Children are human beings, not labels

December 17, 2017

I am fascinated by the way politics interacts with education. Often what politicians ask for is distorted beyond all recognition at the implementation phase. One example of this was the 1997 Labour manifesto, it promised “We will encourage the use of the most effective teaching methods, including phonics for reading and whole class interactive teaching for maths” and yet while the government made some short-lived progress in maths, a report found in 2006 that the evidence on phonics was still being widely ignored. A bigger issue under that government was behaviour. The 1997 manifesto promised that:

Teachers will be entitled to positive support from parents to promote good attendance and sound discipline. Schools suffer from unruly and disruptive pupils. Exclusion or suspension may sometimes be necessary. We will, however, pilot new pupil referral units so that schools are protected but these pupils are not lost to education or the country.

In practise, behaviour was undermined. And the way it happened was a classic example of how good intentions can be distorted by the education system and turned into something terrible. Labour’s education secretary, David Blunkett, was blind and in his youth had an unpleasant experience of a school for the blind. He wanted the disabled to be taught in mainstream schools as much as possible. And it was this commitment, that came to be known as “Inclusion” that was used to undermine Labour’s policy on discipline.

By the time I started teaching in 2001, it was already well established that Inclusion meant 2 things. Firstly, that special schools were a bad thing and should generally be run down and only used for children with the most severe problems. Secondly, that if a child was badly behaved they should be kept in lessons and in schools as much as possible. In my second year of teaching a senior figure from the Local Education Authority came to my school and told all the staff there that this academic year there would be no exclusions. That year, order broke down in the school. It was impossible to get any acknowledgement of even some of the most unpleasant behaviour. I have a particularly strong memory of a new teacher being spat on, and nothing happening. I also recall some concerned parents coming in, unable to believe their daughter had called me a dickhead when I asked her to move seats, not because they thought their daughter was incapable of the offence, but because they couldn’t believe she wasn’t excluded for it. When parents come in asking why their children aren’t being punished enough, you know you have a problem.

But what had happened to cause discipline to break down was never intended. A perfectly reasonable desire to include the disabled had been distorted by those who believe that children cannot make bad choices. If you believe that children are natural saints, then all their bad behaviour must have a cause beyond the control of the child. You can blame society; you can blame their teachers, or you can claim that they have some medical, or psychological problem that has to be identified and treated. We went through a period where the standard response to children behaving badly was to try to find a label that fitted their “symptoms” and produce paperwork about how we were dealing with it. This was often done by complete amateurs. In that first school I worked in, an IEP stated that a child might have suspected “Turrets”. In another school I worked in, a SENCo made a provisional diagnosis of “Tourects”. Both children had sworn at teachers repeatedly, and an adult who had heard that Tourette’s Syndrome was a condition related to swearing, but had no idea what Tourette’s Syndrome was or how to spell it, had decided that might be the cause. That’s where we were.

Eventually the tide turned and the policy of Inclusion was abandoned. People started defending special schools, and from 2007 they stopped dying off. A number of different reviews found the SEN system to be bureaucratic and amateurish and concern was widely raised at how many children were being labelled. A government Green Paper stated that:

Although the proportion of pupils with statements of SEN has remained relatively stable over time, there has been a considerable increase in recent years in the number of pupils with SEN without statements,9 from 10 per cent of all pupils in 1995 to 18.2 per cent or 1.5 million pupils in 2010.

There has been a marked increase in certain primary need types of SEN in recent years. For example, the numbers of pupils with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties has increased by 23 per cent between 2005 and 2010, to 158,000 pupils; the number of pupils with speech, language and communication needs
has increased by 58 per cent, to 113,000 pupils; and the number of children with autistic spectrum disorder has increased by 61 per cent, to 56,000 pupils.

Reforms took place. On behaviour, there was a longer fight, but it became a political issue and there was far more acceptance that trying to cover it up in order to avoid exclusions was not the way forward. Exclusions are now rising as schools take behaviour seriously once again. The category “‘behavioural, emotional and social difficulties” which seemed to assume that poor behaviour was a special need was replaced with “Social, emotional and mental health difficulties” and the 2014 Code Of Practice stated clearly that “difficult or withdrawn behaviour does not necessarily mean that a child has SEN”. Some schools do still have a tendency to claim that poor behaviour indicates a special needs, and a high rate of SEN diagnoses among the excluded remain a concern, but things have moved on.

Incredibly though, there is a vocal minority who have still not accepted those changes. Some claim the policy of Inclusion from 10 years ago was never abandoned. There are still consultants out there selling advice on reducing exclusions. No school needs advice on how to do this, it just means tolerating more bad behaviour.  When I wrote a blogpost entitled “What happens when schools don’t permanently exclude?” where teachers described their experience of schools that wouldn’t act when teachers and children were put at danger, I was condemned by a number of educationalists and consultants for letting the truth be known. Reaction to my most popular tweet ever, showed the divide between consultants and those who have to deal with bad behaviour in the classroom.

There is an activist minority, who ignore the fact that the SEND Code Of Practice makes it clear that poor behaviour does not imply SEND, and that if SEND is a causal factor in behaviour that should be identified, not assumed. They claim that as The Equalities Act calls for “reasonable adjustments” for those with disabilities, we must tolerate bad behaviour because we can assume it is caused by SEND. They look towards broad diagnoses like Autistic Spectrum Disorder and claim that almost any school rule is unfair to a theoretic child whose autism stops them behaving. They also argue that almost any demand, no matter how insane, is a reasonable adjustment and, therefore, teachers who disagree are breaking the law. The SEND Code Of Practice, by contrast, is clear, that nothing done to include those with SEND should prevent “the efficient education of others or the efficient use of resources”.

As teachers we have to teach the children in front of us. That means if their behaviour is bad we have to confront that behaviour, not tolerate it on the basis of a label. Children with SEND need boundaries as much as, or sometimes more, than other children. These should be set with love, but set to ensure everyone is safe and able to learn. Clear boundaries work a lot better than fuzzy ones, particularly for children with SEND. There are two things I always remind those who think that the badly behaved actually have SEND and are the victims in all this. The first is that exceptions should be exceptional. We should never abandon the school rules because one, often theoretical child, might be unable to comply. If there is an extraordinary case, it should be treated as extraordinary – all schools and all teachers do that. The second is that behaviour is on a spectrum of seriousness. Those who refuse to draw any lines are, by omission, defending the most horrendous acts. It has been reported that there are 200 rapes in schools in a year. Does any principle justify including rapists in class? Is there a SEND that makes being a rapist okay? If we want children to be safe, they need an environment where no child, whatever their needs, can just do what they want regardless of the consequences.

As a final point, the abuse I have encountered online since my tweet above has been incredible. Those people who label anyone who disagrees with the now abandoned policy of Inclusion as hating children with SEND, should be challenged for their name-calling. My closest friends include two who went to special schools as children and others with SEN. It is not prejudice that makes one view the badly behaved, even those with SEND, as responsible for their behaviour; it is respect for their humanity. And those of us who care about the children we teach with SEND, know that conflating them with the badly behaved, would be a gross insult to some of the most delightful children we work with. Both the badly behaved, and children with SEND, and, of course, children who are both, need the love and support of their teachers and help with specific needs. They don’t need virtue-signalling non-teachers writing them off.



  1. For the first time, I have a little twinge of regret that I don’t tweet–however, I have emailed your little gem to a few teachers I know.
    This said, I don’t think things will ever change so long as educators think in terms of ‘behaviour management’. They use it simply because their ideology won’t allow them to accept the concept of authority. It is assumed that ‘the behaviour belongs to the child’ and that teachers merely need to be skilled enough to ‘manage’ it.
    Happily, there are a lot of heads around who–like Katherine Birbalsingh–have no such qualms. I’ve visited more than my share, simply because good schools are always looking for ways to do things even better. You can always tell the moment you visit such a school for the first time–the receptionist doesn’t have that pre-emptive cringe that comes from confrontation with angry parents or truculent pupils. And you generally discover that they don’t have many SEND pupils–they don’t need excuses for poor academic performance, let alone bad behaviour.
    And of course the irony is that when schools aren’t afraid to exclude, they very seldom need to. Even the junior sociopaths learn to play the game when they find out that their peers are on the teacher’s side. Children vastly prefer an orderly environment where adults are sure of themselves and assume the mantle of authority lightly. Progressives can’t understand this; they associate discipline with the cane. They simply don’t understand that an absence of authority creates a vacuum that demands to be filled.

  2. See there you go being all reasonable and stuff….

  3. A few points:

    1. I agree that perfectly reasonable policies can be so badly implemented they become a thing of horror. This doesn’t impact only on behaviour, but on strategies for enabling all children to learn.

    2. Inclusive education hasn’t been abandoned, so it’s not surprising that people are claiming that. Para 1.26 of the 2015 Code of Practice states:

    “As part of its commitments under articles 7 and 24 of the United Nations Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the UK Government is committed to inclusive education of disabled children and young people and the progressive removal of barriers to learning and participation in mainstream education. The Children and Families Act 2014 secures the general presumption in law of mainstream education in relation to decisions about where children and young people with SEN should be educated and the Equality Act 2010 provides protection from discrimination for disabled people. “

    The part you cited, about the efficient education of others and the efficient use of resources, has been enshrined in law since the 1996 Education Act.

    3. As I see it, most of the problems involving children with SEN, including those you mention, aren’t down to activist minorities or consultants with bees in their bonnets. The problems are largely attributable to teachers in mainstream schools not being trained, and mainstream schools not being resourced, to teach all the children who attend them.

    • Training is utterly beside the point. If you have to learn a lot of tricks and techniques to make pupils behave, you’ve already lost the battle.

      Almost all of my teaching experience is with SEN pupils, and I’ve never had the slightest problem with behaviour. Ninety percent of the battle is keeping kids busy doing tasks set at the right level with constant confirmation that they’ve learnt what you just taught them. Direct instruction, regular tests and competition never fail. However, if teachers insist upon discovery methods or collaborative learning, no amount of training will help them.

      • “Training is utterly beside the point.” And “lost the battle”. Tells us all we need to know.

    • I have a bit of an issue with your last point.
      What would this training look like? Would it not depend on the trainer’s ideology? I teach SEN 16-19 year olds. I frequently have debates about purpose and methods, I believe this is normal.

  4. Well presented arguments as ever Andrew. Thank you for your clarity

  5. Interesting piece. It’s not just schools, You can apply the same arguement to our modern progressive society. After a time people get dragged down to the lowest denominator without realising it. The others don’t know how to raise their game so don’t. Discipline, respect and boundaries now need to be installed in adults as well as children, modern progressive society seems to make excuses for everyone, it’s worrying for future generations.

  6. Excellent article. Over the last 20 years my career has alternated between teaching and voluntary youth work. I have seen so many youngsters fall foul of the law once leaving school. The dogma that a child’s behaviour should always to be accommodated is ultimately cruel to the person concerned because when they leave school they hit the brick wall of laws in the world outside school which do not tolerate bad behaviour.

  7. […] I’d made about exclusion. I won’t go into too much detail as I covered it in this post Children are human beings, not labels but again I found people with an absolutely entrenched belief that the authorities had determined […]

  8. […] Children are human beings, not labels […]

  9. […] was to “attack” children with SEND. Details of that issue can be found in this post children are human beings, not labels, but the fuss moved on to other thought-crimes, such as being insufficiently dogmatic in my […]

  10. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

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