It’s time to listen

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    A personal plea for a kinder view of SEN and education

    I know we are considering a Draft Code of Practice for SEN, and much of the content is positive and collaborative in its intention. However, it will need to address the emotional impact upon families of loving and nurturing a child or young adult with SEN.

    For some years, the dominant narrative has been to normalise, integrate, and generally blur the edges around the concept of disability. The central theme was considered to be all about the linguistics, the terminology, and the less we defined or classified disability or difference the sooner it might go away. Corbett (1996), for example, looked at the discourse and hierarchy within language as a way of maintaining what is viewed as the old order.

    Anecdotally, and within the assessment data, I have discovered in my professional role that in the current special school population defined as having behavioural, social and emotional difficulties (BESD) there are an increasing number of children who struggle with literacy and numeracy. In the earlier terminology, they have moderate learning difficulties, but many of the special schools which were created to meet their needs have been closed. They reach secondary education without acquiring basic skills, and their behaviour quite understandably deteriorates in a busy curriculum which is academically inappropriate. We have forgotten “To each according to his need…” and moved a long way from Bevan (and Marx, but that is for another day).

    Seeing the problem

    We seem unwilling or unable to recognise that even within family, parents understand that different siblings require different levels of support, patience, guidance and resources. It is as if some Mary Poppins figure has decided that if we all ignore difference, then no-one will make unkind comments; a soft blanket of social niceness will descend. Looking at historic press reports – of severe social bullying (“Five sentenced for killing of gullible Asperger’s man”, The Telegraph, 29/1/11), some suicides and heart rending cries from families supporting a member with a disability – will rapidly remove any such illusion. As a headteacher, I met a mother who had to visit her daughter’s primary school every lunchtime in order to provide anti-convulsive medication which the teachers had refused to dispense to the child; I shudder to think how they might have coped with anal medication or a tracheotomy, and under comparatively recent legislation (UK Equality Act 2010) it would be unlawful to refuse the child a place on a residential outing or even a day visit.

    Very simplistically, the debate has centred on the theoretical equipping of every teacher to identify and ameliorate learning difficulties, within an increasingly frenzied competitive, league-table driven education system. This context has prevailed in parallel with noisy headlines about the failure of schools to meet every need, from green flag awards for eco-awareness to healthy schools checklists and FMSiS (good housekeeping and financial management). It is doubtful whether there are the tutors available in higher education with the skills to develop the ability in young graduates to teach reading within their brief post graduate courses. Logically the Pupil Premium should have been aimed at Year 6 struggling readers with clear assessment data, specific targets and good analysis and research in order to evaluate the project.

    A rethink on resources

    The result of current (doctrinaire) interpretations of The Salamanca Statement of 1994 (in which the United Nation’s Education Agency called on the international community to endorse the approach of inclusive schools) allows local authorities to save money without any prior assessment of the suitability of the neighbourhood school or the skills of the teachers therein. At the same time, the inclusion officers and educational psychologists get a warm glow from doing the politically correct thing, whatever the wishes of the parent. Only very recently has attention been drawn to the fact that educational psychologists are employed by the local authority and they have a responsibility to make recommendations to their employers for the child with specific needs. The local authority therefore assesses, produces the statement and often makes the provision, leading to a clear financial conflict of interest (as noted by Baroness Warnock in The House of Lords, October 2010). I have over four decades of experience in disability as a teacher, researcher, local authority officer, inspector and advocate, yet I am not a skilled teacher of reading; I know where to find such expertise and it is not generally in large secondary schools.

    It is currently a key element of local councils’ cuts that the transport system for young people with additional educational needs is reviewed and reduced. They have the perfect excuse in the current political climate. The key element of Salamanca which is ignored is the call to give priority to improve education services, through policy and budgetary prioritisation. It will be interesting to see whether the development of academies and free schools will be similarly matched by the enhancement of skills in specific learning difficulties for serving teachers, and from where the educators will be found, as councils – in the current complex financial climate – reduce advisory, school improvement and support teams. The Department for Education’s recent consultative document on the draft SEN Code of Practice makes great reference to the procedures prior to any assessment but says very little about where the skilled and experienced advisers for both parents and/or local authority are to be found:

    “The Bill would place legal duties on local authorities, early education providers, schools, colleges, health bodies and those who work with them for identifying children and young people with SEN, assessing their needs and providing support to them and their families.” (Executive Summary 1:2)

    Speaking up for SEN

    MacIntyre (2010), in discussing the social model of disability, indicates that approximately 50 per cent of disabled people are economically inactive in the UK, compared with 15 per cent of the non-disabled population. In October 2010, it was widely reported that 50 Remploy factories employing 3,000 people were to close and that the grant of £111 million was to be lost; at a crude calculation of £37,000 investment per person that structure, providing day care, production, retail sales and social engagement seems to have provided excellent value.

    The gay and lesbian community successfully battled for the right to be “different” and to structure an evolving language which enabled their political struggle, and further rightly insisted that we recognise sexual orientation and difference within civil law. Similarly, the Paralympic structure has been increasingly successful in its public relations wherein “differently able” is brilliantly exemplified. It seems that in some context, the right to be seen and more importantly recognised within law “to be different” is strongly defended and positive discrimination is effective.

    In the Tribune pamphlet Hardest to Reach (2010), it was shown that at least 50 per cent of homeless, addicted and offending adults were excluded from school at some stage in their educational history. A disproportionate number of prisoners have severe literacy problems. Three years ago, Scottish television reported that 50 per cent of male prisoners were illiterate.

    The need for change

    It is impossible to claim that the present system is working; the Times Educational supplement published an article by Kerra Maddern in 2010 indicating a 64 per cent rise in SEN tribunals over a period of 12 years, with a 16 per cent increase in the previous two years. Historically, the direct allocation of statement-linked funding to headteachers, (especially when funds run short) is one of the key issues, especially when considering high-cost pupils who may require building adaptations or medical supervision. Parents are clearly less than happy with the system as it now stands. In the last recorded year, 2009/10, 3,400 tribunal cases were held. Additionally, the free market advocates are winning as a proliferation of private companies are setting up to meet the need not being met by local or regional authorities. Try searching online on “independent special schools” and see the range and wide geographical spread and try to discover the fees charged to local authorities; surely an important factor in the rapid development of such resources within the free market must be profit.

    The ideological thrust which will impact upon those with a disability, under present political control, was propelled by the left in the muddled view that pretending that society, if not shown differences, would not see differences. This is at best naïve; it’s as if teachers adopting ginger wigs would reduce the teasing of children with ginger hair. At worst it is lazy thinking, unsupported by many parents who struggle to get the best deal for their children. Undoubtedly, there were some poor special schools, although the ten with whom I currently work are rated either “Outstanding”, “Good” or “Good with Outstanding features” by Ofsted.

    The comparatively recent Equality Act (2010), however positive, may inhibit inclusive schools from seeking to admit on a very wide and positive basis. Yet under this act, it is legal to positively discriminate in favour of an applicant or current pupil who has a disability. In case it appears that I have no personal understanding, other than my professional experience, let me point out that my elder son, of whom I am very proud (now working as Head of Provision for young challenging people on the autistic spectrum), is registered disabled due to the loss of one eye; his  brother, who died in 1993, passed his driving test with only one working arm (due to a tumour) but refused to register and take the test for the disabled, and refused to inform the examiner (“I don’t want one of those badges”).

    Realising potential

    There is the potential for some excellent special schools to run a hub of support and advice within their family of schools, with varied and flexible patterns of attendance for young people who need some but not all their time in the special resource centre. There are the skills within these schools to model good practice in managing behaviour, in anger management, in adapting Shakespeare for adolescents with reading difficulties or in challenging young people with learning, sensory or physical disabilities to reach their potential in dance and competitive sport. Parents who have access to these schools currently speak warmly of the skills and of the support available.

    When I was a young teacher, one mother used to telephone the special school where I was then a deputy, seeking help and telling me that Joey (who had autism) had once again taken the cooker apart and left the pieces across the kitchen floor; similarly I used to receive calls at home from a foster mother whose lad used to catch the train to Scotland occasionally, or maybe follow a funeral out of interest. It went with the job and was why we had opted to specialise professionally. In good, positive special schools there is knowledge of disability claim forms, there are home support systems and there are often excellent summer schemes for youngsters of hard pressed parents. Good special schools host parent groups and support structures and work closely with specialist charities. Good special schools offer regular family activities to enable siblings and parents to mix and exchange views and to be mutually supportive.

    I know this view is unfashionable but maybe it is time to ask and then listen to the young people, their siblings and their parents and carers.

    Further information

    Dr Mic Carolan has worked as the Headteacher of three special schools, as a local authority officer and on secondment as an Ofsted inspector.

    Michael Carolan
    Author: Michael Carolan

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