“The kids are alright” On how medical frames and models fail children who find learning hard.

In early 1941 Albert Alexander was admitted to Oxford’s Radcliffe Infirmary with abscesses around his face. This infection was caused either by the scratch of a rose thorn or an injury he sustained in a German bombing raid – accounts vary.

There was no way to stop the infection and it spread rapidly to the rest of his head. Soon he lost an eye.  

With death imminent and nothing to lose Albert accepted an experimental drug called penicillin. The results were miraculous. Within 24 hours his fever was down, his sores were healing and beginning to close up.

But there wasn’t enough of the drug to completely cure him. He relapsed and died on 15th March, 1941.

While the new drug had failed to heal him this unsuccessful trial marked the beginning of a new era.

Infections that had been death sentences could now be cured with relative ease. Today billions of people live free of a fear that had stalked humans for hundreds of thousands of years.

Penicillin is just one example of how medicine has transformed life on earth for the better.

Medical science and the medical model are simple yet powerful frames. They identify clear problems and then use recognised scientific methods and procedures to find solutions.

It is a very successful tool – a powerful hammer.

But a problem for those with hammers and those who admire the work done by the people who wield them is how tempting it becomes to use them inappropriately. The medical model is such a hammer and should not be routinely applied to the education of children.

All human populations encompass a wide range of characteristics. A few find learning easy, a few find it difficult and most are somewhere between the two extremes. Finding learning hard does not make anyone a deficient human and it doesn’t mean they are special or that something has gone wrong.

Applied to education the medical model rejects this.

It draws lines distinguishing those who learn quickly from those who are learn slowly and incorrectly labels slower learners as somehow deficient. It then seeks to intervene like a doctor or drug to fix the problem. In practice a SEND register can easily become a list of the supposedly unwell with their disease next to their name and suggested treatments on associated documentation.

For some this might be practically useful. A child who is hard of hearing may have this issue in a classroom largely resolved through a hearing aid and sitting them close to the teacher. A child who is struggling to read because they have not mastered the phonic code will benefit from having this identified and then receiving instruction to fill this gap.

Things are more problematic when the reasons a child struggles to learn is because of an aspect of their identity rather than a specific need or problem that can be fixed – and given the bell curve distribution this is a lot of people.

Some children – for example – have specific genetic conditions which result in smaller than average working memories making learning a huge challenge. Many children without any condition will find learning harder than others simply because of their position on the bell curve of normal human intelligence.

For these children the medical model is disastrous because it snares them in a trap they cannot escape and constructs them as failures regardless of what they do. To escape the trap – perhaps through hypothetical brain-boosting therapy to increase working memory or insert ‘missing’ genes – these children would have to be transformed, and they would not emerge from this process intact as the people they are.

While this is not yet possible the medical model does indeed inform the way children who struggle to learn in lots of well-intentioned ways. The comparative simplicity of the medical method – diagnose – prescribe – treat – is beguiling. This can very easily create an oversimplified and consequently inaccurate view of why a child hasn’t learned something. Still worse it can lead to children being labelled with medical, scientific, pseudo-medical and pseudo-scientific conditions that try to explain normal variation in rates of learning by conceptualising them as diseases.

This leads to back-to-front assumptions learning slowly means there must be something wrong and provides an incentive to medicalise perfectly healthy children – to attempt to explain and justify a failure to get high enough marks by saying this must be down to disorder or condition. Children who don’t learn as fast as some peers or can’t learn something because they haven’t got the prerequisite knowledge can quickly come to believe they have an illness that prevents them progressing unless very specific and sometimes dubious conditions are met. These – for example a belief in Irlen’s Syndrome and coloured lenses as a cure – can then become lifelong obstacles.

The success of the medical model in its own field can dazzle those working in education into using what they think are medical frames and methods to try and get equally revealing and transformative results. Sometimes this is done appropriately and properly but often it isn’t, and this can lead to unsafe conclusions and associated actions. It can also lead to shaky diagnosis made by people unqualified to do so. It is worrying how little oversight there is over non-medically trained professionals diagnosing conditions such as dyslexia and ADHD, and how common phrases such as “he’s clearly on the spectrum” have become.

Medicalising normal human distributions is dangerous. It problematises lots of human behaviour and constructs many people as unwell, different to, less than or worse than an equally constructed and artificial conception of healthy and normal. It leads to the misidentification of issues that slow learning and strategies that at best do no good and is inadvertently humiliating.

The model frames slower learners as ‘special’ (The S of SEND) which implies they require ‘additional’ and ‘different’ curriculum and pedagogy. This is almost inherently othering in application in the implication it means someone who learns slowly learns in a different way to others. In some cases this is true – for example there is evidence children with Williams Syndrome may benefit from some instruction through music – but often it just isn’t. A child who learning to read more slowly than another is far more likely to need greater quality and quantity of what works for the majority of children than they are something different.  

Children are human and while rates of learning vary humans usually learn in similar ways – believing large numbers of children are ‘special’ in the ‘special case’ sense just isn’t logical – the more there are the less possible it is for the term to have any useful value.

I hope to explore this in the next of this series of blog posts.

What proportion of children can be assigned a SEND diagnosis before it becomes meaningless? How many people can we say are ‘special’ for how many different reasons before the definition collapses? Is this more or less than the 39% of the Y11 2016 cohort who were identified as having SEND at some point in their schooling?

Suggested actions:

  • Challenge the assumption a failure to achieve academically is the result of a special educational need.
  • Interrogate and challenge medical/pseudo-medical diagnosis – both formally and informally – made by those not properly trained to make such diagnosis.
  • Introduce more rigour and oversight in policies and procedures that result in children being added to SEND registers.

Standard

A good life – towards a more dignified life for children with special educational needs and disabilities.

Recent interest in reform of the SEND system as a result of the SEND consultation and Green Paper is an important and overdue opportunity to tackle the important question of how the education system works for society’s most vulnerable children. This blog post is taken from a Confederation of School Trusts paper presented at the 2022 National ResearchED conference.

We – Tom Rees and Ben Newmark – have a personal as well as professional. Tom’s son Freddie has Downs Syndrome and Ben’s daughter Bessie has Williams Syndrome.

The Green Paper takes a step in the right direction, identifying problems within a complex SEND system that must offer better support, better outcomes and better value for public money.

But we should go further, and today we are arguing two key points:

Firstly, the current SEND system rests on an outdated medical and deficit model, which locates the problem of inclusion within the individual, rather than society and where to receive additional support in schools and throughout life, people with disability and their families have to demonstrate failure, regularly and repeatedly.

Secondly, this problem of deficit framing is located within the wider societal issue of the meritocracy, life’s ‘sorting principle’ which has narrowed what we perceive a ‘good life’ to be and what is valued within education and across society.

This status quo is unnecessarily disrespectful and undignified for people with learning disability.

It is unrealistic to think that SEND reform alone can fix what are much wider societal problems, but reform can help. We propose two principles to help us make progress towards more people living with greater dignity:

People with learning disability are complete humans. They are not broken and do not need fixing. We can treat them with greater dignity, avoiding deficit language that suggests they are special cases or somehow worth less.

We need a broader and more ambitious vision of what a good life is. Human flourishing and dignity for all, require us to have a wide set of success measures because this doesn’t look the same for everyone. Placing greater value on things such as contribution, difference, common values, and the process of learning and work itself, can provide a healthy balance to meritocratic values of academic credentials, occupational status and wealth.

In March the government published a Green Paper which sets out proposals for further consultation on reforms to the system for Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND).

It makes some sensible and pragmatic suggestions about how the system can be more effective and efficient.

It is honest in capturing the problems children with SEND and their families experience, and confronts the dire outcomes that exist within the system despite the best efforts of teachers, schools and trusts.

The Green Paper captures the frustrations and inefficiencies – the delays, the disagreements, the multiple interests working across each other and the resource sapping bureaucracy – that too often drives young people, their families and professionals working with them to despair and disillusionment.

It reflects how regional variation and non-standard ways of doing things combined with inconsistent provision creates a mystifying landscape full of cul-de-sacs and wrong turns, in which our most vulnerable children and their families are often lost.

It appreciates how hard it is to regain purpose and momentum once things have begun to go wrong stating that: “carers and providers alike do not know what is reasonable to expect from their local systems.”.

This sort of honesty is welcome. A lack of clarity around exactly who is responsible for what, is a source of many of the disagreements and frustrations between families and professionals.

Many of the proposed solutions are sensible too – particularly consistent national standards for how special educational needs are identified and met, standardised approaches to EHCPs across the country and greater clarity around what can be expected. The current EHCP system is a source of enormous inefficiency and the current postcode lottery where children with complex needs get varying levels of support depending on where they live, is clearly unsatisfactory.

Overall, the Green Paper frames these different problems through three challenges:

  1. Outcomes for children with SEND are poor.
  2. Navigating the SEND system is not a positive experience for children, young people and their families.
  3. Despite unprecedented investment, the system is not delivering value for money.

We recognise these challenges and are supportive of any reform that will help to improve the efficiency, effectiveness and user experience of the SEND system.

But we think there is a fourth and more fundamentally important challenge the Green Paper does not recognise. Special Educational Needs and Disability is still framed within a deficit narrative – it conceptualises learning disability and special educational needs them – as something wrong that should be fixed.

We think there is an alternative lens through which to consider SEND reform – one in which we see all people as complete in their humanity as opposed to having something missing or broken. This lens would allow us to see ability and disability not as binaries, but as a continuum through which all of us move at different points in our lives.

As Leora Cruddas, chief executive of the Confederation of School Trusts says:

‘It is important for us to move on from a deficit narrative built around the medical model of disability to a more inclusive and socially affirmative narrative of human flourishing.’

The challenge, the problem to be solved, is the education system’s (and indeed, wider society’s) approach to disability, not children and young people with disabilities themselves.

When we compare outcomes of children with special educational needs to those without, we risk implying success always looks the same. This can lead to the belief vulnerability, disability and greater need are things that can and should be educated out of a person.  

This is a product of a medical lens.  

The idea here is learning quickly and easily is normal and healthy whereas those that struggle are in some way unwell and in need of a cure. 

While this model can be helpful – indeed even necessary –  for those who are unwell, when used on healthy people the effect can be devastating – it medicalises and problematises normal human behaviour and constructs people as failures against standards they aren’t able meet.  

There isn’t inevitable and things have not always been this way. 

In the medieval and early modern era there was little suggestion that those with learning disabilities were in any way poorly. They had specific roles within society but then so did everyone.

While they – like lots of people – could be the subject of ridicule and cruelty their right to live in and be part of their communities was only ever disputed if they were dangers to themselves or others – which was the same for all people – and there were no serious attempts to make them other than what they were.

There’s more to explore on the www.learningdisabilityhistory.org website and we’d also recommend Simon Jarrett’s book Those They Called Idiots. 

In the Enlightenment things changed. Drawing on Ancient World ideas about what defined humanity people began to classify and grade other people into different types. Those who struggled to learn quickly were seen as a deviation from a norm.

This was the beginning of the medical model.

Today we see this model in the application processes for support such as Education Health Care Plans (EHCP), Disability Living Allowance (DLA) and respite care where to access additional support, parents and professionals must gather evidence which demonstrates that a child is so behind their peers they can’t possibly catch or keep up without additional resource.  

For children requiring most support, the process of receiving an Educational Health Care Plan (EHCP) requires evidence that at each stage of a lengthy process, the different interventions that were planned and provided had failed. 

The intent is not malicious – a way of identifying children who need support is necessary in the world we live in – but the process is unpleasant and lacks dignity. 

To access help a child has to fail at things other children succeed at because the system we have requires the identification of a person as deficient.

Professionals and parents who navigate this process both know this. Ben says:

‘We were warned about it – told from the outset the process we’d need to get Bessie help would be unpleasant but like many other families – were advised not to let our love get in the way of confronting a supposedly objective reality – as if all our positivity and joy was a childish fantasy that now needed to be shoved aside.  

We were advised by professionals to show her in the worst possible light – to hold our daughter up for judgement to strangers and provide evidence of her failure ourselves.’ 

As Barney Angliss writes in the ResearchED Guide to SEND, “it often seems the only way for young people with SEND – or their parents and carers to get help… is to characterise themselves as ‘impaired’, somehow less.” 

No family should be subjected to this indignity. 

This deficit framing of learning difficulty and disability is widely established within the SEND system and underpins the Green Paper. 

The Key Facts section of the paper notes that – for example – the average attainment 8 score for KS4 students with SEND is much lower than for those without any identified needs and uses this as an example of evidence things are not working – the report is saying children who find learning significantly harder end up with lower grades than those who don’t as if this was revelatory.

Of course they do and we should not be scared to say so.

It doesn’t mean there is something wrong with these children. Equally, this is not an excuse to give up on them – every child is entitled to the expertise which enables them to learn well, to be challenged and to achieve ambitious things wherever they start from – as humans they are entitled to this. We think there can be a better way to find it we must consider the wider forces at play and the concept of the meritocracy, a dominant organising principle of society. 

The term ‘meritocracy’ is the ideal of success, status or power being distributed on merit (talent, accomplishment and hard work) rather than through other means such as social class or on a hereditary basis.

It’s the ideal of people getting further in life not because they were born into it, but because they earned their success.

We hear the meritocracy in everyday language such as:

You can make it if you try.

You make your own luck.

Work hard at school and you will get good grades, go on to university, get a good job and lead a happy and successful life.

Or more negative variants such as:

You’ll waste your life doing that.

If you don’t work hard and get good grades, you will end up stacking shelves at Tescos.

The term ‘meritocracy’ was coined by the sociologist, Michael Young in 1958 in an essay where he described a future and dysfunctional society where a tension existed between high IQ elites in positions of power and a disenfranchised underclass of those left behind.

In Michael Sandel’s 2020 book: The Tyranny of Merit, he argues that these narratives of meritocracy have become increasingly common in western society. It’s the American dream: the belief anyone, regardless of where they were born or what class they were born into, can attain their own version of success in a society in which upward mobility is possible for everyone (Sandel 2020)

But listen more closely to the meritocratic rhetoric: ‘everyone can rise’, ‘you can make it if you try’, ‘what you earn, depends on what you learn’. Compelling no doubt, but is it true?

Sandel argues that during this same period of increased faith in meritocracy, social mobility has actually declined and highlights four failings:

  1. The meritocracy doesn’t deliver the social mobility it promises

Sandel points out, in countries where the narratives of social mobility are strongest, there is in fact less equity and social mobility than in others.

In England, from the perspective of narrowing educational gaps between children from high- and lower-income families, our school system has so far failed to tackle educational inequality. 

  • The meritocracy creates losers as well as winners

It’s easy to talk about the ideal of jumping up a social class or rags to riches tales of people who ‘make it’ against the odds. But the reality is that these stories are against the odds and not typical.

They also often fail to acknowledge the uncomfortable truth that for someone to become a winner, it must happen at someone else’s expense. Meritocratic success is finite and there are a limited number of places at desired universities or top jobs.

There can only be winners if there are losers to. If someone makes it – someone else has not and we’re often not honest enough about this displacement.

  • The meritocracy leads to arrogance

The meritocracy leads us to believe that if we achieve well, it’s because we deserve our success – that we earned it through our own hard work and talent.

This leads to the hubris of the successful, the belief our success comes through hard work or talent, rather than because the odds were stacked in our favour, or we were in the right place at the right time.

But if we believe that those who are successful deserve it and got there through hard work, we must also hold the same belief for people who are less successful – that their failure is deserved and linked to their lack of hard work. People who experience success might not say this out loud – they might not even consciously think it but one cannot believe that success is deserved without also believing that failure is deserved too.

In a school environment, this is damaging for those who don’t achieve, not just for children with learning disability but for the 30 percent or so of the school population who leave without qualifications that enable them choice. A life with reduced status, choice and opportunity, and an implicit meritocratic belief from society that this is deserved.

  • The meritocracy reinforces a narrow set of ideals about what a good life is

Sandel argues that we’ve become more fixated as a society on a particular type of success, one that is recognised through credentialism: qualifications, exams, and particular professions.

This credentialism has become an almost singular focus of our education system which leads, in turn, to a narrow conception of what a good and worthy life is. The section in the Green Paper of describing the gap in academic outcomes between the overall population and children with special educational needs and disabilities is an example of this. This effect is magnified by the sorts of people who teach in and lead schools who almost by definition are those that have succeeded at education. This can make it harder for them to see and recognise other forms of success.

This leads us to a central challenge for our school system and society: for children who don’t leave school with academic credentials, where is their dignity located[1]?

If we are to take this opportunity as society to think again about the place for those with special educational needs and disability, we must be able to make fuller and more inclusive articulation of what a good life is, and what it could be.


[1] A phrase attributed to Michael Merrick, primary headteacher

‘We all have the same twenty-four hours’ is a common idiom badgering us towards greater productivity.

The idea is we should take pride in our achievements and not look for excuses if we aren’t as successful as someone else. 

While this is of course technically true, in practice it is meaningless because not everyone starts from the same point.

Some of us have more advantages and privileges than others. Such sentiments also tend to be reductive and unimaginative because the sorts of achievements deemed worthy of celebrating and instrumental reward are usually those that speak only to meritocracy.

Running an Etsy side hustle that brings in thousands a year is instrumentally rewarded. Caring for an elderly relative less so. Achieving high scores in an exam is a cause for celebration whereas being a caring and loyal friend is rarely recognised with tangible reward. 

Purely meritocratic measures of success impoverish most of us.  

By measuring everyone with the same ruler and only with this ruler we construct some people as failures and narrow the range of things for which humans can achieve honour and dignity. 

This concerns us.  

Tom’s son, Freddie, has Down’s syndrome, Autism and due to early childhood epilepsy is mainly non-verbal at 16 – it is unrealistic to expect him to become a doctor, a teacher or to hold a position of public office. 

Bessie’s learning disability means she is already behind most of her peers at reading and counting and she’s likely to need help for the rest of her life.

But this does not mean there is anything wrong with her. 

Williams Syndrome – of which her learning disability is a part – makes her the person she is. It is part of her personal charisma. 

It is why on the first day of school when far more academically able children struggled, she placed herself on the threshold smiling, beckoning and reassuring her nervous friends.

Her learning disability is part of why her twenty-four-hours – and all of us lucky to know her– are so full and rich. It is an inherent and immutable part of what makes her, her.’ 

There are no better versions of Bessie and Freddie without their learning disabilities – how they learn is part of who they are.  

They will always have them. Nothing has gone wrong. They are not unwell. They are fine and while imperfect their imperfections are entirely human ones.

We know Bessie and Freddie and lots of other children with SEND do need help and that we can’t just dismiss the medical model.

Many children identified as having SEND have medical conditions which rely on the medicalised model and a system of diagnosis and allocation of resources, treatment, to keep them safe and in some cases alive.

These contradictions are at the heart of the challenge between the damage of the medicalised model, but also the necessity of it in ensuring that we do not lower our expectations for children with particular conditions.  

We understand this well because we have high expectations too. 

We want our children to do as many of the other things in life that others do – if possible, to read, to add up, take-away and multiply. Ultimately to understand more about the world they live in and to make their own contribution to it.

We also want and expect our children to get help they need.

We do not want the adults in their lives to say ‘bless their heart’ while allowing them to spend all day playing in the sandpit because this is what they say makes them happy – like all parents we want our children to learn, develop, change and become more than what they are. We want them to fit in and contribute. Failing to have high standards and challenge have – in the past – resulted in thousands and thousands of people written off and shut way from the rest of society, victims of a self-reinforcing cycle that degrades and lowers expectations.

We don’t want this.

We want people like Bessie and Freddie, identified, and properly supported.

We want them to be challenged – to have teaching which is expert, rigorous and evidence-informed. 

The Green Paper is not framed this way.  

Instead, it implies if we intervene early, we can stop children developing SEND or make their SEND less severe, and by doing so better equip them to compete in the meritocratic battle of life.

This is true in some cases. For example, young children who are slower to acquire speech and language, are often classified as having SEND as a mechanism to access more specialist support and are then typically declassified as having SEND once they reach a particular level of proficiency.

We could argue that in this case, a label of SEND is unnecessary – what a child needs in this situation is the right expert input, not a label of SEND. A counter to this would be that within the system we have with limited expertise and resources, a label helps as a way of accessing that support.  

Even if this paradigm is useful for some children, it is exclusive to others.

There are questions to ask around how far support might be compromised by medicalised diagnosis processes.

A diagnosis of Downs Syndrome – for example – offers nothing in the way of support for communication or reading difficulties and may obscure specific needs that could be better addressed if they weren’t overshadowed by a powerful and distracting label that may on occasion become an excuse for a failure to thrive – as in “she’s dong so well for a girl with Williams Syndrome and she’s happy and that’s enough.”

It’s helpful to move success markers from outcome to process – of looking to honour those that do their best to learn and the experts that help them regardless of how well they eventually perform in competition with others. The best part of this is it creates a field on which all can triumph whether learning disabled or not. I have a twitter thread ready to go on this I’ll send out later today.

We should acknowledge progress.

It is now common for schools and others involved in education to talk about ‘needs not diagnosis’, but their ability to actually act on these good intentions may be hampered by an ecosystem that is steeped in medicalisation and meritocracy – there’s a tension between the practicalities of the world we have to live in and what these practicalities are trying to accomplish.

There are parallels.

Tom Sherrington used to begin one of his talks by asking everyone to imagine their school data system had been obliterated. He then asked the audience to decide how long it would be before this made any difference to the progress or outcomes of any child in the school. His point was that the data had become an outcome in itself and was often divorced from the experience of actual children in real classrooms. I’m going to ask you to do something similar. I want you to imagine that the entire SEND register at your school is deleted.

At what point would this make a difference to the children in it?

Who might this make things worse for?

Who might it actually help?  

We would not go as far as saying this would definitely be a good thing and understand why we shouldn’t – given how we need diagnosis and designation to access things like funding and support it would do damage – but if there are some children you think this might help, or others you think are only on the register because of perhaps challenging but perfectly normal behaviours then perhaps you are asking questions of the medicalised model too. 

Perhaps our well-meaning attempts to help those of who find learning hardest actually makes things worse for at least some of them.  

And this isn’t just about children with SEND. 

In assuming failing to learn quickly and meritocratically achieve is a defect, it confines all but those who are the highest and fastest fliers to failure and it may even make it harder for them to get support for their specific learning needs.

We think we can do better. We think all children and their families are entitled to a more ambitious and fuller articulation of what a good life is.

It is comforting to believe that meritocratic talent is distributed evenly and is something in everyone just waiting to be unlocked, and the reason not everyone is able to rise to life’s top table is because we are doing education wrong. 

This sort of thinking is well-intentioned. It moves the blame for bad outcomes away from those who struggle and places it on a failure of our education system. And if it were true, we could solve these problems by working on radical pedagogies that would unleash this, in order to give everyone the same chance in life as each other. But it isn’t true. 

While as humans we are of inherent equal value this does not mean the most meritocratically advantageous capabilities are distributed equally. To pretend so is a fiction we tell to make ourselves feel better about society’s inability to properly include all its members because it fails to recognise human value as inherent. 

Our squeamishness about confronting this is unhelpful. 

We hear our society’s defensiveness about facing up to who our children really are when parents like us are told they have ‘delays’ in learning, as if struggles at communication or reading are just speedbumps on a road to the same place everyone else is going. 

A first step towards more genuine inclusion could be to widen the things we value and view as success. This means celebrating more everyday success – things that matter to families and communities. It could also include placing a higher value on the process of work and learning for the sake of contribution; learning new and challenging things well, not just because of the salary or exam result.  

Only a few can earn the highest salaries or reach a particular academic standard, but everyone can enjoy the dignity that comes from making a contribution through good work and committing to the struggle of learning something well. 

A broader conception of a good life also means moving on from celebrations of disability achievement that – despite being well-meaning – reinforce meritocratic ideals. This can be seen in the attention given to Special Olympic success and stories about those with learning disabilities achieving mainstream qualifications. While such stories are inspirational, without examples of other sorts of success they make things harder for those with the most profound disabilities because they expose them to fundamentally inappropriate measures. To be fully inclusive we should celebrate more everyday milestones too – a young man learning to tell his family what he’d like to eat for breakfast or a teenager learning to tie her own laces.  

At this point, it is important to say that despite our criticism of the meritocracy, its credentialism and narrow conceptualisation of ‘a good life’, we are not making an argument against a focus on high academic achievement in schools, exams, or performance tables. 

On the contrary, we believe that these things have value and are important tools in advancing education, just as having an Olympic Games does not devalue the achievements of those of us who don’t exercise at international athletic standards. 

High academic achievement and strong exam results are legitimate aims and to suggest that we shouldn’t value them, because not all children can excel at them, would be a mistake. It would damage the life chances of millions of young people capable of better academic outcomes and meritocratic success than they might realise. 

We should celebrate ten grade 9s at GCSE as impressive. Just as we should celebrate Usain Bolt’s 100m world record. 

The problem is not that there is anything wrong with celebrating achievement, it is just we’ve got a bit lost and come to see meritocratic performance indicators – like exam results – as virtues in themselves rather than being potential contributors to a good life for those capable of achieving them. A narrow vision of what learning is for and what a good life is, puts it out of reach for children like Bessie and Freddie and impoverishes the endeavour for everyone. 

So in this talk, we have identified challenges within the existing SEND system which create a deficit paradigm in which people with learning disability exist. We have located this within a wider societal challenge, arguing this is a symptom of the meritocracy which values a narrow set of things including academic credentials, wealth and occupational status.

We have also suggested two principles that could act as helpful counter narratives: first, that we should see people with learning disability as complete humans, and second, that through valuing a broader range of things, we can create a wider and more accessible vision of a ‘good life’.

Can the Green Paper help us make progress?

The Green Paper proposes several things which we described earlier as a step in the right direction, including a commitment to establishing new national SEND standards.

If developed and implemented well, national standards could help establish much higher and consistent expectations for children with SEND in different areas. One such area could be a much greater level of due diligence and consistency for the process of identification of SEND, including the mechanism for how children are placed on a school’s SEND register. A label of SEND in and of itself, does little to identify any specific need and, worryingly, can often lead to children spending less time with a qualified teacher and accessing expert support. History also tells us that well-meaning reform to encourage inclusion can often have unintended consequences. The 2016 GCSE cohort which left Year 11 with 39% of children being identified as having SEND at some point is one such example.

National standards could also help us move beyond a focus on ‘additional and different’ provision and towards more expert and rigorous, specific teaching for children with SEND. Children who learn slowest do not learn in fundamentally different ways yet the existing definition of SEND in the current Code of Practice describes provision which is ‘different from or additional to that normally available to pupils of the same age’ (DfE, 2015). Standards and policy reform which stops incentivising schools from evidencing ‘additional and different’ and instead encourages more widespread expert practice, informed by high quality and relevant research could be an important paradigm shift. This is something that’s been said well by SENDCo Nicole Dempsey, who says of her school Dixons Trinity Academy: “The quality of input, high expectations and staff accountability that we apply to our highest attaining learners is the right of all pupils.” (Dempsey, 2020).

Consistency, higher expectations of expertise, evidence and decision making are all important aims for SEND reform, but there is also an opportunity to use national standards to address the challenges of dignity and deficit framing within the SEND system.

National standards for SEND to address the challenges of dignity and deficit framing within the SEND system.

  • Affirmative language: the use of affirmative and respectful language and narratives, which avoid the unintended consequences of deficit framing that exist within the current SEND system.
  • Dignity of process: an expectation that a process of accessing additional support should treat people with dignity and respect, rather than requiring them to demonstrate repeated failure.
  • A broad view of success: the importance of recognising a broad range of success measures when working with children who have learning disabilities, rather than assuming that success looks the same for every child.
  • Need vs. identity: a clear understanding of the difference between specific learning difficulties that can be overcome, as opposed to the variation in rates of learning that are part of who someone is.

We don’t have all the answers. We’re not even sure that we have all the right questions but what we do know is that if we are serious about creating a more equal and compassionate society, we have to think much harder about the place within it for those with learning disability, and to answer some difficult questions.

How might we educate children of all abilities in ways that allow them recognition and honour for their work regardless of whether it results in academic or normative success?

How can we show children that they don’t need to be a celebrity, achieve top academic results or move out of their communities for a high-powered job to be valued and to make a contribution to the world?

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The Williams Syndrome Disco

This weekend my family – the four of us plus my parents – attended our first ever Williams Syndrome Association National Conference in Butlins, Bognor Regis.

The programme was carefully organised and cleanly executed with enjoyable activities for a wide range of people balanced well with practical sessions on education, health, work and growing older.

We’re grateful to the Williams Syndrome Association and aware of just how much work this was to organise.

While so much was useful the most memorable part was the disco on the final night. Here a live band known well by the Williams Syndrome community played singalong numbers in front of a dancefloor lit with tiny white LED bulbs.

To begin with it looked a lot like any party – a band playing with people of all ages singing and dancing along.

But something was different.

An important thing to understand here is how musicality – a deep affinity to music – is a near universal trait of Williams Syndrome. While it is important not to generalise it is also fair to say those with the condition often experience music in a way the rest of us won’t ever understand. A sad song can bring my daughter to tears while other songs have her up and dancing with infectious joy.

I am used to seeing this in her but unused to seeing so many so moved by music all at the same time.

It was both beautiful and unnerving. Anyone danced with anyone. Everyone dancing with everyone. There were hugs and high fives – exclamations of joy as old friends met old friends and new friends made new friends. The band struck up a song the crowd knew well – a simple tune in which a microphone was passed around and anyone who wanted could grab it and sing something they thought was “very nice.”

People sang about their favourite foods, their favourite songs, their friends, their families.

And Williams Syndrome.

All together they sang that Williams Syndrome was very nice.

In type this sounds twee but those of us who were there know it wasn’t – it was a powerful expression of culture – something I don’t think those of us who lack Williams Syndrome can understand.

And feeling this something odd moved in me. A sort of exquisite exclusion – a melancholy for a world I’ll never be fully part of and will only ever connect to vicariously.

This will never be my party the way it is hers.

She owns something I don’t. She is part of something important and rare – an unusual humanity that humanity needs to be complete.

I was thinking all these things and then suddenly there Bessie was in the middle.

Five-years-old bold eyed, curious and brave, in just the right place at just the right time.

Dancing with her brothers and sisters.

Part of something I will never be part of – part of something that belongs to her – a fully realised and perfectly complete human born into a developed and proud culture.

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Turn it Up!

Attempting to motivate disengaged children by asking them to think about what they want to do when they leave school is usually a dead end.

Doing this assumes children think a lot about the future and are willing to make changes to how they behave and work now to achieve clearly defined goals. A few children think like this but most do not.

Those who don’t forward plan are unlikely to change because of a chat with a teacher.

Most children do not think much about the future. Like all of us they live mostly day-to-day and are concerned with now not when. They do not have time to think about being successful adults because their time is taken up trying to be successful children.

When schools are at their worst this is very problematic.

When behaviour is poor and lots of children have no respect for the institution they attend, being a successful child can mean signalling anti-establishmentarism and building social capital with peers through defiance, rudeness and disruption. While many will of course always behave well this is hard and means a child having to choose between social status and academic success. This is made even harder for such children because such cultures are difficult to learn in.

What’s the point of working hard and behaving well if few others try and you don’t learn anything?

There is a lot schools can do quickly to fix this.

Clear rules with purpose, clear consequences and consistent competent routines establish orderly schools in which the most motivated learn much from their teachers.

Being human most young people are groupist and once positive social norms have been established and embedded the way in which they construct social capital changes. When most people are following rules and positive social conventions failing to adhere to them marks children out as different and most do not want this – so they fall in line.

Learning accelerates.  

The most academically motivated children – typically the most able – find themselves in calm and quiet environments in which they can listen, concentrate and work without distraction. These children follow all the instructions of their teachers and make rapid progress. Their hard work no longer signals anti-groupist norms and they can fully commit without fear this will lead to social exclusion.

Such environments are also helpful to the most vulnerable learners who need calm spaces to regulate and focus. Calm schools also allow pastoral and SEND teams to move away from crisis mode and meet deeper needs. While the learning of those with behavioural issues and SEND may be slower than that of the most able it too speeds up.

Schools moving from disorder to this point have gone a long way.

But there may be more to do because an implicit and damaging social contract can emerge.

While this isn’t as immediately obvious and pressing as dealing with poor conduct it is just as important.

In schools that have moved from disorder to order it is too easy for children to feel surface level compliance is all that’s necessary to get by. It is very difficult to work this out from brief visits to lessons because these will be calm and orderly and when children are given work they will appear to do it. Dates and titles are written down and neatly underlined. Numbers for do now questions are written in the margin with answers next to them. Passages in booklets are highlighted and annotated so they are identical to the teacher’s copy. Work is transcribed from the board to exercise books.

But little real learning is happening for lots of children because they aren’t thinking hard.

Often they are doing the minimum required to pass as a successful child in an environment that tacitly tolerates the minimum. Sometimes there’s an unspoken but powerful contract that goes “if you don’t bother me I won’t bother you.”

This is much tricker to address than bad behaviour because it doesn’t feel as urgent; a child walking around the classroom shouting obviously needs dealing with but what problem is presented by one who copies a question down then just waits for the teacher to go through the answers before writing them down?

Often the consequences of this issue don’t reveal themselves until a child sits an assessment and produces little or nothing.

If this problem was always addressed at this point, then this might not be too serious.

A robust response after a bad set of results can be powerful. But too often this doesn’t happen and too many children drift through the years underachieving until Year 11 when some – but not all – find sufficient external stimulus to finally get moving. While a lot can be achieved in Year 11 it is never enough to compensate for years of treading water. Failing to address the problem can put a ceiling on expectations with adults coming to feel there will always be a group who fail to learn much despite doing most of what they are asked to in school – this can quickly undermine solid practice such as Cold Calling with teachers unconsciously only targeting pupils they know are thinking hard and generating false positives in every lesson. It can also lead to diminishing returns with schools doubling down on things that worked in the past and were once highest leverage but are no longer; while it is important to maintain established high standards around rules, routines, culture and courtesy such foci on their own will be insufficient.

It’s important schools are alert, reflective and mindful improvement is an ongoing, incremental process and the aim is not to cross a line and then stop getting better.

What’s the answer? As always it won’t be as simple as defining the problem and much will be context specific – but here are three suggestions.

  1. Identify what thinking and working hard means in each subject

Subjects could break down hard tasks into iterative steps that can be made clear to pupils and tell students what is expected at each one. This should be done sensitively and expectations around thinking hard communicated clearly because many children may legitimately not know they are falling short – especially if they remember a time in disorder and disruption was the norm.

  • Turn the dial on acceptable behaviour to include thinking hard.

This might mean broadening and deepening familiar techniques like Be Seen Looking so they pick up on children who obey direct instructions but go no further. It will mean being very explicit about the thinking expected of pupils and not just what we want to see in book – making metacognition potentially very useful. It will mean department’s being very clear as to what thinking hard means in their subject and effective sequencing and teaching of the steps necessary to complete harder tasks. Children do need to be held to account for doing this but sensitively with raised expectations made clear.

  • Create mechanisms to identify and address coasting pupils.

This might mean more conversations with pupils about the work in their books, more measured and assertive use of assessment result data and parental contact regarding academic performance. This alone can be a step change for schools in which behaviour has been the only reason concern about a child is raised with families. While meaningfully consulting with the families of every child who has underperformed can feel overwhelming the ripple effect of just beginning this can be dramatic.

My hunch is a significant difference between largely adequate and excellent schools is how well they address this persistent problem, and that schools in more advantaged areas are less affected because the issues are covered up by privileges like parental support and private tutoring. This makes being largely adequate rather than excellent less obviously problematic than it is in disadvantaged contexts.

But whatever the context it’s important to solve this problem. Getting it right means meeting children where they are – not where we might want them to be in the future- and moving from obedience to working hard as the main marker of successful childhood.

The schools that manage this well leverage five years of work in lessons – those that fail will always have too many students who underperform and find there’s always too much to do in Year 11.

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A CPD Curriculum in 9 Principles

A couple of weeks ago I tweeted a short thread about CPD and school improvement at Lodge Park Academy. I followed it up with a tweet about the poster above and how pleased I was teachers seemed to be using it.

The thread and tweet got more attention than I had thought they would and I had requests for for a blog post on how it all hangs together.

This is it – but before going on it’s worth emphasising the principles behind this strategy are more important than the strategy itself.

I’ve put the principles sitting behind what we do in bold type.

Principle 1: The best people to solve problems are usually those closest to them.

At Lodge Park we only set one school wide step at a time and we encourage departments to make it subject specific. They also set completely specific action steps based on their own priorities. We are open to being convinced a schoolwide action step has no utility for a specific department. When this is the case we allow the department to opt out of the particular cycle.

We are very aware of the danger of generic strategy and we try to mitigate against them.

This post is only about our school wide action steps – if you’re reading this and want to know more about departmental steps please get in touch and I’ll point you towards the right people.

Principle 2: People work best when they are focused on limited number of things at one time.

We begin with conversations about what one specific thing would have the highest impact on the learning of our students if we were all doing it.

We know this will be a compromise but think the benefits of us all working effortfully on one thing outweigh the negatives of everyone doing their own thing with no centralisation at all.

These conversations are journalistic to begin with – based on what leaders think are priorities.

Usually these are about what persistent problems we are facing and which of these would have highest impact if we solved it.

Once we have a range of problems we discuss them at SLT meetings and try to formulate action steps that might resolve then – sharing our evidence base for the opinions we have and challenging each other. We have loads of informal conversations about we’re thinking too– with SLT, leaders, teachers and our pastoral team – checking whether any emerging conclusions are out of whack with our reservoir of professional and contextual expertise.

Principle 3: Certainty is impossible but we can make better bets by looking at lots of evidence before making decisions.

The aim of all this isn’t to arrive at certainty – in low validity research fields this is quixotic.

We’re just aiming to make the best bet we can – what single thing would make the biggest difference if we all did it well?

More than a year and a half ago we decided the single biggest school wide improvement we could make was around Means of Participation – we wanted every student to know exactly what they should be doing for every minute of every lesson.

Principle 4: Solutions to persistent problems will not just be found in our school.

Once we’ve decided on what to work at we go out to find the best possible work we can on this specific problem.

We know we don’t have all the expertise we need to solve our problems.

For our Means of Participation phase this meant drawing heavily on the work of Doug Lemov, Fahim Rahman, Lee Donaghy and Adam Boxer among others.

Principle 5: We show what we care about through making time for it and using that time well

We use the work of others and our own knowledge to plan training on the action step.

This usually means a presentation, some opportunities for practice and the sharing of our research base for those who want to go further than the headline messages. All materials are sent through our weekly bulletin so they can be accessed for people who weren’t present during the training or want reminders.

Time is then given to departments to personalise the training and make it subject specific.

After this SLT meet with the departments they link with to help the subject leader make the school set action step department and subject specific through exemplification and training, and to decide on how progress against it will be quality assured.

Principle 6: To really understand what is going on in a school you need honesty and people aren’t honest when they’re scared.  

Next the Head of Department and SLT link plan appropriate quality assurance for all agreed departmental action steps. This will and should vary according to what the action step is – this quality assurance schedule is then shared with the department. This is important because we want a culture of transparency and trust – firstly because it is just nicer and secondly if things like learning walks and book looks are made high stakes it becomes more likely those subject to them will attempt to hide the truth to stay out of trouble.

This is absolutely not a criticism of teachers – this is a perfectly rational and human response when management is seen as threatening and I think in some schools it’s accepted as just the way things are.

We don’t want a culture in which quality assurance is seen as test in which you show the best aspects of your practice while hiding problems you experience.

We make it as clear as we can that making slow progress or even no progress towards an action step won’t lead to punishment. When things don’t go as well as we all want we try and frame the issue as an interesting puzzle rather than a professional failing.

This is both more humane and more accurate – in complex systems like schools if something isn’t working it’s very rare the reason is one isolated thing going wrong.

It’s far more common there are a number of interacting issues and if we want to work these out and understand them it makes no sense to have a fault-finding approach to performance management.

Sometimes it might be the entire action step was wrong and if it is we need people to feel able to tell us this.

Principle 7: People working on similar problems will find helpful solutions from others working on similar problems.

During each phase we align our experience sharing culture to the schoolwide action step.

During lockdown we did a lot of big Teams meetings in which she discussed what worked online and we pivoted this to more regular operation thorough staff breakfast clubs and the Precision Partnership model established and embedded by our AP for Professional Development, Selina Martin (@dancemarts)

Everything – action steps, training and quality assurance are all recorded on one document, which is then used in review meetings to decide whether the action step has been totally achieved, needs embedding or is failing to bite.

After each phase senior leadership uses what they’ve learned from their link meetings to decide whether the school has made enough progress towards the central action step has been made to make it an LPA Standard and move on, or whether more work is required. No decisions are made ahead of each cycle – adapting to reality means creating the capacity to be surprised and respond when we are.

Over eighteen months we feel we’ve done enough to make Means of Participation, 100% Engagement, Checking for Understanding and Responsive Teaching LPA Standards.

Principle 8: Nobody is perfect all the time and we all need help.

This does not at all mean we think we are perfect at these things.

We know none of us do everything well all the time.

There is no draconian penalty for those of us who slip up and miss things.

There can’t be if we want people to be open and to talk about what they are finding hard so they can get better at it. It means what we’ve worked hard on has now become the standard students should expect. If anyone enters any room and sees one of these things not being done then they should immediately step in to help and that help should be gratefully accepted.

We make this clear this works at all levels. If an ECT pops into my lesson and sees I haven’t noticed a student has their head on their desk while I’m modelling something under the visualiser – which can happens – , I expect them to say something like “Mr Newmark, excuse me but James isn’t looking at the board and I think he should be.”

This allows me to take the right course of action to achieve the LPA Standard.

We don’t want to become complacent about our standards so we make space in our CPD curriculum to review and relaunch them when we need to. This – again – isn’t necessarily a problem. We are busy. We forget. We get tired. A return to our basics is very often the best bet we can make.

Principle 9: People come to work to do their best and will use things if they help them do a better job.

A way we gauge whether or not our teachers are finding what we do useful is by making signage and other resources easily available but not insisting anyone takes them – our hunch is people come to work to do their best and want to get better – so if something is useful and helps them do their job better they’ll engage with it and if they aren’t there’s a very good chance they haven’t found it helpful. This means we need to rethink.

Although there is a lot more to teaching we reckon any school achieving clear Means of Participation and 100% engagement, where teachers check for understanding and respond to what they learn is a long way down the right road.

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The SEND Green Paper – how can we move towards a more affirmatory conception of SEND and learning disability?

The Green Paper and SEND Reform – Tom

In March the government published a green paper which set out proposals for further consultation on reforms to the system for Special Educational Needs and Disabilities.

We welcome this.

It’s important we surface a debate around how we educate our most vulnerable learners and the green paper is a step in the right direction.

It makes some sensible and pragmatic suggestions about how the system can be more effective and efficient.

The Green Paper is honest in capturing the problems children with SEND and their families experience and it confronts the dire outcomes within the system

It accurately captures the frustrations and inefficiencies – the delays, the disagreements, the multiple interests working across each other and the resource sapping bureaucracy that too often drives young people, their families and professionals working with them to despair and disillusionment.

It understands how regional variation and non-standard ways of doing things combined with inconsistent provision creates a mystifying landscape full of cul-de-sacs and wrong turns, in which our most vulnerable children and their families are often bewildered and lost.

It appreciates how hard it is to regain purpose and momentum once things have begun to go wrong stating that: “carers and providers alike do not know what is reasonable to expect from their local systems.”

This sort of honesty is welcome.

A lack of clarity around exactly who is responsible for what is a source of many of the disagreements and frustrations between families and professionals. Those of us who contribute to EHCPs in school know just how difficult it can be to agree exactly who should provide a service, by when and who should be held to account – and how this can create unpleasant tension that can unhelpfully damage important relationships that work best when they’re free of conflict.

Many of the proposed solutions are sensible too – such as consistent national standards for how special educational needs are identified and met, standardised approaches to EHCPs across the country and greater clarity around what can be expected. The current EHCP system is a source of enormous inefficiency and the current postcode lottery where children with higher and complex needs get more or less support depending on where they live is entirely unsatisfactory.

Overall, the green paper frames these different problems through three challenges:

Firstly, that outcomes for children with SEND are poor.

Secondly, that navigating the SEND system is not a positive experience for children, young people and their families

Thirdly, despite unprecedented investment, the system is not delivering value for money

We recognise these challenges and are supportive of any reform that will help to improve the efficiency, effectiveness and user experience of the system.

But we think there is a fourth and more fundamentally important challenge that the Green Paper does not recognise. Special Educational Needs and Disability is still framed within a deficit narrative – it conceptualises learning disability and special educational needs as something somehow going wrong.

As Leora Cruddas, CEO of CST says:

‘It is important for us to move on from a deficit narrative built around the medical model of disability to a more inclusive and socially affirmative narrative of human flourishing.’

We think we can do better.

Deficit narratives – Ben

When we compare outcomes of children with special educational needs to those without, we imply success always looks the same.

This can very easily create the belief disability or greater need is something to be educated out of someone – even a defect.

We see this in the application processes for EHCPs and DLAs where to get help parents and professionals must gather evidence a child is so behind their peers they can’t possibly catch or keep up without additional resource.

The intent is not malicious – a way of identifying children who need support is necessary – but the effect can be brutal.

Many families find it traumatic.

What’s produced ends up being a list of things your child can’t do all together in one place laid out as failures.

There is space to share your child’s strengths, interests and aspirations, but many families feel these sections are tokenistic and are not given the same weight as the focus on things they can’t do. 

Many feel they do have clear ambitions and visions for their child, but these are side-lined or even ignored.

To access help, a child needs to be seen to fail at things other children succeed at.

Professionals know and – I think – find it as awful as families do.

We were warned about it – told from the outset the process we’d need to get Bessie help would be unpleasant but like many other families – were advised not to let our love get in the way of confronting objective reality – as if all our positivity and joy was a childish fantasy that now needed to be shoved aside. 

We were advised to show her in the worst possible light – to hold our daughter up for judgement to strangers and provide evidence of her failure ourselves.

While the process is not intended or planned this way no family should be subject to this indignity – especially those most burdened with appointments, paperwork and procedure already. 

It creates the sense that the world sees your child as worse than other children, and this creates adversarial relationships between families and the education system.

As Barney Angliss writes in the researchED Guide to SEND “it often seems the only way for young people with SEND – or their parents and carers to get help.. is to characterise themselves as ‘impaired’, somehow less.”

This deficit framing of learning difficulty and disability informs the Green Paper.

The Key Facts section of the Paper notes that – for example – the average attainment 8 score for KS4 students with SEND is much lower than for those without any identified needs and uses this as evidence things are not working.

Most children who struggle to learn end up with lower grades than those who don’t. Of course they do. We should not be scared to say so. 

And it does not mean there is something wrong with these children.

Today we are suggesting a better path means reframing the way in which we view learning and humanity. 

It doesn’t mean dismissing academic achievement. Instead it means broadening the scope of what we celebrate and finding ways to reward learning regardless of how children perform against their peers.

We don’t think school has to be a zero-sum competition between those who find learning easy and those that don’t. 

We think it is possible to identify those who need help and then help them without humiliation or shame.  

This may require an effortful refocusing but we are certain it is possible.

To get started we need to understand the problem with the value system in which we live – exactly what meritocracy is and how it affects the way we frame education.

The Meritocracy – Tom

The term ‘meritocracy’ is the ideal of success, status or power being distributed on merit (talent, achievement and hard work) rather than through other means such as social class or on a hereditary basis. It’s the ideal of people getting further in life not because they were born into it, but because they earned their success and they deserved it.

We can hear the language of meritocracy in everyday language such as:

You can make it if you try.

You make your own luck.

Work hard at school and you will get good grades, go on to university, get a good job and lead a happy and successful life.

Or more negative variants such as:

If you don’t work hard and get good grades, you will end up stacking shelves at Tescos.

You’ll waste your life doing that.

The term ‘meritocracy’ was coined by the sociologist, Michael Young in 1958 in an essay where he described a future and dysfunctional society where a tension existed between high IQ elites in positions of power and influence believed strongly that their position at the top of society is deserved and a disenfranchised underclass of those left behind.

In Michael Sandel’s 2020 book, the tyranny of merit, he argues that these narratives of meritocracy have become increasingly common in western society. It’s the American dream: the belief that anyone, regardless of where they were born or what class they were born into, can attain their own version of success in a society in which upward mobility is possible for everyone.

But listen more closely to the rhetoric: ‘everyone can rise’, ‘you can make it if you try’, ‘what you earn, depends on what you learn’. So is it true? 

Sandel argues that during this same period of increased faith in meritocracy social mobility actually declined.

The meritocracy doesn’t deliver the social mobility it promises

Sandel points out, in countries where the narratives of social mobility are strongest, there is in fact less equity and social mobility than in others. In America (the home of the American dream where everyone can be upwardly mobile if they follow their dreams and work hard), the richest 1% of the population earn more than the lowest 50% of the population combined yet 77% of Americans believe the statement that ‘people can succeed if they work hard’ (American dream, it would appear, is not alive and well).

From the perspective of narrowing educational gaps between children from high and lower income families, our school system currently fails to deliver social mobility.  Children from low income families start school 4 months developmentally behind those from more affluent backgrounds. Despite over a decade of pupil premium funding and a national focus on ‘disadvantage’, the gap doubles by the end of primary school, and doubles again by the end of secondary school to nearly 20 months.

The attainment gap is not a problem found only in schools assessed by Ofsted as performing poorly – in fact, it’s just as large in schools rated ‘Outstanding’ as it is in schools rated ‘Inadequate’.

The meritocracy creates losers as well as winners 

It’s easy to talk about the ideal of jumping up a social class or rags to riches tales of people who ‘make it’ against the odds. But the reality is that these stories are against the odds and not typical.

They also often fail to talk about the uncomfortable truth which is that in order for someone to become a winner, it has to happen at someone else’s expense. Meritocratic success is finite and there are a limited number of places at desired universities or top jobs which if someone ‘makes it’, it means someone else has not.

In a zero sum game, being a winner requires someone else to be a loser and we’re often not honest about this displacement.

This is true also in a school setting. For every celebration we hear of someone ‘moving up a set’ or ‘making the team’ there is someone else who travelled down.

The meritocracy creates the hubris of the successful

The meritocracy lead us to believe that if we are successful, it’s because we deserve our success, that we got there on merit – through our own hard work and talent.

This leads to the hubris of the successful, where we believe our success came through hard work or talent, rather than because the odds were stacked in our favour or we were in the right place at the right time.

But if we believe that we get what we deserve in life, we also have to hold the same belief for people who are less successful. By extension, we must believe those who don’t do well in life, deserve their fate and didn’t work hard enough. People who experience success might not say this out loud – they might not even consciously think it. But you cannot simultaneously believe that you deserved your success,

without believing someone else deserved their failure.

In a school environment, this is damaging for those who don’t achieve – the 30% or so of the school population who don’t leave primary school with passes in Reading or Maths, the 1/3 of children who leave secondary school without qualifications that enable them choice. A life without choice and an implicit belief from society that they deserved it.

The meritocracy reinforces a narrow set of ideals about what a good life is

Sandel argues that we’ve become more fixated as a society about this has become more focused on a particular type of success, one that is recognised through qualifications, exams and particular professions.

This credentialism has become an almost singular focus of our education system which leads, in turn, to a narrow conception of what a good and worthy life is. The section in the Green Paper of describing the gap in academic outcomes between the overall population and children with special educational needs and disabilities is an example of this

If we are to take this opportunity as society to think again about the place for those with special educational needs and disability, we have to be able to make fuller and more inclusive articulation of what a good life is, and what it could be.

Fully actualised humans – Ben

In January, former Love Island star Molly-Mae Hauge briefly became The Main Character on Twitter after she shared a quote about Beyonce having the same twenty-four-hours in a day as everyone else.

She was endorsing the meritocratic myth – the idea we are all equal and have nobody to blame but ourselves if we aren’t successful.

There was pushback because many people understood while Beyonce may well achieve more than most of us do in a day she has advantages making it easier for her.

But Molly-Mae has a point – we all do have twenty-four-hours.

Her mistake was in seeing Beyonce’s achievements as superior to those of others who have used their time differently.

Beyonce’s achievements are not more important than those of a nurse finishing a sixteen-hour shift at Great Ormond Street. While the world affords Beyonce greater rewards than a nurse it also understands this does not make her achievements morally superior. 

There is no one way to be successful. 

By measuring everyone with the same ruler and only with this ruler we construct some people as failures and narrow the range of things for which humans can achieve honour and dignity.

This is of concern to us. 

My daughter, Bessie, has Williams Syndrome and is unlikely to ever become a famous millionaire businesswoman, singer or nurse. Tom’s son, Freddie, has Down’s syndrome, Autism and due to early childhood epilepsy is mainly non-verbal at 16 – it is unrealistic for him to become a doctor, a teacher or to hold a position of public office.

Bessie is a typical five-year-old in many ways.

She learns phonics and numeracy at school and spends much of her time playing babies and cats with her sister, Rose.

There are differences too.

Her learning disability means she is already behind most of her peers at reading and counting. 

This gap will almost certainly widen but this does not mean there is anything wrong with her.

Williams Syndrome is part of what makes her the person she is.

It part of her personal charisma.

It is why on the first day of school when far more academically able children struggled she placed herself on the threshold smiling and beckoning them in.

Her learning disability is part of why her twenty-four-hours – and those of her family – are so full and rich. It is an inherent and immutable part of what makes her, her.

There are no better versions of Bessie and Freddie without their learning disabilities in parallel universes.

They will always have them. They are not unwell. They are fine as they are. 

We know Bessie and Freddie are not typical of all children with SEND. 

Some children may be pragmatically well served by a deficit conceptualisation and a framework based entirely on affirming the difficulties children face as aspects of character runs the risk of lowering expectations and depriving those who need help of the support they need.

I understand this well because I have high expectations too.

I want Bessie to read and I want her to be able to add up, take-away and multiply.

I want her to get extra help. I do not want the adults in her life to say things like ‘bless her heart’ while allowing her to spend all day playing in the sandpit because this is what she says makes her happiest.

I want her known, identified and properly supported.

The beginning of resolving this apparent contradiction – between helping with need but also affirming people is understanding what makes a person find something hard is not a character flaw to be educated out of them.

The Green Paper is not framed like this. 

Instead it suggests if we intervene early, we can stop children developing SEND or make their SEND less severe, and by doing so better equip them to compete in the meritocratic battle of life.

While this might be useful for some children it is exclusive to others and it means framing those who find learning hardest as problems.

There are lots of people who find learning hard – lots who aren’t great at anything deemed valuable by mainstream society – people who won’t win competitions. By making the value of humans contingent on an ability to excel in the least imaginative sense we strip away their dignity and opportunity to live a good, fulfilled life. 

This is what deficit framing does.

I think it is the reason a father with an eleven-year-old with autism once told me in a meeting “I just want him to be normal” before breaking down into tears of defeat and shame at what he’d just said. 

It is why any ambition to reduce the level of SEND among England’s children by teaching it out of them is misguided – it legitimises the sense there is something wrong with you if you can’t learn as quickly as others.

And this isn’t just about children with SEND.

In assuming failing to learn quickly and meritocratically achieve is a defect then all of us aside from the very highest flyers will be found wanting too.

We are entitled to better – to a more ambitious and fuller articulation of what a good life is.

The counternarrative – Tom

At this point, it’s important for us to say that having made some criticisms of the meritocracy, credentialism and very narrow conceptualisation of ‘a good life’, it might come as a surprise we’re not saying that we shouldn’t have exams, performance tables or a focus on high academic achievement in schools.

On the contrary, we believe that these things have value and are important tools in raising educational standards more generally.

But we recognise there is a risk that this argument might be interpreted as somehow being anti-intellectual, anti-exams or having low expectations. But without making it, we consign millions of children who don’t achieve normative success in schools to an existence where the meritocracy tells them: you failed, you didn’t try hard enough, you get what you deserve.

We don’t think this makes us enemies of promise or that this is somehow the soft bigotry of low expectations. On the contrary, we want to have much higher expectations for children who find learning the hardest. Higher expectations of outcomes but also higher expectations for the dignity and respect that these children experience. Ultimately, a higher expectations for our conception of what a good life is and can be.

It is comforting to believe there are innate, unique and meritocratic talents in everyone just waiting to be unlocked and the reason not everyone is able to rise to the life’s top table is because we are doing education wrong.

This sort of thinking is well-intentioned.

It moves culpability for bad outcomes away from those who struggle and places it on a failure of our education system.

If it were true we could solve these problems by working on radical pedagogies that would unleash this ocean of hidden capability allowing those with SEND and learning disability the same chance as everyone else at meritocratic success.

But it isn’t true.

While as humans we are all of inherent equal value this does not mean the most meritocratically advantageous capabilities have been distributed equally.

Saying otherwise is a fiction we tell to make ourselves feel better about society’s inability to properly include all its members because it fails to recognise human value as inherent.

Our squeamishness about confronting this can be unhelpful.

We hear our society’s defensiveness about facing up to who our children really are when parents like Ben and I are told they have ‘delays’ in learning, as if struggles at communication or reading are just speedbumps on a road to the same place everyone else is going.

With Freddie for example, Adele and I sat through at least 5 years of nursery and primary school parents evenings regularly being told that ‘Freddie’s not mark marking’. It became a joke between us, if one of us couldn’t get to the parents evening the other would say ‘guess what they said?’ 

‘He’s still not mark making’.

Freddie doesn’t write.

I don’t think he’ll ever write – he doesn’t need to.

So why does he need to mark make? And why did we as parents did we need to spend 5 years having written reports that told us he wasn’t doing it very well.

This is example of where the school system assumes that everyone is on the same path – and that any difference is a delay, it’s slower, and seen as lower.

An example of where children with profound learning disability are inappropriately compared to the progress of young people who have few obstacles to learning.

But this doesn’t mean that conventional measures of success are worthless.

Strong exam results and high academic achievement are legitimate aims and to suggest that we should do away with them because not all children can excel at them would be to go too far. It would damage the life chances of millions of young people capable of better academic outcomes than they themselves realise.

We should celebrate ten grade 9s at GCSE as impressive. Just as we should celebrate Usain Bolt’s 100m world record.

By celebrating Usain Bolt’s achievements, we are not making running less valuable for the rest of us.

Ben and me don’t sweat our way around a 5k in Lycra thinking what’s the point of this?”, because we are not in competition with world athletes.

We are mediocre runners but like it anyway because it is good to run. Running is an inherently good thing to do and if we go faster than normal, we’re happy!

Our value as humans isn’t tied to how fast we run. We did not start our running life at the same point Usain Bolt did. There are good reasons he is faster than us both.

There are lots of people who find learning harder than we do.

There are lots of people aren’t great at anything deemed valuable by mainstream society – people who won’t win at most competitions. By making the value of humans contingent on their ability to excel in a limited number of things such as their income, their academic credentials or certain professions, we strip away their dignity and opportunity to live a good, fulfilled life. We make it hard for them to see why they should bother trying at all.

This presents us with a challenge.

How can we educate children of all abilities in ways that allow them recognition and honour for their work regardless of whether it results in meritocratic reward? How can we show them they don’t need to be Beyonce or an ICU nurse to achieve the positive regard of their communities?

The problem is not that there is anything wrong with celebrating achievement – it is we’ve got a bit lost and come to see meritocratic performance indicators – like exam results – as virtues in themselves rather than being potential contributors to a good life for those capable of achieving them. We have narrowed our conception of what learning is for and what a good life is in a way that puts it out of reach for people like Bessie and Freddie and impoverishes the endeavour for everyone.

How might we rebalance?

Ways forward – Ben

 Here are five suggestion – if nothing else we hope these can begin good conversations.

 High expectations for all.

The meritocracy wants to concentrate resources on people who are already advantaged.

It is taken as given those who are clever deserve better than those who are not and are entitled to it.  

It isn’t true, it is exclusive and we can resist it.

While the journeys of those of us who find learning difficult will be different, their paths are just as worthy of our attention.  

They deserve teachers just as qualified and ambitious as those of the most academically gifted. 

This is something that’s been said well by Nicole Dempsey in the ResearchED guide to leadership in which she says of her school Dixons Trinity Academy:

“The quality of input, high expectations and staff accountability that we apply to our highest attaining learners is the right of all pupils. “

This isn’t cheap – children like Bessie and Freddie do require more resource than those who don’t. We need everyone to agree they are entitled to it.

Children who find learning tough deserve imaginative curriculums of possibility that listen to them and their families. Although they might not look like yours or mine they have the right to dreams as exciting and wild as anyone else’s.

For these children high expectations means talking to them and the people who know them best and taking their ambitions seriously even – especially – when they don’t look like our ambitions. 

By placing children and their families at the bottom of ladders they can and want to climb and then placing their feet on the first rungs we make aspiration for all more than just rhetoric.

Celebrate a broader range of things in school.

Schools have awards for being loyal, brave, kind and helpful but they often feel compensatory– a sort of ‘bless ‘em’ prize for those who we know won’t ever get the best exam grades or reach Grade 8 cello.

This is not the fault of schools – society’s patronising attitude towards those who don’t win at life’s big games makes making such celebrations meaningful tough, but I think we can swim harder against this particular tide.  

We can show we value a wide range of human qualities.

While it is common for schools to bring back alumni who have meritocratically achieved – and they should not stop doing this – inviting a former pupil who has spent years working as a carer on minimum wage to inspire children to lives of responsibility and commitment to their communities is much rarer. 

It would be good for everyone because humans don’t derive value from only their income or fame. Recognition of being of use is powerful too. Such an example could inspire everyone and show those who struggle to learn academically they can still live lives of meaning

Schools that want to properly include those who find learning hard should think carefully about what these children will go on to do when they leave. Our education system and wider society should work together to provide destinations for everyone.  

The mark of truly excellent schooling for learning disabled young people will probably not be found in the number of GCSEs students get – it is in what these children go on to do and how fulfilling their adult lives are.

This would be a start. 

But what about those as unlikely to secure work in a care home as they are to become Beyonce?

What can we do for these children? 

For little girls like Bessie and young men like Freddie.

Value learning and work in itself

We could shift the way success is recognised and celebrated from mainly meritocratic achievement and towards the pursuit of learning for its own sake.

Simone Weil argues for this in her paper “The Reflection On The Right Use of School Studies With A View To the Love of God” in which she says the goal of school should be to increase our capacity to work at something regardless of whether we find it easy or hard, interesting or boring.

For Weil there is honour even in failure – dignity in honest struggle.

This places value on the process of learning.

This might make our most able young people – those best equipped to meritocratically achieve  –  better students by steering them away from the sort of pride and overconfidence that leads to misconception, error and misunderstanding.

Those who find learning difficult could be honoured for their struggle and celebrated free of condescension. It would allow us to properly see the achievement of a person who – after weeks of work – learns to tie a shoe on their own. It would allow us to see the sublime strength in a child taking their first steps after years of work. 

Seen this way – the right way – achievements like this can inspire us all – manifestations of the best of humanity not wooden spoons for those who won’t win meritocratic recognition.

Avoid playing the meritocratic game.

A Head of Year standing in front of an exam cohort and telling them their hard work will be rewarded by high grades, offers from top universities, high falutin’ careers and associated inevitable happiness is familiar to us because it makes for a compelling and reassuring narrative.

Good people work hard and are rewarded for their efforts.

But this isn’t true for lots of people.

Perhaps we know this on one level and are playing the odds – thinking children are more likely to be happy if they do well in school than if they do not. 

Perhaps we think telling children this story is a white lie – not true but helpful for them to believe.

The problem is how exclusionary and frightening this is for children who know they aren’t likely to excel at the sorts of things we are used to celebrating.

Such a message might even be counterproductive because it lands most firmly with those who find academic work easiest and misses those who find it hard.

Instead let’s honour children who apply themselves to work however hard they find it for doing it and not just for the result – and let’s be honest. Hard work may result in better exam grades but beyond that our predictions become much less certain.

Start today.

None of this will defeat the meritocracy. We won’t destroy it in half an hour in Leicestershire.

Perhaps we don’t want to anyway – perhaps we need it and history suggests revolutions more often do more harm than good. We should be wary about burning things down in the hope something better will rise from the ashes. 

Perhaps what we’ve talked about is only a counter narrative necessary to keep the meritocracy in check – to avoid falling wholesale for the idea we all get what we deserve. 

What we have proposed today might just be a dream. 

But it is a good dream and the first, perhaps most important step we can take for children like ours is daring to dream better for them.

Thank you for coming. Your attention matters. 

This needs more than just people working in the SEND system.

We can’t do this on our own. We need you to feel this is something that connects with your work and is important whether you work with children with SEND or not. 

It can’t be left to those of us already exhausted by forms and appointments and endless meetings.

It can’t be left to the wonderful professionals – perhaps the best of us – who work every day with the children who find learning most difficult. 

There’s just too much to do. 

We – Me, Tom, our families and our friends -The SENDCO in your school and their team – know this well.

We can’t do it alone. 

So help, please. 

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Why George Monbiot is wrong about exams

Respected environmental journalist George Monbiot takes a dim view of the way we school our children and has written a series of articles explaining why.

While I admire him – his environmental journalism is outstanding – out of specialism he is as vulnerable to his own biases as the rest of us, and often ends up misinterpreting and cherry-picking evidence to support a position he’s already arrived at.

In his latest piece –which you can read here – he argues exams may be a significant cause of the increase in mental health issues since 2017. A source for the claim is this survey in which 66% of 2000 children cited exams and homework as their most significant cause of stress and anxiety. The survey took place around same time as the first school shutdown, so we should consider the possibility part of this anxiety might be linked to uncertainty around how students would be assessed following the cancellation of exams.

Not knowing is worrying.

It’s also worth remembering the survey included children from ages 8 to 17 and it’s unlikely the spread of results would have been consistent among all ages groups – while all year groups do homework not all do exams, which might mean it was homework children find most stressful. Without seeing a breakdown of results it’s impossible to know. Even a full breakdown wouldn’t move us much further forward – self reporting exams as a source of stress doesn’t create a causal link to poor mental health in the context of millions of complicated lives.

There are problems with Monbiot’s second source too – a survey of NEU members in which 73% of 650 respondents said they felt student mental health had deteriorated since GCSEs were reformed. The first issue with this is NEU’s critical position towards exams. This is likely to distort results making wider conclusions on the views of the profession as a whole impossible – the findings are entirely in line with what we’d expect from members of an exam critical union motivated enough to respond.

It’s also important to be aware of just how huge the NEU is – it has nearly half a million members which makes 650 a vanishingly small sample size. To demonstrate how flawed this is I ran a twitter poll earlier today asking “Are the new 9-1 GCSEs a significant cause of a decline in the mental health of young people?” As of four pm 70% of 202 respondents said they didn’t think they were, which is interestingly almost a perfect reversal of the NEU poll. This – of course – does not mean exams definitely aren’t causing anxiety but shows how variable the results of surveys are and how in isolation they don’t add up to much.

Anyway.

Even if we give Monbiot’s reading of his sources the benefit of the doubt – and this is generous – the conclusions he draws from them are still unsound.

The first issue is his failure to seriously consider anything else that might be causing a deterioration in mental health and this makes his argument almost certainly too simplistic and very likely just plain wrong.

By omission Monbiot’s suggests the deterioration in mental health – which is a genuine crisis – has nothing to do with social media, a stagnant economy, anxiety about climate change or the hollowing out of social services over the last decade. This is implausible – there is good evidence all these things worry young people with the correlation between an increase in the amount of time spent on social media apps and declining mental health of particular interest given how it crosses national boundaries.

Monbiot has made a correlation causation error and a quick step back to look the wider picture shows just how unlikely he is to be right in any substantive sense.

His argument is further weakened by how long exams have been going on. Exams are an embedded feature of our educational system for generations – they aren’t new. Monbiot briefly addresses this by suggesting it’s the 9-1 ‘strengthened’ exams driving the decline but this makes little sense. To attribute such a marked and worrying deterioration in mental health to a change in content to exams children have sat for decades just doesn’t ring true.

Having made his case about exams causing poor mental health Monbiot suggests exams themselves are of no use in measuring the most important capabilities of children. He claims their only purpose is to preserve the privileges of advantaged groups. This section of his article tags in all the familiar tropes around exams testing only rote learning, narrowing curriculum and damaging learning. I don’t have the time or energy to clear up all these myths and misconceptions but rebuttals aren’t hard to find – please tweet them in replies if you have them to hand.

Instead I’ll point out there isn’t a person I know who’d argue exams are perfect measures of skills, capacity and knowledge, or that they don’t come with downsides.

All of us know this well.

The issue isn’t that exams are perfect but that everything else we’ve tried has come with are worse.

Continuous teacher assessment is often just as stressful and is more vulnerable to teacher bias. I’ve never known anything that narrowed my subject’s curriculum more than coursework did. Just about every other method of assessment is more vulnerable to gaming and manipulation than exams are. Just about every other method ends up further disadvantaging the most vulnerable. A plethora of different assessment methods is an administrative nightmare and soaks up energy that could be used on developing and implementing strong curriculum.

Saying more is pointless given Monbiot doesn’t give any concrete suggestions for what he’d replace exams with.

Instead he seems to think exams are so terrible razing the system we have to the ground would inevitably result in something better rising from the ashes.

This is naïve.

It is also dangerous.

In attributing the cause of something as serious as the decline in mental health of our young people to predominantly one thing we close our eyes to other things that might be even more important.

Imagine the absolute chaos an announcement of the permanent end to exams would cause and what this would mean for an education system already frighteningly stretched, especially in the context of falling budgets and the shrinkage of social services. How destabilising would this be? How worrying? Who would be best and worst equipped to navigate a chaotic new landscape?

I have great sympathy with one thing Monbiot says. I think he’s right that instrumentalism and credentialism are problematic. I also think how well people do at school has become dangerously high stakes within an increasingly meritocratic, technocratic society. I agree the range of human virtues we value and celebrate is too narrow. I’ve written about this before.

Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit has very important and interesting things to say about this if anyone wants to go deeper.

But changing the way we assess young people won’t make a dent in this and Monbiot is naïve in thinking getting rid of exams would mean the end of private tuition, assessment prep and other methods used by the most advantaged to outperform the less fortunate.  

New assessment methods would just mean new ways to game and new ways in which curriculum would be narrowed and education degraded.

These are likely to be worse than what we have now.

We know because it’s happened before- this call to arms is more reactionary than revolutionary.

We’ve tried to find other ways of doing things – many, many times.

We know about this stuff.

It’s galling and frustrating to read articles like Monbiot’s in which those of us who’ve given our lives to education are at best witless pawns trapped in a game we only play because we don’t understand it and at worst monstrous ogres forcing children through hoops they don’t fit through out of spite. A world in which journalists whose expertise lies in other fields are so confident they know better than those of us who’ve worked decades in this one they conclude articles by saying our work preparing children for exams “inflicts pain and distress on our children, narrows their minds and forces them to conform” and seem to expect us just to take it.

The final sentences of the article – in which Monbiot breezily owns up to having no ideas as to how to things better – are perhaps the most infuriating of all.

“Q: What would a fair, rounded, useful 21st-century education look like? A: Nothing like this.”

I expect better from George Monbiot – a person of integrity who I will continue respecting regardless of what he writes about education.

Sorry if this came over as a bit of rant. I’m not angry – honest. Just disappointed

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Why is more important than what.

Someone I know has an enthusiastic and knowledgeable daughter who on her first visit to the British Museum wanted to see the Rosetta Stone more than she did anything else.

Although it’s something we’ve all heard of it’s still an impressively niche choice.

On the face of it the artefact itself is pretty unimpressive – just a broken slab of granite-like rock with the same thing – fairly boring stuff on the achievements of a specific pharaoh – carved in three different languages. What’s important about it isn’t what it says– it’s that the two known languages on it allowed the translation of hieroglyphics which unlocked the literature of Ancient Egypt to scholars and resulted in astonishing breakthroughs. 

I hope my colleague is proud of her daughter. She should be. What she’s grasped is that artefacts – physical things you can touch and hold – are only important because of what they mean and this is a lesson I think many of us – certainly myself – can too easily forget.

Teaching and teaching leadership are low-validity research domains.

The complexity of schools and the communities they serve makes it hard to work out the impact of discrete actions and decisions.

An improvement or decline in outcomes – from better GCSE results to worse behaviour – is almost always down to range of interacting things. Did GCSE results go up because of Growth Mindset assemblies or was it because of our targeted use of after school intervention? Is behaviour worse this year because the new system we brought in isn’t working or is because of high staff turnover last year? Even though behaviour is poor might it be even worse if the system hadn’t been changed?

It is impossible to be sure and it is often impossible to devise ethical ways in which to be more certain – the sort of randomised control trials and studies used routinely in medicine and other more defined fields don’t work well in our world. It just wouldn’t be right – for example – to withhold a potentially powerful intervention like online one-to-one tutoring from some students in order to assess its impact on others.

While such uncertainty can feel paralysing it has to be acknowledged and confronted.

What we do is important and although it is hard to make correct decisions we have to try – we can’t throw up our hands and say because we can’t be sure about anything it’s best not to do anything or that because we can’t be certain anything goes.

We must work within the uncertainty.

This means holding our views and decisions lightly and being ready to shift when the gradual accumulation of softer and harder evidence creates a compelling case for change.

This can be hard to do. It is hardest in systems and cultures steeped in transformative leadership models of management which privilege certainty and action over reflection and restraint.

When things need to improve then things must change. Decisions must be made. Things must be done.

While this is all well and good we get problems when actions and decisions in of themselves becomes the point of rather than the means for improvement, which can happen when systems and the people in them try to hide from uncertainty by cladding themselves in the illusory armour of certainty – when they either deliberately or unconsciously pretend to be sure about things they can’t be sure about.

One manifestation of this is the privileging of school artefacts over the reasons for the artefacts – a misconception akin to valuing the Rosetta Stone for how it looks and its weight and heft rather than what it means and represents.

An example of this might be a school requiring teachers give feedback in a specific way – for example demanding they fill in a school-wide standard whole class feedback sheet or requiring teachers insist children respond to feedback in a different coloured pen. Here there is a risk the sheet or pen becomes the point with the quality of the feedback of less importance.

There are further risks.

Unless those asking for specific artefacts are careful they might find (or not if there’s no incentive to look) that the type of work and the sorts of task teachers ask their pupils to do become dictated by the format of the artefact.

The danger here are teachers doing things like setting tasks that could easily be responded to quickly in green pen because it could be responded to quickly in green pen not because it was really the right work for the child or class. Teachers doing this shouldn’t be blamed – by taking control of the artefact and emphasising its importance leaders are making a claim they know better than their teachers how best to do an aspect of their teaching and all teachers who fall in line are doing is respecting hierarchy.

Sometimes – in some contexts often  – leaders will be right to step in but in others they might be wrong and when they are wrong teaching becomes vulnerable.

A teacher subject to regular scrutiny of whole class feedback sheets – particularly if the scrutiny is high stakes – might end up aiming to fill in the forms as quickly and efficiently as possible rather than spending time thinking about where children had not understood something well and what to do about it – especially if what they had to do didn’t fit neatly on the form and wasn’t immediately visible to external audiences.

In both examples the artefact has eaten the reason it was introduced from the inside out leaving just a husk behind.

The point is not that there is anything wrong with standardised feedback sheets or using different coloured pens –there can be great value in both these things if they are done for the right reasons. Nor is that leaders should never ask teachers to do things in a specific way – there are lot of times this is appropriate and correct.

The point is just caution – that we ask ourselves “why do we want teachers to do this?” more than “in what sort of format should we ask teachers to do this?”, and that we remain vigilant for times form may be assuming ascendency over function.

We must remember why the Rosetta Stone is important. Without knowing it’s just a piece of black rock in an old building.

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A Chosen Child

B has been in proper ‘big school’ school for almost six months now. It is going well.

She’s happy.

We are impressed and encouraged by the expertise and the commitment to true inclusivity her teachers and teaching assistants demonstrate every day. As we tell them often what they have done and continue to do for her is important because it has set our expectations high.

Knowing what’s possible we will never be satisfied by lacklustre or mediocre provision.

As a result of all the help and her own efforts B continues to thrive and her evolution into a confident, self-assured and articulate little girl delight us. Her interests and opinions peel away the dulling scales of familiarity and reveal everyday wonders in refreshed colour.

“Listen Daddy!,” she says, pointing at me in imitation of her teacher. “I’m teaching you about castles now. Do you know some are close and some are far away? Did you know knights live in them with horses? Did you know that daddy?”

While of course on the most prosaic level I know these things B’s discovery makes them new. I did know but I didn’t know. I had forgotten.

This is a gift all children bring us.

In the meetings we have to chat about how she’s getting on we learn new words and phrases. One of these goes something like “she is a chosen child”. This little idiom – cloaked in sadness in its acknowledgement some children are not chosen – fills me with great hope.

It means that other children choose to befriend, socialise with and play with B of their own volition.

This is something I’ve thought about. I’ve worried about it too because B is different. 

Children are human. Their desire to fit in and for acceptance can make a different child seem like a social burden it’s best to be without. Wishing the world was otherwise won’t change it. While we can do our best to mediate, facilitate and nurture more complicated relationships we can’t make one child like another if they don’t. We can’t force a child to feel a responsibility to look out for another when they’re negotiating complicated social paths themselves.

What delights us about B – her uncritical, all accepting, all trusting, two-fisted, wholehearted and loving desire to connect can be unnerving to those experiencing this emotional intensity for the first time. Sometimes – watching her fall in love with a new friend, a ladybird or even a shrink-wrapped raw ham (this has happened), it seems as if there is so much love in her it overflows her banks – that there just isn’t enough space in the world to hold her gifts.  

Given the high propensity of this sort of outlook in people with Williams Syndrome it is likely a key driver of this is genetic.

I have read suggestions the tiny microdeletion of DNA causing WS may remove some of the genes responsible for checking the innately human desire for community. This – the same suggestion goes – might also be why most people with Williams Syndrome have a great affinity for music. The theory goes that most of us are held back from complete immersion in song because a bit of us is always apart – coldly appraising ourselves and others as individuals even at our most communal. People with Williams don’t hear the internal voice saying “Am I singing well? What do others think? Am I better or worse than everyone else?” – they just want to be part of the togetherness.

Williams Syndrome isn’t a deficit – it’s a fuller expression of a part of humanity we all have.

I hope this is true because it is lovely.

But this fuller expression of one part of humanity does come at a cost to another.

Life can be cruel and hard and the part of us that appraises, schemes and works out whether others are an advantage or disadvantage to us is a useful tool. Being without it makes a world created by others harder to understand and navigate. Those who lack this instinct – an absence of guile as a wise friend once put it – require others to guard and protect them.

It is so important to me B is chosen because she needs the loyalty of others to keep her safe.

And I think she will be fine.

I feel this more and more. She turns up to parties and other children squeal and jump and scream “B!” and run to hug her.

She is popular – and those of us lucky enough to know her understand why.

B offers acceptance.

There is security in her friendship. I think we all – her teachers, family and friends – know this on an instinctive level. To be in B’s life is to know you are wholly accepted; there is no part of her held back – no part of her that might use you or decide you’re no longer worth the bother of friendship because there are other people it’s more advantageous to spend time with. It is to go through life knowing there is someone all in on your side– a person who will celebrate your achievements without surpressed envy and console you in hard times free of the faintest trace of schadenfreude.

To be in B’s heart is to be locked safely there.

Just last week my bold, bright and precocious younger daughter fell and banged her arm.

She was distraught as two-year-olds are when they are suddenly hurt and frightened. My wife and I were there but she ran first to B. She threw herself into her sister’s arms who hugged her back and made everything better.

In this there is such hope – the same upwelling I feel when I watch the “Undateables” and see vulnerable young people protected and nurtured by friends whose own lives are immeasurably enhanced by people who may never win life’s most gaudy and obvious prizes but offer something both more subtle and profound. People who teach different philosophies – different ways to live and understand.

These stories are humanity at its best – a lesson that while the world is not always as it should be sometimes it is and that means it can be.

B and people like her can build this world but they will need our help just as we need theirs. We need each other for this is a world that cannot be built alone.

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Book Review. The Queen’s Fool by Ally Sherrick

One of the questions faced by historians interested in marginalised people and groups is how to write history when there are comparatively few sources and little existing scholarship.

Some might conclude in cases where we have little evidence we should not attempt history at all. This is –  of course –  unsatisfactory as it condemns and even endorses the confinement of already underrepresented people to historical obscurity – victims of the same forces that made their voices quiet and hard to find in the first place.

Neither is it acceptable for history to overstate its claims when there is a paucity of evidence about its subject. In such cases – whether it is the Norman Conquest for which we have only a handful of sources – or whether it is people with learning disability for which we he have few across thousands of years– the form of history has to be different to that on subjects for which historians can draw upon a wealth of documents.

History here will be more tentative – more suggestive and more circumspect with hedged interpretations and conclusions. While historians must still pay careful attention to the evidence there is perhaps more scope for imagination to fill in the bigger gaps as long as the line between conclusion and speculation is made clear.

Novelists are not constrained by sources at all and are free to do what they want with the historical settings in which they create their worlds. They have total freedom and as such it can be dispiriting to see the same worn seams tunnelled time and time again especially when the stories of those too often ignored by history are ignored in fiction too.

We have truckloads of fiction set in Ancient Rome and more still in the Third Reich and Cold War.

When it comes to the Tudors we have mountains of it – some bad, some indifferent and some good but usually all about the same sorts of things; power struggles between noble families, queens, princesses, wives and axemen – The Fat Horrible King and his Wives.

How refreshing then to read a book that boldly and confidently steps away from the familiar path to tell the story of a character so fully realised she explodes from the pages like fireworks over the Field of the Golden Cloth, around which much of this marvellous book is set.

The main character in this book – main not amusing or pathetic sidekick – is Cat Sparrow.

While modern readers will know Cat has what we would call learning disabilities Sherrick respects her source material enough not to label her this way in a world in which the term had no meaning.

Instead Cat is what she is – different with an off-beat way of understanding the world around her. The writing never patronises or makes her the subject of maudlin sympathy.

Cat is what she is and does what she does.

Characters react to her in different ways and things do not always go her way but it is her decisions and actions which drive the book forward to its thrilling conclusion. She shapes her own story and those of her family, friends, allies and enemies. Cat is rescuer as much as rescued and sits right in the middle of all that happens – no mere plot device designed to say something about someone else.

Unaccustomed to seeing someone from what historian Simon Jarrett calls “the outgroup of all outgroups” so confidently and firmly realised I found myself almost breathless with pleasure and excitement at many points in the story.

The Queen’s Fool is a remarkable achievement.

As the father of a fully realised person with a learning disability it means a great deal to me there is now something I can read to my daughter when she’s old enough that shows someone like her adventuring, striving, succeeding – the master of her own life regardless of how different she may sometimes seem to others.

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