The words we choose to describe something are important. They set out the stall of meaning. Often, they are the first impression we get of something. The words we choose to describe something define, shape and share the concepts we are trying to communicate. Subtle differences in the meaning of words, in implication, and in audience, can make a big difference to how what we say is understood (or not) and responded to (or not!!!). Words allow us to give more meaning to and share the world around us… so it is important that we choose them wisely. In this era of education where ITT barely touches upon disability, learning ability diversity, or inclusion, and where Ofsted / League Tables / budgets hold the carrot and the stick, it is crucial that the stall we set out for our most vulnerable learners, and the rhetoric of our intentions for them, is clear and fair and facing the future.
As SENCo (or by any other name) and / or SLT, how we talk about children with additional needs, and how we define our role, department and area, will demonstrate – even instruct – the people around us, people who (legitimately) have less knowledge and responsibility for the vulnerable young people we are talking about here, how they should perceive those children and behave towards them.
So, in the spirit of all of this… is it time to stop saying ‘special’?
Special Needs, Special Educational Needs, SEN, SEND, SENCo, SENDCo… is it time for all of this to go?
We move on in our choice of language all the time. We no longer use terms like educationally subnormal, maladjusted, retarded or ineducable to describe any of the children we teach. This is my manifesto for taking another step forward. It’s time to consign the word ‘special’, in this context, to the uncomfortable and not quite shaken off language of the recent past. Let’s cringe when we read it in a not-the-newest book, or when someone still uses it with misguided well-meaning but, please, let’s stop using it to define any of our young people’s experience of education.
The recently published government statistics, SEND in England 2017, indicates that the proportion of children and young people currently in education who are identified as SEND is stable at 14.4%. That is fourteen or fifteen out of every hundred students – not a handful of children in each school, but a significant handful in each class. A minority, yes; but a big minority! Useful to know, but statistics like these make black and white a distinction that is not so clear cut. These statistics, like any school’s SEN register, disguises the blurred boundary between these children and their non-SEND peers. Actually, of course, cognitive / academic ability, attainment and progress is a spectrum and there can be very little difference between a student on the SEN Register and one that isn’t. Furthermore, young people can be identified as SEND for lots of reasons other than cognitive ones and a student identified as having learning difficulties can have great talents in other areas… there is great diversity within SEND and often little difference between SEND and non-SEND. To me, homogenising and labelling a group of young people in this way is illogical and unnecessarily segregating, no matter what you call it, and this is harmful. The thing that sets this group aside is that the school system we have was designed and evolved without them (i.e. schools existed, pretty much as they are now, before integration and inclusion) and so they need something different to try and make it work for them. The solution to this is to redesign the education system so it does work for them, not to identify them as having needs not met as part of the norm, put them in an inclusion room (cringe), and give them a ‘best fit’ education. Any label on this approach is not going to fix that the approach is broken, however, this is the point on the journey we are at. Until we have an education system that provides an equally high quality education for every child, some children will need additional and different and we are going to need language to describe that. My argument here, though, is that ‘special’ – for a number of reasons – is not the right word for that and is actually unhelpful in moving forward with how they experience education. Getting the language right isn’t the solution to the problem, but I think it is crucial to getting the best out of the current system and ensuring it moves forward in the direction that it needs to move in.
There are, to me, three main problems with our use of the word ‘special’ to describe the educational needs of 14.4% of our students:
It is unhelpful and inaccurate.
It is also very difficult to pin down to just one, succinct definition. I looked at a few different online dictionaries and the exact wording varies, but the following definitions are recurrent:
- Greater, better than,
- important, exceptional (eleven mentions across the five dictionaries)
- Specific, distinct, particular, for one purpose, for one person/group (eight mentions across five dictionaries)
- Different, not ordinary, not usual (eight mentions across five dictionaries)
- Appertaining to education for a specified group of children (four mentions across five dictionaries)
By a fairly small margin, the most prevalent theme in the definitions was that if something is special it is better, or greater in amount, than other similar example
s. Joint second place, and arguably too similar in meaning to have separated in this way, is that special means specific or that special means different. I struggled to decide which of these two categories to place the word ‘unique’ as it kind of applies to both but I think it is important that it goes somewhere. I did a short Twitter Poll and – bearing in mind that most of my followers and followees are likely to use the word special in the education use of the word – the definition ‘unique’ was the clear winner. Finally, the definition of the word ‘special’ in its use specifically to identify and describe the education of children and young people with additional needs was mentioned, in one way or another, in four out of five dictionaries.
So, clearly, there are some children for whom a greater level of provision – additional and different – is needed and their provision is altered from the norm, may even be unique, and designed for them. The fact that we have to do this to accommodate some children within the education system, though, is not ideal and defining it in this way reinforces it and secures it as the norm. The language we choose to use, like the actions we take, needs to reflect and move towards a better system, not a system based on segregation.
Furthermore, the arguably accurate descriptions of our approach to meeting need at present are balanced out by some other definitions that carry connotations that are inaccurate as well as unhelpful. I know that we aren’t really implying that we think that children with additional needs are better than those without, but the subtle additional meaning of the word is there. Not only is it unfair and unacceptable, but also it is so painfully far from true it is pretty ironic – our young people with additional needs don’t even get equality, let alone special treatment. The use of the word special, in everyday language, to describe something unique and better (e.g. it was his birthday so I made him a special dinner) is what I blame for the condescension in attitudes towards those with additional needs in education and in society that is, if not commonplace, at least far from rare. Being in the building but not part of the day to day norms of the school is not inclusion. Being allowed to join in with trips if your mum comes along is not inclusion. Being given additional and different but not enough to achieve a recognised qualification that everyone else in your school is doing is not inclusion. Being allowed to get away with less than you’re capable of – socially, behaviourally, educationally – is not inclusion. And it certainly isn’t special. In addition to this, accurate or inaccurate, the use of the word ‘special’ to describe what we are describing here is reinforcing the idea that those young people are different, not normal, et cetera and this just isn’t true. All children (and people!) are their own complex, unique… special… combination of abilities, needs, preferences and choices.
It uses the supposedly defunct ‘medical model’ of viewing disability as a problem within the individual.
Describing a person as ‘special needs’, or any such related term, is denying them their fundamental entitlement to simply be who they are. It is identifying the need for something additional and different to be because of a defect or difference in the individual and applying the label on the basis of their deficit. The individual is an equally valid member of society and is not to blame for the fact the education system does not accommodate them without the need for additional and different! The move from the medical / deficit model of understanding disability as a problem with the individual, to the social model that states that the deficits are in society and it is the environment that needs to be fixed in order to meet the needs of society (all of society), seems to have passed education by. Those children and young people only need something ‘special’ because the design of the school and education system as a whole does not accommodate them… so what should change, the child or the system? Or do we simply continue to identify them as different and accommodate them through add-ons and annexed systems that differ from what we have decided is a child’s educational entitlement.
The word has come to be misappropriated.
Whether we agree with the official use of the word ‘special’ or not (it is the terminology used by the DfE), it cannot be denied that it has now come to be misused. The reality that the word ‘special’, in the context of education, carries negative and uncomfortable connotations, some more harmful than others, that inevitably sully the well-intended original meaning of the word. The word is used in this negative way outside of education too. For example, the fairly common internet phrase ‘special snowflake’ is a derogatory term used to describe someone how thinks they’re unique and deserve special treatment for no apparent reason. Worse than this, though, is the use of the word ‘special’ as a synonym for stupidity. I have lost count of the number of times I have personally experienced this. The number of times I’ve cringed when someone has jokingly referred to themselves as ‘special needs’ after doing or saying something silly, or the number of times I’ve fought the urge to start an altercation on social media because someone has posted a picture of their pet doing something dumb and put it down to the animal being ‘a bit special’. I don’t assume that any of these people are doing so with any malice but, nevertheless, this is a misappropriation of the meaning of the word and so, so unhelpful and harmful for the people for whom it is currently the accepted terminology. Do we really think its okay to compare a dog running into a fence with someone’s child who has a disability? Whether the answer to that question is yes, that’s fine, or no, that’s not what I meant when I did that, I think we have a problem. This isn’t the first example of terminology associated with disability to go this way. It isn’t even the only terminology associated with disability that it is happening to now (think about if you’ve ever heard someone refer to themselves as OCD because they double checked the door was locked, or as autistic because they’ve got really into a hobby). It happens because there is still a lack of understanding and underlying negativity associated with the concept and existence, regardless of what you call it, of disability and difference that has a long and complex history and is present at the societal, even global, level… and this will continue to happen as long as that is true. Part of the solution, though, is fighting it. And part of fighting it is setting out your stall of meaning, with the words you choose, to represent what you think should be happening, even if that isn’t happening right now.
Another important factor to consider in my bid to consign the word ‘special’ to the annals of history is how, specifically, it would apply to special schools. I have blogged about this before (LINK) and that article is much clearer and more detailed in explaining how I feel about special schools and how they fit in to my overall ideas about inclusion and true inclusion so please give it a read. In a nutshell, though, I think special schools play a crucial role in achieving true inclusion – equality, equity and justice – for children and young people with disabilities and I think the problems with the use of the word ‘special’ absolutely applies to them too. Any school can have a specialism and that could be a specific subject, performing arts, technology, or it could be vocational routes, sensory and therapeutic learning, or a specific additional need (VI, HI, ASC etc.) – I don’t seen any difference between these specialisms. Our current education system offers a one-size-fits-all approach (except, of course, it doesn’t – hence the additional and different) and the school system is divided along fairly crude and unhelpful lines (Ofsted grade, comprehensive / grammar / private, mainstream / special). Actually, parents / students don’t get much choice between most of these differentials and so we are left with a system where really there isn’t much choice at all. Aside from these differences, schools are forced (through Ofsted and League Tables) to actually be, or strive to be, very similar to each other. A system with real choice would have schools that had genuine USPs that set them apart and make them… well, special. A person with ASC might thrive in a school that’s smaller and more routines based… and so might loads of other young people! Some young people with LD might prefer a school that offers vocational routes… and so might loads of other young people. Some schools would naturally look more like mainstream schools and some might look more like special schools, but my point is this: we don’t need this dichotomous education system. All schools are just schools. They should all be outstanding, they should all be available to everyone, they should all have something special and unique about them, and there’s opportunity for a whole load of different types of schools between the binary ‘mainstream’ or ‘special’ options we have now.
So what, you may be asking, should we be saying instead? There’s no easy answer to that. I would prefer to be in a situation where we don’t need the label at all. Any label that identifies the children and young people on the basis of their needs carries the risks associated with the deficit model. Any way we identify by the additional and different that is being provided is in danger of facilitating segregation and perpetuating the ‘us and them’ approach to meeting need. But, until we have achieved an education system that meets the needs of all children equally we will continue to need to call it something! At my own school we have, I think, managed to achieve this to an extent. As a start-up free school (we opened 5 years ago), we have been able to design a school from the ground up and have done so to meet a wider range of needs as the norm and so, as a result, we don’t have a lot of the things that are usually associated with meeting the needs of those that require additional and different in education. We don’t, for example, have an SEN department (or by any other name), teaching assistants (or by any other name), or withdrawal from lessons for interventions such as additional literacy or numeracy. Don’t panic! We still have a (very) comprehensive intake and a wide range of ability and disability, including students with EHCPs. And those children still get 1:1 when they need it, small group work when they need it, their assess-plan-do-review, and everything else they’re entitled to and need. But the school is designed to provide these responses to need as part of its normal way of working and on the basis of a student – any student – needing it. We still, of course, have to meet all of our statutory duties and, the way things are now, this is good and necessary. However, the language we choose to use to identify and describe our students sets out our stall of meaning. It instructs those around us on how they should perceive and behave around our learners. It defines and describes and shares the concepts we are trying to communicate. We call all of our students… students. No provisos. If they need something – support, stretch, intervention – we give them it and if they don’t need it we don’t do it. No need for SEND / non-SEND, just provision for kids who need it. Depending on how much coffee I’ve had, they’re either all special or none of them are. But none of them are receiving a special education. We have designed – as a school, as an education system and as a society – what we think a good education should look like and not really being able to access that fully is far from special. There’s nothing special about not being able to access it. So what should we be saying instead? I don’t know… but I know this: we shouldn’t be calling it ‘special’.