Tag Archives: Special education

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.

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Speak Truth to Power part two

So, having declared that I don’t really do details, here’s part two.  I seem to have come up with a few.  If you have anything to add, please so so in the comments.

SENCOs

These people need to be on SLT in a school.  That needs to be added to the Code.  I am also concerned that the people responsible for co-ordinating SEND in post-16 colleges do not need to be teachers.  It isn’t a purely administrative post.

Funding

It seems to me that there ought to be some rules, based on agreed good practise, around about how the funding for SEND can be spent, and some sort of scrutiny from someone that it is having the desired effect.  It seems clear that just spending the money on a 1-1 TA isn’t the answer, and neither is putting the money into one big melting pot.  There is too much misunderstanding of what it is that children and young people actually need and how to go about it.  Or too much half understanding, and too much writing things down on digital paper so that you can be seen to be doing the right thing even if reality says different.

Training

This needs to be looked at wholesale.  We have an inclusive system.  Whatever we think about that we have got to the stage where we know that just putting vulnerable kids in mainstream settings isn’t exactly the end of the story, and we need to make sure that all of our teachers – and indeed all of the people who work in schools, from the secretary to the caretaker – have the knowledge to help them do their jobs in the school community.

For a start we need there to be more than a passing nod to SEND when trainee teachers are learning how to do the job.  Teaching children with SEND is the most difficult and challenging part of our job (in my view), it’s worth spending time going over the main areas at the very least.  I would suggest spending some time at a special school local to them, as well as really good training on reading and ‘what to do when things go wrong’.  I would also strongly suggest that there is specific training on working with parents as well as how to work with TAs and other professionals.

Teachers need to be aware of their legal responsibilities as far as SEND is concerned, as, at present, I’m not sure that all of them do.  I might be tempted to insist that a part of any INSET programme is devoted to SEND and what teachers can do at classroom level.

TAs

Where to start here?  Some unified standards and proper training and qualifications would be nice.  Oh.

School organisation

I have learned that there are some children who do not fare very well in mainstream education.  They are just too vulnerable, and their needs are too great.  I know this because one of them lives in my house.  He is my son.  However, while he is incredibly fortunate that he lives in a town where there is a special alternative that suits his needs, I know that this is not the case for many vulnerable children.  This needs looking at.

All our young people need and deserve an education, so we need to look at how this can be achieved.  Not all special schools are the same, and just because there is a special school nearby it does not automatically mean that a child with a specific need will fit in there.

Communication

Until I became a parent and my children started at school I didn’t really understand how spectacularly bad schools are at communicating with parents.  And now that I’m thinking about the national picture I can see that this lack of communication is system wide.  Teachers get stuck in next door classrooms.  Schools in the same town have little clue about what is going on in their neighbourhood, or the head teachers might, but not the teachers.  And special needs provision is much the same.  Do mainstream schools know what their special counterparts are up to and vice versa?  Are there mechanisms for sharing good and bad news?

I think it would be really useful to research who are the gatekeepers for information about SEND in our schools.  Who gets the emails?  Who gets the circulars?  How does information sharing – or not sharing – work?  If we know this, then we can have a look at how to make it better and make changes.

Research needs to be much more widely disseminated – we need to look at how to do that effectively too.

Leadership

Oh, where to start with this one?  We need school leaders who are committed to SEND and making schools a great place for all.  Where they lead, other people will follow.  But to be honest, I’m not sure that it is very wise to wait until those leaders appear out of the ether.  Training for school leaders needs to include SEND, and we need to give people time to talk around the issues.  SEND is an emotional minefield, and people need this reflection time on a subject that touches us all deeply.

All teachers are leaders – in fact anyone who works in a school is –  and they need training not just in how to work with children and young people, but adults too.  I hadn’t the first clue, when I started teaching at age 22, about how to work with a TA, and over twenty years later there is a positively astronomical number of them in our schools.  Training for teachers in their responsibilities towards TAs and what they are and aren’t expected to do would be very useful.

If schools are being badly led as far as SEND is concerned, what do we do to highlight it?  In fact, if this is the case generally, where do teachers turn?   Help us do better.

Thanks for reading.

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,

Nancy

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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.

In Defence of the Dark Art #Edfest Part 3

Debate, chaired by Laura McInerney (newspaper editor) between David Didau (author) and Dylan Wiliam (educational researcher).

 

What if everything you knew about education was wrong?

 

I stood and listened to the debate (by the time I found it the last seat had been snaffled) and it was very interesting, and chimed very much with my experience (learning styles help you to examine how you teach, what works in education is very complex and context specific etc).  But I left with something unsaid.

When you have children with Special Educational Needs in your class you need to differentiate the work – however you choose to do this.  It doesn’t have to been about separate worksheets.  It could be about the level of support you give them, or the kind of counting apparatus they use.  If we don’t do this, then those children on the outside edges, at either end of the scale, they don’t necessarily learn.  (Or, they don’t learn as well as they could.)

We are more alike than different, yes, but that doesn’t mean we pay no attention to the differences.  In a sense, the differences are what make us who we are.  Of course they matter.   In a book about teaching, next time, please write more than five pages about Special Educational Needs.

 

I wish I had managed to come up with a question, if only I was brave enough to wave my hand more assertively, because every teacher is a teacher of special needs.

 

Battle Weary

There is something strange happening in Edu World.  After a (more than) decade long drive towards the inclusion of children with learning disabilities, or special needs if you want a broader term, something unexpected has cropped up.  After years of special school closure, the acceptance and education of the vast majority of special kids in mainstream schools, the parents of said kids, and the children themselves, it has to be said, are voting with their feet.  Like me, they are sending their children, not to the local mainstream, but to the (hopefully) local special school.

Why is this happening?  These parents, and their predecessors, have fought long and hard for the right of their children to take their places in the mainstream world, to no longer be deemed ineducable, to, simply by their presence, do a bit of educating of other people themselves, to be accepted and acceptable.

First up, training.  Let’s be honest here.  Mainstream teachers just aren’t trained to deal with complex needs in their classrooms.  Classes are big, my first class was 33 children, and children like mine are a challenge.  They are a challenge in terms of teaching them academically, in terms of their behaviour, in terms of the way they change the balance so much in the class, and that’s before you get to the accountability measures that mean high stakes testing and jobs on the line, and progress and all that jazz.  Classrooms with 30 children in them and a prescriptive national curriculum dictating what you teach in them are not flexible places.  They are a bit like ocean liners.  They take a long time to turn.

Resources.  Many of our school buildings are old and difficult to negotiate.  I went to a school that was 100 years old in 1980.  I’ve taught in two storey Victorian buildings (where the boy who was recovering from Leukemia had to have a person with him so that he could get to the music room), mobile classrooms with and without their own toilets, in and outside classrooms in varying states of repair, and not one of them, not one of the crowded spaces that are my stamping ground, has been set up for someone who might need a hoist to get out of a wheelchair (even though there is a disabled toilet with the PE mats stored inside it).  Ok, that’s an extreme example, but you get my point, I hope.  Physical adjustments can be hard to squeeze in to your common or garden classroom.

The yearly nature of schooling.  Like it or not there is an element that is all about surviving the year.  So your child doesn’t get on particularly well with their teacher, they haven’t done as well as you would like?  Hey, it’s only a year.  We can all afford to write a year off here or there.  Eighteen year olds do it all the time.  So you’ve got a nightmare class with children you find really difficult to teach.  It’s only a year.  It’ll be over before you know it.  And before you know it we have forgotten what went before because we are on to the next set of challenges, we are taken up with the next lot of obstacles.  Nothing gets changed because we are too busy mountaineering/fighting the next set of fires, and we start to wonder how many years off it’s acceptable to have.

Unseen difficulties.  I’ve written about the hidden power of labels before.  I’ve written about the insidious effect of having your own personal TA (who may or may not subscribe to the labelling effect) before.  I’ve wondered aloud at the wisdom of entrusting our most vulnerable, and our most difficult to teach, to the least paid and the least trained members of our educational workforce before (and really, no disrespect intended).  I haven’t written about the day that Sam fell off a wall and I took him straight from school to A&E.  I haven’t told you about the time he walked for miles with his class on a day out, or sat on a church floor for the carol concert and was poorly for a week after the experience.  Needless to say there are plenty of tales to tell of the unexpected, the events preventable by a little experience, or specialised knowledge, or effective knowledge sharing.

Home and school.  I can’t count the times I see the relationship between parents of children with special needs and the schools they attend characterised as a battle.  As a parent I’ve been labelled as pushy, or fussy, and difficult; precious.  I’ve alluded to the magnifying effect of Down’s syndrome, the way that everything is harder, slower, in sharper relief.  Parents are under pressure.  Teachers are under pressure.  Add to that a challenging child, and I don’t mean that in a perjorative sense, but what you have is a powder keg, a road crash waiting to happen, and one that echoes, continues to affect families and subsequent teachers, for years to come.  It was a shock to realise that maybe I wasn’t as awkward as I was made to feel.

Friendships.  What it is that we want when we send our children off up the road, tiny in their miniature uniforms, is acceptance; a public acknowledgement that our children are worth just as much as everyone else’s.  That, when we were told that we wouldn’t be going on holiday to Italy, but in fact were heading to Holland, they lied; that we were taking our two weeks in Italy just the same as everyone else.  And one of the bench marks of our citizenship on planet normal?  Friendships, playdates, birthday parties, after school clubs; involvement in the extras.  Over his primary school years, Sam had few birthday invites and one play date, and those were confined to the infant years.  A try out at the school football club resulted in me being told that to have him there ‘wasn’t fair on me’ (not me).  If there’s one thing that this blogging process has taught me it’s that I am not alone.  It’s that my experience is echoed up and down the country, and is the subject of academic research papers (qualitative probably).

In a school system where the emphasis is fairly and squarely on academic results, where the pressure is on from the moment the children step through the door for pace, pace, pace, not a moment wasted, heads down (but not thumbs up), where is the space for children with difficulties to learn how to be friends, to learn about the oh-so-important incidentals?  Did we forget that the point of education is not so that we can have nice pretty sheets full of pretty data, but to prepare our young people for adult life?  Did we forget that part of being an adult is the ability to make and form friendships, to accept that other people do not exist in order to service our educational needs?

Sometimes, when I see that my daughter(she’s in Year 4) has 15 minutes in the morning and less than an hour at lunch to play with her friends, I wonder if that is exactly what we have done.  When I see or hear of children with SEN consistently excluded from playtime because of playground difficulties, and by this I mean things like fighting with other children, or causing or getting into constant trouble because it’s easier just to keep them in than get to the heart of the matter, or worse, excluded from the school itself, I worry.  I’m not saying that the playtime thing is particularly different in special schools – after all, they are under the same inspection pressures as everyone else – but what they and great mainstream schools like them do have is an explicit care and attention to social learning, a recognition that this is part of the picture.

Put all of those things together and what you have is a monumental struggle to communicate, to explain, to ensure that all is working properly, and let me tell you: I love my son from the top of his greasy unwashed teenaged head to the tip of his uncut toenails, but life with Down’s syndrome, or ASD, or ADHD, or sensory processing disorder or any other label you care to mention, from gifted to cerebral palsy is struggle enough.  Just parenting children, especially if you have multiple offspring, the ones who don’t have labels, is struggle enough.

I’m too tired.  I haven’t the energy.  Is it any wonder that we, the extraordinary, are heading elsewhere?

 

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This little soldier is tired of fighting all the marbles.