The irony of inclusive conferences and junior league difficulties.

 

Today I got to go to TEDxNorwichED – second year running too. I have to say, it was generally a lot better than last year, but again like last year, I left before the last group of speakers came on. Like last year, I faced the same barriers which led to my leaving early too.

 

Last year I felt the speakers were, in the main, ableist. We did have 2-3 speakers actively advocating for the education of all like Alison Peacock, but for others, it seemed that the fact that some learners need things that are different from, or in addition to, their peers seemed to not register. It wasn’t just me feeling this way, it was also noticed by other inclusionists. This year we not only had speakers who have cerebral palsy (Joan Latta) and autism (Callum Brazzo), but we also had an extremely moving and harrowing account of childhood abuse by Jaz Ampaw-Farr, and Natalie Scott’s impassioned speech for all children to be educated – even if it meant she had to walk in human shit (literally, as a teacher in a refugee camp with no facilities). True determination against dreadful hardships.

 

We had neuro-diverse, socially diverse, colour diverse, age diverse and specialism (or otherwise) diverse speakers this year. The whole thing was filmed and can be viewed online. I did not agree with it all. There was a sprinkling of pseudo-science, you know the type where it starts with some researched facts, but also includes large dollops of anecdotal nonsense/urban myth. There was also the performance so rehearsed you’d be forgiven for thinking you were watching an actor delivering a monologue in EastEnders. I can’t criticise as it may be that’s the only way the person can give their performance. Like all the speakers, how ‘good’ they are comes from your own viewpoint and personality. I should have asked Natalie and Amjad for a selfie – or at least took a picture of Natalie’s killer heels!

 

Like last year though, I found it ironic that I should be attending a conference dedicated to education, to inspiring others, to inclusion and yet I sat there excluded. I have no idea how many people were there, a few hundred at least. I believe the venue takes up to 500 and there weren’t many empty spaces – but yet I was again excluded for exactly the same reasons as last year. It’s a lonely place to be, surrounded by people. Being dairy-free, is, apparently, tough. In terms of disability and exclusion, it’s pretty much junior-league stuff but no less annoying. What the caterers had done was to throw a load of junk in a bowl (salad and cold veg), shoved on a dressing of some kind and decided that would do for ‘the others’, all of them, no matter their need. Everyone else dined on appetising, chunky goodie-filled ciabatta. Not just one type of sandwich/roll, not one choice of filling, but many choices. All that bread, but NONE without filling, not one solitary slice. How hard would that have been? Cake and tarts were served later – but not for ‘the others’. For us, no choice. Fruit or nothing. Breakfast was barely any better. At least I got bacon, no bread, of course. Hungry, I stood outside. Excluded. Sulking too. Unhappy.

 

Callum talked about being autistic and standing up and making a fuss. Yet, my fuss fell on deaf ears. No food means no painkillers. No painkillers meant I had to leave.

 

We talk of learning difficulties, learning differences, disability, colour, gender, glass ceilings, inspiring and improving lives, but the basic need for food? Should I have bought my own? Should a person in a wheelchair bring their own ramp? How about the person with autism, should they be given a choice of seats or told to sit in ‘the special area’? Should the person with learning difficulties be assigned to trolley collection when they want to work the tills? Should I have brought my own packed lunch when everyone else gets choice?

 

If you watch the event online, listen to the speakers talk, the irony of my situation will not go unnoticed. Junior league, yes. But for a great many of us junior-leaguers, it’s those tiny little adjustments that can have the biggest effects.

 

Parkinson’s

Many years ago I worked as a hairdresser. One older client always sticks in my mind, not because she was just lovely, but because she was super-lovely. The lady had Parkinson’s you see, and doing her hair was never an easy task. Her limbs used to move quite violently, causing her whole body to jerk about. It wouldn’t have been so bad if she was just having a blow-dry, but she was a shampoo-and-set lady.

The first hurdle to get across was shampooing her hair, even leaning backwards, her body moved so much that her back invariably got soaked. Then there was the fun of getting those rollers in. At least her clothes were reasonably dry by the time she emerged from the dryer.

Let’s ramp it up a wee bit more. Every 3 months she would come in for a perm. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to suggest that perming this lady’s hair was akin to trying to thread a needle whilst on the deck of a trawler in a hurricane! I’m not trying to be funny or flippant, it really was no laughing matter. I used to wonder how she slept at night and whether having your muscles spasm like that made them ache. Sometimes though, we were able to time ourselves well and she would pop a tiny little pill and the hurricane force winds suddenly turned into a gentle breeze. Seeing was truly believing. I’d apologise for making her so wet, she’d apologise for moving so much. Never a terse word was exchanged, especially as I was the one doing the soaking but as I said, she was super-lovely.

Fast forward to about 5 years ago. I was volunteering in a Year 1 class. It was with some trepidation that I went in, since little children aren’t really my thing. I mean, what are you supposed to do with them? Will they understand what I say? I use big words and all that. Anyway, it turns out that they’re pretty much like big kids, only smaller. You kind of forget when they’re all sitting down.

The classroom was an old Victorian one and you couldn’t have shoe-horned another child in. Carpet-time, although a great idea, doesn’t really work when the seams are about to burst. It really was a case of spotting empty chairs to stand on to move around, a bit like a  don’t-stand-on-the-floor-or-you’re-out kind of game. Carpet space was as small as it could be for 30-odd kids to be seated. Could you imagine my client with Parkinson’s working here? What if she were a long-established member of staff? What do you do?

Well, my lady was in that classroom, she sat on the tiny chairs and she sat on the carpet. Her limbs were constantly in motion and was always bumping and nudging the other children, apart from those brief windows when it was time she could take her carefully controlled meds. Her bumps were not hard, more like the bouncy paws of an excitable puppy. Only, it wasn’t my lady, it was someone else’s lad. And he didn’t have Parkinson’s, he had ADHD. But his meds would wear off, just like my client’s, and his limbs would make contact with others’, just like my client’s, and he would apologise, just like my client. Only I wasn’t his hairdresser, not was I his teacher. Unlike me, his teacher didn’t apologise. She made an example of him, she took away his playtimes and his golden time. She told him that he wasn’t trying hard enough, she said she knew he was doing it on purpose. She knew because sometimes sat still, she told him he knew how to. She said he was naughty, that he disrupted the class.

This was tweeted to me yesterday by @remelrose1 It’s only adults who cause confusion, discrimination and hatred. Children have to be taught these.

How true.

Why so many exclusions?

This morning the local paper ran a story about the rising school exclusions in Norfolk here

There has been an almost 50% rise in exclusions last year with another 50 already expelled in the first seven weeks of the current year, according to the article. Four Head teachers gave their reasons. The first suggested that some expel to assist with the pupil gaining the specialist support they need – only it doesn’t. If a pupil needs specialist support, firstly there is the S66 governors duties to use their best endeavours to secure this support. Schools can also support parents in applying for an EHCP. The idea that exclusion triggers a chain reaction where a pupils needs will be met is, at best, incredibly naïve. Norfolk has too many pupils sitting at home doing nothing, I am in contact with some of these families.

Another suspects that some schools exclude to improve their league tables. Yes, that I can agree with. I have played the prediction game and, unfortunately, ‘won’.

A third states that the Short Stay Schools for Norfolk do not inspire confidence, so s/he won’t send a pupil there. The Head of the SSSfN said there were no quick fixes and the SSSfN’s role was misunderstood. Well yes, if the school from which the pupil has been sent does not changes its own systems, whatever cause the pupil’s reactive behaviour will still be there.

The fourth Head blamed the fractured system of between-school and between school and LA support. Sadly s/he added that in the past, schools agreed to accept their ‘fair share’ – and therein lies a problem. If you see pupils in terms of ‘fair share’ the pupils are already on to a loser.

I wondered if there is any correlation between the increase in Academies and ‘good’ graded schools in Norfolk. Chatting on Twitter earlier, Barney replied:

Perfect concluding remark. So:-

* Legacy problems

* Unrealistic short-stay aims

* Weak LAs

* Growth of academies

Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t but either way, we have a problem here and it’s increasing.

There is always a lot of chatter about funding, but much of this is not about the money, it’s about the support. The majority of excluded pupils have SEN, whether ‘diagnosed’ or not. All pupils deserve Quality First Teaching (QfT), or Wave 1 depending on a schools use of terminology. If a pupil appears to be having difficulty, Wave 2 (targeted support) and perhaps Wave 3 (specialist support) should be implemented. However, the Waves model tends to fall silent in high school, when it really shouldn’t. ‘SEN support’ is not separate from this, it is part of it. However, some pupils should go straight to EHCP, as QfT, Waves & SEN support, are insufficient to meet more complex needs.

What seems to be happening in Norfolk is a breakdown in support, since I think it would be implausible to suggest that our children have somehow suddenly been taken over by something else. While much has been said about Labour and Education, Education, Education, not so much has been said about the rapid expansion of Teaching Assistants in our schools at that time. At one point, TAs were the biggest growth area for jobs! But we seem to have lost our way. I’ve been in schools where TAs have had no training, none at all. One conversation went along the lines of ‘oh, I’m only here while my kids are little, just for a bit of extra money’. She was placed with a child who had global delay, much of her time was spent trying to get him to do work he couldn’t do. I call it the osmosis model, if the TA models the task often enough, the child will ‘absorb it’ just by sitting beside him/her. Well no, the task needs to be set out into small, achievable steps. Did that pupil learn? No. Has that pupil been taught any strategies to employ in order to achieve independence as a learner? No. Is that pupil likely to remain passively accepting of this throughout his school career?

A great many pupils need to be taught a series of strategies to be able to understand the tasks and expectations that schools set. The osmosis model will not work. Something else has happened too. I’ve seen wording on statements of SEN drift from ‘X will need to be taught strategies’ to ‘the school will use strategies’. A complete shift away from empowering a pupil. It wouldn’t now be unreasonable for a school to state that they’ve tried all kids of strategies, but they didn’t work. They won’t work if a pupil cannot access them! TAs have such an invaluable role here, they can be worth their weight in gold to a pupil, or act as a lead weight (the teacher, however, is always the one charged with providing appropriately differentiated work.

It is the systems within each individual school that make that difference. I cannot help but wonder what systems are in place in schools that feel the need to exclude. We have heard it said, over and over again, that good strategies for SEN/D are good strategies for all. If all pupils are taught, for example, how to give, ask and/or receive help from a TA, a teacher and each other, it is far less likely that the behaviours that cause exclusion would escalate to such a proportion. The Maximising the Impact (MITA) and Maximising the Practice (MPTA) of TAs both provide effective guidance & framework to support a whole-school approach to supporting all pupils. With the MPTA approach, all pupils understand if they have independently completed work, whether they self-scaffolded, required prompting, clues, modelling or correcting, whether from an adult or peers. Such an approach also allows the teacher to identify which pupils are actively learning and whether the work was too hard or too easy. Pupils learn how to ask questions and how to seek support, rather than sit still or worse, not sit still, when an adult isn’t present.

What I have heard is, rather than teaching a pupil to be independent, some schools are actually removing all support to ‘make them’ become independent – and so we’re back to the osmosis model. Unfortunately, by osmosis, the pupil is likely to find him or herself on the outside of their school. The fact that the four Head teachers gave differing responses reinforces the idea of a very fragmented system. Whatever the causes and whatever the solutions, Norfolk schools (nurseries and colleges) must come together to resolve this situation because we cannot allow this to continue.

Anchors Away!

Last night, although going to bed at a sensible hour, I couldn’t get to sleep. My fault, I take medication for my joints three times a day & I forgot my afternoon dose. I have no idea why it alters my sleep, but a missed dose equals a wakeful night. I started reflecting on recent events, as you do!

I’ve realised that over the last year I’d been dragging an anchor around with me, which I’ve now cut loose from. I had been far more unhappy at work than I’d been aware of. I’ve always sought to be part of the solution and I’d become entangled with the problem. The problem, as with many education establishments was the systems, the senior leadership team and the governance. Not usual and I think many good teachers will recognise this.

Yesterday I was at the offices of Youth Driver Trust, discussing how to assist schools in raising literacy standards. Something struck me while I was there and that was whether or not a school can truly evaluate itself. I recounted a local story: I had been on a Steering Group with a co-Head of a large city high school. They had decided to host an ASD & a behaviour unit. The co-Head was gushing about how teaching standards across the school had been raised and how well the students were now supported. They’d been previously awarded a ‘good’ Ofsted grade, I suspect they thought they were on for something better. Ofsted thought otherwise. Academy conversion was enforced. Thing is, I knew the school before I sat on that Steering Group. It was one of those schools that ‘removed’ pupils to raise grades we’ve been hearing about again recently. The problem is that it doesn’t tackle the internal politics that let those students down in the first place. The ‘problem’ had been located in the student, not the school’s systems. Their self-evaluation was flawed.

Today in the paper was an article about another local school, one that is considered to be ‘coasting’. This school is already an Academy, it may be stripped from its sponsor – my last employer. Teacher moral is reported to be at rock bottom, turnover high, but the cause, it seems, was with the pupils and their families. Now, if the ‘problem’ is located in the pupils and the teachers aren’t making any progress, surely the only place it can be resolved is within the systems, the senior leadership team and the governance? Self-evaluation again, appears to be flawed.

I’m not suggesting that schools and others intentionally create unhelpful systems, but if you don’t have a better model to view, how do you know? My anchor was trying to work in a system that is not yet ready for change. The toll on me was greater than I had realised.

Last week I attended a training course with Rob Webster & Paula Bosanquet -Maximising TAs. The programme came out of the DISS project (see, e.g. Blatchford, Bassett, Brown & Webster, 2009), demonstrating the high-cost, low-impact of Teaching Assistants. It is imperative to mention that this had nothing to do with the TAs themselves, but the systems in which they worked. TA ‘hours’ have become currency amongst parents, but with huge assumptions over their purpose. I nearly laughed out aloud with a little anecdote that was shared. I laughed because I had written into my son’s statement ‘can appear less able than he is’. The problem I was experiencing was the same as the anecdote, a child ‘choosing’ not to demonstrate knowledge because the adult would do the work for them. How did we get to this point?

I have been challenged to consider the systems in which we work to effect change. I feel at home. There is no attack on pupils, no attack on teachers, no attack on families. I have, once again, been energised by learning. Like how Nancy Gedge wrote recently (The Diary of a Not So Ordinary Boy), I once again feel part of a community, a learning community, a moving forward community (Nancy is also part of DYT). Yet again I’ve had affirmation that I’m not in the wrong when I say that inclusion should not be hard, that inclusion should follow good evidence-based practice, that inclusion means ensuring that all children are actively learning, together.

I would say that it seems ironic that the book I took with me to London on both visits was Re-Thinking Autism by Runswick-Cole, Mallett and Timimi (2016), but it wasn’t ironic at all. I took it because it fits with my philosophy. I have just read chapter 10, Schools Without Labels by Nick Hodge:

In my early visits to Marie she told me of the games and learning activities that she and Sam, her son, did together and the pleasure they both received from this. One of my visits followed shortly after the suggestions that had been made by ‘expert’ professionals that Sam might ‘have’ autism and that the parents should accept the label in order to access the specialist help that a child with autism would need…. Marie explained that now that Sam had been given the diagnosis of autism she and Sam’s father, John, ‘don’t know what to teach him, how to teach him’.

Hodge was making the point that suddenly, parents are disempowered by a medical diagnosis yet their child remained the same, Sam was the same Sam as he’d been the day before diagnosis. SEND has become a big business that carries both mystique and a hierarchy of ‘expertise’. This effect is not only found in families, but in schools too.

In my study Ben’s father, Mark, illustrates this process when he describes his puzzlement that a teacher who had previously engaged very effectively Ben suddenly stopped spending time with him….. The teacher explained that she had been visited by the autism specialist support team who had informed her that Ben had autism. Mark perceived the teacher’s understanding of autism to be that children like that want to be left alone…… ‘I could really see the difference in her, in the way that she talked… she is never going to see Ben as a normal child anymore… she is going to stamp Ben as autistic and in her words autism means “Oh they’re just wandering around in their own little world”’

I have blogged about this before, it is unhelpful to see others as ‘special and separate’, both due to the reasons above and for the industry that has sprang up reinforcing this. Like gender, we have more in common with each other than we have differences. Why should a parent or teacher suddenly feel inadequate because a label has been applied? What is the difference between teaching literacy to a child with a label, than a child who is simply behind his/her peers? Hodge argues, as I do, to park the label and teach to a child’s strengths and weaknesses.

We all have a role to play here and I’m eager again to play mine. I am again free to select best practice, evidence-based practice. I can enthusiastically deliver training to professionals and parents alike. I can once more talk about closing the attainment gap between pupils and with some authority. Best of all? I no longer have to sit in meetings and be told ‘you don’t know what you are talking about’ and have to bite my tongue!

An EHCP does what??? Are you sure?

When I hear of a tribunal appeal that is for ‘placement only’, I let out a sigh and my heart sinks just a little bit more. Even though statements have been around now for two complete generations, it’s still obvious that precious few professionals involved in the system have taken the time & trouble to actually explain the statement’s purpose to the family involved. We now have EHCPs and still, few people seem to understand its purpose.

Way too often, the piece of paper is seen to be the end-goal, or if you have that piece of paper, the school itself becomes the end-goal. Without explanation, parents are set to repeat the same games of ping-pong that the generation before them have, and schools/LAs will let them (I am generalising here, as wonderful schools for inclusion remain few & far between).

The purpose of an EHCP is quite, quite simple. It is a legal document that sets out exactly what the student needs that is in addition to, or different from, that generally made for typically developing peers of the same age in mainstream. The only ‘extra bit’ to add on here is that once it has been determined that the student requires something additional or different, all of the student’s SEND must be set out, regardless of whether provision is of the type generally found in mainstream for peers of the same age.

Some LAs will try to argue that 6k must first be spent, or that ‘assess, plan, do, review’ must first have been carried out. Not true, as a) the additional or different is value-free, the test is against ‘generally made for a typically developing peer of the same age’ and b) the test is against ‘generally made for a typically developing peer of the same age’. Ok, so I repeated myself there, but for some children, it’s obvious that their SEND is not connected to their exposure to good quality teaching. I still can’t quite believe it when parents tell me the LA wants to take a ‘wait and see’ approach to their child with Down’s syndrome, or insist on a graduated approach first – or even try and force the parents or school to provide an EP report!!!

I am often asked if I can point people in the direction of a ‘good EHCP for ASD/DS/CP/SpLD’ etc. Erm, no. To do so is akin to suggesting that all children with X, Y or Z are exactly the same, that they do not have unique personalities or live with different life opportunities, and that their ‘condition’ is completely static. No, every child is unique, there is no generic EHCP.

The place to start with an EHCP is always section K, the reports. It is the reports that establish the needs (B), which drives the provision (F), which informs the outcomes (E). Anyone who tries to argue that you take an alphabetical approach has clearly not understood the C&F Act, the SENCoP or SEN Regulations. I’m not going to go into the other sections as only sections B, F and I are appealable through tribunal.

At this point I’m going to throw another oft-heard quote into the mix – my child’s statement/EHCP was written for mainstream/special. Again, this shows a lack of understanding of the purpose of the statement/EHCP. It is written for the child, no discussion about type of school can or should take place until parts B and F are complete. After all, the assumption is always for mainstream, the test being ‘generally made…. within mainstream’

You always need reports, because it is from those reports that you establish a child’s needs. Remember, without identifying what a child’s needs are, you can’t establish what they need that is in addition to, or different from’. So, reports in hand, needs can be set out. Next comes the provision, what interventions/adaptations etc are required, in order for the child to a) attend school and b) access the curriculum. Note there are two parts here, you can’t access the curriculum or achieve if you can’t get in the door/classroom etc. It is this ‘disability’ part that LAs often neglect. Yes, the student may well be an A* student, but they are currently locked in their bedroom with the curtains drawn…..

When section B is complete, section F is underway. F is all those bits that are ‘in addition to or different from’. Please, don’t agree to ‘a programme to improve A/B/C…’ That does not set out anything. ‘A programme of literacy’ may as well say ‘will be doing GCSE English’. A colleague asked for an Upper Tier tribunal citation a couple of days ago, which clarifies the situation where vague descriptions are concerned http://www.bailii.org/cgi-bin/format.cgi?doc=/uk/cases/UKUT/AAC/2016/9.html&query=(SEN)

If you launch an appeal for school only, what will that school actually be providing? School-only is fine if you want a like-for-like swap, e.g. you wanted the mainstream school 5 minutes up the road & the LA gave you the one 5 minutes down the road, and both schools are equal. If the local schools each have 2000 pupils, 30 per class and your child can’t function in groups of more than, say, 12, section B is going to have to identify this need and section F will have to state ‘groups of no more than 12’, because that is part of in addition to, or different from. Arguing that a specialist school (maintained or independent) is required without any supporting evidence in B&F is unlikely to end well. Or, let me put it another way, is getting the physical environment enough if there are zero interventions? Just because the school has a SaLT or OT does not mean that your child will access SaLT or OT if it is not in section F. It will not matter if the school is state-funded or private.

I’m going to prattle on a bit more about B/F/I in my next Special Needs Jungle post in a few week’s time.

By the way of a P.S., I was given a copy of the government’s survey into how well the EHCP process is going. I have some thoughts:

  • Given what I have written above, do you think that all parents understand the EHCP document & its purpose?
  • Do you think that parents with learning difficulties will be able to access the survey?
  • If parents with LD use an advocate, does the first bullet point come back into play again?
  • What is it with ‘feelings’? Are they a SMART target?
  • Like a game of ‘Where’s Wally?’ how many examples of examining legal compliance/accountability did you find?

Just a few thoughts there……

Naming, shaming, Grammar schools and parent-blaming

A few things have been buzzing about on Twitter over the last couple of weeks. Two in particular have caught my eye, the discussion over a specific school and by association ‘school shaming’, and the other is the debate about Grammar schools and social mobility. The school in the news also reports that its ethos also relates to social mobility.

Is it right to name & shame a school, is it right in some cases, or is it never right? Is it more appropriate to name & shame a school that on the one hand is claiming that it aims to provide top-class educational opportunities, and on the other hand punishes a child for the deeds of the parent? UNCRC Article 28 states ‘any form of school discipline should take into account the child’s human dignity […] school administrators review their discipline policies and eliminate any discipline practices involving physical and mental violence, abuse or neglect’. Article 29 includes ‘children have a particular responsibility to respect the rights of their parents, and education should aim to develop respect for the values and cultures of their parents’. The UNCRC also goes on to state that no-one is allowed to punish children in a cruel or harmful way (Article 37). Removing a child and isolating them from peers runs the risk of running contrary to the UNCRC principles. I don’t think this is ‘my opinion’, I believe it is quite black-and-white. The child involved was subject to a ‘public’ shaming within the school, since he would be missed over dinner. His mother publicly shamed the school for doing so and the child has to bear any mental issues stemming from the school’s actions. Tit-for-tat? It makes me wonder who started this as I very much doubt, given what has been exchanged on Twitter, that this is a ‘first offence’. Apparently, the parent was ‘one of those types’ so that’s ok then, is it? Clearly, ‘insiders’ never gave much thought to Data Protection issues either.

I’m not condoning the actions of either side, but where would we be about the Justice for LB campaign, naming & shaming Southern Health? Should I have named and shamed the local primary, whose deeds included accessing my son’s blood testing kit while he was in assembly? To this day I have no idea if whoever did it, changed the needle, or whether my son later tested his blood with a dirty one. Thing is, because my son had the label ‘SEND’, like LB, he was considered ‘lesser’, hence a huge catalogue of discriminatory actions which led to him to become a school refuser. The issue with his blood kit was never investigated, the seriousness was ignored. He was ignored.

‘Lesser’ is an argument also used against Grammar schools. In this case, I’m hearing people claim that Grammars do not improve issues of equality and that failing the 11+ results in children being branded as failures for the rest of their school careers. In fact, not passing the 11+ seems to smart so much, it invokes bad memories in adults well past their school careers, as they became ‘lesser’. I was a Grammar girl, but I never sat the 11+. I didn’t even know what an 11+ was. I was placed in the Grammar school purely because I moved home from ‘city’ to ‘county’ & I was assigned a place there due to being pretty much top of the class for every subject in middle school, despite being summer-born. Without advocating for or against Grammars, what, exactly, are the problems with different school types? It does seem to be based on this idea of ‘lesser’.

There is a valid argument that ‘rich’ parents have their children tutored to pass the 11+ and that even if the 11+ was removed and KS2 stats used instead, parents would simply tutor their child for those tests. But wait a moment, don’t many schools already do this to improve their social standings?  We have a section of society that wants Grammars, and a section that doesn’t. If my family had not moved, not only would I have gone to the local comp, it would have been a long-failing one. In fact, 40 years on, it still carries that label. But why is not passing the 11+ seen as a ‘failure’? Kids are not failures in the same way as acquiring certain jobs does not equate to being a failure. Having a Grammar education does not necessarily mean that you go to university – I didn’t until I was 40. Grammar school did not improve my social mobility purely and simply because I had no interest in social mobility. What is it? What does it do? Why should I be ashamed of being in a Grammar school? It was never instilled into me to look down on people and I think that’s the whole point. I have never seen people as ‘lesser’, I only see people I like, those I don’t like or those I simply don’t know or am indifferent to. I am no ‘more’ after completing 3 degrees than I was before I completed one.

I once informed a customer that I had signed up to the OU, he eyed my shop up & down & declared that it ‘would probably do me good’. The implied content was ‘you’re in a shit job, look at me, I’m a teacher and so much more professional’, i.e. I was ‘lesser’. What this chap didn’t know was that I earned more than he did, for about the same amount of hours. I did not just work in a chippy, I owned the chippy. What was up with his attitude? What’s up with anyone’s attitude that leads them to think that anyone is ‘lesser’ even if they are paid more? To me, a job is a job. For example, I love a good coffee and I think it’s absolutely great that I can go to cafés and get one. I don’t look down on staff, they are no more less or more important than I am. They serve me with a great coffee and I’m really grateful to them for doing that, in the same way that I’m grateful to those that empty my bins, or do the conveyancing on my house or stack the shelves in the supermarket. Those unable to work due to disability or caring duties are also not ‘lesser’, they are humans, with views, wishes and feelings, just the same as me.

I was chatting to Nancy G today on Twitter, she would like her son to have a job when he leaves school. Something fulfilling, but not necessarily highbrow, waiting tables may be acceptable. For him, it may check that ‘social mobility’ box, but it would it if one of her other children took the same job? They do not have SEND. She added to the conversation, is social mobility relational to the job, not the pay? Yes, I think so. By the time students reach FE, discussions of social mobility appear to lessen. Whether you attended a state comprehensive, an independent school, a special school, a Grammar or any other type of school become second to the course you take. A Level students, for example, may have attended any of these. There is no reason why a Grammar school child would not be sitting next to a special school one. Just ask my son. Where is the social mobility argument in FE?

The problem, it seems to me, is like the Two Ronnie’s sketch about class. It summed up the psychology excellently. We put down those who appear a little better than us, in order to raise our own standing. It is these perceptions and attitudes that need addressing, in order to remove the ideas of ‘lesser’. Not one single person who attended the Secondary Modern that shared my school’s site were lesser, nor were those who attended the comprehensive that was the amalgamation of the Grammar and Secondary in the year below mine. Any thoughts that they were, were purely social constructs in other people’s imaginations, as is the idea that punishing a boy for the actions of his mother. We have pratted about with the education system for years and we’re still no further forwards. The comprehensive experiment hasn’t worked. The Academy and Free School experiment is likely to result in the same. The Sure Start initiative produced little gains for the money invested & the data would suggest that the money the government pumped in to ‘sort out problem families’ has also not produced results either.

The problem remains in people’s attitudes. As I used to say, if the Queen came in for chips, she would have to wait in line with everyone else because she is no more, or less, important than any other customer.

Is specialist autism training a good idea in ITT?

When I first came into contact with the education system, I made excuses. I hear the exact same excuses being made by other parents when I do my advocacy work. It generally goes along the lines of – ‘schools aren’t really set up for kids like mine’, ‘it’s not their fault, there should be special arrangements/teaching’, ‘they need more funding/support’ etc etc. I’ve since done a complete U-turn. While a few students might require a more therapeutic/nursing environment, these are few and far between. Warnock envisaged about 2%, everyone else should be supported in local schools with a bit of additional help. I have blogged about this before – are parents inadvertently perpetuating this social myth of ‘special’ needing ‘separate’ and schools happily playing their role of ‘not qualified enough’? What school is not ‘qualified enough’ to support a dyslexic student? Or a dyspraxic one? How about ADHD and Aspergers? Surely, all of these ‘conditions’ generally only require the Reasonable Adjustments that should be part of good practice?

Thirty-eight years on from the Warnock Report, I’m not sure we’ve actually got very far, although ASD is now going to feature in Initial Teacher Training (ITT). I’m not sure that’s a very good idea. The more we use labels, the more we perpetuate ‘special & separate’. In any case, what does the label actually tell us? Years ago, I would have been shouting ‘special & separate’ from the rooftops, now I’ve learned more about children’s development and learning and, funnily enough, it’s neither special nor separate. Yes, there’s typical and atypical, but labels are imposed. Typically, children learn to crawl, pull themselves up and then walk. A few, like me and my brother, skipped the crawl phase. My brother just got up & walked, I was a bum-shuffler. We were both atypical, but the outcome was the same as a typical child – we walked. Cognitive functioning isn’t so much different. Even if development is atypical, it doesn’t mean the end destination is also atypical. Where is the dividing line anyway? It may just be that it takes longer, or work-arounds are needed. A bit of wheeling and encircling rather than walking and running.

If I describe some functioning difficulties, can you tell what the label is?

  • Organisation
  • Working memory
  • Slow processing
  • Sequencing
  • Motor skills
  • Auditory/visual processing
  • Literacy (reading/spelling/comprehension/fluency)
  • Distractible

Suggested answers will probably depend on your child’s label – ASD, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia/DCD etc. The professionals often say that these ‘conditions’ overlap and children may acquire more than one label. Some have a whole list of them. Without knowing how a child is affected, the label is pretty much useless. One thing I do know about my students with ASD is that no two are alike. A few years ago I taught a chap who had very poor spelling and little understanding of number (I wasn’t then in a position to teach him these skills, he was, in part, some of the reason why I chose to specialise). Recently I assessed another student with ASD for exam concessions who was well above average for every test I did, but his comprehension just wasn’t there. He scored well in my ‘usual’ assessment of comprehension, but was citing the sentence rather than demonstrating understanding. I had to find an alternative test to show this. The first student was witty and quietly engaging, projecting an air of ability that was, actually, significantly impaired. The second appeared to be intellectually impaired due to his social language issues, but was otherwise highly academically able. So what, exactly, is going to be taught as ‘autism’ in ITT?

Will ASD-specific ITT cover the ‘core’ only, i.e. social communication and restricted/repetitive behaviours, or the whole wide spectrum of difference? Given the overlap with other Specific Learning Difficulties, wouldn’t it be better to teach teachers to organise their classroom practices around the cluster of issues listed above, so that it would not only be a catch-all safety net, but also so it removes the bulk of ‘special & separate’? What classroom could not be made to accommodate these various learning differences as standard? Surely by doing so, it would free up teachers to concentrate on whatever difficulty remains? What school, what teacher cannot do this?

If it is assumed, for example, that all children may find it difficult to copy from the board (for all sorts of reasons), an effective teaching strategy would be to have handouts available to those who need them. I’m a big believer in allowing students to choose for themselves if they need them and leftovers can be re-used for revision/lost books/absentees etc. I’m also a big believer in making my life easier! The more ‘differentiation’ that can be done at whole-class level, the less I need to do for individual students. I can spend more of my time on quality teaching for what difficulty remains. In other words, the bits of teaching that ‘are not of a kind generally made for peers of the same age in … mainstream’. A move to a whole-class approach also removes the need for a substantial number of students to require an EHCP.

It is not only the student with ASD who may need assistance with social use of language, shy students and those with limited English may also benefit from group work in this area. Likewise, a student with ASD and spelling difficulties may also be linked with dyslexic students and English-learners. Of course, it will all depend on age, stage and personalities!

Students with weaker working memories forget key pieces of information which can inhibit their progress. Likewise, those who are prone to distractibility will not learn efficiently in a high-sensory environment. Motor skills issues & visual/motor integration issues will slow a student down, so they run out of time/unable to complete ‘tidy’ work in the timescale available. Knowing these issues exist to various extents in a larger population, and the types of differentiation which may assist, has got to be far more useful than learning a label, surely?!?!

How are we ever going to move forward if we continue to insist on a label-led approach, which does not feature in SEND law?