BaldtwoJohn Bald on the "Special Educational Needs" industry that thrives on failure

Shortly after I started teaching in a secondary school, in the early seventies, I had a conversation with an eleven year old who had “bunked off” my English class, and who, I discovered, could not read. No-one had told me about this when I took over the class – a colleague asked me if I didn’t believe in “self-fulfilling prophecies” – and the deputy head told me with equanimity that “lots of boys in the first year can’t read”.

My response was to become a reading teacher, and from that time onward, I’ve been doing all I can to teach reading and other aspects of literacy as effectively as possible so that people will be able to read, with their problems either knocked out or severely cut down. After a few years, a certain amount of success and a couple of articles, I was introduced to an American book written during World War Two, with the educationally unfashionable title Remedial Techniques in Basic School Subjects, whose author, Grace Fernald, had developed simple and effective approaches to serious reading difficulties, including some caused by brain damage. She had done equally good work on basic arithmetic, and her insights into foreign languages coincided with work I’d done with children who had been failing in French (my degree subject).

While some updating was needed from the state of the work as Fernald left it, her key ideas seemed to me to be right, and the transformation of one child’s life an inspiration – he had been knocked off his bike by a car, suffered loss of brain substance, and was medically pronounced incapable of becoming a self-sustaining member of society. By the time Fernald had finished with him, he was making college entrance grades, and the only remarkable thing about him was that he tended to use more advanced vocabulary than was usual for his age. That, I thought, was the way to do it, and I remain grateful to the late Dr Margaret Peters of Cambridge Institute of Education for recommending the book.

But not everyone agreed then, and still more don’t agree now. Knocking problems out, or “remedial work” might be acceptable in cases of accident, but the approach promoted since Baroness Warnock’s committee coined the term special educational needs is based much more on the idea of accepting differences rather than trying to overcome problems. This is the main thrust of the policies of the voluntary bodies that were placed in charge of the issue by the last government, and which, like many large charities in New Labour’s “third sector” see themselves much more as agents of political change rather than providers of services to those in need. And with this has come a superstructure of expensive reports and assessments, leading to elaborate examination concessions and a complete, self-sustaining carbuncle of a bureaucracy that does very well for itself out of the problem while making very little impact on it.

When I sent evidence of this, and of the alternative, to Sir James Rose’s inquiry into dyslexia , New Labour’s civil service first lost it, then decided they had located it in a folder, and did not bother either to read it or to pass it to him. Whether they really found it or did not want to admit to having lost it, I leave to your judgement. Sir James, to his credit, has apologised for this – though it was obviously not his fault – and is taking a personal interest in the alternative.

Here it is:

1. If the problem is part of a severe general learning difficulty, refer to the techniques developed by Professor Sue Buckley of the Down’s Education Trust. These are very effective for a range of learning difficulties, and can supplement phonic work where children are capable of this.

2. If not, ask two questions:

What is it in this person's thinking that is preventing them from using the information conveyed by letters in order to read?


How do I help them to adjust their thinking so that they can read successfully?

These questions ensure that the teacher or psychologist focuses on the person sitting before them, and not on some programme designed by someone else who has never seen this pupil.

3. Design and carry out a teaching programme that answers question 2.

There is plenty of source material for this, but a principle should be that everything a child does not understand should be unpacked, and explained so that they do understand it. This means that teachers need to know the spelling system inside out, both in its regular and irregular features – very few do, as the irregular features are rarely explained in training. Psychologists should no longer be allowed to write reports without making an impact on the problem. At the moment, they are basing reports on tests that any teaching assistant could administer, and most make no contribution to solving the problem. Of course, in the politically correct scheme of things, there is not a problem in the first place, so they need not concern themselves with a solution.

4. Anyone offering advice in this area must be able to walk the talk. As each case is different, Sir James and I agree that case studies should be the basis of the work. My own latest case study is of a ten year old who had become so upset at not being able to read that he seriously injured himself, nearly died and suffered brain damage. He is now making excellent progress with his reading, and has read over 100 pages of Danny The Champion of the World. Like my heroine Grace Fernald, I’ll be happy when the job is done and he is at university.

I don’t charge for this teaching. Please get in touch if you think I can help.