It’s roughly a year since I started blogging here and while I have not written as much as I had hoped to, at least I have written something! I am not quite sure what I want to blog about though, since I am caught between the worlds of SEN/D, mother, specialist teacher and so on. Having said that, perhaps being rather eclectic is a good thing?
It is funny how we humans always need nice little boxes to organise our thoughts and feelings, our family and social lives, our intelligence and status in life and anything and everything else. SEN/D is, or course, a big box, Pandora’s Box even. But what does SEN/D actually mean? What constitutes SEN?
I went to a Grammar school, so a certain level of academic attainment was a pre-requisite. Previously I went to a bog-standard middle school and an array of infant and primary schools before that (I did a lot of schools!). Grammar schools only take in the top 20% of children, or something like that. I don’t remember any of my grammar teachers suggesting that they couldn’t teacher ‘secondary’ children, nor, I suspect, did secondary teachers think that they could not teach ‘grammar’ children. My ‘bog standard’ middle school never seemed to be fazed by the range of ability they were teaching – so why do teachers now feel unprepared to teach ‘SEN/D’?
On Twitter I hear many voices ‘teachers need training on SEN/D’, ‘SEN/D should form a bigger part of Initial Teacher training’, ‘I don’t feel qualified to teach SEN/D’ etc. as if there is some kind of mystique, a box – Pandora’s box – that they fear to open. Yet, the range of abilities seen in a comprehensive school is vast.
When Dame Warnock did her report back in 1978, she estimated that only 2% of the population would need a special school, which is somewhat different to the 20% in Grammar schools. It was envisioned that only those with the most complex needs would be in a special school, generally those with significant therapy and medical needs. Swapping figures around a bit, if 20% of children were taught in special schools it would still leave 80% in mainstream – that is a huge amount of variation in the ‘ordinary’ school population. Is absorbing 10-18% more really a no-go? Dame Warnock clearly thought it not only possible, but thoroughly desirable.
So what makes teachers think they need special training when they already work with such huge diversity? If you have a gifted child wishing to attend your school do you tell the parents that you could not possibly meet their needs, that they need a school better suited to their abilities? In middle school I was always being sent out to do some form of self-directed task while I waited for others to catch up. Ok, so probably not the best use of my time but I was comfortable with it. Is it such a stretch to do something appropriate for other children?
I suspect that something else is going on. It is ok to be ‘bright’, in fact, more than ok, culturally it is the end-goal, top of the tree, part of the elite. I suspect that Tajfel would have had a view on this. Tajfel observed that people over-estimate value – initially by the way of estimating the size/value of coins. Higher value coins are big, robust, a physical demonstration of their buying power – aren’t they? Oh, and low value coins are so much smaller? Tajfel determined that people have a cognitive bias which distorts ‘reality’. This also extends in to the value, similarities and differences of people with Tajfel later calling this a ‘social identity theory’.
Are schools/teachers over-estimating the ‘value’ of ‘ordinary’ students and by doing so, over-estimating the difference between the non-SEN/D and the ‘SEN/D’ students? Along with over-estimating the value of the ‘ordinary’ student, are they also over-estimating the differences in abilities of those they perceive to be the furthest removed from ‘ordinary’? The thing is, these ideas also become a ‘collective knowledge’ and so everyone starts to believe these over-estimations to be true. Yet, if we do not know if someone has SEN/D, do we still behave in such a way? I remember an interview with Kathy Burke, where she discussed her early life and how she was labelled with ‘learning difficulties’, but was encouraged by a teacher to develop her acting skills. Now a highly successful actress, how much do we over-estimate her differences? She is, of course, just one of many successful people with SEN/D.
All students with SEN/D should be able to be supported in mainstream as long as they have the right support around them, regardless of the severity of their condition. Pinning the LA down to provide this though may have to come through using the SEND tribunal and to be fair, where the child’s condition requires substantial medical interventions, my observations suggest that the parent will seek a special school placement. I do have concerns that too many parents are seeking special schools for students who ought to have their needs met quite easily in mainstream.
It would be a funny system if we start to reject the ‘top’ 20% along with the ‘bottom’ 20%. I use inverted commas because this phenomenon appears to be more of an issue in schools than out. Even the top 20% may struggle with certain concepts, not always do they have an even profile of ability. Those with ASD may be a prime example. The spectrum is so wide and skills profile so uneven, a person can be both the top and bottom 20%. Should you just teach the 60% in between?
I hope Wendy Lawson (PhD) does not mind me reproducing one of her poems here:
Autism is: being present in this world,
But not entirely of it.
I am one step removed and curled,
The switch just doesn’t click. I perform the role of my perception,
And play many parts so well.
But minus files for my redemption,
My part in life I cannot tell. Life is like a video,
I watch but cannot partake.
My uneven skills are but an echo,
Of the frustrations which I hate! However, my focused use of time and space,
I would not give away.
I know that I am especially placed,
For some developed career one day!
Mainstream or special? Should there even be an argument here?