Special Educational Needs and Disabilities- the ‘forgotten’ cohort or the ‘disappearing’ cohort?

“Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish depending on its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Albert Einstein.

I want to make my first blog post about SEND pupils in this country because I think it is one of the most obvious moral injustices of our education system and one of the biggest challenges we face. I also want to write about it because we have increasingly concerning news that the picture doesn’t seem to be improving; we are not moving in the right direction. I like the quote above which was shared with me by my Head of Department. Firstly because Albert Einstein was SEND- a piece of info that helps breaks down some mental barriers some might have on this issue. (Secondly, because it made me think how wonderful it would be if we could teach fish to climb trees; get out of the pond, broaden horizons etc.)

This blog isn’t about how we should support our Albert Einsteins. This is about something a little bit more concerning: the next Albert Einstein might not actually be in school in the UK and the likelihood of that is increasing. Two concerning stats on this that have come out of this School’s Week report: the number of children with statements or an EHP (an Educational Healthcare Plan- a legal document that plans for and protects provision for individuals pupils) who are waiting for a school place has more than doubled (4,050 from 1,710 in the last year) and the number of children and we have gone from 17 SEND pupils being permanently excluded without a managed moved to a shocking 102 pupils (over the last two years). They aren’t in a school. It begs the question- where are these children and what are they doing? I’m not suggesting they have been abandoned/no one knows physically where they are but we should be concerned both about the educational opportunities being missed by these students and also the pressures being placed on others in these communities as a result- parents, pupil referral units etc. Obviously, whether or not they are the next Albert Einstein is irrelevant. (Could be the next, any of these people…)

(By the way if you question the use of the word ‘shocking’ and think those numbers are small please remember that in education policy, whenever you are talking about pupils every number counts.)


SEN

These stats are particularly worrying for me, and I imagine for others, because up till now my question when it comes to SEND has been: how do we improve the offer within our schools? But now we seem to be learning that, in fact, we should worry about whether or not these are in them at all.

I have a guiding principle as a class teacher: when you look at a situation- in the class room, across a school or nationally- ask yourself the question, if this was my child, would I accept this? (e.g. I printed off some revision resources for my class recently and it didn’t come out perfectly. The feeling of guilt when one student told me her Mum wasn’t impressed was enormous. I mean- what would I think if my child came back with some dodgy revision guide? Lesson learnt; take the time to reprint! Or save trees and put it up online which I have done previously and would obviously have been the better option. Anyway…)

The answer is obviously ‘if my child was SEND I would not accept this.’ I would be deeply frustrated if they were missing school. The response from policy makers and the government should be exactly the same. How can we crack down on parents taking children on holiday in term time by emphasising the value of attendance and then leave these students in limbo? It is more than a little absurd and raises the question of public confidence in our education system- all parents should feel their child’s needs are being addressed. All potential and future parents should be confident their children’s needs will be addressed. We must hold the same aspirations and hopes- both academic and beyond- for all children.

Also, this goes beyond public confidence to social justice. SEND students are more likely to come from socio-economically disadvantaged families. That factor compounds their academic progress in addition to their other needs. As a result, schools that serve communities with high rates of socio-economic disadvantage often have a disproportionately high number of students with special educational needs and disabilities. This creates pressures in various ways. Professor Sonia Blandford, Founder and CEO of the wonderful Achievement for All has written a great blog piece for the Fair Education Alliance about this. She mentions a number of crucial strategies that should be used to tackle the problem. Worth a read.

One thing she mentions is the importance of teachers engaging with the National SENCO Award- the Masters level qualification you need to be working towards to co-ordinate whole school SEN efforts. She’s right. However, here’s a concern shared with me by a teacher friend who is interested in progressing in this way- the salaries just aren’t there in the same way as with many other whole school jobs she is looking at. From her perspective she could take on another, similarly rewarding role, and get paid more without the specialisation of a the Masters degree. This should be addressed in schools- we need to recruit champions across the system to lead for these students and for the staff who want to support them. (Wait- turns out it might be hard to tackle educational injustice without government investment in the school system? A controversial conclusion.)

I’m really not an expert in this area and am here to learn so if you’d like to educate me or add others comments would be greatly appreciated! If you want to look at what the experts are saying I would reckon that the Centre for Inclusive Education is a stellar place to start. Also, other bits of wider reading always welcome.

2 thoughts on “Special Educational Needs and Disabilities- the ‘forgotten’ cohort or the ‘disappearing’ cohort?

  1. A really great and informative piece! As an older student who isn’t SEND but who is deeply frustrated at the treatment I see on the daily, I found this post refreshing while searching for open-minded opinions on the subject. It’s true; the upsetting lack of development in helping SEND students seems to stem from social injustices, and an apparent lack of empathy or moral acknowledgment of kids who are ethnic minorities or less privileged in other ways. Seeing an opinion like this from a class teacher is lovely, and restores hope.

    It would be wonderful if you could also consider and possibly find out more about students who are mentally ill, and how this affects them in the system- it’s another issue that needs to be recognised more, in my opinion. There are countless (and ever-rapidly increasing) cases of all kinds of mental illness that inhibit us, and I think it’s incredibly stigmatised in a school setting, even by teachers. Just a little overview from my POV, as perhaps hearing from a student directly could help better one’s understanding.

    It seems that the only type of mental illness ever vaguely identified by teachers (if at all) is depression and the possible consequent self-harm, or else general anxiety. Yet, it seems that many think that only kids from dysfunctional families or who have educational needs have mental health needs that, nonetheless, can be instantly gratified by half-hearted school counselling.

    Just for the record, not all mental illness is either depression from a broken family, or intense psychosis that requires institutionalisation (which in itself shouldn’t be taboo to speak of- many students spend time in mental hospitals, and aren’t what’s crudely deemed “crazy”). More types of mental illness need to be acknowledged as existent and common, and I do think teachers need to realise that not all kids who suffer share their lives with the school; they may be diagnosed but request confidentiality, and it may derive from family situations schools are unaware of, or other unknown factors. Just because it isn’t on the record, doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant or nonexistent.

    I am a “high-achieving” student who doesn’t have any “family problems” on the school’s record, so supposedly, I do not struggle. That is untrue, and immensely pressurising. Although I chose not to have it disclosed, I have been diagnosed with high functioning social anxiety as well as bipolar disorder, despite maintaining a level of sociability. It’s not a flaw, I carry my mental health as a part of me, and hearing indirect support is enough to help copious amounts.

    However, there isn’t much indirect support because there is so little mental health education, including in teachers- much of it is generalised. As an individual, bipolar disorder isn’t dramatic teenage mood swings, it’s experiencing intense episodes of manic energy or heavy depression that makes even sitting up in class difficult (although teachers don’t allow any head resting, which is almost physically agonising at times). Social anxiety isn’t stuttering or being shy and introverted, it’s constantly clammy hands and being unable to look authoratative class teachers in the eye without panicking, and feeling paranoia of being watched all the time. It can be debilitating sometimes but since I get good grades, it’s thought impossible for me or any other child to suffer.

    What I’m trying to say is, of course teachers don’t need to be mental health professionals, but I do think a wider basic comprehension of what students go through needs to be in place so they can receive a better education. Oh, and also an understanding that many indeed suffer in silence willingly, but still appreciate kindness from teachers! Known disadvantaged students receive help already, but it’s additionally worth a lot to realise high-ability “geniuses” or those who seem quite content need support, too.

    Being spoken to on a personal level is just as beneficial to a good education as learning, since connecting with a class teacher makes one more receptive to what they are being taught. Personally, I would love to not be brushed off as a genius with no struggle, and be allowed to fully live out my depressive/manic episodes so they last shorter and don’t exhaust me. Learning and working in class is important and of course should always continue, but some leeway should be given to students who do appear troubled. If a student lays their head down while working, let them since they are still doing what they need to do and it may not be them being disrespectful but simply exhaustion from a night of panic attacks; if they seem distant, unfocused, and drained, talking to them about the work during independent writing time definitely helps! Whether they’re labelled as “average”, or “clever” and “gifted”…

    Sorry this got very long, but I do think it’s valuable to delineate the experiences/concerns of a student first-hand. Mental health is a big thing in all kinds of pupils and has been my greatest hindrance, so that’s why I wanted to address it at length to a class teacher. Sorry again if it made little sense, but on a more related note I am looking forward to reading this blog and the post was excellent! I hope you can reply to this soon so perhaps we can discuss/clarify things and you can be a beacon of change at your school. Trust me, it’s what we all need.

    Thank you once more for the amazing post. SU

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    1. Hi- thanks for this, really interesting. I agree with all the above and will make a note to explore in more detail in a future post!

      I think what you say about training is particularly important; I know many teachers who passionately care about the needs of students but do feel ill equipped to deal with them. I would add that it is incredibly important that students get specialist care- as you note teachers are not healthcare professionals! However many, myself included, are worried that there are times when the system we work in, and all it’s associated pressures, doesn’t help.

      There has been an interesting survey of teachers feelings on wellbeing carried out and published recently by the Fair Education Alliance and its partners- you should definitely take a look. It covers a broadsr area than just mental health but you might find it interesting.

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