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What do we mean when someone has special needs? And why do we get it so spectacularly wrong?
Interesting article in this week’s TES about SEN provision:
‘Pupils with statements of special educational needs are being routinely segregated from their teachers and classmates, prompting fears that many of the most vulnerable children are receiving a poor education.’
Part of me can’t see the controversy. Given that many statemented needs revolve around behaviour, it’s not surprising that many SEN pupils spend time outside of the classroom. That isn’t an indication of failure itself, but simply a recognition that removing a challenging student to a less crowded space is often the most sensible strategy. It’s also not surprising that students with learning difficulties are removed to nurture groups. In fact, in my experience it’s not removal that’s the problem, but not removing.
Inclusion; that’s the pivot around which this all revolves. When I started teaching in 2003, I was amazed that classrooms often contained students so badly behaved, or with learning needs so pronounced, that I knew I could never provide for them adequately. What should I do, I wondered, with a student who doesn’t speak English, but has no interpreter in the class? With a pupil who frequently assaulted or insulted teachers? With a student in a GCSE class with a reading age of seven? More, why were such pupils packed into the same classroom as everyone else? Inclusion, I was told.
Inclusion was treated very seriously. I received several lectures and tutorials on it when training. Every lesson plan I made had to include awareness of inclusion issues. Differentiation was supposed to be the catalyst to this magic process; if I planned the right lesson, it seemed, everyone would be caught in the gravity of the lesson. This was a complete lie.
Plato spoke about Noble Lies- untruths that were useful, like the belief in Gods, which he claimed kept people moral. Inclusion was and is an attempt to generate a contemporary Noble Lie, only instead of conjuring goodness through the threat of divine retribution, we imagine that wishing for inclusiveness creates it.
But it doesn’t. Instead, inclusion, handled in the most knuckle-headed manner, has created a vale of tears where everyone loses: children with special needs don’t get the support they need- instead having to cope in classrooms for which many are not ready- and the mainstream class has to suffer and starve due to the disproportionate focus that challenging or very needy students require. And somewhere under this enormous pyramid of toil and chaos, is the teacher, unable to meet the needs of his class, harrowed by failure.
Get Out of Jail Free
|‘OFSTED, muthaf***er. DO YOU SPEAK IT?’|
A second issue is the designation of statements themselves. Many children are statemented for reasons that, decades ago, would hardly have been seen as a special need at all. We have all worked with children who are statemented for behaviour, yet who are perfectly capable of behaving well for a certain teacher, or their parents. This makes a mockery of the whole system- Old Andrew calls it the SEN racket– as it shows that we have medicalised many perfectly normal parts of the behaviour spectrum and redesignated them as pathologies. This reductivist approach to human nature leads to a joyless form of determinism, where the human being is lost and replaced with a series of triggers and causes and cues. How depressing.
There are some children with clear difficulties- like Tourette’s- where they have little control over themselves. But the surly teenager who is persistently rude to teachers because she can’t be bothered, isn’t helped by a label of ODD; in fact, it infantilises them, and gives them a reason not to amend their behaviours. And this isn’t a fringe issue; this is at the heart of the SEN liturgy. I have read many well-meant Individual Education Plans for statemented pupils that go along the lines of ‘Let them run around the room punching people in the Charlies if they want’ or similar. Try and run a room like that for five minutes and see how much learning gets done.
1. Inclusion doesn’t mean ‘in the class with everyone else.’ This is inclusion at its most witless and barbaric. It is also the default definition in many, many mainstream schools: you’re included if you’re geographically present. You might as well say that the waiters at Buckingham Palace are guests at the garden party.
2. But all this does is to create pressure-cooker classrooms where the few drain the attention of the one, to the detriment of the many. The teacher is spread thin as marmalade and lessons are carpet bombed. Learning over.
3. Inclusion like any value, cannot be intrinsically good. It must be balanced with other values, such as the rights of the class, the teacher, and the good of the child.
4. For some children that can be achieved in the mainstream classroom; modifications that can be done with relative ease: task that differentiate for different abilities; seating plans that accommodate children with hearing issues etc
5. For some children, inclusion needs to mean special provision. Overwhelmingly, this means smaller groups, separate classrooms and specially trained staff. That way they can get the attention they require without dominating the classroom. When did we forget that mainstream kids have needs too?
6. Staff trained in a meaningful way. I feel sorry for TAs. Often they are the least trained, the worst paid and the least valued members of staff, and yet the demands on them are Herculean. ‘Work a miracle with this pupil’ they are told, without being told how. Their salaries are shocking. Children with special needs don’t just need a warm body nagging them, or writing out their answers; they need teachers, trained in specific areas: EAL; Autism; reading strategies; extreme spectrum behaviour. And they need subject knowledge too, to teach meaningful content. I know many TAs who do a fantastic job. But there are some TAs who, through little fault of their own, are little more than tall buddies for their charges.
7. For inclusion to be meaningful, it has to exclude meaningfully. Good internal inclusion units are a joy: a school within a school, a Russian Doll of focus and care. Others are holding pens; three goes on the Rollercoaster and the pupils are dropped back into the circus.
Inclusion, as it stands is worse than useless in many schools. It is actively harmful. It serves no purpose other than to meet its own criteria. We’re bad at identifying special needs, and we’re terrible at meeting those needs. If we crack this, the value and efficiency of what we already do will sky rocket, I guarantee it. But we spend all our cows on magic beans.
Now that is special.