How special are your needs?

A new report is out so a new controversy breaks. Ofsted release the cleverly titled A statement is not enough - the special educational needs and disability review. As newspaper reports spread about thousands of students being labelled as SEN when they are not, parents are starting to worry and teachers are already taking offence. But what kind of a problem is this?

The basic principle of personalised learning is that all students have needs and each of them is to be properly assessed and treated accordingly throughout their academic career. Every individual is to be taught in a way and supported to an extent that is appropriate to them.

Of course, that takes a lot of time and money, both of which are scarce and about to be reduced. Although one element of government insists that Every Child Matters, and ought to be treated as a rare individual, the funding element encourages factory farming - it assumes a high teacher to student ratio with a limited number of Learning Support Assistants (LSAs). If a student needs special support, for dyslexia or behavioural problem, they need to be suitably labelled by an expert to release special funds to pay for it.

At this point, of course, radio and t.v. stations can always find one parent who desperately wanted to get help for their child but could not obtain it, despite medical proof obtained privately and appeals through the system. And, look, surprise surprise, here is another in the studio and does want their child to be tested and "labelled as SEN".

Inevitably, some teachers will argue they can only deal with students who want to learn, or are capable of learning under whatever regime the teacher cares to impose. The rest have to be removed, or supported, or labelled as different (= inconvenient or wrong). So, inevitably, students who are merely bored by poor lessons, or going through a difficult time because their fathers are in Afghanistan, will end up being 'labelled' and treated with funds designed for those with serious disabilities.

The problem is not helped by varied interpretations of the terms disabled, and special need. They can be genuinely misunderstood and equally they can be abused to gain finding. The Ofsted report Appendix A considers this and refers to the Code of Practice - students qualifying for special finding must have "a significantly greater difficulty in learning than the majority of children of the same age; or have a disability which prevents or hinders them from making use of educational facilities of a kind generally provided for children of the same age in schools within the area of the local authority'.

In other words, the term is relative.

School Action is taken for those with 'needs', and a different kind of education will be provided. School Action Plus kicks in when the school thinks they need to provide more specialist support, and at that point a formal statement might be generated to provide a label to provide the funds to pay for it. We also have definitions of 'disability' within the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) and of 'children in need' used by Social Services. Plenty of room for confusion, sleight of hand and for worried parents to be unsure whether a label will help or harm in the long term.

So how special does a need have to be before the school or college will take measures to meet it?

In January 2007, the Teaching and Learning in 2020 Review described the hallmarks of personalised learning. They didn't sound any different from ordinary learning if it is done well . In 2005, Ofsted was already pointing out that

The most effective teaching for learners with the most difficult behaviour is little different to that which is most successful for all learners. - Managing Challenging Behaviour, March 2005

But then, two years later, the TES published the opinion that more than a million students (15% of the school population) have special educational needs but no formal statement (27/4/07). Special in what sense? How many bored or confused or frightened students would not welcome more support. Or perhaps teaching of a different sort so that extra support to deal with it was not required?

Not surprising, then, that in September 2010 Ofsted can argue that

at School Action level, the additional provision was often making up for poor whole-class teaching or pastoral support. .... Inspectors saw schools that identified pupils as having special educational needs when, in fact, their needs were no different from those of most other pupils. They were underachieving but this was sometimes simply because the school's mainstream teaching provision was not good enough.

At this point, overworked and harassed teachers defend their professional good name by pointing out that you get what you pay for. And for the next few years. HM Government will ask for cuts in the name of responsibility, Ofsted will blame teachers in the name of driving up standards, teachers will blame government for not listening to them and students will continue to receive labels in a haphazard system that will help some, harm others and not really address the fundamental issue. Old models of teaching are based partly on old models of funding. We now have new ideals to live up to but still the same old underfunded jungle to work in. The postcode lottery will remain in force whilst the best of the profession try to adapt.

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