Do Special Needs just happen - or do we make them?
Are there really special needs? Is there any sense in defining some children, as the law does, by their need for something which is “additional to or different from that which is normally available”? Of course, children are not defined by this phrase: only their needs are defined; but the effect of the law is that whatever is ‘normally available’ defines some children as “special”; and that which is ‘normally available’ can change. Indeed, the law hands power to the school sector and its funding agencies to define these children on an ad hoc basis: if it’s affordable, we make it available; if it’s unaffordable, it’s not available and therefore your child has a special need. I’m sorry, we can’t help you…
It isn’t ‘society’ that 'others' children or at least, ‘society’ is an inadequate explanation: it’s the law; it’s mainstream schools and special schools; it’s the DfE; it’s Ofsted; it’s the SEND Tribunal; it’s my friends at the Council for Disabled Children; it’s Mencap and IPSEA; it’s teachers and SENCOs; it’s NASEN; it’s consultants like me. If you want to add parents to that list, that’s up to you: I merely point out they didn’t build the system and they don’t recommend it; they are the ones who have to negotiate in and around it.
You think we have a system that makes disability visible? No, we have a system that makes disability. We have a system so lacking in assurance about basic provision in schools that I saw someone saying this week that every child with Downs Syndrome must have an Education, Health & Care Plan. Why? Judges Lane, Jacobs and Mark have all reiterated that whether an EHCP will be necessary “will vary according to the circumstances of a particular case” and pivotal to that decision will be the ‘local offer’ or “what can reasonably be provided in the mainstream context.” If particular diagnoses now mandate that a child should have an EHCP, that’s a form of screening, othering, and inclusion has failed.
We have a system which would sooner pump billions into schools over the horizon and transport children there than create a wet-room or a sound field system or low-arousal spaces within their local school and bring the auxiliary services to them. We have a system which prefers to isolate the specialist skills in pockets and appoint barristers to fight over them than normalise those skills so they are available to all. We make both pupil and teacher special, then we remove them. Thus, though Ofsted found last week that schools are considerably better than they have been, that 90% of primary schools and 91% of early years settings are now Good or Outstanding compared to 69% before the reform of the SEND system, they also found that a greater proportion of pupils with SEND are heading to special schools than at any time in the past decade. Exactly half of children and young people with a Statement or Education, Health & Care Plan are no longer in local mainstream schools with their siblings, their neighbours, their peers. We are consciously displacing half of all children with significant learning and other disabilities from their communities and peer-groups by the age of eleven. Does that feel okay to you? Do you think it should be less? More?
Ofsted’s claim that, “There is no evidence from our school or local area inspections that mainstream schools, whether primary or secondary, are not welcoming pupils who have special educational needs and/or disabilities onto their rolls” is simply not credible. There are many mainstream schools which DO welcome pupils with support needs and who do a tremendous job for them (funny how often the progress they achieve with these children is better than they achieve for the rest – could be something to do with focus and planning). But when the tide is ebbing away from mainstream in such numbers, there has to be a reason and to pretend otherwise is ridiculous. Indeed, on the same page Ofsted acknowledges parents’ concerns, such as:
“the ability of mainstream schools to deliver specialist support, such as therapy, which is readily available in special schools”
“aspirations… curriculum” and mainstream schools’ ability “to cater for their child’s current strengths and future needs.”
“They also fear that where a local school requires improvement or is inadequate, it may not have the time and resources to prioritise the learning of their child.”
“the provision that is meant to be made for their child does not always happen and the local area, school or college do not explain fully to them how the proposed provision or adjustments to provision will meet their child’s needs effectively and how this will be evaluated.”
More special schools are now graded Good or Outstanding than mainstream schools, despite a severe problem recruiting teachers with the right training, highlighted repeatedly in the press by Simon Knight and Marc Rowland. But the characteristics of successful special schools do not include the performing of miracles. They do the same stuff other good schools do:
“leaders who are clear about their duties and responsibilities”
“a broad, rich and relevant curriculum that helps each pupil be ready for their next steps”
“accurate, comprehensive information about what a pupil knows and can do”
“opportunities that enable transfer of skills from the classroom into everyday life.”
Ofsted Annual Report 2015-16
Let me declare my interests: I’m a SEND consultant currently engaged by a non-maintained specialist college, a mainstream academy and alternative provider, a grammar school, two local authorities, an attendance support service and by parents. I have several horses in this race: my diary illustrates the continual fragmentation of the system. This scattergun mix of systems and institutions undermines accountability, as I described last month. “But wait, Barney: you’re being a dick and a hypocrite; you earn your money from this system of labelling and ‘othering’; you work in a range of organisations which each have a specialised focus! What’s wrong with mainstream schools focusing on children who don’t have additional needs and letting the specialists teach those who do in appropriate settings?” Well firstly, all the organisations with which I currently work are actively trying to contribute more to SEND provision in local communities on top of what they currently do: that’s why I’m there and it’s why I belong to the Whole School SEND consortium. Secondly, the problem is that if we legitimise segregation we marginalise anyone who does not fit the mould. Quietly letting parents know that their child won’t manage the expectations of the school is simply astroturfing: not only do we set them on a different course for life, we also make it seem like it’s their choice; and we programme the future to repeat this choice, because the range of what we can do in the mainstream will diminish. Of course, if you show parents your success with children who have learning disabilities, deafness, autism, a speech disorder, they will be reassured; but if you tell them that their child will simply have to work much longer days because they’re “behind”, they may start to look elsewhere. But, hey - bus a child to a special school and they’re likely to have a longer day, right? So no reason for the mainstream school to feel guilty – that kid was going to struggle any which way. And it’s not just those with learning disabilities: it’s also those who are now fetching up in Alternative Provision, often to the surprise of their Local Authority; the best of this sector is Outstanding while the worst is simply not an education.
So how do we push back against the tide of segregation from local schools? How do we enable the mainstream to provide for children with diverse needs without feeling that their mission is going to be hijacked by them?
- By supporting and training teachers in a variety of methods and building this into their CPD;
- By fixing the ‘local offer’ so that services can respond quickly without relying on crisis thresholds and mainstream schools have some faith that the local authority will support them;
- By unpicking the mess of the 2013 funding changes (the “notional SEN Budget”) so that we no longer ask schools to commit up to £6,000 to each pupil with additional needs without guaranteeing them the funding to do so;
- By continually reminding the Minister and all her staff of the comments of Judges Lane, Jacobs and Mark until they recognise that this fix needs to come from the top;
- By accepting that schools which set themselves apart and cause an outrage by re-defining the mission may have something to offer, even if it’s not a complete solution;
- By daring to believe that some things which happen in special schools can also happen in mainstream schools and that those working in special schools may be best placed to help this process;
- By refusing to accept that responding to the children in your community is a sign of weakness;
- By having the sense to grasp that categories of disability are not, as one recently retired Assistant Headteacher told me today, dished out "to excuse idiocy"; no, if that were true then "Assistant Headteacher" would be one of the titles dished out;
- By not believing that there is magic or gold in special schools, any more than there is in mainstream schools; there is commitment, just as there is in the mainstream;
- By not condoning the endowment of community and the promise of a future only to bright kids, quiet kids, normal-looking kids, kids who give good eye contact, kids who are not tongue-tied;
- By not blurring disability with poverty in order to dismiss additional needs as a symptom of disadvantage which merely requires firmer moral purpose;
- By putting bridges before branding and embracing difference, not only among children but also among schools;
- By being prepared to say, "SEND reform isn't working in the mainstream and we could quite easily put it right so as not to drive more and more children out of their own community."