Not special.

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)

uniqueBy 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’.

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Unlearn Everything

New teachers!

Have you thought about how you are going to ensure that your classroom is inclusive?  Have you found all those ‘E’s and ‘K’s on your registers?  Have you worked out what those letters mean for each child that has been assigned one?  Have you read the EHCPs, the IEPs, the passports and pen portraits?  Have you planned with your TAs?  Have you differentiated your lessons and individualised your resources?  Have you thought about how those ‘E’s and ‘K’s are going to eat into your time?  What about the rest of the class?  They need you too, right?

Remember! All teachers are teachers of SEND! (DfE SEND Code of Practice 0-25, 2015)

No?

Well you’d better get cracking the…

Just kidding. I have some good news!

Those ‘E’s and ‘K’s on your register.  Yep; the ones with all the paperwork…

They
are
just
kids.

Children, just like the rest of them.  Students, just like any student.

I’m not saying that you aren’t going to need to put in that little bit extra with those guys; you are!  But, trust me, the non-‘E and K’ kids are just as likely to throw you a curve ball as those kids are.

And I’m not saying that you shouldn’t read the EHCPs, IEPs etc, meet with your TAs and get some decent planning in place.  You really, really should.

But what I am going to say is this:

Unlearn everything (if anything!) you have been taught about inclusion.

There is no ‘us and them’.  There’s only us.

There is no SEND and non-SEND students.  They’re all just kids.  Complex, unique individuals, every single one of them.  Get all the information you can, get to know them personally, and appreciate them for who they are.  Not just the kids identified as ‘SEND’, but all of the kids.

Attitude is everything.

It is the first step and the bottom line of true inclusion.  If you see your class and then these other kids, then you can never be truly inclusive, no matter how many IEPs you read or worksheets you differentiate.  The class is made up equally of all the individuals in it.  Each student is just another kid who needs to get what they need to have.

FROM YOU.

The TAs, the SENCo, their teacher from last year, their parents (definitely speak with parents!), yes; they can help you.  But, ultimately, these kids are yours. There are many things that can make a great teacher, but getting it right for every child in your class is top of the list for feel good factor, surely!

I’m not saying it will be easy… but, if you’ve gone into teaching for the easy life then you have made a terrible, terrible error!

Those ‘E’s and ‘K’s probably do need additional and different, sure.  Maybe they do have a diagnosis, a bit of kit, or need a bit more time, or colour, or interactivity to get where they’re going, but they only need ‘inclusion’ if they weren’t included in the first place.

Children with ‘E’s and ‘K’s next to their name on the register represent a huge leap forward on the journey towards true inclusion, equality, equity and justice for those with disabilities.  But they also suffer because of being seen as other, ‘included’ and often marginalised.  We’ve come a long way, but we can do better… and change will not come if we wait for some other person and some other time.  We’re the people we have been waiting for.  We are the change that we seek.  That’s an Obama quote, that last bit; I take no credit for it, but the sentiment is relevant – we are responsible for making the changes that need to occur.

So, happy Teacher New Year!

Let’s make it a good one.

For everybody.

Vulnerability vs Resilience

I once, as an experiment, removed each vulnerable subgroup of students, group by group, from a list of every student in the school. Special Educational Needs and Disability, New to English/English as an Additional Language, Looked After Children, Pupil Premium and Able, Gifted and Talented… and, in the end, I was left with a list of around 20 children – around 6% of our student population at the time – and I made three main observations from my findings:

  • The umbrella term ‘vulnerable’ actually covers the vast, vast majority of students for one reason or another.
  • With no ring-fenced money, designated co-ordinator, dedicated provision or column on the data spreadsheet, these 20 students were themselves pretty vulnerable.
  • The 20 children did not form an obviously connected cohort. They represented a broad range of abilities, attendance figures, behaviours and personalities. In fact, it was a right motley little gang.

My point is this; all children, by their very nature, are vulnerable. Some, of course, are more resilient than others… but that doesn’t mean that they’re resilient. They are vulnerable simply because they are children. The reality of using subgroups to identify vulnerabilities is that it helps with planning and organising but, actually, no grouping represents a homogenous selection of children. What’s more, children rarely fitly neatly into just one of these categories; they are complicated as well as vulnerable. Add to this mix the fallouts, confidence crisis’s, hormones, home hiccups, snow days and windy days, exhausted final weeks of term and out of practice first weeks back… and ‘vulnerable’ suddenly doesn’t seem to cut it as a category at all. The students we teach are children in our care and children are vulnerable. Full stop.

The opposite of vulnerability – resilience – is also a quality that all students possess, albeit in different measure and form. If it were so simple as ‘not vulnerable = resilient’ I would have very few resilient children!!! If it were so simple as ‘higher attaining = more resilient’ I wouldn’t spend so much of my time supporting the socio-emotional needs of my most able students. Furthermore, both of these oversimplifications rob our most vulnerable learners of the recognition they truly deserve. School can be bloody hard for any kid; imagine the resilience, determination and grit you would need to tackle it with a disability,  medical need, little grasp of the language, a problem in your home life… sometimes I think our most vulnerable learners are really our strongest. And anyone can go through a rough patch.

Managing the unique, finely balanced, and ever changing relationship between vulnerability and resilience that exists within each of our students is part of the skill of being a teacher, and the aspect of the role it impacts on most significantly is our role as managers of behaviour. High expectations, a strong behaviour management policy, and clarity and rigour of approach are, I think, fairly universal – at least in intention – across the education landscape. As is, I’m sure, the genuine desire to provide a truly inclusive education that is appropriate and fair for students with additional needs and/or vulnerabilities of any kind. But how is this achieved without either lowering our standards for some or having expectations that are out of reach for others? How do we achieve a behaviour management approach that demands the best from our students whilst being fair as well?

One of the issues, I think, is that some aspects of our approach increase with the ability of the students whilst other aspects decrease. Our expectation of their progress, their independence, and their aspirations, for example, tend to increase… but our personalisation, individualisation, and nurture all seem to decrease. But really, the high expectations challenge and academic rigour/quality we have for our most able and (perceived) resilient students should be the entitlement of all of our students. There are no students for whom a disability, additional need, or factor in their home life or background, should cause us to offer them a lesser quality or limited version of their entitlement to an education. There are no students for whom lower expectations are enough. And, furthermore, the level of nurture and care, support, individualisation/personalisation and consideration we offer our least able and (perceived) least resilient children – think of the level of personalisation (assess-plan-do-review, annual reviews, personalised packages and outside agency specialists) we give to our students with Statements or EHCPs – is the entitlement of all of our students. There are no children for whom being high ability, mature for their age or seemingly resilient means that they should have to cope with a less caring or more generic approach.

untitled

I don’t, of course, mean that we should be bombarding our children with additional learning needs or developmental delays with timetables and courses that don’t suit them, or that we should be bringing in additional support and outside agencies for kids that don’t need it. What I mean is that we need to stop seeing children in terms of generic dichotomous divides – resilient/vulnerable, abled/disabled, high attaining/low attaining – and, instead, give them each equal access to everything that they need to access the best that we have to offer. Recognise each one of them as the unique and complex individual that they are; we are all the same insofar as we are all different.

untitled2

A more universally personalised – not ‘one size fits all’ but ‘one size fits one’ – approach doesn’t just benefit one of the traditionally recognised subgroups, but benefits every single student. For the lowest ability students in a school, so often relegated out of the main stream and into a SEN or inclusion corridor or classroom, with less qualified staff and less valued courses, it gives them the opportunities – academic and social – that we all recognise as a child’s entitlement but just don’t always seem to apply to our children with additional needs. And for our most able and highest attaining they’re given the nurture and individualisation that is the right of all children; just because a child can cope doesn’t mean they should have to. The bell curve, though, tells us that these two extremes account for only a small minority of our school population. All those children in the middle, including all those who fall into no subgroup at all, will also, of course, benefit from getting the best of what’s afforded to those at each extreme of the cohort. And this, of course, is all an oversimplification itself; many of the subgroups and budgets we have for our students can include children from anywhere on the ability spectrum and a child being high or low ability doesn’t mean that they are in the same spot on that bell curve for every subject or skill.  The only answer, surely, is to have schools that provide the structure, nurture and personalisation that enables all children to meet the highest of expectations.

 

Splitting Hairs (part 2)

Thinking about the difference between ‘nice’ and ‘kind’ got me thinking about another hair splitting nuance that I believe is crucial to ensuring the right to education for students with additional needs; are we trying to achieve equality, equity, or… something else.

When I first started writing this blog I used the word ‘equality’, but later changed my mind and started using ‘equity’ instead. I might have changed my mind again now, but let’s just focus on these two for the time being.

Equality. (noun) The state or quality of being equal.

Equal. (adjective) As great as; the same as. Correspondence in quantity, degree, value, rank, or ability.

There are, I think, still some things to which I would apply the word ‘equality’. There should, or example, be an equal right to a high quality education for every child. But, if equality basically means that everyone gets the same (or is the same), then equality alone isn’t going to achieve that right for all of our children because some children will need more.

Equity. (noun) The quality of being fair or impartial; fairness; impartiality. Something that is fair and just.

At some point I switched from using ‘equality’ and started using ‘equity’; not everyone getting the same, but everyone getting what is fair and just… everyone getting what they need.

Say, for example, there are two people and they have one pie. One of those people has just eaten and the other is starving (you could interpret this as one is regularly well fed and one is not, or simply that one has had their most recent meal and the other is yet to have it; it makes a difference only to the extremeness of the example and not to the meaning).

Equality would give each of them half of the pie.

Equity would give each of them the amount of the pie that they need.

Of course, distribution of a resource is rarely this simple and the resource remains limited – if both were starving they’d get half each and both still be hungry. If there were ten hungry individuals they would get a tenth each and all still be hungry. The example, though, serves its purpose; is it equality or equity that gets those two people into a situation where both of them have achieved their entitlement to be fed? Which is kindest? Which is the most fair and just? I’m not saying there’s a clear cut answer to these questions but, for me, it is important to think about it anyway. Equality might be nicer, and it might also be easier – less decision making – but it doesn’t, I don’t think, represent justice for both of those people involved.

Justice. (noun) Just behaviour or treatment.

Just. (adjective) Based on or behaving according to what is morally right and fair.

Sometimes – usually, I think, when we are talking about rights and entitlements – we are trying to achieve equality; everyone gets the same. And sometimes – particularly when dealing with resources and actions – we are aiming for equity; everyone gets what they need.

We are always, though, aiming to achieve justice.

Our duty to achieve the entitlement to education for those identified as having special educational needs and/or disabilities is also our duty to achieve justice for a group who have been marginalised, disadvantaged and discriminated against and continue to be so.

Imagine, now, that there are three classes of thirty students in each – high, middle and low ability – and three equally experienced and successful teachers. It is okay, and necessary for the example to work, to make some assumptions about these three classes; where are the children likely to be most independent? Require the most support? What assumptions would you make about the behaviour in these three classes? Where would you expect to find students with EHCPs? With TAs? With additional literacy and numeracy added in as alternatives to the standard timetable? Each one of these three classes being taught by one of the three available teachers is equality but, realistically, does it provide every student with what they need in order to achieve their entitlement to a high quality education? You could put a TA into the lowest ability class to support an individual, subgroup within the class, or to help out with the class as a whole. One, or more, of the students – for either learning or behavioural reasons – could be withdrawn for extra literacy, numeracy or other intervention with TAs, HLTAs, or maybe a SENCo, in a SEND or inclusion department/area somewhere else in the school. But, if we are all agreed that ‘education’ looks a certain way – qualified teachers, certain subjects (i.e. EBacc) and schools divided into specialist areas – then removing a student from this (either physically or by buffering their access to it in situ) isn’t even maintaining their equality, never mind equity and certainly not justice.

How could these three classes, with the same budget (allowing for three teachers), be taught in a more equitable way? You could, for example, teach the higher and middle ability groups together with one teacher, and give both of the other teachers to the lower ability group. This would facilitate either 1:1 or small group intervention, or having two smaller groups, without compromising those students’ access to the agreed components of a high quality education. Another option would be to teach all three groups as one big group, lecture style, and have the two remaining teachers providing 1:1 and small group intervention and support to any student who needs it. No one being taught by non-specialists or non-teachers and no one being removed from the knowledge hub; this, I believe, is equity.

EEvNB

But is it justice? Is it enough?

For now, I think it will have to be. Curriculum and assessment, Ofsted and league tables mean that the barriers are there whether we like it or not – equal or equitable distribution of resources is the option that we have. That, however, doesn’t mean that we accept the current situation as the best we can do… it just means that we make the most of the current situation whilst on our journey to true justice for those who currently continue to be disadvantaged.

The second version of the ‘equality versus equity’ image I have included (below) as food for thought only!

EEvR

Splitting Hairs (part 1)

I recently received the following comment (about my blogpost, God Damn It, You’ve Got To Be Kind) on Twitter:

NiceVKind

I never said ‘nice’; I said ‘kind’. They are not the same thing! I argued my case and was accused of splitting hairs… but it does matter; sometimes, it will be appropriate to be nice and, at other times, less so.

You must always be kind.

Nice (adjective): pleasing; agreeable; delightful; amiably pleasant; kind.

Kind (adjective): of a good or benevolent nature of disposition, as a person; having, showing, or proceeding from benevolence.

Sometimes, the nicest thing – the thing that will be most pleasing and agreeable to the other – is not the kindest thing. Sometimes, the kindest thing – the most benevolent and good thing – will not be very nice, pleasant or agreeable. For example, letting a student doodle in their book instead of getting on with their work might be nice, but it is not kind; it will not help them grow and learn. Telling them to stop is the right thing to do, even if it isn’t pleasing or agreeable for them in that moment. It can, of course, be done in a nicer or less nice way. You could shout something sarcastic across the classroom, humiliating them in front of their friends and peers; “Oi! You’re aiming for an A* in GCSE timewasting, are you!?’ Or, you could subtly gesture of give them a quiet 1:1 message; ‘Your last homework was fantastic, you’re really improving. Let’s keep that up, eh?’ Getting picked up on an unwanted behaviour is never, no matter how it is done, going to be a nice experience for the student even though it is the kindest thing to do in terms of their learning and development. And, of course, nice and kind often overlap. This doesn’t mean that they are the same.

I think this, fairly subtle, difference between the meanings of ‘nice’ and ‘kind’ is particularly crucial when thinking about our students who experience their education through the filter of inclusion.

Are our students who are identified as SEND more susceptible to being treated with niceness, rather than kindness, than our non-SEND students? Does this explain why they are very often given the easier option – easier for them and easier for us – instead of being subject to the same high expectations as their peers?

Education – both academic and to become a good citizen – is a child’s right. For them to achieve this, we have to be kind; the kindest thing to do is to facilitate them to obtain their right to education and successful adulthood. To achieve this, sometimes we will need to be firm, sometimes there will need to be consequences, sometimes we will need to nurture them and sometimes we will just need to tell them stuff. Sometimes we will need to be nice. But what if, without being conscious of it, we don’t see education as a right for some children? What if, for some children, we see their right as the right to be included and that’s enough?

An underlying problem with our current approach to inclusion is that we don’t see education as a right for children with additional needs; we see inclusion as their right. And this enables us to be nice and to take the easier option when, really, the kindest thing to do… and the thing that will achieve them their true entitlement; a great education… would be to subject all students to the same high expectations, rigour and standards (the standards we have agreed constitute a good education – the curriculum, QTS, school systems and structures) as each other.

This is, maybe, why our students identified as SEND can be taught primarily by people who don’t have the qualifications or quality assurances we have identified as a necessary aspect of ensuring a child’s right to a quality education. It is why, after designing schools and systems aimed at ensuring a child’s access to their right to an education, we place our children with additional needs just outside of these systems, in SEND or inclusion areas, outside of our expectations for behaviour and for progress, and sometimes even away from their entitlement to a diverse and full curriculum including enhancements such as trips.  And, because for them we are directing our efforts at ensuring they are included and not necessarily educated, we celebrate inclusion instead of education as a success. Instead of judging a school’s inclusiveness on how many of their SEND students make or exceed expected progress or go on to be happy, successful, contributing adults (This can, of course, take many forms! However, having a job that you enjoy, pays the bills, and enables you to contribute to society, is a good way to do it. Less than 1 in 5 learning disabled adults are in employment, and only half of disabled adults overall.) they are judged on how many TAs they’ve got or how big their SEND or inclusion area is. Having a SEND/inclusion area where TAs and the SENCo provide extra literacy and numeracy and vulnerable students can escape to might be nice but, based on statistical and anecdotal evidence of ‘included’ students as adults, it isn’t kindest. It isn’t enabling them to access their right to a great education and a fulfilling and contributing adulthood. Inclusion is the practical manifestation of bringing a more diverse range of abilities and needs into an education system that wasn’t designed with them in mind and, until we redesign education to work for every child, we will continue to let children down, no matter how nice we are being to them.

END OF PART 1.

TA, or not TA; part 2

So, there’s been some new research and it shows that TAs can add value, in terms of progress, for an individual or small group. But let’s not get carried away now, eh!?

To start with, this is not new information; didn’t we already know that a great TA can add value to the learning experience of some our most vulnerable students? There is, of course, such a thing as a great TA. One who has knowledge, expertise and experience, and supports in such a way that their student(s) develop independence, resilience and social skills. The problem is that this isn’t consistent, or even common, because TAs are not subject to the same baseline expectation or accountability as a teacher. The problem is that TAs are placed with our most vulnerable learners – the very children who will require their academic experience to be held to account to the highest degree if they are to be successful – and that this enables teachers who have not been given sufficient training or accountability for SEND at ITT/NQT to outsource responsibility, at least to an extent, for some of their students. The problem is that, if we attribute a value to pedagogical knowledge and training, then all learners should have equal and unbuffered access to it. The problem is at the societal and systemic level – our approach to meeting special educational needs in school reveals our attitude towards disability in society – not with individual TAs; the most effective are just undervalued and underpaid teachers, the least effective have not been given the training, expectation or pay to allow us to expect any different.

The reality is, however, that TA support is the way that students with additional needs are able to access a mainstream school right now, so any evidence that gives us strategies  to get the most out of that approach has got to be a good thing. For our lowest ability and most vulnerable children to be successful right now, it is crucial that the current system is used to its full potential… but that doesn’t mean that we accept this system as the best we can offer our students.

There’s some new research, but there are questions to be asked about it and how it fits into the bigger picture of SEND education and education as a whole, and whether it can enable us to move on from seeing these two things as separate entities.

Just how positive is this research?

Consider this quote from the article on the Education Endowment Foundation’s website:

The latest research, however, shows that when TAs are used in a focused way – to deliver structured, high-quality support to small groups or individual children – pupils make an additional two to four months progress.

Actually, across the two studies there were some students who made an additional six months progress… and that’s got to be a good thing (although it would be nice to see some equivalent data from a control group), but is it the best quality provision we can offer? Does it tell us what our vulnerable learners can achieve when they receive an equitable  – equal quality, and each child getting what they need – education alongside their more resilient peers? It might be a good way to maximise the impact of TAs, but that doesn’t mean that the use of TAs is the best option available.

How useful, reliable, and generalisable is this research?

The following information about the research is taken from the Guardian article written by Sally Weale and published on Friday 26th February 2016.

The first of the two studies looked at the impact of TAs teaching small groups of nursery and reception age children about topics such as time and what to wear, and isn’t very generalisable to my own mainstream secondary setting. The second study, however, is much more directly comparable:

In the second trial, a targeted reading support programme…,  TAs were used to improve the reading skills of struggling readers in year seven and eight in secondary schools, with one-to-one sessions focused on reading loud three times a week for 20 weeks [5 months].

Pupils made the equivalent of four months’ additional progress, but those who took part in a version with a greater focus on language comprehension made six months’ progress.

Again, any additional progress has got to be a good thing,but that doesn’t mean that it’s the best thing. At my own school, all students are required to carry a book at all times, which they can read in moments of potential downtime (i.e., waiting for their daily assembly, morning meeting, to start) as well as for pleasure at break times et cetera if they want. Additionally, students ‘drop everything and read’ for 30 minutes every day. This is done in groups of around 18 students, with their adviser (like a form tutor, and always a teacher), and also includes opportunities to read aloud, read 1:1 with the adviser, to be read to, do comprehension tasks, write reviews and other activities. It is non-segregatory – the least able student is subject to the same high expectations as the most able, and the most able have the same level of support and individualisation as the least able; what they need and when they need it – and what’s more, it isn’t a one off injection of support; a little boost to create a leap froward in what is likely to have been (and continue to be) a lifelong literacy need. Our approach instills an independence, autonomy and habit (and, hopefully, a love!) of reading that will have a long term and ongoing impact on their progress, even beyond school and into their adulthood. Our students make, on average, one month additional progress for each month they age, although there have been examples of students making 4+ years reading age progress in one school year.

Finally, it’s probably best to include this quote from the Guardian article as well:

The evaluation of the study expressed reservations about these findings, however, because the trial was smaller than expected and had to be phased because of delays recruiting schools. there were also concerns that almost 30% of pupils did not complete all of the tests at the end of the project.

Whilst TAs remain the go-to option for supporting children with additional needs in mainstream schools, and moving forward from that seems barely even visible on the horizon so, for the time being at least, it’s important that we get the best out of the approach that we can. I’m just not sure that this research is helpful in achieving educational equity for all children. All the time we continue to persuade ourselves that use of TAs is good enough for our most vulnerable learners we are also reassuring ourselves that a segregated approach is okay, that less progress is okay, that lower employment rates as adults are okay, and that children with additional needs are somehow different; they don’t need a teacher.

We already knew, didn’t we, that when a TA is used ‘in a focused way’, and when they’re ‘delivering structured, high-quality support’, they have more impact than TAs who are used in an unfocused and unstructured way to deliver low-quality support. The headline, ‘teaching assistants improve pupils’ results, studies show’, belies the small scale, questionable quality and fairly minimal impact of the studies but provides a further setback in achieving true equity in education for our most vulnerable students.

There is no such thing as SEND and non-SEND children, there are only children.

All children will be enabled to thrive and succeed when we stop seeing and providing for them by category and start meeting their needs as unique individuals who all deserve the same high expectations, high quality and rigorous accountability, and all deserve the same level of individualisation, nurture and support.

So, still ‘no TA’.

https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/news/teaching-assistants-improve-pupils-results-studies-show/

http://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/feb/26/teaching-assistants-improve-pupils-results-studies-show