Tag Archives: Special Educational Needs

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.

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Selection and Choice

One of the things you get used to, when one of your children has Down’s syndrome, is being asked a lot of questions.  They can be anything from the sort that come from officials and questionnaires about his ‘needs’ (like, how am I supposed to know when it is a new situation and I’m not there?) to the most common of all, accompanied by the sympathetic head-tilt and sing-song intonation of, ‘did you know?’

The did you know question became so ubiquitous when Sam was younger, a soundbite comment on the public nature of motherhood, that I became sorely tempted, in the faintly hectic way of the sleep deprived, to answer through dramatically bared teeth, ‘No, I ordered him from the baby shop especially because I fancied a more complicated and difficult life, thanks for asking.’  I never did, but my friend Meg and I used to laugh about it.  We’d decided that laughing at the world and its judgements and opinions was a better option than the alternative, which was to drown in a sea of self-blame and fear for the future. So laugh we did, imagining all the shocked faces at our reply.

The thing that always gets to me though, the poisoned dart hidden deep within that question, is the underlying assumption of choice.  We like to think, in our 21st Century Western way, that we have a lot of choice, as if we could indeed go into a shop and point at the baby we wanted, the one that satisfied our list of demands, as easily as that.  But, of course, there is no such shop, and no such easy choice. The best we can do is offer some sort of selected screening.  We set the criteria, genetic trisomies, duplications, serious diseases and disablements, and we screen; a blood test, quick and easy, but hardly painless.

Again and again I find myself questioned, this time upon my position (because, it seems to question why a woman might choose to act as she does, to make a smothered request for the kind of surrounding circumstances that enable women to make an informed choice, is not the sort of question I should be asking) and I think it comes down to one idea, one fundamental notion; to serve.

Which brings me to my point about selection.  In edu-land this year there has been a lot of handwringing and wailing (these are technical terms, you know) about the possibility of a re-introduction of grammar schools.  ‘We are giving parents more choice!’ declared the politicians.  ‘You can’t choose a school that works on the basis of selection!’ replied the critics.  The argument went back and forth for the best part of the last year, and, when it turned out that after the General Election the government would not be able to carry out its plans, there was a collective sigh of relief.

However, and here is the thing, selection, whether we like it or not, is already present in our education system (and I’m not talking about those areas of the country where we have grammar schools surviving).  It’s not necessarily an explicit thing, not by any means, but it is there.  You only have to step through the school door with your disabled child and you run slap-bang into it. ‘You have to think about what They take away from the others’, ‘They do special needs much better than we do’, ‘We can’t meet his needs because of *insert safeguarding/stairs/toilets/staff/whatever reason here’; the comments fall on your ears and enter your heart thick and fast.  Putting it simply, when schools set conditions on the kind of children – or the kind of parents, even – they welcome, formally or informally, selection is in action, just as when you set criteria on what kind of baby is an acceptable one to join your family.

Some schools are better at hiding it than others.  Some schools are honest and up front.  Whatever it is, it means that while we might say that on the surface that we have an inclusive education system, in practice I am not so sure.To me, there is an aspect of taking life as it comes versus the desire to control.  Our humanity ensures that life is not some sort of perfect set of events; there are frailty, mistakes, unhappiness and joy along the way.

There are great schools around the country whose head teachers subscribe to the premise that the local school serves the local community, who take life as it comes (we sent our children to such a school), but I am tired of the pretense that this somehow means that everyone works to the same high standards.  I am tired of the educational rejection, formal or informal, through the setting of selection criteria dressed up in the language of choice, of disabled kids with imperfect parents and fallible families. I am tired of the way that great inclusive schools act as magnets in their area, because families know that at least there, they will be welcomed; of the way that it is not acceptable for bakers shops or hotels to choose their customers, but somehow OK  for schools.

It makes me wonder, when all is said and done, just who we are serving.

The growth chart

There are three little red books sitting in a row in a cubby hole in my desk.  At one point they took up far more of my attention than was probably healthy, and now they sit, gathering dust, rarely seen and rarely remembered.  Inside, they contain all sorts of useful information pertaining to the health of infants, including records of health visitor visits, immunisations and growth charts.  When you are at home with baby you can pore over them and obsess to your heart’s content.

They aren’t all the same, though, and I freely admit that I had a problem with it at the time, and to a certain extent, I still do. Inside Sam’s book there is a plastic packet containing the growth charts for Down’s syndrome.  At the time, I wasn’t ready to accept that he should be measured by a different yardstick.  At the time, as now, I couldn’t accept that different yardstick as symboliaing a different standard, of expectation or of care.

And, after going on seventeen years of tangling with doctors and nurses of his behalf, I know that I am right to be cautious.  Too many people seem to accept a lower standard of health and a higher threshold for pain for him for me to be entirely trusting of the protocols.  When a young person (or an old person, come to that) cannot advocate for themselves, be that because they are too young, or because they have some form of learning disability or difficulties in communication, you, as their parent or carer, have to learn to step in and make sure that things happen – sadly things like food and drink and getting the right medicine at the right time (and I’m not talking about the NHS in recent years, either).

But, and here’s the thing, he is different.  His physiology is expressed in a different way to the typical population, and, along with that, comes an understanding that in all sorts of ways he needs something different.  At first I understood it in the acceptance that, as his mother, I was allowed – and I was – to be more anxious than the average parent.  As he has grown, I see that he needs different, earlier, bed times at home, different, adapted texts at school.

In many ways, that growth chart represents both the blessing and the curse that is a diagnosis of Down’s syndrome.  While perhaps not so obvious to the untrained eye when he was tiny, it is there, now, for all to see.  Unless you are asking for help from someone official, like a government or local authority department or something, people can see, they can hear that he is different, and that adjustments will need to be made for him wherever he goes.  If only it didn’t mean that, at the same time, people who had less of an understanding, if not of Down’s syndrome, but of him as an individual, that expectations would be simultaneously lowered.  The application of a medical diagnosis to a social context isn’t always helpful.

I’ve never taught anyone with Down’s syndrome (if you don’t count Sam).  The children who have been through my classes have been the kinds with an invisible disability, like Autism, ADHD or dyslexia – and the vast majority of them haven’t had a diagnosis at all.  And, as their teacher, I have made all sorts of adjustments in order to make my classroom the kind of place where they can learn, from special places to sit to requiring the rest of the class (and myself) to change our behaviour or printing out the words in a larger format.

Which is why I am confused by the assertion that it is only those children who have a legally protected characteristic who I must make adjustments for.  If you want learning to happen in your room (or your corridor) then adjust you will, in a hundred million little ways, from creating a calm and purposeful atmosphere of mutual respect (and no, children don’t mind when they are asked to stop teasing/winding up certain individuals, in fact, quite the opposite, and no, they don’t mind when some children need more stickers than they do, again, quite the opposite, unless we bang on about it not being fair and make out that it is the stickers or the ‘special treatment’ that is the important thing, rather than the learning) to adapting materials and resources so that they can be universally accessed, or finding a different way for a child to show me what it is they really know rather than tying themselves in knots over spelling in a science lesson.  To suggest otherwise is to perpetuate the myth that teaching is (or should be) easy, and that special educational needs isn’t complicated.

And no, I don’t see that as a lowering of standards.  What it is, is an understanding that an education is a process and that you will never, especially in a child, be presented with the finished article. Because, in the end, learning is fundamentally unlike that one dimensional, linear, medical growth chart.

 

See also:

https://notsoordinarydiary.wordpress.com/2016/10/30/the-teacher-and-the-doctor/

https://notsoordinarydiary.wordpress.com/2016/05/01/clickbait/

https://notsoordinarydiary.wordpress.com/2016/01/01/removing-the-rose-tinted-spectacles/

https://notsoordinarydiary.wordpress.com/2015/05/23/the-secret-teacher/

https://notsoordinarydiary.wordpress.com/2015/07/14/reality-check/

I’m trying desperately to keep on saying the same thing, but in a different way so you don’t get bored.

 

Dare to Hope

It’s been a while since I last attended a leavers’ assembly, or other such end-of-the-summer-term-extravaganza with the knowledge that I wasn’t entirely 100% well.  Last time I was behind the piano, sweating and shivering at the same time, my fingers slipping off the keys, the Victorian school hall a million miles away from the 80s structure I will attend tomorrow.  Then, I was at the front, slightly to one side; tomorrow I shall be at the back.

Then, I was at the very start of my career, such as it is.  A term in Year 6, and I didn’t have quite the connection to the children who were moving on as I do today.  Tomorrow, The Leavers are children I have known, and loved, coaxed through SPAG, insisted on taking turns and capital letters, full stops, persuaded to explain themselves when answering my questions and answered endless ones of theirs, for four years.  My professional children, well, some of them anyway, are flying the primary nest.  Tomorrow, their primary education will be over.

I occasionally see their predecessors around and about.  Only the other day, one of them came to collect one of his younger siblings from the classroom door.  It was great to see him, looking shyly grown up, so sensible.  Usually, I am in the car, and they are in their uniforms, multi-coloured blazers wending their way home through the playpark, waving and smiling at the teacher they knew so briefly.  It’s lovely to see them again, to momentarily renew the connection.

Leavers’ Dos are always events of high emotion.  After the roller coaster of Year Six, they go from looking so grown up, too big for the furniture, ready to move on, excited about the future, to small and lost looking, clinging to their final moments of safety.  Amongst the adults, there is the slow switch from ‘thank goodness’ to, ‘awww noooo!’  When it was Sam’s turn he didn’t really understand; that goodbye was Goodbye, but most of them do, at those last moments, when the performance they have practice for so long is over.

I’ve taught them many times before, in the younger years, the ones who don’t want to leave you when you’re out in the playground, the ones who opt to stay in your room when the moment comes because, unlike their classmates, they are moving on, not moving up.  They see the end is coming, and they do not greet it with joy, but with apprehension.

In some ways I know how they feel.  Will their new teacher get them, like the old one does?  Will they understand what it is that makes them act the way they do?  Will they be kind – or harsh?  It’s easy when they are moving up within the same school.  You can take their new teacher aside, explain, check in with them at playtime, ask if they’re OK.  They might even make the odd appearance, unscheduled, in your lessons, for old times’ sake.  You still worry, but you see them enough to have your fears assuaged – or not.

There are a few, tonight, for whom I feel particularly concerned.  There are always those whose little faces float, at the point between waking and sleeping, forever frozen at ten or eleven years old; they, and the faint feeling of unease they bring, that things for them may continue to be Not Okay, have never left me.  Their names, I remember.  I wonder how they are getting on – or not.  But this year.  This year there are those who have been burned by loss, their grief and anxiety clear in their unwillingness to leave their classroom, the side of the teacher they love, and who loves them.

I wonder how they will get on.  Not just through the six long weeks of summer, the weeks that begin with the traditional instruction not to go with strangers and not to jump of the garage/shed roof for a dare, but in the months, the school ahead.  I wonder.  And I wonder if I dare to hope.

 

#SEND Definitions for beginners

I was trying to remember, the other day, when I hadn’t been thinking, one way or another, about Special Educational Needs, and you know what?  Since I left the education system as a student myself, I can’t actually remember.  Once I became a teacher, once I became a mother, it never left my consciousness.  Now, personally, I’ve never really worried too much about definitions, after all, a label, is just that, but it occurred to me yesterday, after I perused my Twitter feed after having consumed my lunch, that the term SEND might need a little bit of a definition.  So, if you’ll pardon the shameless plugging, I am going to mention my book (which you can buy here, should you so wish).

So.  Special Educational Needs and Disabilities is a bit of a mouthful, but what it basically means is in relation to a school context.  Unhandily, for those who really do prefer for things to be cut and dried and can’t be doing with any of this shades of grey nonsense, it doesn’t mean a tickbox, checklist, bloodtest kind of thing.  Although, there are conditions, like Down’s syndrome, that you can detect with one of those very things, and is, indeed, what happened to Sam when he was about twelve hours old.  In a school context the term relates to those children for whom additional provision needs to be made if they are going to be able to learn.  It relates directly to a learning difficulty or disability.

So, that means that although, for instance, you may be making additional or different provision for children who don’t speak English as their first language (EAL in edu-speak), speaking a different language is not a difficulty/disability, you can’t claim it as an SEN.  The two things are not the same at all.

Disability, as defined in the Equalities Act means that there is an impairment that has a long term impact – of a year or more (so you can’t include children who have broken a toe) and it has a significant impact on their lives.  This includes long term health conditions such as asthma, diabetes, epilepsy and cancer.  These conditions do not relate directly to learning, but children with them may require different/additional provision in school and this is covered by SEN legislation.

So, within the English system, we have four categories of SEN (we like our categories, oh yes we do), which describe (roughly) the main areas of need a child is likely to be experiencing in school. (Please do comment below if you would like to add information on the system where you live – I am very interested in the international situation currently.)  They are:

  1. Communication and Interaction (C&I)

This means speech and language, communication and social interaction.

  1. Cognition and Learning

This means learning, thinking and understanding the world.  This could be developmental delay or something like dyslexia – something that makes it difficult to learn.

  1. Sensory and/or physical

This means things like visual/auditory impairment and physical disabilities.

  1. Social, Emotional and Mental Health (SEMH)

This is the one that causes all the fuss. Fuss, fuss, fuss.  Because this is the one that relates to behaviour – BUT, not that the behaviour in itself that stops a child from learning, but that the drivers for that behaviour, the reasons behind it, as it were, and how it relates to mental health are the issues that need addressing.

The thing that can catch people out is the idea that children fit into one category or another, which is unfortunate for those who like everything nice and tidy.   It is entirely possible (and probably likely, but I am no statistician) for a child to have needs that span ALL FOUR of the categories. This is called co-morbidity (lovely term, I know).  In fact, it is so common that I would strongly suggest you don’t assume that a child ever has a learning need that sits in only one category.

Let me elaborate.  You might have a child in your class who has dyslexia (for instance – it’s something I have just this minute pulled out of my head – to spare his privacy I am not going to use Sam and his particular learning needs as an example here, so I am making someone up).  They struggle with reading and spelling.  They wear glasses and have a bit of glue ear in the winter.  They don’t like the fact that they aren’t getting on well with their school work, so they mess about in class, and do anything, in fact, to cover up their problems.  They find, because they mess about, perhaps, that relations with their classmates are not as easy as they might be and as a consequence they are always getting into trouble in the playground ad this regularly spills over into lesson time.

OR you might have a child in your class who has experienced some kind of trauma.  Maybe one of their parents died, or there was a messy family breakup, domestic violence, something like that.  This child finds it difficult to settle in class, and struggles with feelings of abandonment and anxiety.  This means that their reptilian brain (the fight or flight bit) (the oldest bit of the brain, the amygdala) is in charge, and rational thought is impaired.  They are so busy worrying about what is going on in the class (that isn’t book learning), they fly off the handle at a moment’s notice, constantly falling out with friends, and they are rapidly falling behind.

OR you might want to think about a non-verbal child, someone more visibly disabled.  They might have some sort of sensory sensitivity and find a busy classroom a very difficult space to be.  They might bite another child, or throw themselves to the ground, because they can’t express or communicate what is wrong and they have no other way to tell you.

Special Educational Needs and Disabilities are woven together, tangled, if you like – and a child’s behaviour is often going to tell you something about the nature of their difficulties.  This is what we mean when we say that behaviour is communication.  Even when a child like Sam rocks up in class, one for whom there is a medical diagnosis, that label isn’t going to tell us a huge amount, even if we don’t allow our prejudices and fears to spring to the fore.  Pieces of paper and categories are just that.  Pieces of paper and categories.

What you need to do is to get to know that child as a person, so that you can both understand what they are saying to you, and that they can understand what you are saying to them.  And in order to do THAT, you need to have a relationship with them.  Don’t worry, I don’t mean some sort of lovey dovey/parent substitute thing, I mean a teaching relationship, something that is qualitatively different and distinct.

Yes, challenging behaviour in class is debilitating and draining for all concerned.  There are no magic wands or magic pills to make it better or make it go away.  Labelling them as ‘naughty’ doesn’t work either.  Concerted and unified effort does.

Did I mention my book?  It’s out now and you can buy it here. 😉