He cannot keep up at the pace we teach

Inclusion of children with special educational needs is one of the most emotive subjects we debate or argue about as teachers and, unusually for our profession, is even more emotive for parents, for obvious reasons.

It is considered by many to be a basic human right and the ideal is that all children should be taught well in their local mainstream school and have their associated needs met. Anything different is seen to deny them at least some part of their childhood that others take for granted.

This is not something that I believe is possible. It is not possible because there are some children whose needs are so complex, or require such specialist skill and knowledge from staff, or some specialist equipment, or can exhibit extreme behaviours that they cannot be meaningfully included and well educated in a mainstream school. To pretend to include them in the life of a mainstream school is far more damaging and, in my view, robs them of their entitlement.

We rarely, if ever, have this discussion about other forms of segregation. We celebrate the diversity of a system that allows some children to be educated apart from the opposite sex. We are content for religious organisations to play a major part in running some of our schools, and for religion to be a factor in how some schools select their children. We are in love with our selective independent schools and, having heard this myself, breathe a sigh of relief that those sons or daughters don’t have to mix with the other 93% of the population. Despite the evidence, many in this country bemoan the lack of expansion of grammar schools who, presumably, are single-handedly churning out soon-to-be management consultants and hedge fund managers who otherwise would have been chimneysweeps or match girls. We regard segregation by all of these methods as a positive choice for parents. It is not seen as a zero sum game – their presence or absence does not disadvantage other children. Not so for children with special educational needs whose presence in a school in the name of inclusion can be regarded as lowering the average, making it harder for others to learn or dominate the attention of adults to the detriment of other children.

No school is inclusive. My school is highly exclusive in that sense. We cannot admit 97.5% of the school-age population because the possession of an Education, Health and Care Plan is a condition of entry. Every school has limits on who they can educate well. Those limits are flexible, and the degree of flexibility depends on the Headteacher and the institutional confidence of the school. I have seen the ripples that spread through a school that admits a child with Down syndrome when no-one in the school has worked with a child with such a condition before. If the values of the Headteacher and school are strong enough and they are willing to learn they will be successful. If they simply expect the child to fit in with how they operate then the road ahead will be long (or short) and rocky. The special school that used to state brazenly on its website that it didn’t admit children with either learning difficulties or emotional and behavioural difficulties is one such sad example.  This is where the tension arises.

The difference between a school reasonably and correctly saying that, hand on heart, it cannot meet the needs of a particular child, no matter how much support or money is offered, and a school meaning that it does not want to meet the needs of a particular child is a fine one. How our culture of accountability and performativity influence the behaviour of Headteachers will have to wait for another blog.

When I hear inclusion it sometimes comes with a subtext of compromise, dumbing down, doing things that a school shouldn’t have to do, stifling the clever ones or of risking its academic status, or an exact quote which is my personal favourite

He cannot keep up at the pace we teach.

The parents at our school are very strong advocates for their children – wouldn’t you be? They tell us in very clear terms that they want us to relentlessly focus on their child living and working independently. Think about that for a second and reflect on the last time you questioned whether that was possible for your own children. That is not too much to ask, but the bald statistics show dire life outcomes for people with learning difficulties. In my job those numbers are a professional context, but for the parents it is on their mind and in their gut the entire time. If attempts at inclusion do not directly work towards improving those life chances then it is not working. It may well make the adults involved feel better themselves as they see a child superficially experiencing the same curriculum as their peers, but in reality that child is losing touch with them at a rate of knots. It is this kind of veneer of inclusion that leads to Nicky Morgan stating that

“every child should study maths, English, history or geography, a language and the sciences up until the age of 16.”

She’s wrong.

Inclusion is the wrong word. I prefer to talk about a child’s entitlement. An entitlement that drastically improves their chances of being an independent and successful adult. If that’s not what my school is about then I’m in the wrong job.

 

Labourers, chippies, sparks, brickies and plumbers

I’ve been reading with interest a lot of the responses to CentreForum’s recent report highlighting the relative underachievement of white, working class children and the suggestions for why this might be the case.

I was one of those working class children in the 70s, 80s and 90s and recall that period without a hint of nostalgia. There is talk in the press of a poverty of aspiration. In my case, we didn’t have much room to aspire, to be ambitious – we were too busy trying to survive, to get by. (Ben Elton tells an amusing story of his time at Manchester University in which he never saw a tomato ketchup bottle the right way up. His whole life was about eeking things out). Sure, I daydreamed about what I would do as an adult, but the harsh reality of life would puncture those dreams with depressing regularity.

We lived in a council house, which we now tend to use as a proxy for “succeeded against the odds” – I’m not sure why as most people I knew lived in a council house in those days. My parents bought it, interest rates soared and it was then promptly repossessed when I was doing my GCSEs. We were technically homeless for about a week, and slept on the floor of a friend’s house. We then ended up in a bed and breakfast twelve miles away for a few months until we were rehomed by the council. In that time the single most depressing thing in my life happened. I answered the door one day after school to be met with, I was told, a representative of the court, who issued a repossession order to me for the B&B. The landlord hadn’t been keeping up with his mortgage payments either. So, out we went, off to another B&B for a few weeks. My mediocre set of GCSE results and a whopping 50-odd days of absence in Year 11 were statistics that were sources of ridicule when I went for an interview at the Army careers office. I had dreams of being an army officer, but that time in my life was about survival, coping with the nausea of watching my mum get ill with the stress and wondering where we were going to live.

Bad things happen to people. They have setbacks, they cope with difficulties. So what, you no-excusers may say. Get on with it.

Financial difficulty was one thing. However, the more chronic problem was that I didn’t know what to aspire to. Adults I knew were labourers, chippies, sparks, brickies and plumbers. I was working on a building site days after I finished my GCSEs – an exceptional experience that probably did more for me in terms of convincing me to do something different with my life than any careers lesson. The poshest people I knew were my teachers and I regarded them as a class apart. How could I aspire to be an engineer, a doctor, a solicitor? I had no idea who these people were or what they did. I’d had the misfortune to experience up close how bailiffs worked on more than one occasion and the only good thing that came out of that was a certainty that I’d never be one. I’d never met anyone, apart from my teachers, who had been to university. I didn’t even know what one looked like or what people did there (see Paul Mason’s Guardian article here). I defined people as posh if they went to Spain on their holidays, or if they were able to afford to fill up their car or pay for 12 months road tax on their car in one go. Andy, who lived in our street, was a quantity surveyor and I regarded him as superior because he wore a shirt and tie to work.

This was only reinforced by experiences in my mid-teens.

I applied to join the Irish Guards at 16 and received a letter soon after to be told that they had no vacancies in my year of birth. Some time later a friend, a highly-decorated officer himself, told me that they were doing me a favour. My dad’s job – he’s a digger driver – meant I would be unlikely to be able to afford the lifestyle it demanded. It took some explaining to me why my dad’s job had any bearing on my ability to be a soldier. I tried another regiment, where I got chatting to another candidate.

What school do you go to?” he asked.

Brakenhale,” I responded.

I’ve never heard of that school. I go to Pangbourne College.”

It’s a comprehensive. Why would you have heard of it?

I went to a comprehensive for a day once. It was horrible.

He’s in his 40s now, I guess. I hope he’s ok.

In the Officers’ Mess that week I was talking to a Captain and another candidate. They were talking rugby and asked me what position I played. When I responded that I had never played rugby they both looked at me with utter disdain. It was quite clear to me that I didn’t belong.

Much of my life up until then had reinforced my place in the world. This was brought home to me when working in Slough in a school for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties. We lived in a static caravan when we first moved back from Ireland and I remember the hilarity that met this fact when I told my tutor group. I was regarded as the poshest person in the school by the kids and they reminded me of me when I was their age. I counter it with an example when I worked in a selective independent school. Year 10 (Fourth Year in their parlance) were off for a week’s work experience.  I asked James in my physics class where he was going. “Dad’s sorted me a week at a political think tank in [Washington] D.C.” I was stunned, but it just tripped off his tongue without a second thought.

What’s in our children’s frames of reference? What do they think is achievable? Don’t blame these kids for having a poverty of ambition. They need to be shown the way. They need to believe that they’re as good as anyone else.