Not-So Special NeedsJune 10, 2007
When talking about SEN (Special Educational Needs) it’s hard to resist talking about the nonsense regarding “behavioural needs” first. Badly behaved children are seen as having “a condition”, often some kind of autism, rather than a moral weakness. Lots of attention and special treatment is seen as the only cure. Children who don’t fit in (perhaps they are more intelligent or well-behaved than the school is used to) can also be judged to be suffering from a form of autism. At Woodrow Wilson School I received the following advice about an “autistic” child:
“Jonathan likes a quiet, calm classroom. Tell him what the rules are. Explain things to him clearly.”
What a freak! Fancy not wanting to be confronted with chaos in class, unknown rules and unclear instructions. Generally any child who notices the rioting in their school and the fact that many of their teachers talk rubbish (or any child shows any other sign of sanity and judgement) is likely to be labelled as being on the Autistic Spectrum. If they are good at maths and like playing chess then it’s almost guaranteed.
However, besides the mad and the bright, there are also students who genuinely have educational needs. There are students with physical disabilities and students who are generally disturbed or actually autistic. In most schools there are a significant number of children whose basic literacy and numeracy skills are years behind where they should be. These children are normally classed as having learning difficulties. Mixed ability teaching helps ensure that these less able students are likely to get further and further behind as they experience lesson after lesson pitched at too high a level that contribute nothing to their educational needs. Of course the main help these students need is extra tuition in the basic skills which they are lacking.
Schools have plenty of resources (usually whole departments) to help with SEN students. Unfortunately a large part of these resources seem dedicated to the production of paperwork that does nobody any good. The belief seems to be that describing needs casts a spell that will cause them to be met. Other resources are spent on teaching assistants, helpers for students in lessons. Some resources are spent where they can do most good – on teaching. How much SEN teaching there is varies greatly between schools.
The Metropolitan School organises the timetable to provide extra numeracy and literacy lessons, all taught in the same classroom with the same teacher, who would also teach them for the scheduled Maths and English lessons. The teachers who taught these classes had usually trained in primary and as far as I could tell seemed to do a very effective job, although having ten hours or more with the same class took its toll on some of them. They seemed particularly prone to leaving the school.
Stafford Grove School used to withdraw students from randomly and inconveniently selected subjects, in order to attend extra lessons. When they were taken out of PSHE or mixed ability languages lessons it was probably good for all concerned. When they were taken out of a subject they liked and could do it was a disaster. Very often the students would refuse to go, and would attend their regularly scheduled lesson instead. The usual response from the SEN department was to give up trying to withdraw that child. It is at this point that the difference between regular teaching and SEN teaching becomes clear. If a student didn’t want to attend my lesson I would be stuck with them regardless of their unwillingness and regardless of whether I would be glad to be shot of them. However the SEN teachers could actually refuse to help the unwilling kids. They would actually say things like “I’ll help somebody who wants to be helped” as if teaching somebody to read and write was an optional extra the school only threw on for the most deserving.
Woodrow Wilson School had the worst system of all. They also withdrew students, but instead of withdrawing them from whole lessons, they would be taken out for twenty minutes every couple of weeks. Anybody who has ever been a teacher will be aware that a student who misses twenty minutes of a lesson (plus the time takes to walk between classrooms) will inevitably lose out or more than twenty minutes of their education as they will have trouble keeping up with work where they’ve missed key points or instructions. Consequently entire lessons were effectively lost, often in core subjects like Maths and English, for the sake of twenty minutes of tuition. As you can imagine this system was neither popular nor effective.
It’s hard not to conclude that the best way to help students with learning difficulties is to put them in their own classes, to make sure the extra help they get is part of the schools’ regular timetable, and to ensure that SEN teachers are teaching proper lessons with SEN students rather than just providing optional extras. Unfortunately the current orthodoxy is that these students need to be “included”, integrated as much as possible with their more able peers, rather than being given the most appropriate help. After all, if you start giving students special lessons, special time tables and special teachers, it’s a very short step to giving them special schools.