Archive for September, 2010


Total Eclipse of the SEN

September 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.



What I Didn’t Say During the INSET day on Special Educational Needs

September 10, 2010

To begin our INSET day we were directed to sit in departmental groups and given details of an origami model to make.

“What do you think the learning objective of this activity is?” we were asked.

“To make a paper model.”

“To work effectively as a group.”

“Excellent. What does ‘working effectively as a group’ mean?”

“It means everybody takes a turn and plays a part.”

“Yes, that’s right.”

What I didn’t say: “But that’s ridiculous. Effectiveness is to do with achieving your aims. How many people play a part is entirely different to whether people play that part effectively. The group might be at its most effective if only the most effective people contribute”.

Then we got on with our folding. The SENCO started shouting at the teachers at one of the tables, saying things which seemed to suggest he was motivated by sheer despair and hatred. I put my head down and ignored it. After a few minutes we were stopped and told the origami and teamwork was just a ploy, we were actually going to talk about dealing with SEN children.

“Did anyone think that argument was real?” asked the SENCO.

No hands went up.

“How did it make you feel? How would it make you feel if you were a child in a classroom when something like that happened?”

What I didn’t say: “Patronised”.

“Scared of the teacher.”

“Scared to ask for help.”

“Yes that’s right.”

What I didn’t say: “You do get that most arguments in classrooms are started by students? Are you aware that in year 9 there are several boys who start shouting at you the moment you ask them to work or to stop chatting with their friends? If you ask them to be quiet, or tell them why they need to work, they shout even more. If you try to punish one of them then he’ll pull out a card saying he has permission to go to the SENCO if he feels stressed. Those boys have become unteachable and it is your fault. Sometimes they look for some kind of excuse for the argument, like claiming they are picked on. A lot of the time they don’t even bother; the other day I had two of them go off at once because I told them I’d be looking to see how much work they had done at the end of the lesson.”

“Quite often, when a teacher shouts at an SEN student it is because the student hasn’t actually understood what they were supposed to do”.

What I didn’t say: “They have a legion of teaching assistants to do their work for them in this school. What’s to understand?”

After a few more attempts to blame the teachers the main speaker arrived. He was a “behaviour expert” who worked for the Local Authority. After a quick explanation of what challenging behaviour he asked us to discuss in groups and write down what students do to annoy us. Lots of sensible suggestions (talking out of turn, throwing, refusing to work etc.) were suggested.

What I didn’t say: “I know what behaviour most annoys me: Pulling out a card saying they can leave the room if they are challenged about their behaviour or effort”.

Then we were asked to do a similar exercise about what we do to wind up the students.

Answers were along the lines of:

“Telling them off when somebody else is also misbehaving.”

“Not praising their work.”

“Not explaining clearly what they have to do.”

“Giving them work that’s too difficult.”

What I didn’t say:

“Asking them to sit down.”

“Asking them to work.”

“Enforcing the rules.”

“What you need to understand is that behaviour is only the tip of the iceberg. The behaviour is just the symptom. The rest of the iceberg, below the water, is the cause of the behaviour. Their frustrations. Their poor social skills. Their home situation.”

What I didn’t say: “This is a model for natural phenomena, not the choices of human beings. We don’t have ‘causes’ we have motives: things that make us want to do bad things.  And all human beings have motives to do wrong, they aren’t caused by social or medical deficiencies, they are just part of what it is to be human. Whether we act on those motives is a question of right and wrong. You have to choose to do what is right and you have to resist temptation to do wrong. How are they going to do this if we act as if their choices are symptoms of an underlying condition beyond their control?”

“We should ask ourselves if their behaviour prevents them from doing anything else. Whether it causes damage or danger. Whether it causes distress to the individual themselves or harm to others. If the answer is no, then why try to change it?”

What I didn’t say: “Because we are not isolated atomised individuals; whatever one child is allowed to do will be copied by other children. Whatever is acceptable will become normal. Whatever is normal they will continue to do out in the real world. This will cost them opportunities in life. If we tell them that rules are not to be followed unless there is an immediate, obvious harm caused by breaking them, then by the time they try to enter the workplace they by adulthood they will be unemployable and probably criminal.”

“The important thing is to judge the behaviour not the child.”

What I didn’t say: “If you are saying that we should not write off any kid as irredeemably evil then fair enough. But you cannot separate a person from their behaviour.  From the point of view of other human beings we are our behaviour. That’s all we see of other people’s minds, their external behaviour. To treat somebody as if their behaviour is not part of who they are is to treat them as a machine not a human being.  Human beings get to shape their own behaviour, and it would be downright dangerous to tell them they are not responsible for what they do.”

“Now let’s talk about body language.”

What I didn’t do: Pull out a card saying I could leave.

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