Possibly the most unjust and divisive issue in English education at the moment is that of special educational needs and disability (SEND). I’m not one normally given to hyperbole but I think it’s appropriate to call this a national scandal.
The most vociferous cry from all those who care about pupils with special educational needs is that of ‘WE NEED MORE MONEY!’ If only we were funded fairly, everything would be fine.
I get this. It is an uncontested truism that more funding would benefit those who are, typically, the most vulnerable in our education system.
I argue that this is only one of several factors which are making a mockery of our alleged ‘inclusive’ school system.
Inclusive? Fair? Give me a break.
So in no particular order, here are the others.
Schools that are truly inclusive dedicate remarkable amounts of SLT/SENCO time to their offer. They go the extra mile to call parents, harass local agencies, fill in achingly boring forms, attend over-long meetings in dreary offices, all to get the best possible deal for their pupils. In doing so, they simply haven’t got any time left to deal with the equally banal forms and tests and revisions and ‘interventions’ which for years have plagued our system in its blood-sucking thirst for ever-increasing ‘progress’. Over the past two decades, these SLT legends have been ignored, whilst less inclusive leaders are garlanded for their outstanding academic results.
Oh, yes. What is the best way to dissuade a school from admitting pupils with complex or severe learning difficulties? Whack them with some Kafkaesque forms to complete. They’ll give up eventually. Local authorities have such limited funds that this technique – erect a series of obstacles to put off persistent SENCOs – invariably works. Only the most dedicated school leaders get to the end of the obstacle race, usually by doing the forms in their own time at the weekend.
For without the forms, there is no extra money.
Play on the Ignorance
Yes, a good number of education gurus care not a flying flamingo about pupils with severe or complex learning difficulties. Their much-trumpeted theories pass these pupils by. ResearchEd is less interested in kids who don’t fit the mould. Most educational conferences fail to lead with SEND; it’s a fringe afterthought. Let’s face it, it’s too complicated for neatly packaged theories of instruction.
The concept of mastery – which, incidentally, I think is great – is made far more complicated by the presence of pupils who are ‘problematic’. That’s why the Chinese, Singaporeans, Japanese and Koreans try to elbow these pupils out before they sequence their lessons. It’s why some academy chains weed out pupils with SEND long before adolescence. It’s also why we need to praise, to the highest of heavens, those incredibly skilled teachers up and down the country who, dealing with classrooms containing a huge range of needs, still promote the concepts of mastery and do it successfully. Anyone can do it with a homogeneous group of compliant students bunched around a similar academic level. Just try it with a dozen other pupils, all of whom require some sort of classroom adaptation in order for them to access the lesson.
To clarify here, I really don’t like the idea of pupils with SEND being taken out to do ‘their own work’. But successfully including them in the lesson is a teaching skill which needs highlighting a lot more than it currently does – teachers who do this properly are quite remarkable people.
This works two ways. Firstly, the positive. My kid has ASD, is struggling with cognitive delay, has Down’s Syndrome? In their efforts to find out what to do, local intelligence will point the parent in the direction of the school that ‘does SEND really well’.
Great, but now the negative. The school soon becomes over-loaded. It strains and creaks as it tries to manage every-limited resources. The funding system cannot give them any more money as this is agreed by a formula the previous year. Any application for ‘top-up’ actually leads to a net loss for the school.
Reputation is a double edged-sword.
Particularly as it works the other way. We all know that some schools ‘advise’ parents to think about moving their child to that school which has ‘such a good reputation.’ Their formula funding is unaffected.
My way or the highway
The prevailing political consensus, that academic excellence is the only measure of school success, leaves truly inclusive schools in an educational trench or bunker, constantly marshalling their forces for a heroic defence. There is an in-built lack of tolerance of any child who cannot follow the prescribed path. Recently, I heard of a school that had decided autism was a ‘parental construct’.
Within this culture, we are having to constantly defend a position as to why a child hasn’t succeeded (academically) rather than praise the school for its highly inclusive position in the first place.
This is an inevitable consequence of an intolerant system that lacks compassion. Perverse incentives.
Reading all this back, it’s remarkable that any schools bother to work with SEND children at all.
In this context, why do we, and so many other schools, take on these challenges?
I think it comes down to moral duty, a commitment to service, and deeply held values. It’s a passionate stand against division and bullying. It’s a deep belief that schools have the power to change lives, pupils and their families. I remember one parent telling me that the work we were doing with her daughter had actually saved her marriage!
Also, despite all the challenges, it can be really great, great fun. My severely disabled brother died almost ten years ago now and I miss him so much. He brightened my day and unified those around him through his simplicity and purity. It’s so fulfilling for all involved.
So keep it going, folks. You know who you are.
Who knows, given the messages implicit in the new Ofsted inspection framework, it may be that these hybrid ‘mainstream/special schools’ create all the positive headlines now, and that the off-rolling, frightened and toxic schools descend into inadequacy.
I know the points above have been made before by many people, far more knowledgeable than me.
But I want to make them. I’m fed up of being treated like a mug. Being squeezed and squeezed whilst politicians fawn over their pet schools, mostly chosen for incredible progress from pupils who have been selectively chosen. Meanwhile, the chaff has been brushed to the neighbouring schools down the road.
Not all politicians, however. Those like Emma Hardy MP work tirelessly to highlight the inbuilt inequality in the current system. Maybe in their unexpected five week break, other MPs can write their little hands off in support of those leaders, teachers and schools that work so, so hard for our most vulnerable pupils.
They deserve it.