Total Eclipse of the SENSeptember 19, 2010
Sometimes, it feels like the people commenting on this blog are the only sane people in an insane system. Sometimes, it feels like the press, public and politicians will never pick up on what is going on in our schools. Sometimes, I feel like nobody even believes me when I tell them about it. This feeling has often afflicted me most greatly when discussing SEN.
Anybody raised in the era of Children In Need and Noel’s Christmas Presents will have an instinctive tendency to equate compassion primarily with helping disabled or seriously ill children. It is so much a part of the emotional software of the British people that it is hard to have any kind of discussion about what might, or might not, benefit disabled children without provoking in people an instinctive desire to show how compassionate they are. Debate about Special Educational Needs shows this tendency in full, if you do not support the most expensive, extravagant, inclusive and emotive ideas about SEN then you are clearly some kind of borderline Nazi who would have had Helen Keller strangled at birth. Competitive compassion is the name of the game and anybody who asks questions like “Is that really a disability?” or “Does that actually help anybody?” must be a sociopath who thinks “A Christmas Carol” should have ended with Scrooge going over to Bob Cratchit’s house and giving Tiny Tim a good kicking. No matter how many times you point out that only a tiny proportion of SEN students have physical disabilities and that most have a “hidden” disability, conceived as a position on a spectrum, diagnosed by observing their behaviour, debate tends to continue as if the SEN racket is focused on the blind, the deaf and the lame. Heaven forbid that anyone mention that most of the children on the SEN register in their school have never been seen by a doctor for their supposed disorders, and, anecdotally, many of those who have, did so only as part of a scam to become eligible for disability benefits.
That’s not to say nobody ever challenged the orthodoxy. There was a ripple of interest when the system’s designer disowned it. The Education Select Committee also declared that the system was “demonstrably no longer fit for purpose”. But the most high profile attempts to challenge the educational ideology were from people from far outside the educational mainstream. Peter Hitchens’ entertaining rants about ADHD in the Daily Mail were never likely to change anything when he was known for supporting fringe causes that can’t be taken seriously, like Creationism, climate change denial or the Church of England. That something was deeply wrong with SEN seemed to be known to most teachers but the educational establishment would never admit it.
Times appear to have changed. I was surprised a few months back when the Guardian published a letter about people seeking fraudulent diagnoses that previously would have been the sort of thing that only appeared in the Mail. I was more amazed when Francis Gilbert, a journalist and teacher, wrote this for the Telegraph. A surprise given that Gilbert had in the past been willing to act as an apologist for our failing schools system, (most noticeably here, accusing Frank Chalk of hating children and describing Alan Steer as “heroic”). Attitudes were clearly changing.
This week though, incredibly, OFSTED has discovered what is going on. Their latest report tells us about a failing and ineffective system. That OFSTED could find the system flawed and found reason to blame poor teaching is not a shock. OFSTED always do this sort of thing. If you asked OFSTED to investigate the cause of the First World War, they’d blame poor teaching and a failure to monitor outcomes. What is a shock is that OFSTED has correctly identified what is wrong with the system.
It has been noticed that children are being labelled with SEN for no good reason. OFSTED’s investigation found that half of the students on the School Action lists shouldn’t be there. Not a shock to teachers who have seen dubious diagnoses multiplying (well, perhaps it is a shock that it is only half) but for the inspectors to blow the whistle on this is delightful. The report also observes that even for students with genuine disabilities the interventions are often ineffective due to being inappropriate, or poor quality, or both. They found “evidence that the way the system is currently designed contributes to these problems”. In fact without actually saying “it’s all a load of paperwork that does nobody any good” they managed to point out that for outside support “[t]oo often, the agencies focused simply on whether a service was or was not being provided rather than whether it was effective” and within schools “the annual review of statements focused on what had been provided for the child or young person rather than on its actual impact”. In a section about special schools the use of worthless targets was described: “Without any internal or external benchmarking, using these targets to judge whether children or young people were making good progress was extremely subjective.”
And so there we have it. The SEN Racket widely identifies disabilities which don’t exist and plans interventions which don’t actually work and this is supported by a system based around piles of paperwork which do nobody any good.