Guerrillamum's Blog

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.

Excellence for all – what should students learn?

I was asked to write a guest blog piece for the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust conference a few weeks ago – which turned into three separate posts. The first of these is ‘Excellence for all – what should students learn?:

We would all like our schools to aim to achieve excellence for all. However, when the children involved include those with special educational needs (SEN) or disabilities the goal of truly achieving ‘Excellence for all’ becomes much more difficult to achieve. I have two boys aged 12 and 14 who have special educational needs and who are being educated in mainstream school. They have always been mainstreamed, and for them, inclusion, with places in specialist settings co-located in mainstream schools has been their best route to success.

Roughly one in five students will have SEN at some time in their education. A little over 2% of all children in school will have a statement. Most children with SEN won’t have statements. However, Part 3 B ‘Special Educational Provision – Provision to meet needs and objectives’ – of my children’s statements has always referred to the need for the child to have ‘access to a broad, balanced, and differentiated curriculum, including the National Curriculum, with modifications which will ensure that tasks and activities are commensurate with (the child’s) level of attainment.’ This should be the aim for every child, whether schooling takes place in a mainstream or special education setting. Schools should also implement current and up to date policies relating to disability and equality. With all of these things in mind, children with SEN should be able to access the same curriculum, in as meaningful a way as possible, as other children in their school.

However, this is not the whole story. Children with SEN often have the need to learn additional things when they are at school, skills that will enable them to access the curriculum more effectively, and which will enable them to develop independence skills. In an ideal world, these children will have access to therapies such as speech therapy, occupational therapy, or to perhaps be able to benefit from the services of a physiotherapist as appropriate. Extra support such as specialist teaching support and teaching assistants are also necessary to help children with SEN develop good numeracy and literacy skills. If a child can at least read, they can begin to access most of the mainstream curriculum. Some children will benefit from prioritising social skills training, life skills training or similar.

In today’s schools learning does not cease at the end of the school day. Most schools run lunch time and after school activities that all children can access. Indeed, disability legislation states that all children should be able to take part in the life of their school. However, this is not always what happens in practice. After school clubs are as much a part of the life of the school as any other aspect of school life. Yet some children are excluded from after school activities simply because the schools do not have funding for after school TA support and their LEAs do not always allocate money to TA support for after school clubs. This is a grey area that I have found difficult to resolve. It is a great pity because children with SEN who have access to after school activities have better outcomes both socially and educationally.