The parables of SEND: Is it more like ‘the drowning man’ or ‘the tree and its fruits’?

I recently came across two linked articles written by academic Alan Hodkinson discussing the history of the SEND system. They immediately drew my attention as the articles attempted to understand how we have ended up in the long-running ‘SEND crisis’, and also because Alan draws on a parable of ‘the drowning man’ and I just cannot resist a good parable – as you will go on to see!

Both of these articles are ‘open access’, and can be freely read in their entirety. Although they are likely intended for an academic audience, I think the articles are both very accessible and are linked at the bottom of this post for you to read in full.

The drowning man parable

In Part I, Hodkinson draws on the parable of the drowning man, which we reproduce here:

A storm descends … as the waters rise, the preacher kneels in prayer on the church porch, surrounded by water. By and by, one of the townsfolk comes up the street in a canoe. “Better get in, Preacher. The waters are rising fast.” “No,” says the preacher. “I have faith in the Lord. He will save me.” Still the waters rise. Now the preacher is up on the balcony, wringing his hands in supplication, when another guy zips up in a motorboat. “Come on, Preacher. We need to get you out of here...” Once again, the preacher is unmoved. “I shall remain. The Lord will see me through.”

After a while … the flood rushes over the church until only the steeple remains above water. The preacher is up there, clinging to the cross, when a helicopter descends … and a state trooper calls down to him … “Grab the ladder, Preacher. This is your last chance.” Once again, the preacher insists the Lord will deliver him. And, predictably, he drowns. A pious man, the preacher goes to heaven. … . he asks the Almighty, “Lord, I had unwavering faith in you. Why didn’t you deliver me from that flood?” God shakes his head. “What did you want from me? I sent you two boats and a helicopter. “

Parable of the Drowning Man (See Du Frane 2009)

How does this relate to SEND? Tracing the development and changes in SEND-related policy and systems to the 1970s and the infamous 1978 Warnock Report, Hodkinson argues that despite four significant fault lines emerging and widening, like the drowning man in the parable above, the ‘government, despite continued legislative failures, thinks it will save its systems of Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) in England if it believes in them hard enough’ (Hodkinson, 2023:2). The four fault lines identified are:

  • Insufficient funding
  • Lack of multi-agency working
  • Lack of meaningful parents/pupil participation
  • Insufficient training on SEND for teachers (eg in initial teacher training).

The source of the fault-lines

These fault lines can be traced back to the 1981 Education Act, which introduced the language of ‘Special Educational Needs’ and Statements, and they have not been fixed since. Hodkinson demonstrates this through his comprehensive summary of research and analysis examining SEND legislation and their supporting Codes of Practice since the 1980s. He concludes that despite significant government rhetoric, the promised radical culture change simply has not happened, despite various commitments and changes in legislative framework over the last four decades. Furthermore—and this will come as no surprise to SNJ readers—parents continue to have to battle the system to ensure that their children can get the support they need in education.

How has parliament discussed the SEND system?

In Part II, Hodkinson explores the fault lines in greater detail, before exploring how the SEND system has been discussed in parliament since the introduction of the Children & Families Act in 2014. Hansard provides an official report of all Parliamentary debates. Hodkinson’s undertook an analysis of Hansard records that included the words ‘disability’, ‘special needs’, ‘special educational needs’, ‘additional needs’, ‘schools,’ and ‘primary’. 182 documents were subsequently analysed and coded, to interrogate whether the four fault lines were apparent within parliament debates. The research looked at when it happened and how parliamentarians defined or exploited the fault lines in the debates.

Hodkinson’s key findings demonstrate:

  • In terms of training, parliamentarians appear to have been somewhat quiet, though Initial Teacher Training is recognised as important to delivering high-quality teaching support, as well as the voluntary sector expertise that could be utilised. He suggests the government’s, “…heart did not really seem to be in remediating this fault line”.
  • Language relating to ‘battles’ and ‘fighting’ was apparent in parliamentary debates, demonstrating the continuing antagonism and adversarial nature of the SEND system. Parents were described as being ‘sceptical’ that the 2014 reforms would provide a solution, but the government went ahead anyway.
  • The government’s wider educational accountability agenda is working against any inclusion agenda, where the only winner could be accountability and standards, leading to the exclusion of pupils who were not wanted/valued within that system.
  • The government lays the blame of the failure of the reforms with local authorities and appears to be “out of touch with the reality that was happening on the ground for LAs, schools, children, and their families”.

Again, to readers of Special Needs Jungle none of this is likely to be a surprise. Hodkinson clearly demonstrates the relevance of the parable of the drowning man – the government appears to be hoping that by clinging on, redemption and solutions to the SEND crisis and ever-widening fault lines will appear, yet when solutions are being offered they are ignoring them. Hodkinson suggests that the government needs to listen more to the voices of parliamentarians and the concerns that they are raising.

Now this is where Hodkinson and I might depart in our conclusions. I would like to introduce an alternative parable, that of the tree and its fruits:

Why am I talking about the tree and its fruits?

"Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruit. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.

Matthew 7:16

It feels as though Hodkinson has forgotten that the government is made up of the very parliamentarians that he urges the government now to listen to. Additionally, over the last forty years, parliamentarians of all colours and political leanings have been in power at some point – Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour. While these parliamentarians might well stand up in political debates and raise concerns about the ongoing issues with the SEND system, the power surely lies in their hands to effect meaningful change and address the fault lines identified.

Drawing on this alternative parable, I suggest that there needs to be recognition that the SEND system is simply not a good tree that can bear good fruit. However much government rhetoric there is, or pruning of the SEND tree, it is a tree that has problems deep within its roots and should be cut down.

Despite being told that the 2014 reforms were ‘transformative’, they continued to have deep roots in the recommendations of the Warnock Report and the 1981 legislation. There is no wholesale transformation of the education system to make it welcoming and inclusive of all pupils. The system is based on ‘deficit thinking’, in relation to a significant proportion of the school population, where they are assessed and sorted in comparison to a mythical ‘norm’, with individual approaches to address their needs to be put in place. We still have an ‘add on’ SEND approach which can only ever continue to have the fault lines that Hodkinson rightly identifies.

Yet I would argue these fault lines will not be addressed by adding in more teacher training (which no doubt will also be based on deficit thinking), or more funding of special school places, which the government continues to focus its efforts on. Instead, we need to start with the people for whom this really matters – children, young people and their families – and listen to them, rather than more posturing by parliamentarians who could have effected change, but seem to be quite happy to stand in parliament to identify the issues but then do very little to address them.


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Sharon Smith

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