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!

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