Guerrillamum's Blog


How can we remove barriers to learning?

This is my third post for the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust blog, in which I considered how we can remove barriers to learning. It is worth noting that there can be many barriers to learning in the classroom such as social deprivation and behaviour. I was asked to consider this question from the perspective of children with special educational needs.

HOW CAN WE REMOVE BARRIERS TO LEARNING?

IDENTIFY SEN AND MAKE PROVISION TO MEET THESE NEEDS
Teachers, if you have a child in your class who needs support for special educational needs (SEN), please say so! This does not always happen and the system for identifying a child with SEN is not always straightforward. Children can easily slip through the net. Many parents assume to their cost that no news is good news, even if they have some concerns about their child themselves. If their child’s teacher isn’t saying anything, then they assume all is well. It often isn’t, so please be open with parents if you think a child might have SEN!

HANDWRITING
A certain proportion of children will never develop functional handwriting. For these children it is important to look at other options for recording their work: for example, a Dictaphone, word recognition software on a laptop, a scribe or typing on a laptop. These children often have to learn complex skills such as typing and scribing skills in order to make use of alternative recording methods. They need plenty of time to work on these skills so they are ready for the demands of recording KS3 & KS4 work later on. Indeed, information technology (IT) is already part of a broad and balanced curriculum, and I believe that it would be hugely beneficial for all children to learn typing skills from an early age at school.

DIFFERENTIATION, MIXED ABILITY TEACHING AND LOWER ABILITY TEACHING GROUPS
Effective differentiation can mean that a child who has special educational needs might not necessarily need to spend so much of their time at school in lower – achieving groups. There are many problems associated with being identified consistently with these groups. They are often associated with poor behaviour which can hamper the progress of those children who do wish to work. Highly skilled teachers who can differentiate effectively within mixed ability groups will achieve our aim for true equality of opportunity and excellence for all in our schools.

USE YOUR SPECIAL NEEDS BASE/QUIET STUDY AREA
Sometimes children with SEN need to leave their classes either due to noise, stress or their learning needs. If this happens, learning must continue with the lesson simply being relocated to a quieter place.

STAYING ON TASK AND REMAINING ENGAGED
Many children with SEN struggle to stay on task. TAs can act as a prompt. This is very different from having a ‘velcroed on’ TA that ‘does the work for them’. There is often a tendency for children who are struggling in class to sit at the back where they are at risk of staying disengaged. Place these children near the front, and ask them to contribute in ways you know they can, rather than asking them to showcase the things they find difficult.

BULLYING
Bullying can be a very damaging experience and can prevent learning. Children with SEN or a disability are much more likely to experience bullying – 60% of children with SEN and/or disabilities have been bullied. Schools must develop more effective anti-bullying policies and implement them. If schools get this right, the rewards are tremendous.

CONCLUSION
Children with SEN and disabilities and their families have the same hopes and dreams for the future as anyone else. With the right help in place, it becomes more possible for everyone to achieve excellence at school, and more possible for these children to be able to live independently as adults.



Excellence for All – How should students learn?

This is my second of three blog posts written for the Specialist Schools and Academjes Trust conference.

There has been much debate about how students should learn. Many suggestions focus on using innovative high tech ideas in the classroom and alternative curricula are being explored by a number of groups. For children with special educational needs (SEN), however, the answer to the above question is much more basic – we must ensure that all children with SEN have their needs met through a system that is fit for this purpose.

All too often the current system for meeting SEN fails. This is because it works only for those with very mild needs at one end of the spectrum, who don’t need a statement to have their needs met, and those children with the most severe needs and who do have statements, at the other end of the scale. There are a lot of SEN children in between these polar opposites who do have significant needs who need provision that can only be provided by having a statement, but can’t have one because these are severely limited.

This is unfair and children who slip through the net at school and do not have articulate parents who can advocate for them can miss out. We should be aiming to extend the security that statements can offer to children and it is unacceptable that so many children with SEN have needs that remain unmet. If all children with SEN who attend mainstream schools have their needs met, they will learn and they will be able to access the curriculum just like any other pupil within that school.

Not all children with SEN will be able to have their needs met in a mainstream school, and will need a placement in a special school. Jane, who is a teaching assistant in a special school, has this to say about how students should learn in special schools:

‘I think the answer… is entirely summed up in one word: ‘differentiation’. The main barrier to learning is that educators have not thought about what and how students should learn. In any school but especially a special school each pupil needs to be learning different things in different ways. Too often those in charge assume it would be a good thing for the children in their care to have a chance at a “real” qualification, usually a GCSE. These courses are not at all suitable for pupils who can barely read and they are stressed and humiliated.

There are better things they could learn to do to a worthwhile standard rather than getting a “G” at GCSE…. [such as]… how to carry on a conversation, how to notice another person’s mood, what is helpful behaviour in common social situations. A child’s primary educational objective could even be to become toilet trained. The impact of learning this skill is taken for granted by all and is huge and life enhancing, far more beneficial than spending the year learning to count to 5…. It is sad that the process of grouping children in terms of their special needs is basically a negative one. You drop down the groups because of the things you can’t do until you reach the lowest level. Articulate children end up grouped with non-verbal children simply because they can’t write. Too much weight is given to the child’s physical age instead of looking at their overall developmental age.’

There is a great need to look at the system for identifying and meeting SEN, and to also focus on and enhance those properties within the current system that meet need and give security to children such as the statement of SEN. These can really be a passport to a successful school experience. I welcome the Green Paper on SEN and disability and hope that I will still feel the same when it is published, and that this opportunity to make positive change is seized upon by policy makers.



Big Yellow Taxi

‘… Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot…’

Big Yellow Taxi, Joni Mitchell

I was busy cleaning my windows the other day and I found myself singing the words to ‘Big Yellow Taxi’. These days the issue of Special Educational Needs (SEN) education is never far from my mind and I moved quickly on to considering the ‘Green Paper: Children And Young People With Special Educational Needs And Disabilities – Call For Views’. This was launched in September by Sarah Teather, Minister of State for Children and Families. She has asked for the views of everyone with an interest in the needs of children in England with special educational needs (SEN) or disabilities and she says that views and perspectives will be considered in drafting a Green Paper on SEN and disability to be published in the autumn. We have until 15th October 2010 to contribute.
You can respond online on the Dept for Education website. Here is the link.
http://www.education.gov.uk/consultations/index.cfm?action=consultationDetails&consultationId=1736&external=no&menu=1

I have been thinking about this a lot, not only of the possible positive outcomes of such a Green Paper, but also what children with SEN might lose as a result of it. I am still writing my response. I have the document tucked away on my desktop and keep going back to it as things come to me. I hope I can make a small difference. If more of us reply then we will make a slightly bigger difference. If lots of us reply, then the impact will be yet greater, and so on.

Based on my feelings and views about the behaviour of the Coalition government since it came to power, and how it has dealt with Education issues, I find it difficult to decide whether the Green Paper is in fact a genuine call for views. I have watched the Coalition rush through Parliament the wildly ill thought out and controversial Academies Bill to expedite the Tory vision for Education for all. They did it in the face of some stiff opposition from the general Public, the Labour Party and some Liberal Democrats. The Minister for Education has expressed reservations about the quality of trainee teachers, but then veers off at a tangent, saying that Free Schools might not have to employ fully qualified teachers. Extra money has been given as a golden Hello to schools that are already doing well and have become academies. On the sidelines, poorly performing schools are to be run into the ground until competition from Free Schools and academies lure their pupils away and they have to close (I wonder what will happen to those who can’t for whatever reason get to an alternative school that is further away). I have to question the motives of a government that would do all of these things and wonder if it is really interested in what people think.

Just when I felt I had heard it all, the Coalition issued the results of OFSTED’s ‘Special Educational Needs and Disability Review – a statement is not enough’, to a fanfare of alarmist headlines that trumpeted about how half of SEN children are misdiagnosed so that parents can cherry pick schools and schools can claim extra funding that children without SEN can’t access. Apparently a statement is not enough – they don’t work, the teachers simply need to improve their skills and specialist placements are of apparently little benefit. Why on earth would the government place such a media spin on a document like this? It is a good question. The answer can be found in the headlines themselves – they were like propaganda, sowing the seeds of doubt about the legitimacy of the financial cost of supporting children with SEN. SEN children are now in danger of becoming the ‘Benefit Cheats’ of the Education world, who may well lose out when the results of the Green Paper are published, as an apathetic and accepting public looks on.

Do the general public care about children with SEN? I don’t know. I do know that they are suffering from CCCF (Collective Coalition Cuts Fatigue) worn out, tired by the election, the changes this wrought and with struggling to make ends meet in the down-turn. For all they know, the media and OFSTED may have a point about SEN children and their ‘sharp elbowed middle class parents’ trying to gain advantage and get access to provision those children without SEN (their children!) can’t have! How do I know this? I don’t really, but if you ask me, last week’s Conservative conference is a good indicator of public feeling. Families in higher income brackets found out last week that they will lose their child benefit in 2013. Now the Public was listening… and they were hopping mad! The views of the ‘sharp elbowed Middle Classes’ were very suddenly very much in evidence in the media, talking about how they could not manage without child benefit. They weren’t rich; they had obligations and had mortgages to pay.

The point in question in this discussion is not really about whether universal child benefit should go or not. The really significant part about these events was the way in which, in the face of opposition the government buckled and changed their policy. Faced with a backlash from the public, Mr. Cameron was soon saying that the Child Benefit cuts would be given back by a married couple’s tax allowance and that any plans to take away Child Benefit would obviously have to be reviewed… Suddenly money could be found and an instant policy was produced to try and sweeten the deal and give money back to the higher tax bracket earners with the other hand.

Well, our SEN children can’t manage without an education system that delivers help to those who need it, help that must be delivered and must be upheld. The statement of special educational needs gives them the security of a legal right to have their needs met and provided for in school where the provision is free at the point of access. The system for identifying and making provision for children with special educational needs is a flawed system but its saving grace is the statement of special educational needs. I will be looking to the Green Paper to strengthen a child’s legislative rights to support for SEN, not weaken them. Based on recent government behaviour, the more people who speak up and respond to the Green Paper the better chance we have of coming out of this process with a system that effectively meets the needs of children with SEN and disabilities.

This is the Big Yellow Taxi of our education system – all of the above is up for discussion and/or dismissal. These are the things that our SEN children stand to lose if we don’t participate with a loud voice in the democratic processes to canvass our views on SEN education reform. If we lose them, we really will find that we did not appreciate what we had until we lost it – difficult as it might have been to access it! It is so difficult I was moved to write a book about it! The Government is going to have its Green Paper, whether we like it or not, and it will probably make changes whether we like them or not. If we take a stand as parents or supporters of children with SEN and disabilities who actively wish to participate in the devising of new Education legislation to ensure all children with SEN can have their needs met, we have the best chance of our views being heard and acted upon.

Saba Salman commented on my recent blog post ‘Oh the times they are a-changin’ – but not yet’, saying: ‘so often the powers that be assume that public apathy or ambivalence will allow them to push through changes because no one other than the usual high-profile suspects can be bothered to read the small print. Hopefully not this time.’

Please don’t let our children with SEN lose their legal rights to an appropriate education, or allow the government to deliver a cheaper, watered down SEN strategy because people did not stand up to be counted. The consultation closes on Friday. If you have some time and you care about children with SEN and disability, or I have successfully pestered you or otherwise made you feel obliged, please make time to contribute.

Please share this post with as many people as you can think of who might wish to have a voice on this consultation.



Green Paper: Children And Young People With Special Educational Needs And Disabilities – Call For Views

The Green Paper: Children And Young People With Special Educational Needs And Disabilities – Call For Views was launched today by Sarah Teather, the Minister of State for Children and Families.

She has asked for the views of everyone with an interest in the needs of children in England with special educational needs (SEN) or disabilities.  All views and perspectives will be considered in drafting a Green Paper on SEN and disability to be published in the Autumn.  We have until 15th October 2010 to contribute.

You can respond online on the Dept for Education website.  Here is the link.

http://www.education.gov.uk/consultations/index.cfm?action=consultationDetails&consultationId=1736&external=no&menu=1

I hope that any changes this may lead to will be positive ones.  I will be responding, although I don’t hold out much hope that the provision for our children will escape the savage cuts planned by the coalition government.  If we fail to participate in this opportunity to help define government policy, we can’t complain about any adverse results from the Green Paper, can we?



Automatic right of appeal for parents if LA fails to amend statement following Annual Review

From September 1st 2010, at the recommendation of the Lamb Inquiry, parents now have an automatic right of appeal to the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal (SEND Tribunal), if the Local Authority (LA) fails to amend a statement of SEN following annual review.  This is momentous because until now, parents in the position of disagreeing with an LA on this point had to request a full reassessment of their child’s SEN.  This is an exhausting process, particularly if you have already been through it before, and you also ran the risk losing or having changed any provison the child might have had at that time.

On contacting the SEND Tribunal for confirmation I was told that parents could expect to hear about this change in due course from LAs, and that when they receive a final statement following annual review, the LA should inform them of this new right of appeal in the accompanying letter. Make sure they do!



New term – same old problems!

New term – same old problems!  Some of the optimism has already worn off.  Peter came home yesterday with standard-sized Maths and Science worksheets.  The Language Dept has been producing enlarged worksheets and vocabulary books for the past three years …. why can’t the Science and Maths Depts get on board with this?  Simple answer – there is no reason: a differentiated curriculum doesn’t just mean speaking slowly!! Grrrr!  It means providing appropriate materials in an appropriate setting.

So what can be done about this?  On Monday morning Peter’s teachers will get an email from us asking for a meeting in which we will go through his needs regarding visual processing (needs bigger work sheets), and recording work (needs bigger answer boxes in the work sheets).

How will we get on with this?  Watch this space for the next exciting instalment – da da daahhhh!

I do feel like qualifying all of this by saying that we are still very happy with Peter’s current placement.  Indeed, he came home from school very happy, and lots of things had clearly been done right.  However,  if you don’t keep on top of the small things, unworkable situations quickly develop. You are allowed to feel grateful for the things the school does get right but you are absolutely entitled to tell them when they don’t. If you do not , nobody else will do it for your child.



Guerrilla Mum’s Top 5 Back to School Tips
My boys go back to school next week. I can’t believe how quickly the holidays have passed by!  In addition to all of the usual preparation, next week I will be performing some extra tasks to make sure that the school year gets off to as smooth a start as possible.  Here are my Top 5 back-to-school Guerrilla Tips.
 
1. Prepare your child for the start of the new term! Implement a new (early) bedtime at least a week before school starts.Talk through new processes, where to meet after school, which bus to catch, etc – even if routines have stayed the same, go over things again. Be very specific, discussing what time to be there, where to stand, which is the bus number, etc. Talk about moving up a year, and their new teacher if applicable. If your child is very young, use stories to open up discussion. This can be particularly beneficial in aiding communication between parent and child if the child has worries or anxieties. Update contact details with school so that the school can ALWAYS contact you, the child’s other parent or other appropriate person.
 
2. Communicate well!  Decide that this year communication between school and home will be better than ever. Try to agree with your child’s class teacher or form teacher how this will work. Does the school provide parents with specific email addresses for teachers? Will you use a home/school diary? Put parents’ evenings/consultations/curriculum evenings/whole school meetings in your diary so you don’t miss them. Could you offer to help in class, on school trips, or in the school library? These are opportunities to be at school when your child is there. You will learn a lot about how they are doing just by being there.
 
3. Meet the teacher! Attend general parents’ evenings/curriculum evenings, etc at the beginning of term by all means but it is essential that you make an individual appointment with the child’s new class teacher or form teacher early in the term. Use the meeting to outline your child’s unique needs and difficulties and your concerns. If you already know the teacher this can be an opportunity to give updates. Be polite, be specific. Provide copies of relevant reports (never the originals). If the teacher is new, give them a written brief history of your child, including strengths, difficulties, and behaviour strategies used at home, your child’s areas of interest and any other relevant information. 
 
4. IEP Review!  If your child has an Individual Education Plan (IEP) or a statement, look back on these with their end of term report. Have the targets been reached? Are any new targets becoming apparent? Be ready to advocate for your child in the IEP review/meeting with their teacher and Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator (SENCO). Request that an IEP meeting is set to happen early in the term, so that targets can be agreed and provision can be arranged early on so as to give the child the optimum chance of making progress. 
 
5. Watch out for cuts! The Local Authority (LA) will have been told to expect huge reductions in their funding, and they will be looking to make savings. Make certain that the provision you are expecting to see in your child’s statement/IEP is exactly what is actually there. This is particularly important if you have recently received an updated or final statement, for example, following an annual review. If you do see a reduction in provision, challenge it. If you do not challenge these things immediately, it will become increasingly difficult to have provision reinstated. I know it sounds pretty unbelievable, but we have found out about this the hard way!
 
Remember the Guerrilla Mum Mantra: Don’t take no for an answer; never give up. If in doubt, telephone, email and write letters.

First published on the Jessica Kingsley Publishers blog – http://www.jkp.com/blog/