Sunday, 6 March 2011

SEN: D-3

Nudge nudge. Wink Wink
Know what I mean, Squire?

There are three days to go before publication of the Green Paper – but so far no great surge in public debate. The 'charities', the official and quasi-official bodies, the professional and academic interest groups, the rent-a-mouths, are holding their fire. They will have plenty to say later, especially perhaps as it becomes clearer which way the winds are blowing. Meanwhile, the real actors on this stage – who are not acting but actually living real lives – will continue their concrete concerns and their struggle, while the Great and the Good get on with redrawing the maps.

This morning two items appeared in local papers, exemplifying two very real problems that affect everyone concerned with 'special educational needs' in whatever context:

The first of the problems that these two reports exemplify goes without saying, the second is as pervasive – and as vital.

Problem number 1 – money

Simple really:
  • there isn't enough to pay for everything that people want
  • everyone wants more
  • there is already less to go around that there was, and there is going to be less still – maybe for any foreseeable future, a lot less
  • 'special educational needs' will have to fight, lobby, politicise, for every penny that it hopes to get
There are lots of other people out there who would also like to get their hands on more of what little is going – and who may be advancing powerful arguements to say why their claims are the more pressing.

If ever there was time for clear thinking, sharp analysis and a crisp articulate statement of what these 'special needs' are, then that time is now.

Problem number 2 – what exactly are they talking about?

In the first of the above two newspaper stories, a local councillor from Sussex is talking about children whose development and education have been impaired by problems that are fundamentally social in origin, operating individually through mechanisms of health, family functioning, cultural deprivation, pedagogic neglect, social injustice etc., matters that used to be conveniently expressed under the rubric of class. They are the children of the poor, whose developmental problems are potentially surmountable, if only the appropriate measures – primarily social – were to be taken. At least these are the children whom I understand him to mean. How more concrete can I be from what I read here?

In the second, the head teacher of a special school and her deputy in Essex are describing children whose personal development has been affected by problems that are fundamentally physiological in origin, resulting for the children who attend their school in severe, in some cases very severe disorders of development that extend into every aspect of their lives, psychological and social ­ and even physiological. Such problems fall alike upon the most advantaged and influential families as well as upon the least, irrespective of social class (perhaps that in part is why the council was persuaded to rebuild their school). Such children's underlying problems will be always with them, and the task for education and upbringing here is to ensure that these are well compensated for through the processes of upbringing and education, rather than running wild and ruining lives. At least, these are the children whom I understand them to mean. How more concrete can I be from what I read here?

Do not blame the reporters for confusion that arise, or the councillor and the head and her deputy. These are indeed 'special needs' in both cases as these words are currently construed. But if you do not know the code you will not see that two quite distinct problems are being referred to here.

By coincidence, also today, Norman Perrin published on his blog a posting about a recent report on vocational (trade) education. Of direct relevance here, he quotes its author, Professor Alison Wolf –

… this country has many young people who are classified as having ‘special educational needs’, without being severely disabled, and/or are highly disengaged, persistently truant, and, at the extreme, excluded from school.

I guess that she may be referring to the same population as does the councillor in Sussex. Like him, however, for want of a proper, shared vocabulary she speaks in code, so I am left again to presume. I am sure that in other aspects of her work Professor Wolf would expect to be far more precise.

(By the way: 'disengaged'? Whatever happened to 'alienated'? Too specifically defined?)

Norman goes on to write –

May I be allowed to end on a small quibble? It's with the perspective in the phrase "most low-achieving". Of course we know what Professor Wolf means.

In wish that I could share his confidence. Without wider context to help me guess, I struggle to know what precicely she does mean, and I have no certanty that the next person to read her words will be any the clearer, or conclude. Why should I have to guess, and why should she find herself so constrained in what she can express?

Can there be any other field of human endeavour, in engineering, medicine, commerce, science and academe, art, human relations, sport, anything, where people have so abandoned distinctions and definitions as essential intellectual tools? This – from an educational establishment that, from the towering aedifice of all that it has achieved, has the absurd arrogance to badger the world with cries of 'science', 'evidence' and 'quality standards'.

Three days to go. We live in hope...

Hope for a clear, sharp, crisp document that is – as they do so like to say – 'fit for purpose'.


Hewett, S. (2011) Councillor Chris Oxlade launches petition against school cuts, This is Sussex, 5 March

Perrin, N. (2011) Wolf review of vocational education, Paces, 5 March

Thomas, E. (2011) Why we need our new £25million school, Essex Echo, 5 March

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

By indicating that we understand what Prof Wolf means, I meant know more than that she refers to that proportion of pupils who are "failing to achieve basic academic competences by the age of 16".

My "quibble" was that once one disturbs this by poking it about a bit, it is far from clear that all, even a majority, of such pupils are "low achievers" - and matters start to get rather murky.

I am not, indeed, sure that we are asking at all the right questions, if these are the sorts of statements that are generated in the supposed answers.

Sunday, 6 March 2011 at 21:32:00 GMT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Correction - by "I meant know more ...", I of course intended "I meant no more ..."

Sunday, 6 March 2011 at 21:34:00 GMT  

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