’. These moments are not the sort where my family entreat me to stop behaving as if I am in front of a class and they are the children; instead, they are those times when I think to myself, ‘if this was my class, this is what I would do’.

It happened to me a lot when I was in my last teaching job. Without a class of my own, I was in and out of other people’s classrooms, and I was always pinching their best ideas, always thinking how I might do things differently. It hasn’t been such a regular occurrence recently, but, possibly due to my imminent return to class, it has been something that has been happening more and more.

One of the hallmarks of a good teacher is, I think, the ability to recognise when the lesson has gone pear shaped and to stop and either abandon it or go back to the beginning and start again. Obviously, as I think this is the sign of a good teacher, I am happy to admit that I have done this more than once in my time. I’ve merrily made plans in the quietness of my own home and found, when I’ve been in class with 30 odd small people who either haven’t got the resources I had considered necessary for the completion of the exercise (usually because I hadn’t given myself the time to get them) or the prior knowledge (possibly because I had made an assumption), that I’ve needed to come up with an alternative – and fast.

And this is what I have been thinking about when I think of the state of the SEND reforms. It started off so well-intentioned. Putting children and families at the centre, getting the various agencies involved and talking to each other, rebranding BESD to better reflect the mental health needs of young people who find it difficult to conform to school behaviour expectations; all these things sounded so good, so plausible. And yet, now, three years later, EHCPs remain unwritten, LAs are struggling to keep up, SENCOs are drowning in work, and children and families…well, I don’t know about you, but being at the centre sounds great, but what it has actually meant for me is more meetings, more people to tell the same thing, more answering the same questions and more chasing up and checking. And that’s before we get to parents and families having to be the ones to personally hold LAs to account, to turn themselves into lawyers in order to get people to do what they are supposed to be doing, all set against a backdrop of austerity and cuts that puts everyone under pressure.

If it were me in charge I would be wanting to say, ‘OK, everyone, let’s stop, take a breath, and start again.’

Because I think the problems we are seeing are the tip of the iceberg. I think they are the products of changes to our education system that happened years ago (for a fascinating insight into educational change see here– you’ll notice that there’s nothing new to the arguments), and set into motion the perfect storm of competition (rather than collaboration) we are witnessing today. The mechanisms of assessment, funding and accountability have broken inclusion of children with SEND in our schools and it is time to draw a line in the sand.

It’s time we started speaking differently and stopped treating children with SEND as different; problems to be solved; negative additions to the every day. They aren’t. Students with SEND are just as special as anyone, just as commonplace and to be expected as everyone; just as entitled to an education, to be able to access that education.

It’s time to put to death the idea of difference and of competition in education, because after all, we all have the same rights to it. Making provision for disabled children – no matter what that disability may look like – isn’t an added extra. It is, or it should be, what we do every day. Let’s call what we do what it is: teaching. Every time we name it ‘inclusion’ (or integration or special or whatever) we make out that what we are doing for disabled students is different to what we are doing for everyone else. It’s time to go back to the drawing board, not just with the CFA reforms, but the whole damn lot. It’s time for change, and this time, for the better. This time, instead of blaming individuals, let’s look at, and I mean honestly look at, the constraints pushed on them by the mixed up, confused system within which they (we) work. There’s a reason why I failed to define inclusion when I wrote a book about it. Inclusion is dead. Long live education.

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Yes, Prime Minister

I don’t know about you, but I am constantly distracted. Not, I hasten to point out, in the sense of Mrs Bennett, making declarations of distraction and waving my arms about to attract the attention of anyone who might be in the vicinity, not that sort of distraction, no. No, I mean the sort of distraction where I set out to do one thing, and end up getting sucked into doing another. It’s why tidying the house is such a trial – and also why I seem to be on a constant journey of surprise.

The other day it was diaries. I can’t remember why it was that I was digging through the drawers in my desk (it belonged to my grandma who got it from my great-uncle and has excellently capacious drawers in which to keep all manner of randomly stuffed in stuff) (I think it had something to do with maps) and I came across a small stack of my teenaged diaries.

Unlike me, my mum is a committed diarist. She has years worth of them, and I, as a young teen, was impressed by this fact and decided that I would do the same. I have several years of them (well, three) and they all end in about March – the time when I got bored and gave up writing them (I know, I know, it can’t possibly be because I had little to say, I hear you cry). What remains are fragments, glimpses of my former self, snatches of my inner world, preserved and forgotten until that moment when I stumble upon them and find myself remembering that book (but definitely not that test or that argument that I didn’t want to write about, the pages crossed out and blank) or that item of clothing I seemed so obsessed by (but not the blue gloves; what the blue gloves were I have no idea).

Despite my inability to keep a written record of my life, I find it hard to chuck them out. I’ve always loved at least the idea of diaries; during my teenage years my parents bought me several, one of which I loved so much it never made its way into the capacious drawer. Even today, it sits proudly on the bookshelf, partnering my other Books from That Era (or, in other words, Books I Can’t Quite Bear to Throw Away). It is a diary from the TV series ‘Yes, Prime Minister’, and I keep it on the shelf (having given up writing in it in about March) because there is so much in it to read, and, if you like that sort of thing (which I did, aged 14), to amuse.

I wouldn’t say I was a huge fan, but I loved ‘Yes, Prime Minster’, back in the day. I enjoyed the verbal repartee, the long, convoluted speeches from Sir Humphrey and above all, the polite warfare between the Civil Service and their political masters. Margaret Thatcher, if legend be true, was known for loving it too (I hasten to point out that I share Very Little with the late ex-Prime Minister), for its realism, despite its comedy. A politer, less frenetic Thick of It for a different age.

It’s this little story, though, the tale of Thatcher and her love for the series and its forerunner, Yes Minister, that makes me pause. Could this comedy, with its depiction of the battle between an older, post-war consensual age and a newer, brasher, why-not, infant neo-liberalism, be more influential, more on the money than we might like to think?

Now, again, I don’t know about you, but I’ve been doing some edu-reading lately, in preparation for writing my submission to the latest in educational enquiries, and I had a bit of a moment. I’ve been going on about it for a while, this business of Accountability As We Know it being damaging to education in this country, damaging to teachers and certainly damaging to the principles of inclusion and children in general, and in my mind I made a connection.

I remember the Education Reform Act. Not the Act itself, I was only 16 and way more interested in INXS at the time, but I was in the first cohort of children to sit the GCSE. I carried the first National Curriculum home to my student room when I started my PGCE. I sat with my new boss, when I started to teach properly, and chatted about Local Management of Schools, and what this might mean. I saw what happened to my old village school when the fashion changed, and everyone decided to send their kids to the other side of the valley because reasons.

It all sounded terribly familiar. When you watch it, it sounds so funny, so light, so fresh, so reasonable. The tragedy would be that it was a joke made flesh.

What happened to all the children?

One of the things that is nice – although nice is far too bland a word – about  teaching in a primary school is the sense of hope that infects the place. Nothing is fixed. The future is far, far away; a different land, universe, even. As an example, despite the fact that some of them have seen things that trouble them greatly (you know this, because they return to the same events again and again in conversation), despite the fact that they have so little and they play the sort of games that involve chopping up little bits of rubber with a ruler and folding them into little paper squares, (you know this, because they invite you to play) there is an innocence about them; they still believe in Father Christmas and are excited in an uncomplicated and present way about December. At this stage of their lives, there is tremendous hope, for you and for them. They are learning at such a rate and you, as their teacher, are a powerful influence in their lives. An influence for good, one hopes. Their dealings with social care, their entry on registers as a Child in Need are, by the nature of their being young, few.

But things change. I think it could be a valid criticism of primary schools and the teachers who work in them that not enough time is spent by us on thinking and planning for the adult lives of our charges. We get them to the end of Year 6 and through the SATs and then we send them off with a sigh of relief. We wipe our hands of them and get on with the next lot, giving those who have left us little thought and consideration. We, like them, are living in the eternal now. I know why this is, though. To think about them, as they are, as they must be now, rather than during that magical moment when they were ten years old, hurts; and after reading the statistics, it hurts even more.

Because if they didn’t have a special educational need in the area of mental health when they left us, they certainly do now. If they were male, working class, had anything like a traveller or Roma heritage…despite all that potential, despite the joy of Christmas and all that learning, to please their primary teachers, they aren’t making it to the end of their education. Something is going wrong for them and they are ending up on a scrapheap built from rage and violence, ready to visit it all over again on children of their own – and we seem powerless to do anything about it.

I remember the first time I wrote about exclusions. It was for TES, back in 2015. I had been chatting to my editor (the lovely Jon Severs), I remember the conversation vividly, sitting in the car on my drive, ranting on (and on) into the telephone about the state of it, about how my school, with its fluid population and league table position at the bottom of the bottom was one of the few schools in the area who would take anyone, regardless and I ended up with a commission for a feature. Mine was a school that was morally driven to serve the disadvantaged, and we were paying the price. I remember that feature well, too; all the best bits from the bit I wrote to get started got chopped, leaving me with one, lonely sentence: ‘Something strange is happening in education; children are disappearing.’ I’m glad I wrote it, even though since then, the landscape has changed, and the rates of exclusion are accelerating.

I’m not a person who is overly given to reading government statistical releases, I have to admit, but they tell a tale, and one that depresses me deeply. Because although exclusion rates are rising and the numbers of children and young people being educated in alternative provisions (that’s places of education that aren’t schools, like virtual schools, home education with tutors visiting once a week – a friend of mine does this – Pupil Referral Units and hospital schools) are increasing, this isn’t the end of the story. Oh, it’s easy to get all hot under the collar and rant and rail because it looks so bad on the surface (the large numbers of children and young people in that population who turn out to have a special educational need or a disability for starters: what kind of people throw disabled children out of school I hear you cry?), but there is complexity in them there statistics and it makes me pause and ask what I believe is a serious question: what happens to all the children?

In one sense I am glad that alternative provision is getting the attention it deserves, that the teachers who work there are getting the recognition they deserve. This is good. But it seems to me that what we are looking at is the symptom of the problem, not the cause. We are fiddling round the edges with our talk of finding ‘what works’ (with the explicit undertone that if one – exceptional – child can lift themselves out of poverty and distress by the Power of Education then so can everyone and thus save the state a fortune) and failing to address what is really the matter.

What happens to all the children? What happens to them?

You can read the statistics here.

You can read the plan for Alternative Provision here.

An Angel in Disguise

Some years ago, I did a stint in direct sales. It was around the time when I was starting to want to do a bit more with myself than shuttle between the school gates, nursery and playgroup. I’d been running a parent and toddler music group for some years, but had come to the point where I knew that I would have to expend considerable amounts of time and effort (and money) in order to keep it going, and I was ready to do something different. I was surprised at how good I was at it (selling things is not so different to teaching, to be fair, so I shouldn’t have been); for a little while, when I realised I had had enough of going out in the evening to work, I wondered whether I should pursue a more conventional job in sales.

I didn’t think about it for too long though. When it came down to it, I knew that one of the reasons the sales job was beginning to pall was not just the timetable, but the fact that I couldn’t bring myself to care about what I was selling. Yes, they were great products, but in the end…it was all a bit empty.

Motivation is a funny thing. For me, it was, and still is, the idea of making a difference that got me into education. That, and not being bored. I don’t do boredom very well.  Being only really interested in my own decisions, back when I was deciding what to do with my life, I never really considered anyone else; today though, after some years at this adulting thing, I’ve come to realise that, as in the cat-skinning business, there is more than one reason why people do the work they do.

Creativity. Many people want to be creative in the job they have. Or autonomy. Lots of people want to be in charge of themselves. Simplicity. Some people want to do a job that simplifies their life; they can fit it round the kids, or it’s the sort of thing that doesn’t take too much effort. Some people like chaos, others, order.

Then there are issues around how you are perceived by the outside. Some people like to be admired, because of the car they drive. Others, because of the physical strength they must exert in order to carry out their role. Still others, by the congratulatory things that people say to them, aren’t they wonderful for being able to do that. Some like the limelight, however that reaches them, others prefer to be backstage.

I was reminded of this the other night. I was at the TES Independent Schools Awards ceremony. As the TES SEND columnist and one of the judges, I was giving the award for Special Educational Needs Initiative of the Year (and a very good initiative it is, too). As I waited nervously for my turn to speak (I was reading out the name, hidden inside the gold envelope) (the nerves are something to do with being on show, having my photograph taken – I’ll have to write about that at some point), I was treated to a very good reminder of that fact.

It seems that teachers of SEN are somehow tarred with the angelic brush, just like the mothers of disabled children, who must sacrifice so much for their offspring. Leaving aside the role that the disabled child must necessarily play in this image making,  I was disturbed, enough that instead of simply reading out the name of the school, I took a moment to remind the assembled throng, in my best teacher tones, that EVERY teacher is a teacher of special educational needs. It’s not an aspiration, cockle warming call to action, it really isn’t; it’s a statement of fact. It’s there in the law. The vast majority of children with SEND are in mainstream schools too.

But it’s not just that. It’s how the notion of charity, of how working for a charity, such as the charity at the centre of the latest learning disability home scandal, or working in the field of SEND in general, somehow automatically means that you are a good person. The abuse and cruelty that hides behind closed doors, or the indifference that causes young adults to lose their lives prematurely, is hidden, glossed over by a false public perception of what you don’t do.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve come across one or two people in my time who have inadvertently shown themselves to be the opposite of who they pretend to be. I’ve come to recognise them for all of the things that they accuse me – or S – of. (Click the link to find out about that.) Liar. Unreasonable. Demanding. Malicious, selfish rule breaker. Incompetent. Dangerous. In a sad kind of way, it reminds me of the constant rhetoric of inclusion in schools; rhetoric that covers up the reality of a failure to do our jobs properly. Yes, people respond to the systems and management they find themselves working in, but, when it comes down to it, if we can’t accept that systems reflect the people who make them, then how will we ever change anything for the better?

But I’ll tell you the thing that makes me really cross, the thing that disappoints me, such that I can feel the bitterness rise up and taste it on my tongue; it’s that if these people, these ‘do gooders’, these angels, spent as much time and energy actually doing their job as much as they do protecting their reputations or producing pretty paperwork that shows how hard they are working, and you can look at schools as workplaces just as much as you can look at the work of charities, or homes for disabled people, then those we are actually supposed to be working for, the people whose lives we are supposed to be changing for the better, wouldn’t be so tragically let down.

I know we’re all trying our best. I know we get things wrong – I do as much as anyone else. The thing is, though, is it’s not supposed to be about us and our reputations. It’s supposed to be about them.

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

When I was about 19, I went out for a night of karaoke with friends at a local nightclub. Although I’ve done a lot of singing in public in my time, karaoke was new to me, but, ever the performer (I hesitate to write ‘show off’ – I really do try not to get too up myself), I chose a song from the catalogue and signed up to the list without a second thought (I’ve always been a bit overconfident on the singing side of things, comes from my early childhood experiences when I was constantly being called upon to Do The Singing bit in school shows, church and amateur dramatics). For my turn, I chose Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ and, I remember, I sang it to much applause (afterwards, when I went to the loo, I was accosted by another young lady who, rather aggressively I thought, asked me if I was the one who had been singing earlier; when I rather nervously admitted it was me, she told me I had been fookin’ ace – I’m taking that as rapturous). I remembered the experience when I was out in the car earlier today and it came on the radio (an expedition into the cold and rain in search of Forgotten Items From the Supermarket). It made me smile.

My friends and I, when we were at College (we were 17 and we thought we were the bees knees) used to request this song regularly when we went out to discos (a regular occurrence); we’d jump on to the dance floor in our Doctor Martens and bellow the words to each other, bouncing with the joy of being young and brave and having the world at our feet. We’d sing the lines ‘Some guys take a beautiful girl/and hide her away from the rest of the world/ I wanna be the one to walk in the sun/ cos girls just wanna have fun’ and vow that we would never put up with the sort of nonsense from our chosen partners that would have us stuck in the house being subservient. We were feisty, and determined.

As I drove along the slick streets, brown with the slightly thickened ending to raindrops, I turned the volume up and sang along, happy to be diverted down memory lane for as long as it lasted (I had taken the precaution of writing myself an actual list before I set off from the house, I thought I would be safe), remembering the days when I was younger and thinner and much, much fuller of energy. The younger me isn’t so different to the older me I thought; I’m still determined never to be shut away, an adjunct or an add on to someone else. It’s just that back then, I thought it was personal. I thought it came down to the person you chose as your life partner.

Now, though, I know different. I can see that this shutting away, this turning of a woman into some sort of silent trophy, or idealised image of supportive womanhood, or motherhood, or whatever else it is that women are supposed to represent or do, is not so much, not in my life anyway, personal and private, as systemic.

R thought I was going on a bit, but when he found that he was the one who had to curtail his working day in order to meet the kids from school and damage his career prospects (and I don’t mean extras, school events such as assemblies or school shows or sports days or anything like that).  Not that schools are in any way the same as places of child care, but dropping everything at half-past two in order to make it to the school gates for three does kind of cut in to your day. And, when you add in the magnifying effect of caring for a disabled young person – right at the point when you’d think things would be getting easier in the school run department you find out that it is actually worse, what with the even shorter educating day at college and the difficulties in finding the sort of care support you actually need; not for S the wander round the shops with friends that I used to do, while I was waiting for the bus. Holding down a part-time job, or even working at all, becomes increasingly challenging the longer I am in this game, and I haven’t even begun to write about health or social care. I’m lucky to be able to work the way that I do; I don’t for one minute think that my working arrangements are the norm. Employers pay you to do a job, and if you aren’t there, because you have to share the caring load, they will look for someone else who can. Part-time leaders? I’ll believe it when I see it.

I don’t know about you, but today, as I consider the opportunities I might have had, the chances I’ve missed to make a wider contribution, to effect a bigger, direct change in my chosen field of education, Cyndi Lauper, and her bouncy, buoyant, rebellious song doesn’t really do it for me any more. Yes, the personal is political, but now, it’s more. It’s bigger than me and my choices. Now, today, I might have a reminiscent singalong in the car, and smile at my youthful innocence, but tonight, when I do the washing up, next week, when I sit on the train, hurtling though the early morning chill to London, now, when I sit here, editing this post and considering what it is I am trying, so clumsily, to say, I will be, I am, choosing a different song. In so many ways, I’ll be singing, ‘what about us?’