Wednesday, 11 May 2016


Words in a changing world

I do not know the earliest origin of the term 'special educational needs' but I do recall Ron Gulliford's setting it on the road to prominence.

At the time that I met him (the early nineteen-sixties) Ron headed the department of special education' at the University of Birmingham – which is how I knew him. Birmingham had at the time a long and considerable tradition of special education (not just at its then only university) and Ron's department ran established post-graduate courses that included the education of children with hearing and visual loss, those who were badly behaved in school and those who were behind in their school work (his own specialism). Their courses' orientation inevitably reflected the education service at the time, leaning towards teaching in special-schools, but children in ordinary schools received a growing look-in. These different courses represented a variety of histories and traditions within education. Ron's cohering these under the banner of 'special educational needs' brought a unifying model for his department. 

In 1971 he published a much-read book, Special Educational Needs, that helped fix the idea for a wider audience.

Later, he played an influential role as a member of Mary Warnock's Committee, and her use of the term Special Educational Needs as the title of the Committee's final report raised it to the level of official parlance in the United Kingdom – and, following close behind, across into professional parlance too.

A paradigm

Whatever the context of Ron's original intentions, 'special educational needs' really was quite a revolutionary notion. The emphasis of special education in the United Kingdom had to no small degree placed emphasis upon solutions for the problems that certain children brought into school settings. Use of the word 'needs' represented a shift a more dialectical understandings. Putting side here that awkward perennial problem of 'whose needs' (cui bono?), the emphasis of the new term was upon what could (or should) be done about what happened with respect to certain children, primarily in the context of their school education. Whatever might change in practice, this was a paradigm shift, and one that the Government sought to put into law.

Inevitably of course, the same people would be working with the same children in the same schools, in the same world as before. This is not to propose that substantive change is not possible, just that it may take more that a new law to achieve it, and that as lives goes on, and society changes, other ideas and forces have also to be accommodated and things might not turn out quite as had been wanted and expected in the first place. The words change – and that can be hard enough in some situations – but reality may be dancing to other drums. 

What does it mean?

I have no idea what is meant by the term 'special educational needs' – or its shorter, catch-all expansion 'special needs' – many things to many folk, I am sure. But I have recently reread an obituary for Reuven Feuerstein from The Times. I do not know who wrote it. It said –

His philosophy was simple: regardless of special needs, no one was unteachable.

Look at it. Think about it. No doubt it was meant well. It may have been written be somebody of considerable intelligence and commendable personal achievement in a relevant field. It may have been expressed differently in draft, then edited. No matter, taken at face value, going from what The Times actually published, what does this mean? What does it say about what 'special needs' has come to mean?. Is teaching not otherwise a special need? What does this say about the intellectual bankruptcy of today's concept of 'special educational needs' as she is spoke?

A new world

Oh, Ron... I do not blame you. Nor particularly Mary Warnock (though as a philosopher she really ought have known better – and, to her credit, she soon realised this). 

I was at the national special school's headteachers conference in Buxton, in 1992 when she publicly denounced her own report

The main fault of the report on special education... was its naivety. Indeed it now appears naive to the point of idiocy.

She had been the opening keynote speaker, I was the second. The audience showed little response to what either of us had said. They were much more interested in the what the pair of government suits up from London would be telling them after the coffee break, about what the new-fangled system of inspection was going to mean mean to them and their schools. I recall that the first suit opened –

Well, now we can get on with practical matters.

Truly, a new, powerful paradigm was dawning for our country's educators.


– (2014) Reuven Feuerstein (obituary) The Times, 24 June, p. 52

Gulliford, R. (1971) Special Educational Needs, London, RKP

Warnock, M. (Chmn) (1978) Special Educational Needs ('The Warnock Report'), London HMSO

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