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. 


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

  1. Hi Ben and Tom. First of all, I loved your blog! Secondly, what we do about the position is the truly intriguing question. You may or may not have heard of Equals – a not-for-profit charity working on behalf of those with PMLD and SLD in education. Equals has been espousing the thoughts you’ve so eloquently expressed for a number of years now and has recently written four functioning, detailed curriculums that are independent from and crucially, different to, the National Curriculum. We take the view that those with a permanent (not delayed) global learning difficulty learn differently from neuro-typical, conventionally developing learners. If they learn differently, we ought to be teaching them differently and teaching them different things. I would love to talk to you both about these and how we might work together, if that is something that might interest you.

    All the best

    Peter Imray


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