As a young boy, on my way to a hospital appointment at The Brompton or Great Ormond Street (I can’t remember which, I visited both quite a lot), I became separated from my mother. Only by a couple of feet, you understand. But she was on a London Underground train and I was on the platform, with my arm stuck between the sliding doors of the train. “Mind the doors!” shouted the guard again (“A bit late now,” I thought) and the train started to move. Up ahead and creeping towards me now at walking pace stood the arched brick wall of the tunnel. My recollection is that panic ensued, but that’s only how it felt to me. I suspect, looking back, that everyone there was very calm: they’d seen it all before. The train came to a sudden stop, the doors were prised apart and my arm was released. I hopped aboard and felt a surge of relief.
I sense that many parents of children and young people with SEND often feel as I did then: standing on the outside, looking in, with the most important person in my world already beginning a journey I was powerless to control; wanting to join, or at least keep hold, and fearing all the time that I was about to hit a brick wall. Or they feel as my mother did, seeing her child excluded, barred by the system, mute and mystified, treading urgently to keep up.
You could be forgiven for thinking that all education policy-makers begin their ministerial careers in transport; or else they’ve all had a scare, early in life, similar to mine on the Underground. A decade ago, teachers and SEND Co-ordinators were told we should be “Removing the barriers to achievement”.
Now schools are busy “closing the gap”, using ‘local hubs’ to sketch out our ‘pathway plan’ (we’ve heard a lot about those), preparing our ‘transitions’, talking about ‘our journey’ and focusing on our ‘destination’. Recently, the first round of the SEND funding consultation prompted talk of LAs funding individual Early Years support for children before making a decision on assessment which, when I was an LA SEN manager, was known as ‘giving them a ticket’. I used it often to get children started and to help make a clearer assessment later. It gave parents a head-start because they could begin to focus on school choices with more real experiences to reflect on – without a battle. Mainstream? A unit? Special school? They could all be considered equally and carefully while education was actually happening.
One result was that many children with complex needs had inclusive opportunities close to home and some made such progress that the fears of their Portage teacher were set aside; the Statement which I then wrote kept all doors open for the future. Another outcome was that we started a Unit in an Infant school which gave children a further two years before that mainstream/special dilemma crept up on us like the bricked arch of my underground memory. I’m pleased to say that, despite several attempts to close it since I returned to teaching, that Infant school – and that community - still has its Unit. At the time, it suited me as much as it suited the parents and the children. It strikes me as very odd how seldom LAs find something of mutual benefit like that. Are they even looking?
We’ve learned something in SEND this year (besides the obvious lesson that if you don’t allow sufficient time for planning then chaos, congestion and severe delays await you): we’ve learned that the direction of travel is, to some extent, towards special schools (or, if you prefer, specialist schools) and away from inclusion in the mainstream.
Ofsted revealed in its review of 2014 that improvement was more noticeable in the special sector than in mainstream: your teenager is more likely to be in a Good or Outstanding school if they are in a special school. Just last week the DfE published figures for the next ten years that show significantly increasing demand for special school places – the numbers are rising faster than in mainstream. If those figures are correct, there will need to be a substantial building programme in the special sector, something we haven’t seen for decades.
There will also need to be people to work in those new buildings: teacher training is at a junction just now, with traditional university-based training being overtaken by school-based training. There are some brilliant people leading and developing the teachers of the future and some of them are working in the special sector. We have to hope they are given the resources they need to continue this work or the fantastic progress reported by Ofsted will be derailed.
I haven’t yet used the phrase “hit the buffers” but I know you’re waiting for me to do it. I’m trying to stay positive. A parent posted on Twitter this week: “knowledge, resources, capability, support, time... The list is long. We aren't giving up though.” (Thanks, TB). Another beautiful message I saw was simple:
“Before you speak, ask yourself:
Is it true?
Is it kind?
Is it necessary?”
The version of this message which is attributed to Shirdi Sai Baba adds one more question: “Does it improve upon the silence?”
It made me reflect a little on how I behave and how I speak in the continuing SEND debate. I think the criticism I so often dish out IS necessary; and I hope the arguments I make are true. They’re certainly based on experience, though memory plays tricks on all of us. But could I be kinder? Without doubt. And do I always improve upon the silence? I’m not so sure. So as the long summer holiday begins, I’ve made a couple of resolutions (we all do it, be honest). One is to enjoy some silence while reading for pleasure, something I seem to have stopped doing since I became more than a passenger on the SEND line.
Another resolution is to look for doors, not windows. On a journey, windows are fine as far as they go: you can stare into the distance, see the countryside flashing past, and occasionally you find yourself at a stop and you notice your own reflection. But doors allow us to join the crowd, to move forward, to make our choices a reality. Sometimes you need to force those doors open, as I found out on the Underground, but there they are: we are trapped without them. Years ago I heard the Czech scientist Miroslav Holub reading his own poem, The Door. It’s about being positive, making choices, allowing the possibility of something new even when we’re afraid or cynical. It ends:
Go and open the door.
Even if there’s only
the darkness ticking,
even if there’s only
the hollow wind,
Go and open the door.
- Key points of SEN Support in schools: What it is and how it should work - June 22, 2017
- SEN Support: Poorer outcomes when needs aren’t thoroughly assessed - June 20, 2017
- Fixing our broken SEND system: The next Minister’s ‘To Do’ list - June 12, 2017
What a thought provoking article, and one that deserves some serious thought and consideration. My brief response here is all too inadequate to address fully the issues raised, but I would just like to add a resounding yes, that is the trajectory of travel this past 5 or more years. But, we are entering a new landscape, which is divisive and destructive with a myriad spaces (including unregulated education space) in which young lives might fall.
It is not a retrograde move, looking to the past for what was in place before, with a clear distinction between specialist and mainstream settings, but we have entered a much more invidious landscape, exclusion dressed up as opportunity, social and academic isolation as personalised learning, with risks and consequences of a far more threatening and alarming kind. It is not a good time to be a child with SEN, disability or disadvantage.