I don’t think that my two sons’ statements of SEN are much different from anybody else’s. They start with the boys’ personal details, followed by a list of advice the local authority says it took into consideration before making its decision. In our case, all the usual suspects are on that list: parents, SENCO, community paediatrician, GP, social services, educational psychologist, occupational and speech therapists, school reports and annual reviews. Every year the list gets longer.
Part 2 identifies each boy’s specific SEN under the headings Communication, Educational, Personal, Social and emotional and, for one of them, Motor skills. There’s a lot of information on there and we’re now into page five of this document. All this information is absolutely crucial for the boy’s current and future educators as my boys are a very long way behind.
Part 3 focuses on provision, setting out a whole range of objectives aimed at enabling the boys to, for example: extend their receptive and expressive language skills, develop concentration, attention and listening skills, improve literacy, numeracy and personal organisational skills, maintain positive self-image, manage and cope with change, overcome learned helplessness and improve coordination and control. The list is very thorough and I’m genuinely impressed. These people certainly know what’s needed for my lads.
The next bit is the clincher. Before it sets out precisely what strategies are to be used in school to achieve each of the objectives, and how these will be monitored, there are two modest paragraphs which you could almost overlook but which, for me, are fundamental to achieving anything in mainstream education:
“Curriculum. Michael will have access to the National Curriculum. The National Curriculum will be differentiated and functional to take account of Michael’s language and learning needs and modified appropriately to ensure the maxim flexibility and attention to his academic and personal development.
Staffing: Maintained schools in (this authority) are funded to provide support for all pupils identified as having Additional and/or Special Educational Needs. The School will provide Michael with [in our case, a generous number] of hours per week of one-to-one support from a teaching assistant. In addition to curriculum support, support and supervision will be provided during unstructured times and on school trips.”
Andrew’s statement reads roughly the same. He’s a couple of years older than this brother.
When the statements were first issued, I certainly believed that the school possessed enough information to fully acquaint teachers with my sons’ specific learning difficulties and that there was sufficient money in the pot for the school to obtain and allocate the necessary human and other resources. I also believed that the school had the freedom to modify the curriculum in line with the boys’ levels of understanding. Put another way, having accepted that my sons do, in fact, possess some level of academic potential, however modest, the school would, I thought, adapt what and how it teaches them and, by following the strategies outlined in the statement, would ensure that my boys come as close as realistically possible to reaching that potential. Their progress would also be tested at the various measurable stages of their academic careers.
That’s what I thought. But what do I know about modern education? Within the educational establishment, parents of children with SEN are often considered as having SEN themselves, although this is never publicly admitted – “Pssst, see those two sitting over there? They’re SEN parents. Try not to upset them. Smile and speak slowly and clearly. Any nonsense, write their names in the Awkward Parents Register and make sure only the SLT deals with them…”
So how do we, the dreaded SEN Parents, know that the requirements of our children’s statement are working and how do we know exactly what’s going on in school on a day-to-day basis? It’s no good waiting for grades reports, as they are often meaningless for students with SEN. It’s difficult enough talking directly to teachers in a primary school nowadays, and almost impossible in secondary schools. And I don’t really want to talk to the ever-changing stream of subject teachers; I want to speak to whoever it is that has direct responsibility for ensuring that the staff team works as a cohesive force and across every sector of the curriculum to deliver education to my two boys at the level identified in their statements.
Is this so unreasonable? Both as a parent and tax payer, I say that it isn’t. So, why don’t I trust the school to do what it’s meant to do? Like any concerned parent, I look at the (very occasional) homework brought home and at whatever else might be scrunched up in the bottom of school bags. As a family, we talk about what happened at school that day and what the boys think they learnt. We read books together, write letters and postcards, use the personal computer, listen to the news and talk around the meal table. We have a good idea what our children know and at what level they’re functioning. I talk to other parents and other children, both with and without learning difficulties. And the realisation suddenly dawns on me that my boys are genuinely struggling. More than that, neither of them seem to have the foggiest idea about what is being said to them in class or written on their homework sheets by the teachers, or in their journals by the teaching assistants; I’m struggling to understand it too. It’s almost as if they’re being taught in a different language and I’m not having that!
So, who should I ask to tell me why all the modified, functional, differentiated flexibility isn’t working? Step forward the SENCO, the school’s guru on all matters of SEN provision and the school’s first line of defence against the SEN Parent. While s/he (Mr Higgins in our case) reports directly to a member of the school’s senior leadership team, and ultimately to the headteacher, those exalted educators are far too busy coping with staffing, budgets, Ofsted, league tables, absences, nosy governors, vandals and parents from hell to worry themselves about the twenty or so (and rising) per cent of pupils presently on the school’s SEN register.
“Who’s Mister Higgins?” I asked one of the teachers I know out of school. “Tom?” he chuckled. “He’s the SENCO. He was asleep when the head asked for volunteers. You’ll never get him, he’s too busy teaching.”
When I enquired what Tom was like from one of the SEN Mums she was less circumspect. “Him”, she said, “he’s about as much use a chocolate fireguard”. Now, though, I now know Tom well and I find him likeable and committed, but more about that next time.
Embers is the parent of two children with SEN. He also worked for more than 25 years in mainstream and special schools.