Heading for trouble

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How a meeting with senior school staff yielded more questions than answers

We’ve made it – the meeting we’d demanded for weeks to discuss our children’s lack of progress directly with the Headteacher. We are seated in the school’s biggest and blandest room. The Head is joined by the Deputy Head: the member of the senior leadership team tasked specifically with SEN, though tasked with doing what for SEN I’m not entirely sure. Neither, I suspect, is she. The third school representative is Tom, the SENCO.

“Sooooh”, says the Head, “what can we help you with today Mr and Mrs Embers?”

“Well, is there an agenda?” I ask tremulously, seeing clearly that there isn’t. “If not, we’ve got a few questions, and…”

“Excellent, excellent, can we hear them, then?” says the Head, a little testily.

“Okay. At the last meeting we were told you were going to reassess the boys’ reading ages and tell us what they were. We’ve heard nothing.”

The Deputy glowers at the SENCO. “Well, we did,” she says hesitantly, “but there was a difficulty, we discovered, when it came to the test itself.” Her cheeks redden as she looks enquiringly at the Head.

“Indeed”, the Head sighs. “You will understand that I am relatively new here. There are lots of inconsistencies to resolve and unravel. Please bear with us. Several different tests have been used in school, and at the same time, apparently. The English Department has one version, the Dyslexia Team another and the educational psychologists have their own assessment criteria. But”, she adds quickly, “that inconsistency is resolved and I can assure you now that Matthew’s reading age is eight years and three months, and Andrew’s reading age is…Tom?”

“Er, not done yet”, Tom replies airily. “We forgot that his class went with Skills Force on Friday. We’re…”

“We’re what, Tom?” says the Head icily. “Please do the test tomorrow, first thing, and email Mr and Mrs Embers with the result afterwards. Now, was there anything else?”

“There’s this homework”, announces Mrs Embers, pulling out a sheaf of papers from her bag. “There are a dozen words on one sheet alone that Matthew didn’t understand. He can spell out one or two of them but he doesn’t know what they mean. What’s the point of giving them to him? He still hasn’t mastered all the key words they gave him in primary. And look at these maths sheets; they’re way above his head. He still doesn’t know the difference between adding, subtracting and multiplying. This is algebra, for heaven’s sake! It’s ridiculous. If this is what you’re sending home with them, what an earth are they doing in class? Is none of their work differentiated?”

"I grit my teeth. We’re getting nowhere."The Deputy smiles. “You cannot differentiate subject specific words”, she says. “They’re, er, subject specific and students must know them.”

“Our two students don’t know them”, my wife says wearily. “More than that, they don’t understand so many of the questions you ask them. Why aren’t you putting all of this in a simpler way?”

The Head intervenes. “The school has”, she states proudly, “a machine through which we run every document given to students. It tells us the reading age of the contents. And the reading age of the piece I think you’re holding is 11 years.”

“But”, I protest, “Matthew’s reading age is eight. You just told us that. And we know that Andrew finds reading even harder. What on earth is the sense of..?”

‘We did not come here to be shouted at”, the Head says sternly.

The Deputy stares down at her wedding ring then looks up. “The TAs help them”, she says confidently.

“Ah, yes”, I say. “The boys tell us you’ve had a bit of a turnover of TAs. They don’t seem to last very long and we’re not entirely sure what their role is. We get notes and emails from them sometimes and, well, they don’t always make sense and their spelling…”

“Their role is to explain things”, says Tom. “They have to make sense of what the teachers…”

“The learning assistants”, the Head interjects, “talk to your sons about what the teacher says to the whole class and then they help the boys formulate their answers.”

I grit my teeth. We’re getting nowhere. We’ve had the run around before from Tom. We, and probably most SEN parents, think it’s the SENCO’s job to ensure that teachers are delivering what it says they should deliver in the children’s statements. However, in this school most of the teachers ignore Tom. He’s not on the senior leadership team and therefore has no power. Differentiation – or the lack of it – is a major part of the problem. It’s why our boys aren’t progressing, and nobody seems responsible for grasping that nettle. It seems that everything is delegated downwards, landing eventually on the uncertain shoulders of support staff who, with the best will in the world, are usually unqualified to teach, let alone perform as the school’s main SEN providers. In our case, the boys’ dedicated TAs spend more time with them than any trained teacher. We’ve met a lot of TAs over the years and I’d bet good money that none of them had any SEN training.

“From what we see in their books”, I say evenly, “it seems to us that the TAs actually do the work, not the boys. It’s clearly the TAs’ handwriting, and when we talk to the boys about their lessons, they don’t seem to remember anything. Who checks? And what about the one-to-one sessions the TAs deliver? What are the TAs’ qualifications? Who decides on the content of the sessions? How much time do the TAs spend planning and following up lessons with the subject teachers? Who sets the targets and monitors the boys’ progress? When we asked that question before, Tom said that there aren’t enough hours to do any of it. If that’s true, there’s got to be something wrong with timetabling. The TAs aren’t with the boys every single moment. It seems to us that the school dumps the entire responsibility to both teach and differentiate onto the TAs rather than the teachers. Surely that flies in the face of good SEN practice? Who is the TAs’ line manager?”

CLAAAAAANG… “Ah, the bell”, says the Deputy.

“Yes, so it is”, says the Head. “The boys will be on their way to meet you at reception.”

I nod, dejectedly. “Shall we meet again? Perhaps at an earlier time so we can discuss…”

“Yes, of course we can, Mister Embers. This talk has been very helpful. Thank you so much, both of you. Tom will find a suitable slot, perhaps after half-term. Sorry, must rush. Governors meeting…”

Further information

Embers is the parent of two children with SEN. He also worked for more than 25 years in mainstream and special schools.

Photograph courtesy of MorgueFile picture library.

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