World beaters

I read Laura McInerney’s recent Guardian article ( with interest and am pleased that special schools are provoking discussion amongst our mainstream cousins. Laura achieved at least two things with the article: a) bringing the issue to the attention of the wider education community and b) provoking a difference of opinion amongst special school colleagues whose community can sometimes feel like a mutual appreciation society.

One of the questions raised was “could it be that inspectors are overly moved by a syrupy view of disability?” I have been through four Section 5 inspections, one residential inspection and one Section 8 monitoring visit as a leader in special schools. All five education inspections were carried out by former special school Headteachers, both lead and additional inspectors. Far from being syrupy, the experiences were sharp. They knew what they were looking at. The lesson I mentioned in an earlier post that was rated as outstanding (sorry) that I felt was mediocre was observed by a former Headteacher and Chair of Governors of a special school. Despite our difference of opinion I couldn’t question her experience and credibility. A colleague’s school was put into special measures last year due to poor progress. The team conducting the inspection were led by a current special school Headteacher and NLE. This may not be reflected nationally but both examples are good indicators of credibility.

I have been aware of the difference in inspection judgements between phases for some time so thought that this would be an ideal opportunity to broaden the debate. It is not a simple case of special schools doing better than mainstream schools in terms of inspection judgements. A friend contacted Ofsted this week to obtain the inspection judgements of schools to look at the differentials. Ofsted hilariously e-mailed him back to say that “issues such as this fall outside of our legal remit”. 90 seconds of searching enabled me to find what we wanted on Ofsted’s website.

Most recent overall effectiveness judgements for schools

Number Outstanding Good Good or better Requires Improvement Inadequate
Schools 21005 20% 62% 82% 16% 2%
Nursery 412 57.5% 39.1% 96.6% 3.2% 0.2%
Primary 16142 17.6% 64.6% 82.2% 16.2% 1.6%
Secondary 3106 21.6% 50.3% 71.9% 22.5% 5.6%
Special 1011 36.0% 53.7% 89.7% 8.2% 2.1%
PRUs 334 15.3% 70.4% 85.6% 11.4% 3.0%

Source – (

This is the data for all 21005 schools in England (Laura’s article refers to special schools in the last term, although note the 35% in Laura’s report is a slight drop from the 36% of special schools that are graded as outstanding overall). Interestingly there are 32 schools, all mainstream, in that data that haven’t been inspected since September 2006.

If you wish to question the validity of inspection judgements in special schools then you’ll also want to look at the spectacular success of nurseries who are head and shoulders above the rest in outstanding and good or better measures. One interesting statistic that jumps out at me is that more secondaries are outstanding proportionally than primaries, although primaries have a healthier good or better measure.

Contained within the categories are middle schools (deemed primary or secondary), infant schools, secondaries with sixth forms and without and special schools of varying hues. This finer detail would be interesting to look at for someone who has more time than me.

Remember too, that the 21005 schools range from the tiniest infant schools with one class to giant secondary schools with their own postcode; from 300-student generic special schools to secure children’s homes. All are inspected under the same framework. Is that where the discussion needs to go next? Can one framework cater for the range of schools out there and provide descriptors that are flexible enough to allow inspectors to recognise the successes and challenges of each individual organisation?

I’ve mentioned before that I have a wide perspective on schools. I’ve taught in a comprehensive, a selective independent school, a school for boys with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties, a 2-19 generic special school and a school for students with moderate learning difficulties. This perspective tells me that our special schools are as committed to student progress (and we mean that in the widest sense) as our mainstream cousins.

Our best special schools are world beaters. Visit one, it won’t take you long to see why.


Not as Irish as I thought I was

This first appeared as a feature article in the Mayo News in April 2014.

THE state visit of President Michael D. Higgins to the United Kingdom last week coincided with the death of my paternal grandmother, Sarah (Sarah O’Brien (nee Coyne), born June 10, 1922 in Cappanacreha, died April 3, 2014 in Ballinrobe) at the age of 92. A fl ying visit to Ireland ensured that I missed the pageantry on display in Windsor but instead my 48 hours over the water allowed me some time to reflect on being a second generation Irishman in England in 2014. Much was made in Ireland of the visit with a number of accounts on RTE radio of Irish people living in the UK, and as I listened on the drive through Mayo on my way from Knock airport to Finny I empathised with much of what I heard.

I am emotionally and culturally bilingual – equally at home in both countries. This is a direct result of an upbringing rich in Irish music, language, food and sport and a time spent living there. Be in no doubt, having been born in London and lived in England for the majority of my life I am proud to be British. Despite that, I feel Irish and support them fervently whenever the two teams meet and that has meant a close relationship with losing throughout most of my life. However, when I am in Ireland, and that is not as often as I’d like, I realise that I’m not as Irish as I think I am.

It is often thought that the two countries are very similar – they are not. Countless examples jumped out at me this week, not least of which was the swiftness with which my grandmother was buried and the duration of her funeral. My grandmother died on Thursday and was buried by Saturday morning. Colleagues at work were surprised at the speed with which things happened; seven to 10 days would be typical in England. They were also surprised to learn that I would spend two hours of Friday evening at a Chapel of Rest four feet away from my grandmother in an open coffin whilst 350 people, many of whom were unknown to me, filed past to shake my hand and offer consolation for my loss.

The manner in which the Chapel of Rest ceremony was conducted was striking. I have witnessed it before but as you age I guess you become more attuned to the emotion of others. It was emotionally tortuous for my father. He was seated across the room from me and was the first person all visitors greeted on arrival. He has never been particularly comfortable at ceremonial occasions or in a suit so this was somewhat of a perfect storm for him. He was with his two brothers and four sisters in the room where he’d seen his father and sister laid out thirteen years and twelve years ago respectively. Some visitors stood for a few moments on entering the room, perhaps to say a quiet prayer, before embarking on their journey around the room. On those occasions my father took the chance to try to work out who they were (he’s lived in the UK for the last 49 years). Others dived straight in offering their condolences. My father would nod his thanks or, occasionally, a smile would cross his face if a familiar face turned up, perhaps from school, England or his time playing Gaelic football. All would eventually make their way to my side of the room. I knew very few of the visitors and most of those I did know didn’t recognise me. Some had dressed for the occasion others had come directly from the farm. Some looked each of us directly in the eye whilst they said their piece; others were already looking on to the next family member. After two hours of hand-shaking I was left in no doubt that my hands are weak and soft. The men, without exception, had thick, strong hands with calloused palms and a handshake to match.

The sense of community was incredible. Each of these visitors had taken time out of their Friday evening to do something that they felt was important. Some had come a long way and may not have seen my grandmother for many years. It was a community event, a chance to say goodbye to a friend, rekindle acquaintances from long ago and do your duty by your church all wrapped up in one rural, Irish, Catholic tradition. It left me longing for just such a feeling in my own community. I enjoy living in Sandhurst and get on well with my neighbours, but there certainly won’t be 350 of them turning out for my funeral.

The confrontation with death was something that I used to feel was unnecessary. I could never find the logic to explain why you needed to expose close relatives to the body of their loved one for so long whilst, simultaneously, being courteous and civil to a procession of strangers. My English experiences of funerals are short, sweet and certainly don’t involve open coffins. I see it as a Catholic method of exposing you to your own mortality. I’m not a Catholic, but that’s certainly how it worked for me – “That’ll be you in a while. Better make the most of what time you have left, eh Jarlath?”

We brought my grandmother to Finny Church that evening and had a short church service. I was shocked and touched to discover that the local TD, Éamon Ó Cuív, a grandson of Éamon de Valera, had come along to pay his respects; virtually unthinkable in England. Saturday morning brought the burial after the church service with obligatory readings and prayers from grandchildren, some in Irish and mine in English. I had flashbacks to my grandfather’s funeral in the same church 13 years ago. I vividly remember the priest splashing holy water on my grandfather’s coffin using a plastic dish mop and recall how upset I was at the disrespect I felt that my grandfather had been shown at the time. That Father Ted moment was not to be repeated.

The priest informed the congregation that my grandmother had 21 brothers and sisters (her father was married twice). I spent much of the service reflecting on how hard life must have been in rural Ireland in the 1920s with such a large family. I know that my father’s upbringing was tough; I found it impossible to imagine my grandmother’s childhood. The only thoughts that I could summon were that to have 22 children in today’s England would mean a programme on Channel 4 and a vicious front page in the Daily Mail.

As we left the church the midday Angelus was playing on the radio. I was immediately brought back to my childhood when my grandparents’ house would fall silent. The adults would be praying, I would be oblivious to the words and all I knew was that it was something that had to be endured and that I had to keep quiet. This time I welcomed the silence and the time for reflection that it provided. I know wonder if those adults, all those years ago, were doing something similar.

The burial was stereotypically Irish with persistent rain, muddy ground and my cousin, Gráinne, playing the accordion at the graveside. Once it was over my father took me to visit the grave of my great-grandfather and of one of my father’s closest friends, Jimmy, who had died in a collapsed trench on a building site in Manchester at the age of 24. Tragically, I was to read on the gravestone that Jimmy’s son died in an accident too, this time at the age of 27 in Germany. “Not everyone lives until they’re 92, Jarlath.”

The wake started with lunch followed, less than two hours later, by dinner. A wedding party were in the pub at the same time, Irish music was playing courtesy of Gráinne again and I watched Munster defeat Toulouse in the Heineken Cup. Once more my creeping mortality snuck up on me as I played pool with my seven year-old second cousin, Dylan. Not so long ago that was me being taught how to play by a distant relative and in the blink of an eye the student had become the teacher.

This melancholy mood that was enveloping me was only heightened by my uncle Martin’s proclamation that he was “taking one last look at those mountains. There’s nothing here for me anymore.” I failed to understand as all I could see was unadulterated natural beauty and I didn’t think I could ever tire of that view. He was clear, however, that bitter memories were stirred and that this chapter in his life needed to be closed. It was time to leave with my usual “Until the next time,” and I hoped that that didn’t mean another funeral as my maternal grandmother is 101 and in frail health, but that is often the way as we lead our busy lives.

Until this week I had felt a quite sprightly 39 year-old, but that feeling has most certainly gone. I’m not sad about that at all, but, as I write this back home in England, I’m certainly sad that I’m not as Irish as I thought I was.

Segregation – a call for evidence

The inclusion debate is now well and truly up and running. I am delighted that contributors are airing their views and sharing their experiences but I am struck with the thought that we are short on evidence. We need evidence which firms up our views or challenges us to rethink.

I read physics at university and am well used to drawing conclusions based on the evidence available. “When the facts change I change my mind” as Keynes never actually said. Given all of that studying and training my opinions are shaped and formed by the evidence available. If it can be shown that students with learning difficulties generally make better progress, as yet undefined, in mainstream schools than in special schools then it’s time for me to change my mind. The position of most of us in this debate is heavy on ideology, opinion, anecdote and experience and short on evidence.

It must be true that…” “It’s blindingly obvious that….” “Common sense tells you that…..” never got me anywhere when studying special relativity or quantum mechanics so I am hesitant to pronounce in such bold terms on inclusion.

It has been stated by at least one colleague that segregation (their word) of students into special schools is a human rights violation. A bit heavy for me, but you may have a general preference for students with special educational needs to be educated in mainstream schools because it must be better, again as yet undefined, for them to be with their peers.

As stated in an earlier blog the school system in this country segregates all the time with very little fuss, grammars and special schools notwithstanding.

When and how did we decide to arrange the primary/secondary system in to the way it is now? Randomised controlled trial? I doubt it. A combination of the need for subject specialised teaching at some point and the unwillingness of 30 soon-to-be-teenagers to remain in the same room all day long may well be the reason. Did we test it extensively, gather evidence and decide that 11 was the optimum age to radically change the way our children are educated? Again, I doubt it. Someone, somewhere tinkered and we ended up with some regional middle school systems too. In the future will we test this, respond to the evidence and change our entire schooling system based on the results? No.

When did we decide that it was sensible to let organisations that have nothing to do with educating children, namely churches, to run some of our schools? Randomised controlled trial? I doubt it. We are content to let the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church run a large number of schools in this country. Is there evidence that shows that educating children in groups based largely on the religion of their parents is more effective than the mixed gender mainstream model? If so, then why are we not doing this all over the country? If you object to segregation based on special need then why do you not object to segregation by parental religion?

The same questions stand for gender. If segregation by gender is more effective then surely we are hindering children’s progress by maintaining a mixed gender model. Where is the evidence? If you object to segregation based on special need then why do you not object to segregation by gender when they are educated away from 50% of their peers?  My hunch is that there is no evidence that either model is more effective and that it boils down to choice. Some people prefer to have their child(ren) educated without the presence of the opposite sex. We’ve inherited this and will never remove single gender schools as it’s politically impossible to achieve.

There is more evidence available on the relative effectiveness, or otherwise, of grammars. This is the example that challenges my position most. My intuitive position is that grammar schools inhibit social mobility and maintain class divide. I am, though, as stated earlier, prepared to change my view in light of evidence that disproves my position. I have yet to see this but have seen evidence that supports my view. My in-built tendency to remember and be attracted to evidence that backs my own position must be noted.

So, with the current increase in research in education I make a call for evidence. Is there evidence out there that shows that students with learning difficulties make better progress/have better outcomes/lead better lives when educated in special schools than in mainstream schools? Or the other way round? In the UK? Abroad? Given the difficulties in coming to agreed definitions for “better progress”, “have better outcomes” or “lead better lives” I suspect it is a task fraught with difficulties and incomplete and contaminated data. I look forward to reading any papers that are out there.

Guest Inclusion Blog #1

The following post, which I am delighted to host, is from a teacher with significant experience in both mainstream and special schools: 

Looking at inclusion from my outreach perspective I would say parental views, i.e. parents with strong preferences and the ability to take on Local Authorities, do have their views and wishes met, not always to the benefit of the students. I have been to several mainstream schools to support teachers, more often TAs, in including students in school. My personal view, which is not popular, is that students are included only in that they are under the same roof as the rest of the school.

A lot, but not all teachers, feel that the student who is working, sometimes several levels below the peer group, is not their responsibility, but the responsibility of the TA who has become velcroed to their side. It is a credit to these people that they are more often than not highly motivated to do the best for the student.

In the teachers defence, the lead must come from SLT to encourage inclusion, proactively and not just in name. However, we all see the pressures schools are under to achieve the magic Outstanding and testing of students to prove this. These aims do not allow, especially in small schools, for one or two to be working below expected NC levels.

In most cases this is indefensible and the students suffer through lack of understanding of how to work with students with varying degrees of learning disability, ASD, Down’s syndrome, or even those with chaotic family backgrounds. These students are not being ‘awkward’, ‘know exactly what they are doing’, ‘lazy’, ‘stubborn’ or just downright unteachable. They are children, young people with specific issues, which, if addressed can have successful and happy school experiences.

The answers surely lie in training and more emphasis on individuals and how best to support schools and staff in ‘inclusion’, if that is the aim!

If you would like to contribute to the inclusion debate and would like to guest blog on this site please tweet or DM me @jarlathobrien.  

Entitlement, Inclusion and Parents

I have been tweeting pretty much non-stop since first posting a blog on Tuesday on my views on inclusion. Of all the feedback and comments the ones from parents are currently ruminating somewhere inside me. One parent, Guy Eames (@semaeyug), rightly commented, “Don’t mean to be rude. Most of your followers are teachers. Parents views, as we have found, are largely ignored.”

Since then I have been thinking about how much I actually appreciate the parental viewpoint. I attach a lot of importance to the views, feelings and experiences of parents. This does not mean that we always agree or that our meetings, chats and discussions are one giant hugathon, because they’re not. There is, however, mutual respect and equal importance attached to our views.

I have had the merest and briefest of brushes with this as a parent. A combination of factors mean that any children of my wife and I have a greater chance of being born with spina bifida. This was an ever-present thought throughout my wife’s second pregnancy (a deep-vein thrombosis in her first uncovered the issue). As it turned out my daughter wasn’t born with spina bifida but was born with another congenital condition and diagnosed early on in life after some unnerving tests involving EEGs, stroboscopes and ultrasounds. When the consultant informed us what was wrong with our daughter he was unable to finish the sentence before I rudely and nervously dived in with “Does this condition have any learning difficulties associated with it?” The very next day at school I cornered the specialist teacher for visual impairment. She patiently and repeatedly explained to me, although I still don’t fully understand this, that to be blind in one eye means that you do not have a visual impairment. Mere and brief.

The most important part of my job is when I meet parents who are looking at a secondary school for their child. They are usually vulnerable and struggling with the almost impenetrable system of statutory assessment and statementing (EHCPing?). I only do individual tours. Groups are impersonal and don’t give parents the space they need to talk about their child and, quite often, the struggle they’ve been through. I always ask parents if they’ve visited a special school before and, unsurprisingly, most haven’t. I also make clear to parents that I am not a salesman. My role is to show them the school from top to bottom to give them the best chance of making an informed decision. They are there to see if their child and my school fit.

Tours give great insight into what parents are looking for in a school for their child. When I worked in a school with children with the full range of special needs parents were sometimes shocked at the severity of some of the needs. There was a chance that we may witness a child having an epileptic seizure or exhibiting some very challenging behaviour, for example. During one tour the air ambulance arrived on the school field for a boy with a heart condition. Parents of children with moderate learning difficulties would sometimes comment that their child couldn’t possibly have a peer group or be academically challenged in such a school. Others were reassured at the level of expertise in the multi-disciplinary aspects of our work such as speech therapy and occupational therapy or our ability to care for children with significant health problems.

In my current school feedback is remarkable in its consistency. Students are described as confident and articulate (no accident that they form part of our school vision); engagement is always noticed as is the behaviour of our students. Typically parents will say “You’re just like a normal school.” Parents are always keen to avoid offence but it is the best way they can usually articulate what they see. It helps to explain differences in the proportions of students attending special schools in different parts of the country. Nationally 60% of students with statements or EHCPs attend mainstream schools, but in the county in which I work it is only 40%. The fact that this county has 23 state special schools, with seven special schools for students with moderate learning difficulties, is partly responsible. They present parents with an option that appears to be a close approximation to a mainstream school but has all the advantages of small class sizes, staff expertise across the school, a peer group, subject specialist teaching and a vocational curriculum with time spent in workplaces and FE colleges and independent travel training. We even have one MLD school where girls can stay past Year 6 but the boys have to leave. Girls only, MLD only provision is rare, but its presence creates its own demand.

Other LAs in which I have worked do not have exclusive provision for students with moderate difficulties. The special schools tend to be large,2-19 and cater for the full range of special needs. The distance between the choices that parents in those LAs are presented with feels much larger to them. This generally results in more inclusive mainstream schools as this can become the preferable choice if children are at the moderate end of the learning difficulties spectrum.

Parents also feature heavily in governance. We have a superb group of parent governors who are experienced, passionate and intelligent. They are also very challenging in exactly the right kind of way. When I took up the headship I was warned by the outgoing Headteacher about two of them – they weren’t governors then. They’d fought for their children’s entitlement from an early age and I guess this marked them out to him as potential troublemakers. They are some of the school’s strongest advocates now and I’m a fool if I don’t listen to them and learn from them.

Nancy Gedge (@nancygedge) blogs passionately about her experiences as a parent – Who’s Afraid of the Special School? ( – as has @bjpren on more than one occasion (

Parents are entrusting their children, often with complex conditions, to us and need to be reassured that we can take care of them, teach them well and give them all that they are entitled to. My experience began and ended with a conversation with a doctor. For most of our parents that was just the beginning. Ignore them at your peril.