Thursday, 6 March 2014

A Question of Inclusion: Counting the cost of SEN policy to pupils

This article is taken from the NUT Magazine The Teacher: March 2014

Talk of children’s needs has given way to the needs of politicians and our standing in national and international league tables, say Professors John MacBeath and Maurice Galton.  The NUT asked them to revisit their investigation into SEN policy and the current climate in schools for teachers and children. With significant SEN reforms imminent, urgent questions remain about whether they are the right reforms.

It is five years since we published the NUT-sponsored study The Costs of Inclusion. Its central finding was that, despite a wholehearted endorsement of the inclusion principle by teachers, the weight of external pressures left unqualified classroom assistants to cope with children with extra needs – effectively a policy of containment.

We approached our return to the issue with cautious optimism that there was now a more refined intelligence (in both senses of the word) and that many of the failings of the past had been addressed. While still at an early stage of our study, the unambiguous finding is that, in some critical respects, much has changed for the worse.

As pressures increase on schools to raise ‘standards’, to compete nationally and internationally, it is only the bravest and most committed that will positively welcome and cater for children with special needs, described by one teacher as ‘the flung-aside, forgotten children’.

A primary school, proud of its prominently displayed Inclusion Award, takes in children from neighbouring schools which cannot cope with ‘difficult children’ or who fear the impact on their jealously guarded attainment standards. So the school finds itself paying the price in the form of an Ofsted ‘notice to improve’. Their ultimatum is to close the gap between pupils with below average attainment and their high achieving peers.

A secondary school with its own notice to improve and awaiting an imminent Ofsted visit is under extra pressure.  As an academy it has to justify that unsought-after status. It is school staff that deal with the fallout of overcrowded housing, threadbare quality of life, a choice for parents between unemployment and unscrupulous employers. The current head is the sixth in as many years, and is not sanguine about her own future, despite a huge investment of energy and a dedicated staff whose commitment is measured in days starting at 7.30am and often stretching well into the evening.

Year 6 teachers face a particular dilemma when apportioning time to pupils who have little chance of gaining Level 4 when there are borderline cases who would succeed with extra help.  Documents from schools reveal a hardening of the language. However ‘caring’ the teachers may be, that is a term to be avoided, and self-censored in the presence of inspectors.

Interrogating the website of one school, yet to be visited, and entering ‘special needs’ gets the reply: “No reference to your enquiry can be found”.

The new rhetoric is ‘tough’, ‘rigorous’ ‘uncompromising’; pastoral systems replaced by performance protocols. Any talk of children’s ‘needs’ has given way to the needs of politicians whose own tenure is reliant on competitive national and international standings in the league tables.

The final report by Professors Galton and MacBeath will be published at the NUT annual conference in April.