Archive for February, 2010


Inclusion and the Special Needs Racket

February 27, 2010

Some months back, I met the education spokesperson from the opposition group of my local council. Naturally, I mentioned that, of all the policies pursued locally, inclusion was the most disastrous.

“No,” she assured me, “All the evidence shows that students with special needs are better off in mainstream schools.” Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to enquire what evidence.

Now, every so often I get into a discussion online about inclusion. Examples include here, here and (now) here . (Please note the calmness, good humour and respect for the opinions of teachers shown by the pro-inclusion side). I have also talked about this issue in a number of blog posts such as here , here and here.

To sum up: the disaster that is inclusion has seen many children who are unwilling or unable to learn forced onto our schools. The main provision for this extra responsibility has been the special needs racket, the process in which a huge amount of paperwork is generated and children are labelled with medical or psychological conditions they usually don’t have by people with no medical or psychological training. Students are routinely selected for labelling if they are badly behaved, academically weak or have pushy parents. Sometimes (for instance in the case of ADHD) we can’t even be certain the conditions exist in any real way, rather than as a list of behaviours which may be caused by a multitude of different factors including deliberate choice by a student to act in a particular way.

Once the system is in operation most effort appears to go into maintaining mountains of paperwork. However, SEN staff also organise and teach withdrawal lessons, support students in lessons, interfere with teachers (particularly over discipline) and generally find ways to lavish attention on students, particularly the badly behaved. In my experience it doesn’t seem to help students with genuine needs and in many respects it does amount to spoiling and encouraging the badly behaved. Every teacher I know has a story of horrific stupidity by an interfering SENCO or SEN teacher, often involving appalling behaviour being excused.

Anyway, the reason I am returning to this subject is that I have recently become aware of some of the research into the issue. It had been known for quite a long time that the more inclusive a school was (i.e. the more SEN students, statemented or unstatemented, a school had) the worse its GCSE results would be (Lunt, 1999). However this correlation could always be explained away as it did not look at the results of SEN students in particular or consider value-added results. After several years the government actually commissioned some research (Dyson, 2004) which considered more detailed data. A group of academics used data from the National Pupil Database from 2002 and used advanced statistical techniques (multi-variable regression analyses and multi-level modelling, for all you geeks) to identify the effects of inclusion on attainment.  They looked for any effect “inclusivity” (i.e. the proportion of students with SEN) had on Average Point Scores in the various key stage exams. They considered three categories of students. Those without SEN, those with SEN but not statemented for it, and those statemented for SEN.

They found that for Value Added (in this case calculated as the difference between a student’s APS score and what would be expected from a student with their prior attainment):

“At KS 2 the analysis suggests that, as school inclusivity increases one unit (in percentages), a school’s average pupil VA score decreases by 0.018.
At KS 3 the analysis suggests that, as school inclusivity increases one unit (in percentages), a school’s average pupil VA score decrease by 0.111.
At KS 4 the analysis suggests that as, school inclusivity increases one unit (in percentages), a school’s average pupil VA scores decrease by 0.026.” page 137

And for Average Point Scores:

At Key Stage 1:

“It appears that the effect of increasing a school’s inclusivity has a negative effect on APS scores and this effect is more pronounced for pupils with statements.” page 143

At Key Stage 2:

“there is a strong relationship between a school’s inclusivity measure and its APS score…It appears that the effect of increasing a school’s inclusivity has a negative effect on APS scores and this effect is slightly more pronounced for pupils with statements.” pages 145-6

At Key Stage 3:

“there is a strong relationship between a school’s inclusivity measure and its APS score…It appears that the effect of increasing a school’s inclusivity has a detrimental effect on APS scores and this effect is particularly pronounced for pupils with no special needs.”  pages 149-151

At Key Stage 4:

“There is a strong relationship between a school’s inclusivity measure and its GCSE & GNVQ point score. As school inclusivity increases, GCSE & GNVQ point score decreases… It appears that the effect of increasing a school’s inclusivity has a detrimental effect on GCSE & GNVQ particularly for the non-special needs group.” pages 152-155.

It would be nice to think that this would have been written up as definite proof that that inclusion was harmful for all concerned and politicians would have rushed to reverse the policy. But, of course, this was a government report and it is not a good idea to write a report that shows a complete failure of government policy, and so by the time the authors had taken into account case studies, anecdotal evidence, the size (rather than the direction and probability) of the effect and the reasons for inclusion other than academic benefit, they claimed in the Executive Summary that:

“There is nothing in our findings to suggest that the current national commitment to maintain pupils in mainstream schools wherever possible is likely to have a significant impact on overall levels of attainment at national and LEA level, nor that it need have an impact at school level.” page 13.

I found the statements I have quoted above by sifting through Appendices III and IV (the graphs in Appendix IV make things particularly clear). I wonder if any of the education ministers at the time bothered to do that? I only recently discovered the report existed (when it was used as evidence in favour of inclusion) so it clearly hadn’t been shouted about from the rooftops.

The second piece of research I want to bring to your attention is a more recent study. Another government commissioned report looked into the use of teaching assistants. In two waves, data on thousands of students along with observations and surveys were collected and used to see what effect teaching assistants had. On the whole it confirmed what most teachers already knew, they can be helpful to teachers, and improve discipline and atmosphere within a class. However, if we recall that in most schools they are deployed specifically to assist students with SEN then, the effect they have on the achievement of the students they directly support, would tell us a lot about how SEN provision in our schools works. The research found:

“• At Wave 1 and 2 there was there was a consistent negative relationship between staff ratings of the amount of support a pupil received and the progress they made in English and mathematics, and at Wave 2 in science. The more support pupils received, the less progress they made, even after controlling for other factors that might be expected to explain the relationship such as pupils’ prior attainment, SEN status and income deprivation. A similar though less marked trend was found with measures of the amount of support taken from the systematic observation data.

• Further analyses showed that the negative effect of support was not attributable to pupils who were making less attainment progress being allocated more support over the year, and results were not attributable to any bias resulting from missing data.

• There was evidence that unsupported pupils in year 9 made less progress in those classes that had a higher proportion of pupils receiving support.”

Now, there is plenty of other evidence in the report about all the good teaching assistants do. They only fail in one important respect: improving the academic achievement of the students they support.

So, with regards to the policy of inclusion and the special needs racket. We now have large scale statistical evidence that including kids with SEN in mainstream schools has a negative effect on their attainment and a negative effect on the attainment of others without SEN. We also know that the most expensive part of inclusion, the employment of large numbers of teaching assistants (116,000 more since 1997 according to the party of government) to support students in lessons actually only harms the achievement of SEN pupils. Now these are the government’s own studies, coming up with hard data that shows that the policy of inclusion and the special needs racket are harming the achievement of the very children it was meant to be helping. This is not a surprise to those of us who have seen it causing this harm right in front of us. We can see that more and more kids with SEN in the mainstream lowers expectations. We can see that some of the students who have received the most support through the deployment of teaching assistants have become helpless to the point where they won’t pick up a pen without asking for help first. The question is: will any politician, of any party, have the courage to say this disastrous policy isn’t working and bring it to an end?


Blatchford, P., Bassett, P., Brown, P., Koutsoubou, M., Martin, C., Russell, A. and Webster, R. with Rubie-Davies, C.. Deployment and Impact of Support Staff in Schools: the Impact of Support Staff in Schools (Results from Strand 2, Wave 2). 2009

Dyson, A., Farrell, P., Polat, F., Hutcheson, G., & Gallannaugh, F. Inclusion and pupil achievement (Research Report RR578), 2004

Lunt, I., & Norwich, B. Can effective schools be inclusive schools?, 1999.


Parental Choice Revisited

February 17, 2010

Not so long ago I posted about the Tory plans for “freeing up” the education system.  I do think that the Tories have been saying some fairly sensible things about what is wrong with our education system when it comes to dumbing down or discipline so it is deeply concerning that their actual policies seem to be based on ideological dogma about markets rather than the more obvious option of, well, actually doing something to solve the problems. My objection was that no amount of talk of Sweden as an example will actually make it plausible that schools will improve drastically simply by trying to encourage more competition and diversity in a system which is far more competitive and diverse than so many other countries.

Anyway, debate has moved on. Firstly, questions are being asked about whether Sweden is a model worth copying:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “BBC News – Newsnight – Can Sweden rea…“, posted with vodpod

For balance, here is Gove’s response:

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more about “BBC News – Newsnight – Gove defends T…“, posted with vodpod

More importantly, we are beginning to see who the Tories think will come and do their job for them if they were to be elected. The answer appears to be “any idiot with a pet theory”. One in particular stands out. The actress Goldie Hawn runs what appears to be an educational charity with some crank ideas. So mad are they that even the Daily Mail are happy to criticise the Tories for this. More detail is available from Kelvin Throop in a blog post that I wish I’d written, which I’ll represent here:

I have been somewhat critical of education policy under the current Government but compared with what the opposition have planned, Labour are sane and clear thinkers.

That’s right. The Tories are planning on taking education advice from a Hollywood actress who has a scheme for controlling aggression by breathing excercises and meditation dreamt up while she was on holiday. I wondered what research backed up her system. Google found me this:

In 2005, leading researcher Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, Associate Professor of Education at University of British Columbia, received a grant from the The Hawn Foundation to conduct a pilot research study on MindUP (TM), developed by the The Hawn Foundation and author Nancy Fischer…The studies used rigorous scientific design, including a randomized control trial, to test the program’s effectiveness. One study also explored the program’s implementation, helping to refine the curriculum design. Ongoing longitudinal studies will evaluate the impact of MindUPTM over time.

Study Results
The studies found that children who participated in MindUPTM, compared to children who did not, showed significant improvements on all four dimensions of teacher-rated school behaviors, including:

Attentional control
Decrease in aggression
Decrease in behavioral dysregulation
Increase in self-esteem
Increase in pro-social behavior such as sharing
Increase in social-emotional competence
Program effects were also found for self-reported optimism, self concept, reflection, and mindful awareness attention. The positive emotional benefits were strongest for girls and/or younger children.

“Rigorous scientific design” sounds good, as do the claimed results. Although the “self-reported” optimism etc. sounds a bit subjective.

The actual research is summarised here.

The research design is described as:

Quasi-experimental, pretest, posttest, control group design

The first study consisted of 246 4th to 7th grade children in 12 classes, 6 classes received the Mindfulness Education (ME) program and 6 control classes did not. The classes were matched for age, ethnicity, gender and social background. The participants filled in questionaires before and after so that changes in social and emotional understading etc. could be assessed.

There is no mention of randomisation, so it would be perfectly possible for the worst performing kids to be assigned to the control groups. Likewise, there is no blinding, so this could influence the researchers interpretation of results.

A series of papers that resulted from this research are listed. All but one are conference presentations ie not peer-reviewed. The remaining one, Promoting optimism and well-being in school-aged children: Initial findings from the “Mindfulness Education” program by K.A. Schonert-Reichl and M.S. Lawler was, as of December 2008, being prepared for publication in Psychology in the Schools.

I had a look on that journal’s website and inputted “Schonert-Reichl” into the author field of the search function. Precisely 0 papers were found.

The second study involved 99 4th and fifth graders assigned to 4 classes, 2 ME and 2 control. This one is a randomised control trial ie the researchers should have no influence over whether a particular student is assigned to an ME or control class. However, we are not told what randomisation technique is used so we do not know whether it was adequate. Furthermore, once more no mention of blinding is made, so when the researchers are assessing the results they will know whether a kid was in the conrol or ME group. The results of this study are still being written up for publication.

There is thus no peer-reviewed evidence and indeed no sound science at all supporting this program.

Now if only the alternative to all this was someone more credible than Ed Balls…


Childish Things

February 9, 2010

“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” 1 Corinthians 13:11

So …

What are they like?

I’m not asking what the children I teach are like. I’m not asking what the worst of the children I teach are like. I’m not asking about what our battleground schools make kids into, although I will talk about that later. I’m asking about the qualities we can expect in children in general, the qualities we’d have to fight hard to suppress, the qualities which just seem to appear naturally.

We can begin with the fact that children are, for want of a politer word, ignorant. They don’t know as much as they will when they are older. This is convenient for those of us in the teaching profession because we can do something about this. We can tell them the things they don’t yet know, the thoughts that they haven’t yet had. As long as there are adults who know significantly more than children there will always be a point to the existence of teachers. It is a tragedy when students are subjected to teachers who don’t know more than they do. To quote Oakeshott (1972) : “an ignorant teacher is a contradiction”.

This means children are constantly discovering new things. Curiosity is a way of life. Children will touch a hot plate just to check that it really is hot. They are living a life that nobody has lived before which is not predestined to go in one way or another. They are not trapped in the same narrow paths of most adults. They have a freedom to change their minds and change their lives that adults don’t have. They can remake themselves in the image of the best of what they see around them. They constantly encounter, or come up with, new ideas, or at least ideas which are new to them. Children are effortlessly creative when they want to be, although they often don’t want to be. They are also constantly changing. You never really know what they are going to be like in three year’s time. Children try on opinions like some people try on shoes. They will constantly express an opinion just to see what happens, how it goes down, how it makes them feel. There is no point telling a child not to rush to judgement, but you can rest assured that their opinions will change in a second and, as children are no more saintly than other human beings, this will often simply mean adopting and expressing selfish positions that an adult would be less ready to express in public.

Finally, children are social creatures. If you put them with their peers (and that is the basis of our education system) then they will do what their peers do. They look at each other constantly for approval. They are obsessed with finding their own position in the hierarchy and joining the appropriate gang. They cooperate instantly, often on the basis of the smallest of signals, from the dominant personalities in their social circle. If children have known each other for more than a few weeks then they will know who is king, who is a potential usurper, who is a kingmaker and who is a serf. When classrooms are strict enough to disrupt the organisation of the students and replace it with the organisation of the teacher it is a genuine liberation for many of the students.

Now I mention these things for a reason. I mention them because it makes it clearer when educational ideas are based on child worship. If children are to be worshipped as gods then you will inevitably try and make children more like children rather than more like adults. So to begin with, ignorance will not be challenged. Content will be removed from the curriculum. Experts will lose their authority and children will practise their “skills” rather than acquire knowledge. Any actual content that children are to learn will be left for them to “discover”. This might not be an efficient way to gain information, or a way to ensure that what they learn is reliable, but it is certainly the most childlike way. Additionally, attempts will be made to encourage those qualities that children already have in abundance like curiosity and creativity. Those activities that come most naturally to children, like working in groups, using new technology or expressing opinions will become part of the curriculum. Children will be left to act in line with their own nature, as if human nature was something that can be trusted as a guide. Even the most selfish desires will become respected as genuine wants or needs to be met, and children will be left to think that their own conclusions on any moral question, no matter how obviously self-centred, are to be respected. The child worshipper will demand that children be taught to “think for themselves” as if that wasn’t the default position of any child. The adult world will withdraw from the world of the child and “normal relations between children and adults, arising from the fact that people of all ages are always simultaneously together in the world, are … broken off” (Arendt, 1961).

In other words this is where we are: the insanity of progressive education. We are trapped with a failed experiment, which is never abandoned only reinvented, in which we attempt to remake the future in an image of the imaginary, innocent perfect child and instead recoil to discover we have only created adults who retain all the vices of childhood. That is what our system does best: it stunts development. Young adults, who in other cultures would have jobs and a responsible position within their family, act like children. Sometimes, as a teacher you have a sudden moment of realisation when you realise that the child in front of you having a tantrum because they aren’t getting their way is sixteen not six. We have left the formation of new adults to a system in the hands of people who don’t believe in adulthood and we are paying the price.


Arendt, Hannah, Between Past and Future, 1961

Oakeshott, Michael, Education: The Engagement and its Frustration, 1972

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