John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Vice-President of the Conservative Education Society.
Since Baroness Warnock’s 1978 report on the Education of Handicapped Children and Young People, the determination of progressive educators and militant parents to have children with extreme behaviour present in normal lessons, whatever the consequences, has become a threat to the whole of the education system. The Report itself is rather different. It stipulates off-site provision for three groups of children – those with severe and complex needs, those who could not thrive in an normal school setting, and:
“children with severe emotional or behavioural disorders who have very great difficulty in forming relationships with others or whose behaviour is so extreme or unpredictable that it causes severe disruption in an ordinary school or inhibits the educational progress of other children” (Ch8,8).
I’ve seen the damage done by the drive to “include” these children in the mainstream of education at first hand, as a teacher, inspector, and consultant. In the 1970s, I was head of the remedial department in an East End comprehensive school. One of my pupils, who would now be diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome, wrecked every lesson he attended by uncontrollable outbursts, which prevented me from teaching the other pupils to read. I eventually lost my temper. Everyone has a breaking point, and I was lucky. Psychological damage can easily become physical, as in the recent £850k settlement for a teacher who left the profession after being assaulted by a pupil who should not have been in his class in the first place.
As an inspector in a school in the Midlands, I saw a young woman teacher reduced to tears by a class who took great pleasure in taunting her and refusing to do any work. Rules or no rules, I intervened and made it clear to them that unless it stopped immediately, the headteacher would be in their classroom before they could blink. Inspectors were professional colleagues and I was not going to stand by and see a colleague abused. The lead inspector thanked me, but, having spoken to the headteacher, changed his mind, and said that teaching was a tough job and not for everyone. Another headteacher said it would “disenfranchise” the pupils if he took action to stop them from swearing and using sexually abusive language to female teaching assistants, and complained when I stopped a lesson because pupils had made makeshift tomahawks by folding several sheets of paper into sharp triangles, with which they were hitting each other in the face.
Such behaviour, which I also saw as a consultant, makes teaching and learning impossible, and is a threat to the mental health of teachers and of victims of bullying. It has been tolerated for too long, and headteachers who have stood against it – notably Sir Rhodes Boyson, Sir Michael Wilshaw, Katharine Birbalsingh, and Barry Smith – have met insult and abuse from the progressive establishment and militant parents. The Government’s long-awaited review of SEND could, therefore, not be more welcome. It is one of the few good official reviews of education we have had, intelligent, honest, well-argued and practical. The system is broken – or, more accurately, never worked in the first place – and needs to be fixed.
The proposed fix builds on what has been found to work. Pre-Warnock, special schools ranged from excellent, usually small, settings, in which children were given work closely matched to their needs, and superb personal support – to what can only be described as dumping grounds for problems no-one wanted to acknowledge. Pupils were frequently sent to the wrong place, and parents had no choice. We are still not free of this – a parent in my village was threatened with prosecution last year if she did not agree to a special school for her son, who, incidentally, is well-behaved and co-operative.
The Review proposes an expansion of off-site provision, to be used flexibly, so that children can continue with mainstream education and be returned to it when possible. The quality of individual education and health care plans (ECHPs) is to be improved, and backed by earlier identification and tackling of problems in the hope that far fewer will be needed. There will also be a national qualification for special needs and disability co-ordinators (SENDCOs) in schools, though this, and other aspects of training staff, will be much more difficult. The predominance of behaviour has led to serious neglect of the specialised teaching skills needed to tackle specific difficulties, including language and literacy problems, and the education of deaf and hearing-impaired children. There will be plenty of organisations lining up to offer provision in these areas, and, like some of those involved in Labour’s dyslexia initiative in the 00s, they are highly likely to shift things towards their own agenda. The DfE likes to work with organisations rather than individuals, an approach which protects them from mavericks, but also stifles thought – organisations are out to make and influence policy, and, like the department itself, sift available ideas, but do not actually think.
The only way to make an impact on a learning problem is for the teacher to consider what is preventing the person from succeeding in what they are trying to do, and help them to adjust their thinking so that they can do it. An example, with a student assessed as dyslexic, witnessed by his deputy headteacher and parents, is here.
Until this approach is applied throughout SEND training, we will continue along the road paved with good intentions.
Footnote: The Review is published under the signatures of the Secretaries of State for Health and Education. Much of the work behind it was completed by Vicky Ford MP, and her successor as Children’s Minister, Will Quince MP.