In my last post I argued there is so little shared meaning around the SEND term “learning difficulty” we’d be better off abandoning it altogether.
I was being sneaky.
I have greater misgivings and this is an argument there’s so little shared understanding around the term SEND it isn’t useful.
I’m also arguing the increase in the number of children being added to SEND registers isn’t because more children are “special” but because more children are finding school tough.
The term “SEND” does a lot of work.
So much must nestle under the umbrella.
Children with physical disabilities who find academic work easy and get great grades; children with profound learning disabilities; children so mentally unwell they must be educated in hospital; children who just find learning harder than some other children; children who can’t always manage their emotions and get into fights; timid children so anxious about some lessons it makes them feel ill.
And so many more.
An enormous, enormously diverse group of children whose only real commonality is a “K” next to their name on a school information system.
It is impossible for such an umbrella term to be useful because when we try to describe children with SEND we are talking about everyone and nobody simultaneously, and this is made worse by a lack of standardisation and consistency around how SEND designation is made.
Even if SEND exists as something with meaning we don’t know who the children with SEND are.
The system won’t allow us to say this.
It demands identification, generalisation, tracking and intervention but trying to do this for a group without an identity can only do harm.
The first issue how the one term – SEND – implicitly homogenises those assigned to it and how this creates and then propagates a sort of “SEND” identity and off-the-peg generalist SEND strategies and interventions.
If you want to know how this works get together a group of parents with children identified as having SEND and ask them about “social stories”, “zones of regulation” or “visual timetables.”
The point here isn’t that there is something inherently wrong with any of these strategies but the perception they’re applied to children not because of an individual need but because the child “has SEND” and these are “SEND strategies.”
This isn’t just supposition. Even the Education Endowment Foundation propagates it.
While the advice isn’t bad it’s assumption of a distinct SEND identity shows how integrated such generalisations have become.
But how can we avoid generalisation when accountability measures around outcomes and Ofsted makes the same generalisation?
Analysis of results and other indicators of success compare “SEND” pupils against those without SEND, incentivising everyone to see things this way and disincentivising more sophisticated thinking and conclusions.
This creeping genericism makes it difficult for those working with “children with SEND” to build knowledge and become expert in specific learning needs. There just isn’t time or space to do it. Instead, expertise often means expertise in securing resource and navigating the byzantine systems and structures that have evolved to maintain predominantly generalist ways of doing things.
Generalisations and categories are not always bad.
While they always hide nuance, they can be useful to allocate resources wisely and make system level bets around what to prioritise and focus on – but for these to have a chance of being helpful they must have some validity – if they have none then no associated analysis, strategy or intervention can be of use.
Austin points out that descriptors are not just neutral reflections of a reality that already exists – they change and create new realities.
When a child is identified as “having SEND” we transform them into a “child with SEND” and this has lots of associated effects.
Even when we have more specific and secure designations – such as autism or dyslexia – we risk something akin to “diagnostic overshadowing”, when one identified and formerly assigned characteristic becomes a hinderance in seeing a person as more than this diagnosis.
This is bad enough when identities have meaning and a disaster when they do not.
Here’s a provocation based on a hunch.
Often when the term “child with SEND” is used there’s a caricature that comes to mind.
It doesn’t mean a child in a wheelchair or a visually impaired child. It doesn’t mean a child like my daughter with an identified genetic condition and associated learning disability.
Rather than these it means a child who struggles in school. Probably has a low reading age. Probably has lower attendance than their peers. Probably behaves poorly. Probably has handwriting that’s hard to read.
They have designations like “learning difficulty” or “cognition and learning”.
This is a lot of children and a group that probably overlaps considerably with the 30 or so percent of children who don’t get GCSEs at Grade 4 and above.
They aren’t special.
They are children who sit on a perfectly normal spread of human characteristics. The need to construct them as different says far more about the values of our society than it does about them as people.
The problem is not them – it’s us.
Our problem is we find these children hard to teach within our established parameters and constraints.
By designating them as somehow “special” we locate the problem within them and allow space for the implication these children are the responsibility of the school’s SEND department or even an alternative more specialist setting.
I know this isn’t how anyone wants things to be.
It isn’t the fault of teachers or schools – meritocratic societal norms and associated accountability measures privilege those who find learning easiest and at worse can make schools hostile environments for those who struggle. Take – as an example I know well – GCSE history specifications.
They are massive.
It isn’t possible for a teacher to support children who struggle in learning, mastering and overlearning it because if they do, they won’t finish the course and there are harsh professional penalties for this.
But a child who struggles to master such a bloated curriculum isn’t special – they are entirely normal.
It’s also a problem for children who can’t read well transitioning from primary to secondary school, which work on a general assumption Y7 pupils will be able to access the curriculum. Many can’t and the general structures of education aren’t set up for these children who often find themselves very quickly lost. This isn’t inevitable – the best secondary schools recognise this and do teach reading explicitly and an encouraging recent trend has seen secondaries hiring primary teachers to help – but those that do this are going against and not with established structures and modes of practice.
Those that don’t do this are more incentivised to add the child to the SEND register.
And these grow and grow – since 2016 the percentage of children on SEND support and with EHCPs has risen year on year. Every year we spend more money on a system nobody thinks is working well.
My contention is this is because we’re feeling the impact of austerity, recession, Covid lockdowns, the cost-of-living crisis and associated increases in child poverty and a general deterioration in adolescent mental health.
It’s implausible these things have no effect on education and logical to think this means more and more children are finding school tough, which is leading to more and more being identified as having SEND.
This problem is being made worse by a decline in specific support for specific needs. While most working in education will be familiar with the disgraceful state of children’s mental health services the effect of the pandemic on things like speech and language therapy is probably less well known, and the great pressure on the NHS and social services places such support at even greater risk.
If all this is true adding more children to SEND registers will do no good because the problem isn’t caused by what’s happening in schools and can’t be solved with any simple generic strategy.
Adding names to a list is just more names on a list.
We’re problematising more and more people. We’re enlarging a group that already has no identity and encroaching on space we need to think and talk about how society can better support education and how schools in general might be better set up for more children – and here it’s vital to strongly emphasise this post is not an argument schools need fewer resources or that budgets allocated to children identified as having SEND can be cut.
We need more money but spending it on small-scale strategies and interventions to help more and more disparate struggling individual children is finger-in-dam thinking.
It’s also clear more money and expertise is required on things outside education that support education and we can’t expect schools to pick up the tab for wider societal failure.
We are identifying more and more children as having SEND when there is no such thing.
It’s a problem and we must stop.
Take down the SEND umbrella.
There are too many holes. It isn’t keeping anyone dry.
Replace the term “SEND” with the specific need the child has.
Build knowledge and expertise in specific needs children have.
Adjust accountability measures to incentivise the education system to value the needs of those who find learning difficult as highly as it values the needs of those who find it easy.
Provide greater funding and support for services that support children with specific needs.
Provide greater funding and support for children and families in poverty or at risk of poverty.
Learning disabilities pose real challenges to the people who live with them, which are exacerbated by ableist societal attitudes and structures. Despite the issues, in a compromised world, a shared understanding is necessary to identify and then afford resources to the people living with them.
For a long time I was surprised at how many children in mainstream schools had SEND designations of SLD and MLD, assuming from reading about my daughter’s Williams Syndrome this meant they had a learning disability.
I was confused because I’d read a very large proportion – indeed most – of those with learning disabilities were educated in special not mainstream schools.
My mistake was in assuming children with this label had been identified as having learning disabilities when in fact they had been identified as having something different – a learning difficulty.
The misunderstanding was understandable.
Having two terms so alike to describe things that at least superficially look so similar is bound to create misunderstanding.
A look over at our health system offers little further clarity.
It tries to resolve this by attempting to map one to the other – here’s an example:
“Mild Learning disability (roughly equivalent to an IQ if fifty to seventy) is comparable to the educational term ‘Moderate Learning Difficulty.’
The first implication here is while the terms might be different the scale used must be the same and this scale must be standardised and consistent.
It isn’t true.
Most children identified as having learning difficulties have never had a formal intelligence test.
There is no standardisation around how this designation is made – the terms are different, assessment methods are different and the scale is not standardised or consistent.
Research by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) published in 2021 found which primary a school a child attends makes more of a difference to their chances of being identified as SEND than anything else about them as an individual. While this research is broader in scope than children identified as having learning difficulties the overall point remains the same; schools are free to identify learning difficulty however they choose to with no systemic oversight as to how this is done whatsoever.
Is this something to be concerned about?
Standardisation brings its own risks. Perhaps identifying children who need more help than others so they can be supported isn’t something we should get in the way of.
But there are serious problems. Identifying children as having a learning difficulty is not benign by default.
The lack of standardisation around how children are labelled means there can’t be any shared understanding or meaning of the term. This makes a mess of the figures used to track the progress, achievement and wellbeing of children with this label because we don’t know who these children are and what – in indeed anything – they have in common.
A child in one school might be designated as having a learning difficulty for reasons that would not lead to any action at all in another.
At system level this is a problem as it makes it hard to find examples of good and poor practice or to evaluate overall effectiveness.
For individuals, while it’s reasonable to assume those originally designating a child as having a learning difficulty had good reasons for doing so the term often follows children for the rest of their school life.
The original context is lost and professionals working with them are vulnerable to making assumptions about the child never meant by the person or people who made the original designation. The same is true of strategies to help the child – those doing the original labelling might well know how best to support them but those who see the term on SEND register years later will probably lack this knowledge even if it remains relevant after so much time.
Austin argues that sentences do not just describe a given reality but also change the social reality they are describing.
A classic example is a vicar saying “I pronounce you man and wife.”
Here the nature of this sentence is not a description- it has changed reality – the vicar has created a married couple.
This is relevant because any label or designation can change reality.
When we identify a child as “high ability” or having a “mild learning difficulty” we give them that identity.
This is not always a bad thing. If the utterance has a legitimacy it can be really helpful – the creation of a person with cancer as a cancer patient allows them access to resources that might save their life. However, if the utterance lacks legitimacy, then any identity created won’t be valid and associated actions will be invalid too. The lack of shared meaning around “learning difficulty” means there is danger in assigning this label to children.
A second issue is the lack of specificity in terms like “learning difficulty” locates the problem within individual children and offers no support as to how this child might be helped to progress. Combined with inconsistency around how identifications are made this can easily lead to a lowering of expectations and generic “SEND interventions.”
At worse this could even lead to passivity and fatalism – the idea that there are lots of children who simply can’t learn things other children can.
As Rob Webster demonstrates in The Inclusion Illusion, being identified as having a special educational need is no guarantee of better provision. It can actually lead to children who need the most expert help spending more time with less qualified adults.
Labelling a child as having a “learning difficulty” might be a disincentive to working at improving the experience of a children who – for lots of reasons – don’t find learning easy. By describing them as having a “learning difficulty” we create an implication they are “special” and “separate”, and that meeting their needs means additional or extra provision outside responsibility of classroom teachers.
This has been a known problem for decades.
In 1974 W K Brennan wrote of children who find learning hard but have no particular special need:
“the problem can only be resolved by the provision of adequate facilities for slow learning pupils within the ordinary schools. That is why the education of slow-learning pupils is, and must remain, a responsibility to be accepted within the ordinary schools.” (Brennan’s emphasis)
If we look beyond the jarring language we can see Brennan is driving at the idea that finding learning hard makes a child a part of a perfectly normal spread of human characteristics. Those that do shouldn’t be problematised or designated as being special or different. This idea remains unchallenged, and we should be wary of anything suggesting a child who finds learning tough requires support that can’t be provided by teachers in mainstream schools.
Giving schools total freedom to designate a child as having a learning difficulty means there is no safeguard against children who have no real trouble learning being identified as those that do because they are missing key knowledge or skills.
At secondary school, for example, many teachers do not have expertise in the teaching of reading and a child with a weak grasp of the phonic code might be wrongly identified as having a learning difficulty, leading to the real issues being missed and left unaddressed.
Finally – and perhaps most seriously – identifying children as having learning difficulties in terms so similar to those used to define learning disability risks a conflation of two different things to the detriment of both.
This leads to SEND genericism and its associated problems – the idea that children identified as having special educational needs share an identity when the umbrella has become so huge those beneath it are too disparate for the term to be much use at all anymore.
But that’s a topic for another blog post.
It can also lead to inefficient allocation of resources as children and parents are incentivised to believe they or their child has a disability demanding separate, special provision when they would be better served by effective teaching in a class with their peers.
The point was the same as W K Brennan’s – the majority of children who find learning tough could – and should – follow the same curriculum in the same classrooms as their peers most of the time.
The term was designed to lead to greater inclusivity – I think it’s authors would be disappointed in how it has mutated.
Improve professional knowledge on the difference between learning difficulty and disability.
Consider the removal of “learning difficulty” as an option on school SEND registers OR develop a shared understanding of what this means and hold schools accountable for how any why children are assigned this label.
Greater specificity around discrete areas of curriculum children with in order to offer more targeted support with children who struggle.
“David Beckham is one of the best free-kick taker ever and it not because of a talent sent by god. It’s because he trained with a tireless dedication that the vast majority of less gifted players would not even imagine.”
Sir Alex Ferguson on right—sided midfielder David Beckham.
“I don’t care. I was listening. It’s good enough. Why are you bothered? Leave me alone.”
Pupil to teacher.
The long hours teachers work is an often-cited reason for why teachers are tired and unhappy, and why schools have a recruitment and retention problem.
There is usually pushback with people pointing out many roles require lots of work, and that opening up a laptop in the evenings and weekends is hardly an affront to anyone’s human rights.
This is true. Teachers should be mindful of the offensive assumption other roles are all thirty-five-hours a week on comfortable salaries.
The most informed perspective comes from those who have worked in both demanding roles in teaching and outside it. Most seem to feel while the hours worked might be comparable, they’ve never felt more tired and stretched than they have done while working in schools.
This is because it’s is the type and intensity of work that’s most relevant – not how long it takes.
Teaching is tiring.
Those not engaged in it struggle to understand – or even remember if they once did it – just how intense it is.
A five-lesson day means five one-hour interactive presentations to a large group of young people, and many would prefer to be doing something else.
In each hour hundreds of tiny but important decisions are made. Getting just one wrong can cause a cascade of events that batter emotions and impede judgement.
Random factors and issues well beyond the control of an individual teacher can swing a wrecking ball through a carefully planned sequence and at the end of each hour – good or bad – the teacher has seconds to recentre themselves before it all begins again.
When things are going well this is exhilarating but when it doesn’t it can be dreadful.
Whether you’re on top of the wave or drowning in it it’s exhausting.
Matthew Hood now of Oak National worked this out a long time ago when he identified teachers – like athletes, actors and musicians – as being part of performance professions.
Nobody goes to see a band and then complains on the way out they only played for two hours – we understand it isn’t easier than cooking for five hours with the radio on.
In teaching we have a performance profession without the support structures to facilitate elite performance; we don’t expect a footballer to play in the afternoon and then attend a long meeting afterwards, yet this is a common expectation of those who teach.
Teachers are also expected to keep on top of emails, track data, assess, contribute to extra-curricular activities, do duties – where they must performatively care about things like coats and tucked shirts – and a thousand other tasks before they leave work where most have other jobs to do before they can relax.
Or open up their laptop.
It’s very tough and teachers manage it all extraordinarily well in very difficult circumstances.
While our teaching might not always be elite we should be kind to ourselves and mindful we lack advantages elite performers enjoy.
Adam identifies a foundational problem – many children simply don’t listen in lessons – and then proposes simple things teachers can do to fix this issue.
These things will work but teachers have to apply them consistently until they become habitual and then continue to apply them relentlessly if they are to prevent a regression to the mean.
What struck me most strongly was just how motivated teachers have to be.
Without Adam’s attention to detail and his iterative dogged botheredness his solutions can’t have much impact, and his suggestions -brilliant as they are – will make teachers more tired.
They mean working more intensively without strengthened systems to meet the increased effort.
It means the same long hours but properly looking not just being seen looking. It means circulating and intervening and holding to account and – to begin with – eye rolling and annoyance on the part of students not used to this level of intervention and feeling it unfair.
It means breaking an unspoken but powerful social contract which allows children not to give 100% so long as they don’t misbehave too much – a system which allows teachers to catch up on emails, take a micro-breather, or finish planning for P5 while kids answer a question.
Given this paradox – the virtues of having teachers constantly engaged in actively listening and ratio against the constraints teaching exists in – what’s best?
Firstly, we should reject simple binaries.
There isn’t a model ‘bad’ classroom in which nobody is listening and a model ‘good’ classroom in which everyone is.
Instead, there are times children listen well and times they don’t. There are times teachers have the energy and capacity to care more and times they find it hard to.
While there are some classrooms in which children generally listen and attend more than in others there is an ebb and flow in all.
And we can’t force teachers to make children listen. It requires an attention to detail that can’t be grafted onto someone else.
Instead, we should be clear about why we need all children to listen properly, build teaching expertise so they know how, then create conditions that make it more likely teachers can be as bothered as Adam is.
I know many are and I think most would be if they could.
I think some would like to be if they knew they could be but work in environments where there’s so much to do it’s too hard.
I think if they knew quite how wonderful it is to have a day with truly engaged active students for five lessons and then going home at a reasonable hour tired but happy they’d want it.
Where this isn’t common schools should think about how tired teachers are, what can be done about this and why staff feel they have to do admin, like getting on top of emails during their teaching hours. They should consider teacher energy as an opportunity cost to everything they do.
Data analysis might be important but if it takes hours and makes people tired is it worth it especially when balanced among something as high-leverage as impact in a classroom? Has the potential impact of outside hours interventions been considered alongside the effect it might have on the botherdnessof teaching in school?
Here school leaders should be really wary of just how hard it is to understand how busy full-time teachers are, how exhausting it is.
Having dipped in and out of full-time teaching over the last few years I know how fast memories of the intensity of fades once you’re on less than fifteen hours a week teaching time. This isn’t to say school leaders don’t work hard – I know they do – but it isn’t as tiring or exhausting hour to hour. Forgetting this is natural so it’s important to be conscious about it to avoid horrors like “no sitting at desk” policies or worse. It’s why school leaders are foolish if they tot up their hours, see they do more than a teacher and then make uncharitable judgements.
Finally schools shouldn’t aim for perfection.
As Adam points out children not listening is a common – perhaps even typical feature of most lessons.
Instead of making children listening all the time the sort of meaningless non-negotiable that does nothing at all we should aim to get children listening more – to push things on – to develop teachers who want children to listen, know how to and then have leaders cultivate environments in which teachers have enough energy to care about details in the way Adam inspires us to.
Years ago, I and a group of my top set friends shocked a teacher by telling them the best grade on a school report was A/4.
This meant you’d attained the top grade while barely trying.
To us this was self-evidently impressive.
It showed you were so naturally gifted you needn’t apply yourself to excel. The worst grade was F/1 because it meant while you’d tried your best you’d made little progress. We thought this embarrassing and a bit pathetic.
I feel ashamed now; of my smugness and entitlement, of my conflation of worth with an ability to do well academically that was – for me at least – an unearned gift.
I feel sad too. How limited and unimaginative and narrow my view of achievement was. How exclusionary. How much did I miss in the years I spent missing the point?
I’m coming more and more to the view effort is the most important thing and what schools should emphasise most. My contention is focusing on effort in serious and well conceptualised ways would have a beneficial effect on attainment for far more children than emphasising marks and grades.
Of course lots of schools do provide children with effort grades – but in the most part these are a poor relation to attainment scores.
Typically there is far more quality assurance and joined up thinking around attainment grades than there is to assessing how hard a child is trying. While attainment scores are analysed closely how hard children are trying rarely receive anywhere near the same degree of attention. This lack of attention and rigour undermines lots of well-meaning attempts to convince children to apply themselves because it implies if you don’t succeed the effort is wasted.
This is a missed opportunity. High attainment grades are exclusionary to many children. This is is realistic not a demonstration of low expectations.
Grading at all levels happens on a curve – for one candidate to do well another must do proportionally worse. Even if clever models allow adjustments for particularly strong cohorts we can’t get away from the fact high grades only have value because there are lower grades.
Attainment grades are not pure expressions of merit. They represent many variables including genetics, privilege, teaching quality and effort. Children only really have any agency over how hard they try. Even the control a child has of their own effort is moderated and mediated by exterior factors.
But emphasising effort is still fairer than emphasising raw attainment because while imperfect children do have more agency over it than they do the other variables.
So why don’t we do this routinely – or at least why do many young people and their families feel that effort isn’t recognised to the degree attainment is?
The first reason is we live in a meritocracy.
Meritocracies derive legitimacy from the idea attainment – whether fat salary packets or great grades – are well-earned rewards for hard work.
It’s how we allow ourselves to feel pride in our success and part of the explanation for why attitudes to the poor and unfortunate can be so harsh. It means higher achievers must be more worthy than lower achievers. Meritocracy would have us believe all children start at the same place and the effort they put into their work is purely expressed by their grade, which makes a discrete effort score of very secondary importance.
But this argument isn’t true and is no reason not to emphasise effort over attainment.
A second issue is effort grades are messy.
What counts as trying hard for one teacher – for example doing all the work in lessons but nothing more – might be insufficient to another who expects lots of homework. Some differences in interpretation are even more subtle. Should a teacher who uses lots of hands up questions in their class give a higher effort score to a child whose arm shoots up at the end of all their sentences than to a quiet student who never puts their hand up but completes all the work?
While this is a legitimate thing to be concerned about it isn’t a reason not to be serious about effort because it overlooks how messy attainment grades are even when there’s lots more moderation and control around how they are assigned.
Tests only sample parts of large domains and the great variability in marking in many subjects means identical test scripts are routinely given different grades by different markers in the highest stakes public exams.
Challenging an emphasis of effort marks over attainment marks because of inconsistent application overlooks both are imperfect.
I suspect the main reason schools don’t emphasise effort as highly as they do attainment is because while it may be unfair, the world is meritocratic and fundamentally all of us – including our children – are judged and rewarded on the extent to which we instrumentally achieve.
This can make placing emphasis on effort feel disingenuous – hiding children from the stark truth that how they do at school will have a material affect on their quality of life. We are rightly fearful of sending out a message it doesn’t matter how well you do so long as you try when we all know how well you do matters a lot.
This is a fair challenge, but it can be met.
Issues with rewarding effort come predominately from a poorly conceptualised understanding of what it means to try hard and how ridiculous it can seem when it doesn’t result in any success. What could be more pointless than trying and trying at something you fail at again and again?
But trying hard at something you don’t succeed at isn’t pointless. It’s wrong to say it is.
Simone Weil gets this well.
In her paper “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God” she argues students should not motivate themselves by thinking about the mark or grade the wish to attain. She argues doing this is actually an impediment to real learning because it encourages students to game, scheme and hide their limitations rather than working on them:
“All wrong translations, all absurdities in geometry problems, all clumsiness of style and all faulty connection of ideas in compositions and essays, all such things are due to the fact that thought has seized upon some idea too hastily and being thus prematurely blocked, is not open to the truth.”
There are real world results of this in our education system. A maths teacher told me of an issue he experienced at his selective sixth form. Here A Level students sometimes had Grade 9s at GCSE but still had huge gaps in their knowledge that impeded their ability to access the more advanced material. The reason for this was they’d been taught to master what they needed to achieve a grade but not the underlying structures. These students found this very hard to accept and no wonder.
It is very difficult to excel at something and then be told you aren’t as good as you think you are.
This is a result of chasing grades for their own sake.
Weil instead thinks the purpose of study should be to improve our capacity to properly pay attention to something by subsuming ourselves to it and making the point the humble, genuine work towards it. If this is the case then finding something difficult becomes an advantage because you have to try harder:
“If we have no aptitude or natural taste for geometry this does not mean that our faculty for attention will not be developed by wrestling with a problem or studying a theorem. On the contrary it is almost an advantage. It does not even matter much whether we succeed in finding the solution or understanding the proof, although it is important to try really hard to do so.”
This conception of effort is a thousand miles away from the sort of huffing and puffing to no end that so often comes to mind when we think of ‘trying hard’. It means shedding arrogance and hubris and responding carefully to feedback and working on material not because it is something to be used to show off but because it is challenging and requires us to acknowledge and confront our own limitations and shortcomings.
This sort of effort is hard to do – Weil argues most of us never do it – but it is open to us all and it is a very worthy ambition.
All can access this sort of reward from a boy working an equation that nobody else in their school even understands to a girl with a learning disability struggling hard to remember her letter sounds.
In their effort both are equal in virtue and equal in honour.
It schools used Weil’s frame to understand, recognise and reward our young people what might be achieved? How better motivated might many be knowing that their failure to achieve what others might doesn’t mean they are any less?
While I’m sure the meritocratic organising principles that bind us all probably mean we can’t ever escape instrumental reward as a motivator – and indeed perhaps this would be unwise anyway – schools focusing on the process – as Weil argues they should – could at as a powerful counternarrative that might check the hubris of those who find work easiest while dignifying those of us who struggle most.
This wouldn’t mean ignoring or dismissing high academic achievement but focusing on the work students did to do so well rather than a grade most of us know we won’t get.
I started with a story. I’ll finish with one too.
Years ago I read the reflections of an aging elite runner in – I think – the Guardian’s “What I’m Really Thinking” series. In this he talked of his disdain for lyrca clad posers like me with smartwatches and Strava maps. He found us ridiculous as we tore past him totally unaware the person we overtook once took part in elite athletics meetings and possessed national records
But he respected the really unfit ones.
The self-conscious and embarrassed in ill-fitting loose tracksuits, plodding slowly up hills in the dawn light aware they were no good at running but doing it anyway.
“That’s hard” he said. “They get a nod and a smile from me. They’re the ones who get it. The ones who know what it means to really try.”
There’s been lots on twitter recently about how best to check for understanding with the merits and limitations of cold call, hands up, checking work and mini-whiteboards all covered.
I’ve learned a lot but sometimes found discussion limited because much of what makes anything effective is down to context.
The prior knowledge and ability of a group, the standard of behaviour in a school and how often work is checked all have mediating and moderating effects on the techniques teachers use, and these are often invisible to outsiders.
We should be grateful to people like Adam Boxer and David Didau who are skilled at breaking the invisible and mysterious into clear actions that can be effortfully worked at. I’ve found their recent work on mini-white-boards inspiring. While I have lots of questions about how and why they might not work for me it wouldn’t be right to dismiss the possibility they might enhance my teaching and I plan to spend time properly trying them out to see.
Checking for understanding is a pre-requisite of good teaching and it’s great so many people are thinking hard about how to be better at it.
But it isn’t easily separable from other stuff that happens in a lessons and I worry things can be lost when we stare down the microscope for too long without a break.
Often what goes wrong in checking for understanding sessions isn’t to do with checking for understanding.
This insightful tweet from @1917AndAllThat nails it where he describes what often goes wrong as an ‘upstream error’ which is a description I just love.
Checking for understanding sessions go wrong not just because of errors in technique or in selecting the wrong technique but also because of what happened ‘upstream’ before the session began. Sessions are moderated and mediated by how much children know about what they’re being asked, which is a product of the quality of instruction.
I’ve seen this in the practice of less experienced teachers and when I find myself teaching something I don’t know well I see it in myself wincing in real time at comments like “So what do you think..”,“that’s not quite what I meant..,” and “can you say something else about..”
When things go very wrong teachers sometimes find themselves trying to prop up and clarify substandard initial instruction through a vague series of questions cast out in the hope one will catch a point the teacher hadn’t taught clearly to begin with.
No technique can compensate for this and a danger in seeing each aspect of a lesson as a distinct from other aspects is taking symptoms for causes and looking for solutions in the wrong places.
It leads to carts being put before horses and privileges off-peg solutions over actual problems – for example a blanket focus on checking for understanding might lead to these strategies being emphasised over other higher leverage actions.
There’s broader lessons here too.
While teaching can be broken down into smaller components, these combine and interact with each other.
Each moment of a lesson is a cog or wheel and these turn other cogs and wheels. All are part of a greater whole. A danger in focusing too much on each cog without stepping back to look at the whole machine is forgetting how it fits together and suddenly finding what seems an obvious and fixable issue is not the real cause of the problem at all.
Those falling to this may develop slick questioning techniques but still find the children in their lessons at a permanent loss for words.
Nothing in teaching is easy and getting better at it isn’t always simple.
Finding real solutions – whether this is to issues in checking for understanding or anything else – the nature and origin of the problem must be properly understood before we decide on the tools.
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?
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.
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:
Outcomes for children with SEND are poor.
Navigating the SEND system is not a positive experience for children, young people and their families.
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.
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:
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?
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.
 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?
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.