John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Vice President of the Conservative Education Society.
Back to work with Amanda Richardson’s talk on Special Needs and Disabilities to the Conservative Education Society last Monday. Good to see Stephen James, founder of Conservative Friends of Education there too, and pleased that he found Amanda’s talk “brilliant”. The new minister for SEND – probably Children and Families Minister, Vicky Ford – will no doubt find it brilliant too, and would do well to meet her.
Amanda’s talk was focused on three questions: what does excellence in SEND look like, why haven’t we got it, and how do we move towards it? Her key point was the need to move from the “macro” analysis of the last Select Committee report, to the “micro”, which involves getting the right blend of support to individual children. She endorsed the need for more money, which she wanted to go straight to headteachers so that they could spend it directly on their pupils, but was also concerned about what she saw as a “chronic lack of specialist expertise”. School co-ordinators were overwhelmed with paperwork, to the detriment of developing and applying their teaching skills, and most actual teaching was provided by assistants, some of whom were excellent, while many others lacked training and skills. Another obstacle was too much emphasis on physical access to facilities, and too little on the teaching that enabled children, especially those with neurological conditions such as cerebral palsy, to learn and make progress. Children in this position might be physically included, but mentally deprived, lonely and anxious.
Part of the solution, she argued, could be to found a local register of expertise and resources, and to ensure that everyone with a skill to contribute – local authorities, pupil referral units, special schools and charities – was able to do so. It could be more economic, for example, to send a child to an independent or charitable special school, than for an authority to build and operate one of their own. Early identification, to gain maximum benefit from plasticity of the young brain, close co-operation with parents, and attention to detail at all stages, are essential, and a long way from what we have at present.
A parent complained that money allocated for her child’s individual teaching was spent instead on providing an assistant to work with a group, and that the headteacher had told her, “I’m the head, and I’m saying what is going to happen.” This is a reflection of the problems the government has had in ensuring that pupil premium money is spent for its intended purpose and not, for example, on paying the salaries of senior managers, or the expenses of a multi-academy trust. There is almost a law to be applied here – what is not ring-fenced will be mis-spent.
I raised the increasing incidence of what psychologists term “Pathological Demand Avoidance”, in which a pupil either gives up, refusing to do anything at all, or else complies, with a subsequent furious reaction at home. I had seen rare cases in the past, but it is becoming a lot more frequent, and a source of serious worry, as it is virtually impossible to teach such pupils in a class. Amanda agreed that this was a growing and intractable problem, and probably the result of needs not being met at an early stage, so that children became more and more frustrated. The school she had led for many years, The Pace Centre, had just received its sixth consecutive outstanding report from Ofsted, precisely because of its attention to detail from the earliest stages in its work with children with cerebral palsy.
The gap between such excellence and where we are could scarcely be greater, and Robert Halfon’s sense of shame at the plight of families with SEND is fully justified – seeing their children suffer in this way, and being required by law to send them to a school that they know is not meeting their needs, makes a whole family unhappy, and often leads to additional expense for services such as speech therapy that are included in individual education plans, but not provided.
The paperwork mountain has been with us since the Warnock report of 1979, and conforms to what I will call Bald’s law of education – the more that is written down, the less that is actually done.
To reverse this, SENCOs need to lose their role of clerk and become once again the school’s lead practitioner, with the skills to train others to work to the highest possible standard with the pupils they are actually working with, in full knowledge of their needs and of the best ways of meeting them. LA advisers and those inspectors who see “inclusion” as no more than physical presence in the class, without evidence of intellectual progress, have their careers invested in the idea, and are unlikely to change their ways. Their employers in local authorities and teacher education are no more competent to run this area of education than any other.