Pupils with special educational needs are being failed by mainstream schools, says Mencap
Parents who have children with special educational needs (SEN) believe that mainstream schools are failing to help them reach their full potential, according to a report published today. A survey of 1,000 parents by the charity Mencap, which supports people with learning difficulties, found mainstream schools are failing children with learning disabilities – with 81 per cent of parents saying they are not confident their child’s school is helping them do their best.
So should this article say “to DO their best”, or to BE their best? Clearly they aren’t mutually exclusive – but where should the emphasis lie? What does becoming one’s best entail, and where does that lie in the curriculum?
What kinds of “learning difficulties” are we considering here, keeping in mind that our 3Di viewpoint is that we have six kinds of intelligence, and we need to develop all of them, to care about all of them – not just the academic or the intellectual? This being the case, we need to take the broadest possible view of learning and achievement, and underachievement, and not focus on academic progress alone, even though attainment is the only measure used in the league tables.
“Parents feel the education service is woefully ill prepared to properly support children and young people with a learning disability to reach their full potential,” said Jan Tregelles, Mencap’s chief executive.
Again, we come back to defining what we mean by “potential” – as it relates to all of our intelligences and capabilities. We also come back to asking serious questions about the whole purpose of education.
“All children have the right to a good education, equal life chances and opportunities for the future. These rights should be no different for a child with a learning disability – yet time and time again we hear that children with a learning disability are not getting the support they need at school.”
We need to consider what sorts of support are required in order that the entire range of needs of children with special educational needs is met. And yes, we have to ask about the training that’s given to teachers and special needs assistants, and whether it relates mainly or solely to boosting progress with the core academic curriculum.
Nancy Gedge, a teacher from Gloucestershire with a 13-year-old son, Sam, who has Down’s syndrome, criticised support for him at his primary school.
“He spent much of his time with his teaching assistant but very little time interacting properly with his peers or receiving proper support from his teacher to reach his potential.
“Mainstream teachers are not being given the training they need and, as a result, Sam became separate to his peers and saw himself as separate, too.
And here we have the crux of the matter. In far too many mainstream schools the expectation is that a special needs teaching assistant sits with a targeted child in order that the child gets personal “support” and “input”, thereby allowing the class teacher to carry on working with the rest of the class – driving forward with “the lesson” and hitting the predetermined class targets.
No problem with that? Then consider the notion that in primary schools and early years settings the learning should be through “activity and experience”, through groupwork and interactive sessions in which children learn to communicate, take turns, relate to one another, become empathetic to the needs of others, to collaborate, to solve problems together, to share knowledge and information, to share stories and songs, to create a range of texts, artifacts and artworks, and to work together on improvised drama, dance, music, and so on.
In these ways they develop personally, socially, emotionally, physically and spiritually. In other words, they develop “life skills” and what some call “character” and “resilience” – which is to say through holistic learning in work and play situations that are challenging but enjoyable they become intelligent personally, socially, intellectually, instinctually, emotionally and spiritually; they become balanced and able in every area of their being as well as their doing, to the best of their individual ability, at a pace that’s appropriate and realistic for every individual. They also become confident and creative, imaginative and inventive, self-confident yet caring individuals with a clear appreciation of their own strengths and weaknesses, and learn to appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of others.
Are these the things that parents now feel their children are missing out on in mainstream classrooms which offer few if any of these other opportunities – because those children with special educational needs are put to one side, as it were, with their SEN assistant?
And what of the children who are known or thought to be the more academically able? Do they never have special educational needs that ought to be addressed through more personalised yet more socially integrated learning? Do they not need the same sorts of opportunities to become more self-directed in their learning, to become more cooperative and collaborative, more sharing and giving, more imaginative and creative, more communicative and empathetic, more skilled at solving problems through working as a member of a small team or partnership? Are the academically more gifted necessarily capable of making good relationships, of effective communication, of high levels of empathy and sensitivity, of creative and imaginative problem solving, and all the other “life skills”?
Perhaps what these parents are really reacting against are the schools themselves that are more or less results factories, and which provide few if any of these broader and deeper sorts of learning for children who have to cope with a range of learning difficulties. Where once parents might have assumed that their children were better off in the mainstream alongside children who were thought to have no special educational needs, they now see much more important sorts of learning opportunities on offer in special schools where pressures to meet academic targets are not nearly as extreme.
If so, we should be thankful that not all local authorities closed down their special schools in the name of “integration” – usually without making sure that all of the needs of all children could or would be met within that mainstream.
In the best schools it’s often difficult and sometimes impossible to identify which children have been categorised as SEN. In an excellent primary classroom, for example, all children take part in all activities and do so alongside one another – supporting, stimulating and helping one another, as friends and fellow learners. Yes the outcomes, in terms of written work and rates of progress for example, may differ, but when tasks are properly differentiated and appropriate to the needs of different groups within school settings then the role of the teaching assistant can be to facilitate the collaborative learning that’s taking place across all of the intelligences, as well as supporting the specific learning needs of individual children.
What’s surprising, and tragic, is that all of these issues were addressed many years ago, and yet how much progress have we really made with them? And the reasons why? Could they possibly be anything to do with the ambitions of successive governments and ministers of education to “drive up standards” and thereby pressurise primary schools – where so much crucial learning takes place across this wide range of intelligences – to re-adopt a secondary model of a disintegrated curriculum with maximum attention on teaching to the tests and academic progress, and minimum attention on personalising learning (nb when was the last time politicians used this term?) and meeting all of the developmental needs of all children?
We recommend to 3D Eye readers Nancy Gedge‘s outstanding blog at http://notsoordinarydiary.wordpress.com/ – The Diary of a Not So Ordinary Boy.
Nancy tweets @nancygedge
http://disability-studies.leeds.ac.uk/files/library/Barnes-disabled-people-and-discrim-ch3.pdf – with reference to the Fish Report on Educational Opportunities for All (ILEA, 1985)
https://3diassociates.wordpress.com/2014/12/09/the-hadow-report-chapter-1-the-needs-of-primary-children/ – the second post in our six part series on the conclusions and recommendations of the Hadow Report of 1931 regarding the special character and the pedagogy of the Primary phase of education.