There's a story about SEN in the Daily Telegraph today "Can 20 per cent of schoolchildren really have special needs?" by Peter Stanford. It's already attracted lots of comments, some informed, others somewhat less so, shall we say.
The story is a follow on to other, recent reports blaming rising SEN figures on either bad parenting or bad teaching or both. Peter wanted to find out the real root of it, but it seems even he was flummoxed.
He interviewed me for the piece and the general gist of what I said is there, although I didn't give up my TV career to go into school to help, I gave it up to be with my children at home because I decided it was a much better use of my time than giving good "TV smile". Being able to help in school and see for myself how things worked was very useful, especially in the light of my boys' difficulties. I could see for myself how different they were to other children, in a classroom setting. I could see that the teachers were, in my opinion, of varying quality, ranging from totally brilliant to inexperienced and out of their depth.
What I said when speaking to Peter but didn't make it into the piece, was that I believe that the pressures of today's society on children, parents and teachers are immense. Responsible parents are faced with the knowledge that their kids are going to have to survive in a highly competitive world and are more vigilant when they see their child not doing as well as they might. Responsible parents just want their child to have the same opportunities as every other child to reach their potential - and that sometimes means accessing extra help through the SEN system.
Are these parents all middle-class? Many are, but far from all of them. I know this to be true from the emails I get. It doesn't matter what class you are, the difference is how much attention you're paying to your child and that has nothing to do with class.
Now, it is obviously true that a child does not automatically have SEN just because they are not at the top or even the middle of the school class. But a parent knows their child the best. When their profile of achievement is uneven or their social difficulties affect their ability to learn, intervention is warranted. In a mainstream school, a teacher has thirty children in the class. That's thirty children of differing ability, different learning styles and varying levels of attention and behaviour, whatever their background.
Teachers aren't super-human. They're overworked, stressed (whatever the man from OFSTED says) and under-resourced. Can one person pay as close attention to the needs of thirty totally different children as each child requires? Of course not and the blame is not theirs. The SENCo might have three other roles in the school. The IEP may not be worth the paper its written on because it's rarely looked at (through time pressure, not because the teacher doesn't care).
This is why responsible parents have to step in to make sure their children get the help they need. They're not "sharp-elbowed" or any other derogatory term. They are responsible, vigilant and determined, because if they don't help their children, no one will. And don't think that they are able to somehow 'cheat' the system. Only around 2% of children actually get a statement - far less than should have one in my opinion, but those that do have been through an unforgiving assessment process of experts and, sometimes, the scrutiny of an appeal to the SEND Tribunal
And what about those children who are not blessed with determined parents like these? The ones who are often put on the SEN register because it's the only thing in a teacher's toolbox to give them a leg-up? This is the huge inequity of society. These children often fall through the cracks. They end up in a continuing cycle of deprivation. They may even end up in the criminal justice system.
They may or may not actually have special educational needs to start with, but if their home life is insecure and they live in poverty, it is sure to have an impact on their learning. They may just need attention and nurturing to give them self-esteem and confidence in themselves. Former head teacher, now an Educational Psychologist, Charlie Mead, has an answer and it's not rocket science. He has instigated 'nurture groups' in secondary schools with amazing results.
In this presentation he describes how nurture groups in mainstream secondary schools can enable children with "special educational needs" to receive the support they need and improve their educational outcomes making the best use of scarce resources. Watch his presentation below. To see him speak, book for the TAPF SEN conference in June at this link
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