Big systems are compromises.
Our road network is a good example – the one I used to get here today.
Some cars are safer at higher speeds. It’s more important for some people to be on time than it is for others, but saying “all cars produced before 2015 must drive ten mph slower than those produced after” would be unworkable and unfair – as would saying people should be able to speed if they are late for an important appointment but must stick to the limit if they are on time.
Although everyone’s circumstances are unique, everyone has the same speed limit.
What’s best for everyone individually isn’t what’s best for us as a group – we must compromise.
Education is a big system in which there must be compromises too.
The system is not designed to meet the needs of any one child. It can’t be.
This is often poorly understood.
Parents of privileged children might not see why they shouldn’t take their daughter out of school one day a week for museum and art gallery visits and other enriching activities.
It’s hard for them to see why this isn’t permitted.
To understand why the needs of other children in the school must be considered too – the disruptive effects of allowing planned absence would be significant and detrimental to the cohort. While allowing this for one child may be of benefit to them, allowing it for all would make it harder to plan and implement a cohesive curriculum and this would affect all children.
It’s impossible to appreciate this through the lens of just one child or by looking at schools only as places of education. Much of how schools operate isn’t about learning at all – an important purpose of schools is childcare for working parents.
From a purely educational perspective arranging children into classes of thirty by their age, locating them in one big building from 8.30 until 3.30 and placing their learning in the hands of one person at a time isn’t ideal.
Perhaps a better pure education model for each individual child would be the Royal Academy at Macedon, with polymaths like Aristotle tutoring three or four children for years and years in everything on the curriculum.
We just need thousands and thousands of Aristoteles and funding to pay them all.
Good luck with that – Jack Worth will have some things to say later about why it’s hard enough to get teachers as it is, and services such as the NHS would have something to say about the budgetary implications if I were seriously proposing this.
Compromises are necessary. Failing to accept these traps us in passivity.
If we want things to be perfect for everyone before we move, then we will never move.
Thoughtful compromises deliver benefits to very large groups even if nobody gets exactly what they need.
Our road system is a modern miracle – it’s never been more efficient or safer – we slip into our cars confident we’ll arrive where we want to go without mishap at around the time we expect to.
And our mass education system is a miracle too – establishing the right for every child regardless of background to education and finding a way of making the commitment work for a minimum of eleven years is a remarkable achievement.
So far so comfortable.
But we shouldn’t be too comfortable.
Compromises are never neutral.
There are always winners and there are always losers.
The interests of some outweigh the interests of others.
It appears to many that our education system makes compromises in favour of those that find learning hardest – those often labelled with SEND, or learning difficulty, or learning disability or all and more of these terms.
“There’s loads of funding for children with SEND.”
“Children with SEND get loads of extra help.”
“Daisy in Mya’s class has a one-to-one TA to help her.”
“The teacher always gives help to the kids with the EHCPs first.”
It isn’t silly to think children with SEND get more help than those without.
Consider the time spent identifying, supporting, and tracking the progress of children identified as having SEND – consider the degree of systemic attention and intervention – all the time and effort that’s gone into the recent SEND Green Paper and the recent SEND and AP implementation plan – just the latest expression of a stream that’s run through education for decades.
The numbers are striking.
Between 2019-2020 and 2022-2023 there has been a 40% increase in high needs funding and the number of children with Education and Health Care Plans is nearly double the number of children who had statements prior to the 2015 reforms.
All this costs a lot of money.
Sadly though – even if it were true that we make compromises in favour of our most vulnerable – this multigenerational debate and intervention cycle has achieved little.
The outcomes for children identified as having SEND – those that often find school and learning a struggle – remain dreadful.
These children often grow up into troubled lives too. They are more likely to be excluded from school, more likely to be involved in crime and less likely to find stable and secure employment.
For children with a learning disability – like my daughter – life outcomes are terrifying. Only 5.1% of people with learning disability in England are in paid employment. Men with learning disability die on average 14 years before those without. For women it’s even worse with life expectancy 17 years lower.
It’s no surprise that people with learning disability are more likely to be anxious and depressed than those without.
Why – if it’s true that those who find learning tough get the most help – is this the case?
A useful place to begin is by asking ourselves why there isn’t a credible or serious argument for men’s rights movements – a question Laura McInerny began with once when she was getting me to think about why corrective bolt on SEND strategies don’t really work.
Men like me live in a world with rules, systems and routines that facilitate success to a degree it doesn’t for women.
While this isn’t to say no men experience systemic hardship there is little need for organised campaigns around “men’s rights.”
This is also true for the most academically able children in our education system, which has been constructed and is maintained primarily in the interests of those who find learning easy.
My contention is the reason SEND interventions are often ineffective is because any impact they have are strangled by the meritocratic presumption those who fly highest should be the most rewarded.
Despite what it might look like on the surface our big compromises – those that matter most – have always been made in the favour of the academically brightest.
Look at the structure of primary and secondary education.
At primary most children are taught be one teacher in one class most of the time. This helps both younger pupils and those who struggle because there’s lots of consistency and predictability.
A lot of time and expertise is focused on literacy and numeracy. While there are many other things on the curriculum –many primary teachers feel far too much – the aligning of accountability to English and Maths means this – quite rightly – remains its main aim.
Once children have achieved a satisfactory standard in the basics what they need to know moves beyond one person – we don’t have thousands of Aristotles – so they transition to secondary school where they can be taught by many subject specialists.
The system level assumption is once they finish primary, children have sufficient mastery of literacy to access a secondary more specialist curriculum.
This is true for many – perhaps most – but it certainly isn’t true for all.
Large numbers of children leave primary school unable to read well enough to fully access the secondary curriculum and then go into a system set up on the assumption they can.
This isn’t a big reveal. It’s coded into the language we use – when we talk of an “expected standard” we acknowledge the secondary phase of education will be based on an expectation children have learned what they need at primary to follow specialist lessons.
While there have been improvements this isn’t true for lots of children.
In 2018 25% of children did not achieve the expected standard in reading and 24% didn’t in maths.
Those children furthest behind in reading are torn from the places with the greatest expertise in teaching them and thrown into environments working on a systemic assumption they have mastered them already.
For some this is very difficult – for some it’s awful – for some it’s a disaster.
In this compromise they are the losers and we all know it. I think every primary teacher worries about the most vulnerable children in their classes – those they know are getting on well enough with them but are likely to crash when they transition into Year 7.
Expert and caring secondaries do their best – for example synthetic phonics instruction and even the hiring of primary experts has become more common, but such strategies and interventions go against the grain not with it.
Wider accountability often doesn’t help.
I’ve heard too many stories of Ofsted inspectors implying schools that remove children from language lessons for extra synthetic phonics instruction narrow curriculum to dismiss such instances as anomalous – the issue isn’t inspectors aren’t well intentioned but that they’re operating in a paradigm that assumes what’s best for all children is what’s only best for most of them.
The division between primary and secondary is a compromise and this compromise isn’t in the interests of those who struggle most.
Let’s go further – into secondary.
GCSE history specifications are much too big.
The course I teach has almost 300 directly identified teachable pieces of content – using a methodology I took from Alex Ford’s work I counted them.
Assuming three lessons a week for two years – and in practice it’s usually significantly less – this works out at as one explicitly identified examinable piece of content around once ever twenty minutes.
For a student to be certain they can answer every question over four topics they need to remember all of it.
For all but the very most academically able this is unrealistic.
The implications on classroom practice are startling, being opposed to many established features of high-quality teaching.
Take Rosenshine’s Principles, which have been adopted by many schools in recent years as a helpful heuristic for what good teaching should look like:
- Daily review.
- Present new material using small steps.
- Ask questions.
- Provide models.
- Guide Student practice.
- Check for student understanding.
- Obtain a high success rate.
- Provide scaffolds for difficult tasks.
- Independent practice.
- Weekly and monthly review.
How is it possible to do any of this properly if you’re moving onto something new every twenty minutes?
It isn’t and the harder a child finds learning the more damaging being deprived of good teaching become to them – the faster they lose the thread and become bewildered and lost.
Teachers could even things out a bit by not attempting to teach the whole specification and spending more time on less of it. This might be corrective but it isn’t practically realistic given the harsh professional penalties for not finishing a course and the volume of complaints this would get from the most advantaged children and families.
Here compromise means listening to these voices more than we do of those who struggle.
We know they do. They say things like “the teacher goes too fast” and “they can’t keep up” and “they don’t get it.”
But on we plough.
TeacherTapp data suggests most teachers prefer teaching clever children.
This might be because these children are more similar in character to their teacher – more on this a bit later – but it might be because the size of curricula makes it easier and therefore more rewarding to teach well with groups that grasp things quickly – if the curriculum were more accessible to those who find learning tough perhaps teaching them would feel more rewarding.
The result of such diverse cohorts sitting one exam on a specification designed predominantly for the cleverest children is chaos in the lower grades.
For candidates on the bottom half of the bell curve the exam becomes a crapshoot.
It isn’t possible for these children to learn and remember everything so they and their teachers must make blind bets about what might and might not come up in terminal exams.
Students who get lucky find they can do more questions and get higher grades than the unlucky who can do fewer.
This isn’t OK.
In history for students nearer the bottom it’s hard to see a bigger picture, which can easily make the whole endeavour feel a mess of dates, facts and events divorced from meaning and purpose.
This compromises the spirit of history as a discipline for the many children unable to learn a meaningful part of the specification.
And there’s more.
Discourse around GCSE grades in all subjects constructs anything less than a Grade 4 as a fail.
This devalues lower grade and leads to an uncomfortable sense they exist only to prop up and add value to the higher ones.
But there are those who feel it is right more intelligent children are afforded greater advantage by our education system – that we should spend time and resource on finding those of great talent so we can help them fly faster and further. It’s the well-intentioned driving force behind charities provide academic mentoring, scholarships, and visits and residentials to clever poor children who would not otherwise have such opportunities. It’s so part of the way we do things we don’t see the oddity of giving more privileges to groups of children who are already more advantaged than those they grow up with. While apparently logical – children who struggle get SEND support and those near the top get extra too this doesn’t acknowledge the whole system is in the interests of the high fliers.
So again, this is compromise tilts in the favour of the already most advantaged.
Where are the charities to help poor children who aren’t doing well in school? Wouldn’t it be more equitable if we focused on these rather than those who have comparatively more advantage already.?
“An education system that allows people to go as far as their talents will take them” – phrases like these are deployed by politicians as vote-winning slogans, but what does the silence between the lines about those who don’t have talents that will take them very far say about who we think is and who isn’t deserving of help?
It’s the meritocracy speaking – the idea those who are already successful deserve greater benefits than those who are not. It argues that there are Elis and Morlocks, and that the job of Morlocks is to live underground hidden from sight doing dirty work that allows their betters to live lives of beauty and greater meaning.
Morlocks should not get in the way of Elis and if they do it’s a wrong to be righted.
There’s an argument this is exactly what many so-called inclusion systems do.
Take Teaching Assistants assigned to individual children.
For many familiar with the SEND world this is gold standard provision – a one-to-one helper whose job is to act as a bridge between the rest of the class and a student who wouldn’t be able to be part of the lesson at all if it weren’t for them – a sort of lesson interpreter.
In the Inclusion Illusion, Rob Webster finds this is often not the case.
He argues one-to-one TA support can often be a feature of an exclusionary system that places a child in a class without being of the class.
The point is not to include the child but to contain them so more able children aren’t impacted by the challenges the struggling child faces.
Webster makes it very clear this is not the fault of TAs who he found often concerned about their lack of training and confidence.
Our mainstream professional hierarchy is upside-down with the least trained, lowest paid, least secure and lowest status given responsibility for educating the children for which learning is hardest with little formal appreciation, guidance or help.
This is not an argument there isn’t value in the work of TAs – our education system has been constructed in a way that can make just getting through it a real success for those who find learning toughest, and when a ship is in trouble we don’t throw away lifeboats because we think we shouldn’t need them.
Those who assist with this survival – our lifeboats – deserve respect.
Many TAs give up their own time and money to better help children nobody in the system cares more about. They know their limitations and they also know they’re all some children have – pragmatic improvement would do well to begin by recognising and valuing these people.
Webster finds what often emerges is not an inclusion system but a containment system with some of those he interviewed explicit they thought this was their purpose.
Webster even found this belief in some parents.
One said “but they’ve got like 30-odd kids to take care of and they can’t be expected to just pay attention to Kai all the time.”
This – in its acceptance of poor provision for the good of others – is the saddest thing I’ve read about any of this.
Here – as in GCSE curriculum – we see how education is set up to benefit those who find learning easiest – while TA support may appear an example of how compromise is slanted towards those who struggle, the balance often tips the other way.
It shouldn’t surprise us that things are set up like this, and why we all find it so hard to imagine up ways in which things could be different.
Firstly we – I certainly, probably most of us here – have done well out of the way the education system is set up.
It exists for us and for people like us.
We are the winners.
When we look around at each other we are mostly the top set aren’t we?
I’m not going to stop and spend twenty minutes going over what I’ve said so far.
I’m assuming you’ve kept up.
I hope you won’t walk away going “no idea what he was on about and that was boring and pointless, four sessions to go until we can leave.”
Lots of compromises have been made in our favour and when we go back to work and talk to our colleagues and friends there aren’t likely to be many who feel their education was a waste of time.
This makes it hard for us to understand the experiences of those who struggled at school.
There is no easy way to get it.
When I was training to be a teacher my PGCE provider tried by making us all sit through a postgraduate level physics lecture and then asking us afterwards how we found it. It was partially successful. Most of us found ourselves daydreaming, doodling and even passing notes but it could only ever get us part of the way there, because we were people who found learning easy just playing make-believe we weren’t for an hour.
While this sort of role-play might have given us an insight into what a lesson pitched beyond us felt, the awful cumulative effect of experiencing this for days, weeks, months and years was an experience we were mercifully spared.
Not all children who find learning easy enjoy school.
If they did there would be no need for us to compel education and we do. This isn’t the time or place to get into debates around this, so I’ll just say I agree completely children must be educated whether they want to be or not.
For those wanting a more nuanced take I’d recommend having a look at how the Quakers have wrestled with this. In a nutshell they reckon compelling education is deeply problematic but the consequences of not doing so are even worse – a sensible “least bad” position.
Some Quakers reckon one of the strongest arguments for compelling education is that in the long run it is of benefit to the people it is imposed upon. This is well explained in Francis E Pollard’s 1932 Swarthmore Lecture on Education and the Spirit of Man.
This seems fair and I think it’s true for a lot of children.
But not all and this exposes yet another way in which compromises are made most in favour of those who find learning easiest and why we find it hard to understand.
As Chris Baker put it recently on twitter – “Not enough people are using the library. The future of the library will be discussed in the library by people who use the library. The librarian will chair it.”
For these children – children who grow up to people like me– the benefits of school are clear.
If we work hard and do as our teachers say we’re more likely to find what we’re taught interesting, and we’re also much more likely to be rewarded than classmates who struggle.
Higher grades lead to more prestigious destinations, more choice and more prestigious careers and lives.
But it’s fair for those who aren’t on this path to question what the point of their education was – especially if their experiences have been impoverished by compromises made in the favour of others.
Education is not just a transitory state between infancy and adulthood.
It is a complete life stage that lasts a long time.
Children do not spend their school years suspended in cocoons – they are sentient beings, fully aware of what’s happening to them. They have emotions and opinions about what is done to them.
We can understand why those who struggle – those who end up without a clutch of “strong passes” at the end of it all – may feel angry and resentful at a system that’s made them feel inadequate for a very long time to no obvious end.
We can understand why they feel education wasn’t ever really for them.
We can understand why they become even angrier when they emerge from school and find what they’d been led to believe wasn’t true and it was possible to be happy and fulfilled in life that didn’t demand academic success all along – that all the years of struggle and humiliation hadn’t been necessary – had not given them either instrumentally useful credentials or an appreciation of our rich culture.
This should not be taken as one of those anti-curricular, anti-knowledge, futurist takes that so annoy us all.
I am pro-knowledge, pro-curricular and broadly philosophically traditional. I believe the first thing schools should do to help children who find things hard is to sort behaviour so it’s calm, predictable and well organised.
I am not saying I think progressivism is the answer. Instead, I am pointing out traditional positions for many children are not compatible with structures designed predominantly for those who are already most advantaged.
My concern is structural ability bias makes it less likely those who find learning hard will be inducted into traditional disciplines, because it’s resulted in lessons that go so fast, they leave behind many children.
I think on the most part people do like to learn – they do want to know things about the world around them regardless of whether it leads to greater instrumental reward. They want to feel successful at things that matter.
The problem isn’t that they don’t want knowledge but that the way things are structured means they don’t get it.
I am not cross about GCSE history specifications because they contain lots of knowledge.
I am cross because they make it harder for me to teach history well to children I care about very much – they make it harder for huge numbers of children to really understand what the discipline is all about – to get a sense of meaning and purpose from what they learn.
I’m angry because our compromises make it easier for me to be a good teacher of children who find things easier than it is for me to be a good teacher of children who find things hard.
People who feel they were generally unsuccessful at school can better understand the real worth and power of education when it’s done right.
One of my neighbours failed his eleven plus.
Forty years on he still talks about it.
He resents the way he was “funnelled” into a life he didn’t choose. But when he talks about his history teacher at his secondary modern, he lights up – a man who taught him history even though there was no chance of him doing A Levels or going to university and by so doing opened a world to him he’s never left – a world of model making and re-enactment, of books and documentaries and museums.
This hero the odds with Steve – he beat selection and humiliation, instrumentalism and the meritocracy and gave him a life of meaning.
I hope his teacher knew what he achieved.
A life of meaning– an aim we should have for all children and not just those who find learning easy.
What should we do?
I get how hard it is, and while I would love to see some system level changes – for example, more thoughtful transition for struggling primary pupils – there’s lots to learn from Eric Kalanze’s What the Academy Taught Us here – and examination specifications that are more designed to account for the needs of those who find learning tough – wise friends of mine have taught me how wrong it is to remain passive while we wait for change.
As is often and rightly said kids get one shot of education. For some kids – some of those that have had terrible hands dealt to them – it’s the only life they’ll ever have.
What can we do for them now?
It’s much easier for me to point out all the problems than it is for me to develop a plan that solves all of this in a way that doesn’t cause worse problems, and something else I’m learning is as bad as things are it’s usually possible for them to be worse.
I’m pretty sure it’d be a mistake to make big top-down changes very suddenly.
Education systems are calibrated to the value systems of the societies they are developed in.
There are also good arguments as to why things are structured as they are – for example the importance of growing economies and how there are probably greater economic benefits on concentrating resources on more able children, and that greater prosperity create conditions in which there are more resources to support our most vulnerable.
Is this true? Maybe – although I’m cynical about anything that sounds like “trickle down”, especially given how dire life outcomes have been for learning disabled people for generations and generations and the regular steam of awful news about what happens to them in homes and institutions.
But in addition to the inequities between those who find learning easy and those who find learning hard there are inequities between those who are rich and those who are poor. It’s tough to see how changing accountability measures wouldn’t risk making these even wider to their detriment and after all a clever poor child is just as deserving as a poor child who struggles.
Children have entitlements and these aren’t contingent on how fast they learn.
If they were they wouldn’t be entitlements.
Abruptly moving away from concept of “special” and dismantling our SEND system – an idea I have explored before- would delete the only system we have to channel resource away from the brightest to those who find things hardest of all.
It could damage the lives of thousands – recently I’ve been convinced of this by Doctor Neil Gilbride who’s here today – his most recent blog caringly and pragmatically shows the harm this might do.
But any solution must start with understanding the problem properly.
Big systems must be compromises.
The big compromises in education aren’t in the interests of those who find learning hardest – that while it might seem sensible to make decisions on the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number this leaves space for very many to have a poor time and a minority to have dreadful experiences.
Facing this is the start. By doing that we can at least distance ourselves from the damaging fiction everyone starts from the same place and ends up where they deserve to.
Then perhaps we can pay proper attention to our most disadvantaged –listen to their voices and sympathise – perhaps create more bridges to rich and fulfilling lives outside school for those who struggle with education if we find we can’t solve this within education.
And there are compromises in our control.
Think about how and to who the most effective teachers in your school are deployed. Who teaches those who find things hardest? Think about behaviour – is the way you manage it in the interests of those who find things easy or have you thought about how those that struggle probably need calmer, quieter and more predictable environments than those who don’t?
Do you keep abreast of the best evidence available for children who struggle?
Do you know the evidence base behind your interventions?
When you see something odd and suspect unhelpful do you challenge it in the same way you would if you thought a program or strategy for a top set was of no use?
How are TAs recruited, trained and valued? Do they have time to work properly with teachers and to learn what it is that is most helpful?
Is there time for teachers to learn about SEND and how certain are you that the training they get is robust and evidence informed?
Does your SENDCO have time to teach the children who most need their expertise?
Are they the most research-informed teacher in the school? Do they have time to be?
Where are the opportunities to celebrate the success of children who work hard but don’t finish at the top?
This all takes a lot of time and resource. To do it well compromises will have to be made – compromises in favour of our most vulnerable children and perhaps against the interests of those who find things easier.
It’s by making these compromises we show we are serious. By making more in favour of those that might otherwise fall quickly behind we can check the hubris of our highest flyers – show them they are no more special or deserving than people like my daughter who will never grasp things as quickly as they do – that they are no more special or deserving than a young man who will never talk.
Perhaps we can foster senses of obligation and collective responsibility – a belief those who win at this great fixed game have a responsibility to those who lose.
If you don’t like this framing, fine – instead see it as the charitable duty of the winners to be magnanimous to the losers – to make more space at the table so more can eat the delicious things on it.
Either way you want to see it, if enough of us – the people in this room and others- come to understand and recognise this responsibility, then what ways of meeting it might our clever brains arrive at?
If we all made provision for children who find learning tough a priority for us then how far down the road might we go?
A hero of mine – Paul Farmer – was an American medical anthropologist and the founder of Partners in Health. This was an organisation designed to provide direct health care services to some of the most marginalised and poverty-stricken communities and people in the world.
He said this:
“I have fought the long defeat and brought other people on to fight the long defeat, and I’m not going to stop because we keep losing. Now I actually think sometimes we may win. I don’t dislike victory. … You know, people from our background-like you, like most PIH-ers, like me-we’re used to being on a victory team, and actually what we’re really trying to do in PIH is to make common cause with the losers. Those are two very different things. We want to be on the winning team, but at the risk of turning our backs on the losers, no, it’s not worth it. So you fight the long defeat.”
I’m no Paul Farmer.
I do understand what he’s saying here though.
Perhaps there’s not much that can be done for those who find learning hardest. The history of all this isn’t pretty and perhaps my belief things might be better is naïve.
But I have hope. I really do. I can’t help it.
When I first began thinking and working in this space it was very personal to me and I expected little interest. I thought people would say “Ben used to be quite interesting and used to talk about Relevant Significant Big Things but then his daughter got diagnosed with Williams Syndrome and what he says now is pretty niche. Bless him.”
But there has been interest – huge interest. I’m looking at twitter and I’m having conversations with people in schools and I’m seeing work done by big players like Ambition Institute and the Confederation of School Trusts and there is attention and there seems a desire to work at this and get it right. It’s work of humility – reaching out and connecting with and learning from the people this directly affects and those who’ve dedicated their professional lives to serve children they know should get much more than they get. There’s been so much thinking and learning and doing – it’s been happening for decades in the shadows by people who should have been listened to more a long time ago. We should all make up for lost time and listen to them now.
It feels like there’s an imperative to try and make schools work for all children not just the lucky clever ones. Not just the ones it’s easy to teach.
To do it right in a way that means genuinely high standards and high ambition – in a way that includes children and doesn’t just contain them,
Maybe one day soon this long defeat can turn into a victory parade – a joyful parade that ends in schools in which more children learn. In which more feel belonging and find meaning and feel seen and valued.
But if we can’t win – if there’s never a parade – if attention moves away and the debate is pushed back into the shadows, I’ll still be here.
I’m committed. I can’t unsee what I’ve seen. I can’t unlearn what I’ve learned. I don’t want to.
Too many people who were in this fight long before me have shared too much and worked too hard to help me get it and I’m awed by the work they’ve done long before any of this meant anything to me – awed by and grateful for work they’ve been doing for children like my daughter, Bessie, before I even knew there would be a Bessie.
Teachers, TAs, SENDCOs, leaders, parents – thank you all for getting this before I did and helping me understand.
You know who you are.
Win or lose I’m proud to stand with them.
I don’t dislike winning – I think we might – but if can’t I’ll fight the long defeat.
Long defeat or victory parade – I invite you to join us.
 The Inclusion Illusion Rob Webster P63
 Francis E Pollard. Swathmore Lecture. Education and the Spirit of Man. 1932.