The pasteurization of France

As a profession we’re in the midst of a quiet, but definite evolution in becoming more confident when handling research information, more informed about what research is already out there and more prepared to engage in our own classroom-based action research. This is welcome, but also necessary if we are to regard ourselves as a high status profession, get our policies right and use our precious CPD time as efficiently and effectively as we can.

My particular area of interest, which is rapidly becoming an obsession, is in behaviour, especially around improving behaviour in schools where it has been poor. This means I get to learn from studies looking at, for example, the effectiveness, or otherwise, of policies labelled ‘zero tolerance’ or ‘no excuses’, and of longitudinal studies on exclusion.

What strikes me most about almost everything I read is a conspicuous absence of any discussion about values that underpin such policy decisions on behaviour.

For example, there may exist utterly compelling and overwhelming research from multiple sources which shows, irrespective of context, phase or sector, that corporal punishment is the swiftest, most effective way to improve behaviour in individuals. Even if this research existed, there is nothing anyone can ever do to convince me that we should implement beating children as a behaviour improvement strategy in our school. I am making a value-based judgement that rests on my belief that inflicting violence on a child is a perverse way of teaching them that whatever they did was wrong, and this also underpins my smack-free parenting. “You have hit someone, which is wrong. In order to teach you that this is wrong, I shall hit you to make you understand.” It’s an extreme example, but the principle stands. (Extreme, but not every teacher in the UK is against corporal punishment and it is still legal and practiced in a number of states in the USA.)

My experiences as a novice Headteacher have been documented before – in short, behaviour nosedived, we had to radically rethink how we did things, behaviour improved and remained much better. Never perfect, you understand, but much better. The journey is neatly captured by the four Ofsted reports, which you can read, that punctuated my six years as Headteacher. During the course of my early days as a Headteacher I had to grapple with the obvious fact that our values as a school were being undermined by my actions in response to poor behaviour. I was using exclusion heavily and without effect. The use of exclusion as a response to poor behaviour was contradictory to our values as a school. We were committed to working with each child to meet their complex needs and providing support in whatever form was needed. Excluding children plainly failed to live up to that and, in some cases, was making things worse. It was a blunt behaviourist response that placed all responsibility on the child to sort their life out by sitting at home for a time and thinking about what they did. Further, it did nothing to support my colleagues as children came back unchanged or with resentment entrenched. This was compounded by them missing school and falling even further behind academically.

I decided to stop using exclusion as a response to poor behaviour. It was a decision consistent with our values, and one which brought me significant criticism. A governor at the time insisted that the only way to improve behaviour was to exclude more children; I disagreed. I received some grief on social media, memorably “People like you are responsible for thousands of teachers leaving the profession. Moron.” People immediately jumped in with both feet, assuming that instead I simply did nothing. What I did do was to focus on action to improve behaviour that was consistent with our values. (The only external commentary I have are the Ofsted reports, so you can read for yourself how it went.) Had I (we, in reality, for it is always a team effort, but the accountability rested with me) not been effective in improving behaviour I would have had to admit that my strategies were wrong, but my values would remain intact.

This period in my life, and in the lives of the colleagues, children and parents who went through it with me, came flooding back recently when I read ‘Why ‘What Works’ Still Won’t Work: From Evidence-Based Education to Value-Based Education’ by Professor Gert Biesta1.

Biesta powerfully examines the ‘What works’ movement and the role it should play – “if evidence were the only base for educational practice, educational practice would be entirely without direction” and that “questions about ‘what works’ — that is questions about the effectiveness of educational actions — are always secondary to questions of purpose”

He defines three issues with the evidence-based approach, namely the knowledge deficit, the efficacy deficit and the application deficit, but it when discussing complexity reduction where things get interesting.

“In his book on Pasteur, Latour argues that the success of Pasteur’s approach was not the result of the application of this particular technique across all farms in the French countryside. Pasteur’s technique could only work because significant dimensions of French farms were first transformed to get them closer to the laboratory conditions under which the technique was developed. As Latour argues, it is ‘‘only on the conditions that you respect a limited set of laboratory practices [that] you can extend to every French farm a laboratory practice made at Pasteur’s lab’’ (Latour 1983, p. 152). The ‘pasteurization of France’ (Latour 1988) is but one example of how the modern world has changed as a result of modern science, and again and again Latour argues that this is not the result of bringing facts and machines into the world ‘outside’ but of the transformation of the world outside so that it becomes part of the laboratory conditions under which things can work and can be true. Latour refers to ‘‘this gigantic enterprise to make of the outside a world inside of which facts and machines can survive’’ as metrology” and that it “only tends to work under very specific conditions.”

I wonder how many value-free policies and practices result from attempts at complexity reduction. Off-rolling certain students, illegally excluding others, a grammar school kicking certain students out halfway through their A-Levels being just a few examples. ‘Success’ then can become a matter of getting as close as possible to the laboratory conditions by getting the right kids in the door, and keeping the wrong ones out. Children who do not fit the prescription are the collateral damage in this enterprise and you don’t need me to tell you who those children are do you?

 

1 Biesta GJJ (2010) Why ‘What Works’ Still Won’t Work: From Evidence-Based Education to Value-Based Education, Studies in Philosophy and Education, 29 (5), pp. 491-503.

Goodbye, Mr Clark

Today my wife and I attended the funeral of a much-loved teacher and dear friend of ours, Len Clark. I was humbled to be asked by the family to say a few words as someone who knew Len as a student of his before becoming a friend in adult life, and they are reproduced below. The funeral brought together a dozen or so teachers from our teenage years and I have spent much of the day catching up and reminiscing with them.

It brought into sharp relief once more just how significant and enduring the impact teachers can have on the children they teach. We all know this to be true, but it is at times like this that the sheer magnitude of what teachers can do to fundamentally change someone’s life hits you between the eyes. That is why I felt an overwhelming need today to make sure that I told them all individually how important and influential they were, and continue to be, on me, both as a teacher and as a person. All very modest people, they all shrugged off the praise with a “Ah, well. You know…” but I hope that they are able to feel some well-earned professional pride in their achievements. 

Len Clark (11th September 1937 – 21st October 2019)

1960 – 1963 Malet Lambert School, Hull

1963 – 1970 Sir Leo Schultz High School, Hull

1970 – 1994 Brakenhale School, Bracknell

“Life brought Len and me together for the first time in September 1986. Me, a nervous 11 year old on my first day in secondary school, and Len, the Deputy Headteacher who made an instant impression on all of us because he exuded a natural authority.

This is the first thing you need to know about Len the teacher. He had presence. This is a much-prized superpower for those of us who are teachers. It looks effortless, but is anything but and Len had it in spades. He could silence a hall full of rowdy Year 10s (and, believe me, we were rowdy) with an imperceptible twitch of his eyebrow. Presence is hard-won by teachers. It does not come from being big, loud or scary. Len was a big man, but he was neither loud nor scary. It comes from years of honing your craft as a teacher and Len was a great teacher as, so I hear, he often used to tell his classes – “I’m the best teacher you’re going to have” I’m told he used to say. I was to wait five years before I had the fortune to be taught by Len. Both my wife Emma and I were in the same A-Level maths class and he expertly taught us for two years. His ultra-dry sense of humour was always on display – when asked “Sir, can you do Number 5 please?” Len would always reply “I can do them all.”  It is a testament to his skill that in that small class a number of us went on to read engineering, physics or maths at university with all of us getting a first or upper second class degree.

Len’s sense of humour was also put to good use in the tuck shop where he could be found at breaks and lunch times. My sister-in-law Vicky tells me that if she asked for a Cadbury’s Twirl Len would do his finest pirouette, all the time maintaining that straight face of his. Working with him and Stan Bissinger in the tuck shop is a particularly fond memory of Emma’s and mine when we were in the Sixth Form. I now know as a teacher how valuable break times are to teachers – for a cup of coffee, a visit to the loo or to simply scream into a cushion for five minutes before Year 9 turn up. Len and Stan gave up their free time for us and we were grateful to them for that.

Len had high standards and so was not one to dole out praise like confetti. My brother, Pete, tells me that a little dink on the shoulder, a pat on the back or a “Well done” were prized as you knew you’d definitely done something really well. There was one down side of doing well with Len, though. If you were to be presented with a certificate or similar in assembly you dreaded the handshake that came with Len presenting it to you because you couldn’t be sure that you’d come away from the encounter with the same number of fingers that you had beforehand, such was the ferocity of his handshake.

Len was at the centre of school life: he could be found helping out at the annual 30-mile 50/50 walk; making up the food parcels we delivered to local pensioners at Christmas time with half the proceeds from that walk; or serving us Sixth Formers at our annual Christmas dinner dance.

As we got older we saw a different side to Len. Pete and I used to play for the staff basketball team occasionally or referee their games against other schools and we got to know Len and his colleagues more closely.

The second standout quality that Len had as a teacher that I could see as a child was that he was utterly unflappable (no mean feat at our school in the 1980s). I don’t recall him ever losing his cool, but I do recall one time when I sat about ten feet away from him in an assembly as he informed us, his voice cracking with emotion, that my German teacher, Joan Cheetham, had died. Having done this myself I know how heartbreaking that will have been for him. Emma recalls that Len often used to bring Mrs Cheetham a cup of coffee in to her lessons such was his concern for her welfare.

Over the course of his long career Len taught thousands of children. It is rare, though, for teachers to find out how their students fare. They leave our classrooms and schools and we cross our fingers and hope they did ok, but for most we’ll never know. That’s why it was so important for Emma and me to be able to thank Len personally and to let him know what an influential person he has been in our lives. Emma tells me that Len was the first person to congratulate her when she was appointed to the teaching staff in the school where Sally’s children and ours went together, and Emma, our children and I have enjoyed getting to know the rest of the lovely Clark family over the past decade.

Len’s loss is a painful one for us all to cope with, but I want to offer a comforting thought to end with.

“Teachers affect eternity; they can never tell where their influence stops.” So said Henry Adams.

Len taught thousands of children. Yes, he taught them maths and PE but far more importantly he taught them how to be good people. And those good people are out there right now all over the globe passing on his wisdom, his values of selflessness and dedication to public service, and his terrible jokes. Although he’s not here anymore his legacy is alive and well and will continue to play out in thousands of ways unknown to almost everyone involved. That is the power of teachers. Len was mortal just like everyone else, but his influence is not. It lives forever.

The last thing I want you to know about Len was that everyone, and I mean everyone, respected him deeply. So much so that I have only recently, a grown man in my 40s, been able to call him Len. Mr Clark seems far more appropriate. So, to finish, on behalf of all the students of Brakenhale School past and present I say for the last time, “Goodbye, Mr Clark. Thank you for teaching us.””

 

Adaptation instead of control

For a long time I have thought of negative behaviour as the indicator of an unmet need. It is a view that many disagree with and I often have very interesting discussions with parents, fellow teachers and psychologists about it. ‘Negative’ is obviously in the eye of the beholder – behaviour that I perceive as negative in a child may, as far as they are concerned, be absolutely necessary (and, therefore, positive). People seem to have little difficulty with the word negative and it is often the tail end – the indication of an unmet need – where the debate focuses. It is sometimes misunderstood as a premeditated strategy from a child to have us indulge their every whim. It is not.

We all have within us the potential to behave badly. Threaten the safety of my children and I will do what is necessary to keep them safe. Any consequences to me personally are secondary in that moment. I may give them no thought, or I might regard them as an acceptable result of my actions. The same is true of children. I have worked with many children who are doing the best they can to have their needs met, yet behaving appallingly at the same time. For example, a child failing to turn up to my lesson is unacceptably rude in my eyes, yet they may be protecting themselves from the shame of their perceived certain failure in the test I have prepared for them. There is obviously a better way for them to handle that situation and my job as an educator is to teach them to do that. Yes, that may involve sanctions (or it may not), but it is a moment for education, not simply retribution.

My frustrations – my unmet needs, if you will – when colleagues disagree about my views above are at least in part down to my inability to make my case convincingly enough. With that in mind I have started to think about this in a different way. Take William Powers’ view

“Instead of assuming that brains control behaviour based on sensory stimuli, it makes more sense to assume that brains adapt behaviour to control what stimuli they get from the world”

I like this a lot. Every time I read this Kieran springs to mind. I worked with Kieran for five years and the phrase above reminds me of the times he would pinball down the corridor, bouncing off walls, the times he would slam doors, the times he would talk in a booming voice to someone right next to him, the times he would jump from the first floor landing all the way down to the bottom floor – a distance of about 12 feet – a make a crashing noise as he landed or the times he would walk out of a lesson shouting “I’M NOT FUCKING DOING IT!”. He could be incredibly disruptive, but he could also be incredibly withdrawn. Powers’ phrase above allows me to understand better how Kieran’s sensory-seeking behaviour was working and, crucially, what I then needed to do in response – or ideally beforehand – to help Kieran. If we didn’t help Kieran to have his needs met – and, again, this is not about indulging a child – then he would seek other ways, consciously or not, to do so and that was more likely to be disruptive for everyone.

(This was originally published as a guest post for chatterpack.net)

We should go further than Timpson

I’ve been thinking a lot about the recently published Timpson Review of School Exclusion and its implications for two groups of people – governors/trustees (who have significant responsibilities when it comes to exclusions in schools) and the groups of children who are grossly over-represented in the statistics every year for children excluded from school for both fixed-terms and permanently.

Pleasingly the review makes a good recommendation to improve training for governors so that their roles in exclusions can be carried out confidently and, just as importantly so confidence in the system is secured, their role is not seen as a rubber-stamping exercise of a Headteacher’s decision. However, Timpson could and should have gone further by recommending that governing bodies take deliberate steps which I will lay out below to tackle the over-representation of those children with SEND, black Caribbean children, etc. 

Strand & Fletcher (2014) carried out a comprehensive study of exclusions for a cohort of well over 500,000 children for their five years of secondary school life. They note that a sixth of all children in this cohort had at least one fixed-term exclusion during their secondary school life, and “that this rises to over 30% for Black Caribbean and Mixed White & Black Caribbean students. The probability of experiencing one or more FTE is strongly related to gender, ethnicity, poverty (as indicated by entitlement to a Free School Meal and by local neighbourhood deprivation), scores in national attainment tests (particularly English) at age 11 and early patterns of attendance in Year 7. The relationship between ethnicity and the odds of experiencing one or more FTE remains large and significant even after controlling for all these other variables.”

Equally disturbingly they found that “the numbers of permanent exclusions
relative to the number of FTEs for Bangladeshi, Caribbean and Other Black children are…markedly higher than those for White British students” and that “there are wide ranges in the numbers and durations of FTEs preceding a permanent exclusion. Nearly every ethnic minority group reaches a permanent exclusion on average after fewer FTEs than White British students and all but the Irish students reach a permanent exclusion having experienced FTEs of longer average duration than the White British students. These data are consistent with a degree of systemic discrimination.”

With a gradient on the playing field as steep as this it is my view that we should be taking significant positive steps to tackle this chronic problem.

The law as it currently stands on exclusion requires governing bodies to do the following:

  • review a fixed-term exclusion at parents’ request if the cumulative number of days of fixed-term exclusion in one term for a child is over five days, but is less than 15;
  • automatically review a fixed-term exclusion if the cumulative number of days of fixed-term exclusion in one term for a child is over 15 days;
  • automatically review all incidents of permanent exclusion.

I suggest that governing bodies could adopt a policy of reviewing decisions earlier on for children with protected characteristics (as defined by the Equality Act (2010)*). For example, for children with protected characteristics governors could insist on:

  • reviewing fixed-term exclusions at parents’ request for between three to five days cumulatively in one term;
  • automatically review a fixed-term exclusion if the cumulative number of days of fixed-term exclusion in one term for a child is over five days.

Or, for schools that identified that they had significant problems in this area, they could do away with parental requests altogether and review all fixed-term exclusions over a certain threshold for children with protected characteristics.

This would place greater scrutiny on this group of children and strengthen parents’ rights. I do accept, though, that this increases the chances of those children being illegally excluded or greater use being made of isolation (aka internal exclusion) as its use does not have to formally recorded (please see below).

The use of isolation

Whilst Timpson is being digested the social media corner of our profession is also having a heated discussion on the use of isolation. This is a practise that is not currently regulated or covered by legislation beyond guidance that its use should be reasonable.

One problem that this raises is that there is no decent information on its use or effectiveness. I’m willing to bet, though, that the over-representation of those children above in the exclusions statistics is also likely to be the case in the use of isolation. Governing bodies can take the lead here by making bold policy choices. They should insist on detailed information in their reports from school leaders to allow them to understand how often it is being used and by whom. Governors should insist that parents are informed whenever a child is placed in isolation – I can find no convincing reason why a school should not do this anyway. (Arguments that this would mean informing parents if someone was sent to the Head of Department or similar to cool off are weak. I’m referring to those hard structures set up permanently to house students for periods or days at a time.)

Governing bodies should also adopt limits for review for the use of isolation just like those that currently exist for fixed-term exclusion. The governors could define those limits, or adopt the ones already in use for fixed-term exclusion, and should also lower the threshold for review for children with protected characteristics too.

In addition, governors should visit isolation areas on their visits, talk to the staff and children in there and report back to their board.

I believe that these policy decisions would make a very strong statement from a board of governors or trustees that they take their duties under the Equality Act (2010) very seriously, and that they are being proactive in reducing the chances of there being systemic prejudice in their organisation. Writing this in to their equality objectives would give this chronic problem the status it deserves.

If we don’t we’ll all be here next year bemoaning the fact that, once again, children with SEND and black Caribbean children are still many times more likely to be excluded than their peers and we’ll all exclaim that “SOMETHING MUST BE DONE!”

Well, now’s your chance.

*The Equality Act (2010) states that it is illegal to discriminate against a person or people because of protected characteristics, defined as: age, disability (including special educational needs), gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation.

Reference

Strand, S., Fletcher, J. (2014) A Quantitative Longitudinal Analysis of Exclusions from English Secondary Schools. Oxford: University of Oxford.

 

I don’t know where you are

I have worked in special education for twelve years and in that time I have known two sets of parents who have not only never visited the special school their child attended, they didn’t even know where it was. Reflect on how astounding that is for a minute. I shall return to it later, but consider how it is possible for that to happen.

Much time and effort, rightly, is made of the transition from primary to secondary school for children. It has been a focus for a good number of years now and many schools are very skilled in ensuring a smooth transfer from one type of school to another. How much of this time and effort is given over to the emotional demands that this transition places on parents?

Time spent as a parent with my daughter in the care of some health professionals has seen me ruminating on how we as school leaders fare in that regard.

I regularly spend time at Moorfields Eye Hospital so that my daughter can undergo the regular series of tests and check-ups that her congenital condition demand. Whilst in the waiting room recently I saw a few parents of babies who are on the beginning of a journey we’ve been on as a family for nearly a decade now. Two mothers were sat next to me; one with a baby with one eye and one with a baby with no eyes at all. A number of other children present had obvious difficulties.

I’m a good listener but the consultant who was informing us of our daughter’s diagnosis all those years ago must have thought me very rude as I constantly interrupted him with questions. The first one, “Does this condition have any learning difficulties associated with it?” left my mouth almost before he had started talking.

Mr Moore was exceptional: sensitive, a clear communicator and a good listener. He advised us brilliantly. “It’s your choice. In five minutes you’ll meet with the surgeon. He is going to persuade you to operate. Surgeons love to operate, but the decision is yours. You’ve heard all the facts so make your own mind up and stick to it.” He remains the model to which I aspire when I meet with prospective parents at school.

When I was the Headteacher of a single school parents would typically visit our school when their child was in Year 5. Sometimes they would arrive a year earlier if they felt there were a lot of schools to visit or that there would be a battle with the local authority so they need time to gather evidence for a possible tribunal. Sometimes they visited when their child was in Year 6 and they were in a tight corner as they had been turned away by a string of secondary schools. In all cases I regarded this meeting as the beginning of the transition process.

We didn’t do group tours. All parents received individual tours as they needed the space and privacy to discuss their child. I made it clear to parents that I’m not a salesman. I obviously wanted to show our school in its best light, but I’ve never met their child so had no idea if we will fit the bill. We, not they, crucially. Too often parents told me that they felt that they and their child were being subtly selected or rejected by the Headteacher. “We only do GCSEs here”, or “The school down the road more children with autism and are much better at it [sic] than we are” were common remarks for parents to hear.

Parents are naturally inquisitive, but our students made a far better impression than I. Parents were always struck by their social confidence and their articulate nature. If your child is not developing in line with normal milestones it can be tough to imagine what your child may be like in five to ten years’ time. This chance to talk to students a few years down the track in some depth was vital. As was seeing a peer group, children their son or daughter could be friends with, work they can succeed at, a curriculum that focused on maximising their chances of success as adults.

Some parents needed to walk out after the visit knowing that we could keep their child alive whilst they were in our care. The reassurance required here is impossible to underestimate. We were not health professionals, yet they must be confident that we could manage epilepsy, a tracheostomy, tube-feeding or insulin pumps. Failure to manage these health needs properly could result in the death of their child, so this concern overrides all others.

Given our hard work on admission processes, how is it possible then for those parents mentioned above to be unaware of where their child went to school?

Occasionally a parent has told me that it can be difficult to accept that their child goes to a special school. I fully understand this. In a small number of cases I find that parents haven’t visited prior to admission, haven’t attended parents’ evening, annual reviews or any other opportunities to visit. The fact that transport is normally provided and the distance to school can be significant makes this gulf far harder to bridge.

When I took up that headship I was warned about two parents who, the story went, would make my life hell. Labelled as “pushy” I braced myself for a battle with them. No need. I found them engaging, intelligent and committed. They’d had to fight for their children’s basic entitlement and had a reputation for being prepared to advocate strongly for their child.

This is my kind of parent. School leaders are missing a golden opportunity to use this kind of emotional energy and these two parents in time became the Vice-Chairs of the governing body and two of our best advocates. One said after a time that she felt our school was unique. I asked her to expand on this with the staff and she explained that we were open-minded, honest with parents and very welcoming. This obviously pleased us greatly but whilst there are parents out there who don’t even know where their child’s school is, we have much more to do.

What’s in your schema for SEN?

I really enjoyed reading ‘Mindware’ by the American psychologist Richard Nisbett and it made me think very hard about thinking, inference and reasoning amongst other things.

Early on in the book there’s an arresting section on the schema concept. Nisbett describes the term schema as referring ‘to cognitive frameworks, templates or rule systems that we apply to the world to make sense of it’. We have them for all sorts of things: “basketball” (indoors, five-a-side, holding the ball in your hands) and “football” (outdoors, eleven-a-side, kicking the ball with your foot), for example, or “packed lunch” (sandwiches, fruit, crisps) and “school dinners” (hot meal, meat, vegetables).

Object schemas are used routinely in many special schools to help students with significant learning difficulties understand and prepare for what is coming next. A pair of goggles might signify that swimming is coming up, or a piece of Numicon will be used to indicate that the next session will be maths. You can see how object schemas are used to positively influence the behaviour of children for whom a regular timetable or verbal instruction in isolation is inaccessible. The child is more likely to understand what is happening next and is therefore more likely to be settled and comfortable as opposed to anxious and worried.

Schemas affect our judgement and how we behave and help us to select the appropriate behaviours for different locations and events such as visits to the dentist, job interviews or queuing in the supermarket.

Nisbett explains this influence is also true of our use of stereotypes – schemas about particular types of people and this set me thinking about learning difficulties and the people who have learning difficulties. Schemas are clearly working away in the subconscious, amongst a lot of other things as I am learning from Nisbett, and have developed and evolved throughout the courses of our lives.

What schemas do you have for the following words?

ADHD

Down syndrome

Autism

Pupil premium

Looked-after

Bottom set

SEN

Are the schemas that we have for these words negative in nature? Do they subconsciously suggest lower expectations for any children we teach who happen to be described using some of these terms? I’ll give you a word that’s specific to me.

Fitzgerald

I’m forced to admit that this word immediately brings forth some negative thoughts and words. I wish it weren’t so, but they’re there. I have to consciously put them away and refocus. The word does this because I worked with a number of children from the Fitzgerald family* when I first became a teacher in a comprehensive who all had some behavioural difficulties. Getting my class lists one late July for the next year, my eyes rested on another Fitzgerald. Within a fraction of a second I had judged this child without ever meeting them. Later on I was to learn a salutary lesson as it turned out that this particular Fitzgerald did not experience any behavioural difficulties, nor were they actually a member of that family at all (although that should have been irrelevant). I learnt the lesson, but my subconscious still drags up thoughts that, unchallenged, would unacceptably see me prejudge a child before meeting them.

Nisbett describes an experiment carried out by psychologists at Princeton University[1] in which students made stereotypical judgements about a child based on their judgement of her social class. The experiment contended that “[p]eople will expect and demand less of [working-class Hannah], and they will perceive her performance as being worse than if she were upper middle class”.

Reading that chapter a number of times and thinking deeply and honestly about the subconscious schemas that are operating in my head I am concerned that the adverse judgements made by the students in the Princeton study are more than likely to be replicated or, I fear, magnified, by society when they hear or see the words

ADHD

Down syndrome

Autism

Pupil premium

Looked-after

Bottom set

SEN

I fear this because I have seen first-hand how society in general (there I go with the broadest stereotype imaginable) has low expectations of people with Down syndrome. I see very little expectation that children with Down syndrome will go on to paid work or live independently. Why?

I am going to challenge you to confront your schemas and your stereotypes. Be brutally honest with yourself and dig deep to uncover what your subconscious mind is saying to you about those words in bold above and about the people you work with now, or have in the past, who have been described by those labels or others like them. It’s going to take some serious effort (I haven’t taught a Fitzgerald for eleven years) before each of us individually, and then society more broadly, replaces deficit schemas with ambitious schemas.

*Fitzgerald is a pseudonym

[1] Darley and Gross, “A Hypothesis-Confirming Bias in Labelling Effects”

Vectoring assets to kinetic situations

I spend a lot of my time, especially at this time of year, reading paperwork about students, existing or prospective, from a range of professionals such as teachers, therapists and social workers.

Every profession has its own jargon and vocabulary, much of it unnecessary. My closest friend is a senior officer in the Royal Marines. He taught me a cracker recently: ‘vectoring assets to kinetic situations’ which translates as ‘sending our guys to help out their mates as some bad guys are shooting at them’. We can sanitise and depersonalise by using such language and perhaps, in situations such as that, it is part of the point.

In the reports that I read there’s a style and language, deliberate or not, that turns the mundane, normal aspects of life for children with learning difficulties into technical, inhuman operations. I decided to note down some of the things that I’ve done over the last few days as if they were written about the children I work with.

Jarlath accessed his local leisure facilities with some adult support. At times he lay on the floor and was unresponsive to adult prompts.
When feeding himself independently, Jarlath made some poor food choices and needed adults to intervene.
Jarlath displayed high-level obsessional behaviour by playing the same music repeatedly in order to avoid doing the task he’d been set.
Jarlath uses social media excessively to communicate with people he has never met. Safeguarding concern form completed.
Jarlath seeks to control and micromanage everyone on his work placement. He displays challenging behaviour when we try to discuss this.
Jarlath’s bedtime routine is poor. He can often be found playing on his phone long after he should be asleep.
Jarlath rarely communicates what he actually wants. We often have to infer his wishes from body language and other aspects of his non-verbal communication.
Jarlath’s perseverance is poor. He will often leave important tasks half-finished, preferring to avoid them by completing routine tasks instead.
Jarlath does not have sufficient discipline to control his personal budget. For instance, he recently bought a pair of shoes, despite the fact that he already owns a pair.
Jarlath retreats to safe behaviours such as wandering around the school site or litter picking at times of stress and anxiety.
Jarlath is hyposensitive first thing in the morning. As a result he has cut himself when shaving independently a number of times. Occupational therapy referral completed.
Jarlath’s behaviour becomes oppositional and he becomes introverted if his favourite rugby team loses. He has an incomplete understanding of perspective as he fails to realise that it is just a leisure activity.
Perhaps we’d do better at meeting the needs of these young people if we stopped writing as if they were inhuman robots and started writing about their lives the same way we talk about our own.