Have you ever sung at the Royal Albert Hall?

I am always pleased when children with SEN come up as a topic for discussion as it did yesterday following Quirky Teacher’s post on segregation. I am still waiting for the day, though, when I hear from a teacher who says in exultant tones that teaching children with learning difficulties has made them a better teacher. Until then I steel myself for deficit narratives, sometimes overt, sometimes implied. This deficit model is fed, in part, by the process of assessment for statements of special educational needs as was (now the Education, Health & Care Plan (EHCP)) which lists, sometimes in great detail, everything that the child finds difficult. I have often wondered what my own EHCP would look like – it would make depressing reading for sure.

This deficit narrative, these proxies for SEN, arise time and again. The two main ones I see are:

These children are an unacceptable drain on resources.

Every child is a drain on resources by definition. So what? Start the watch on an INSET day and see how long it takes someone to come out with the wisecrack “This job is so much easier when the kids aren’t here! Eh? Eh?” It’ll be minutes, not hours. The line between what any school can and cannot do is undefinable and is, in large part, drawn by the headteacher. I’ve blogged about that before in Entitlement? Yes. Inclusion? No.

Their behaviour has an unacceptable effect on the other children.

I see SEN and behaviour used interchangeably and erroneously. Do some children with SEN sometimes present with challenging behaviour? Yes. So do all children. The last time I looked 53% of all special schools had an outstanding judgement for behaviour and safety, compared to 32% of all other schools and 27% of all pupil referral units. That’s the same framework remember. Special school exclusion rates are also half that of mainstream schools. Couple that with the fact that all kids in PRUs are there because of their behaviour and last year 25% of the children at my school came to us from secondaries due to their behaviour.

The thing that irks me most about this narrative is the subtext that without these children the lives of the teacher and the other students would be improved. I reject this.

I’m a love the one you’re with kind of bloke. I have unshakeable belief that all kids can do great things with the right teaching, support, care and, as Dave Whitaker would say, love. The things that the children I serve achieve sometimes move me to tears. They have significant difficulties in certain aspects of their life, but that does not mean that they struggle with everything. 10 of our students sang at the Royal Albert Hall this year. Not in some event purely for children with SEN. They were full participants in an opera with professionals and other children from across Surrey. My heart was bursting from my chest that night. I had to politely clap along with the other 6,000 people but I desperately wanted to scream and shout from the rafters about how proud of them I was. Take the young man in Year 10 who has Down syndrome but speaks three languages (Do you? I don’t.); the girl in Year 11 who was a Paralympic torchbearer in 2012 (as well as appearing in a BBC documentary and being interviewed on Japanese TV); the young lady in Year 12 who recently returned from Italy where she won four medals and set a European record at the European Down Syndrome Swimming Championships; the young lady in Year 10 who’s been selected for the GB Down Syndrome Swimming Squad. All impressive, but no more impressive than the 25% of our children who had to leave secondary schools due to their behaviour but have come to love school once more, a place that, at one time, scared the life out of them. For one of our Year 11 students it took FOUR YEARS for us to make him feel safe in school. It takes that long (this is the bit where you tell me to think of the other children) and we pride ourselves on not giving up on kids who have been written off long ago. Their difficulties will not be solved by the end of the week.

Teaching children with complex learning difficulties can make you feel unskilled. To start with it certainly makes you feel scared. This is at the heart of the matter – read Beefy’s response to Quirky Teacher’s post to learn more. Embrace it and it will be the best CPD you will ever have. It took me to teach children with profound and multiple learning difficulties to realise that what I knew about teaching, and behaviour, when I worked in mainstream was a veneer at best. Try teaching a child with multi-sensory impairment (that is to say, deaf and blind) and then you’ll have to begin from first principles. How does this child even know who I am? How do I know if they’ve learned something? How do I assess it? Have they really learnt it if they cannot do it in another class, outside of school or with another person?

My seven-year-old daughter and I were discussing jobs yesterday. Her visual impairment means that some jobs will be closed to her. She spends time with soldiers and police officers and thinks their jobs are cool. I’ve had to tell her that she won’t be able to do those things when she’s older. It breaks my heart to tell her and her disappointment is palpable. The thing that is most upsetting, though, is that she feels a little less human as a result. “There are things I’m not allowed to do. This makes me different from everyone else.” Her impairment is, in the world that I spend my time in, minor and close to being inconsequential. I can only imagine what it’s like for those with complex difficulties. Read Beefy’s response again.

Don’t make the mistake of perpetuating that deficit narrative. Don’t make the Fortune Teller Error – the prediction of failure – that I so often hear.

As Dylan Wiliam has said, “teach the kids in front of you, not the ones you wish you were teaching.



6 thoughts on “Have you ever sung at the Royal Albert Hall?

  1. Pingback: Segregation – a collection of responses | MainstreamSEND

  2. I *may* have had watery eyes as I read this…. the world needs more people like you, who care for and about the children rather than who feel compelled to follow the system designed for the masses. I wish they could all take a leaf out of your book. Thank you.

  3. Really powerful piece, I’m sad to learn that my experiences seem to be universal and common. We need more people who care and can see past the common way of thinking.

  4. “I am still waiting for the day when I hear from a teacher who says in exultant tones that teaching children with learning difficulties has made them a better teacher” – but this must be true of so many teachers, Jarlath. I wonder why it isn’t articulated more often?

    I experienced the whole gamut of emotions while I read this post – it lifted and inspired me and also made me angry and sad. Thanks for sharing it. I hope it’s widely read and carefully considered.

  5. Pingback: Excellent SEN Blogs to follow: Part 1. – Special Needs Teaching Ideas.

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