In a policy climate which threatens to fine parents who keep their children out of school, it’s strange that some senior school leaders specifically ask some students to stay at home. And that others are asking neighbouring schools to take a small group of children for a short given period. The answers are to be found in a climate of inspection and testing in English schools which carries such high stakes that school leaders speak of “reputational risk” when children with special needs are included in their data and are present in their classrooms when the inspector calls.
Of all the findings from the fourth of our Cambridge reports on the impact of government policies, all of which were commissioned by the National Union of Teachers, this is perhaps the most disturbing but also the most telling. It carries a powerful message as to what is valued and what has been systematically devalued in the pursuit of competitive education attainment targets.
The move to reduce the number of special schools, perhaps eventually to dispense with them altogether, predates this government. It was seen by many as a cost-cutting exercise, but was sometimes cloaked in rhetoric about including children within their peer group.
Our study, which revisited primary and secondary schools from our previous reports with the addition of recently established academies, was designed to explore the extent to which the lessons of the past decade had been learned. We wanted to find out to what extent schools are now more aware of the wide spectrum of abilities and disabilities and better prepared to educate all children. And whether children with special needs are now less liable to be excluded from school, consigned to the care of classroom assistants, or advised to find another school where they would be more “comfortable”.
Children cast adrift
The answers are not encouraging. Exclusion from school has become less of an option, due in large part to the increase in learning support staff to whom children with special needs may be “velcroed” (as one special need co-ordinator put it) on a virtually permanent basis. On the positive side, these support staff were much better informed and better trained than had been the case in our previous study. But this also proved to be a doubled-edge sword, allowing schools to replace qualified teachers with lesser qualified, or unqualified, staff.
We met and talked to children with complex learning needs who had previously been in special schools but were now, according to one teacher, “cast adrift” in a large secondary school – or in policyspeak, “mainstreamed”. While there are children for whom the mainstream is a better option than a special school, there are others for whom it is a form of benign abuse. Driven primarily by economic motives, the inclusion of children within a large secondary school proves, for some, to be a frightening and alienating experience.
Uneven playing field
We spent time in what we could call “good”, even exceptionally good schools that often teetered on the verge of an Ofsted rating of “special measures” or were even threatened with closure because they were caring and principled enough to take in the rejects from their neighbouring schools or academies.
One secondary school on the brink of closure for nearly a decade was told by a visiting inspector: “You have to work ten times harder” to compete on an uneven playing field. In this school with 70 languages spoken, a constant inflow of low-paid immigrant workers, many living in substandard housing and exploited by unscrupulous landlords, there were 30 different kinds of support and intervention programmes, and staff “burnout” as a consequence of long hours and high levels of stress.
In a London secondary school now surrounded by academies, policies of so-called “strategic rationing” had left this secondary school with young people whose parents, lone parent or carer, had neither the knowledge nor the cultural capital to opt for an academy. The once outstanding Ofsted assessment had been downgraded to a level three – “requires improvement”.
We looked into “cherry picking” – anecdotal evidence that academies prefer to take on children with learning disabilities who had wealthier parents who were better able to support them. We asked how it was that local academies were able to discourage parents of children with special needs from applying. The response: “Because they can”. Academies, jealous of their reputation, would suggest “a more suitable option” for these children, a judgement difficult to dispute.
An acknowledgement we heard from one Ofsted inspector of the unevenness of the playing field was atypical. Our conclusion was that Ofsted’s reporting of the provision for special needs education has actually been inconsistent and often counter productive. We found that Ofsted inspections have failed to take sufficient account of the experiences of many children with special educational needs, and the ability of schools to collaborate and innovate in the interests of those children.
Pressures of performance culture
Our findings are echoed in a recent report by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. It found close to nine out of ten staff saying that the need to provide support for children with mental health problems had increased significantly. At the same time, suitable provision was less and less easy to access, and cuts to services leaving pupils “dangerously at risk”.
Much is explained by what is described as the “performativity culture”, in which performance on tests trumps learning, effort or engagement, working systematically to the disadvantage of vulnerable and struggling children. Areas of school life in which they may succeed, and even enjoy learning, such as music, drama and visual art are progressively marginalised, viewed as detracting from the single-minded pursuit of those pervasive and generally ill-conceived targets.
In the midst of this political turmoil we found outstanding schools flying below the radar, led by conviction and principle, willing to go the extra mile, often to compensate for their less principled neighbours, guilty of that gravest of sins in the ideological repertoire – a focus on children’s needs.