The Diary of a Not So Ordinary Boy

I’m really happy about the fact that Sam is in a Special School.  I am so impressed with it as a school.  It’s not just the fact that we, as parents, feel as if we are listened to and that our suggestions are taken on board, and our opinions are actively sought.  It’s not just that we have entered a world of support through information shared with us about holiday clubs, parent discussion groups, and opportunities to learn more about the various learning difficulties the children share at the school.

It’s not simply that my son has an enthusiastic teacher who has thought carefully about the education he actually needs, as opposed to the one the government feels he ought to have.  And it’s not wholly about the opportunities for school plays, clubs, sports or residentials that he has at this school that he just wouldn’t get in a…

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My #BETT2014 experience

SEN Classroom

This year, I once again got to travel up to the big smoke and attend BETT to see what had change in a year since the last time I visited. Though I was certain not a lot had change, I was excited to not only be proven wrong, but the opportunity to meet up with fantastic practitioners was lure enough to make the journey.

This year was different in that I had a slight plan of action to ensure that I covered everything that I needed to. I wanted to explore the different interactive boards available especially one that would cater for PMLD, discuss and try out different software available for Eyegaze and look at some of the other smaller stands to seek out unique products that could make a real difference to the teaching and learning of our SEN students.

The SEN zone on the whole was massively under…

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Where now for social justice? Call for conference papers

Primary Blogging

This two day conference will be held at Canterbury Christ Church University on Thursday 12 and Friday 13 June 2014.

We are seeking papers which challenge the dominant ideologies and notions of social justice that are driving current changes in social and educational policy. We are particularly interested in papers which explore social justice and innovative research methods in relation to marginalised young people, including those from education, health and social care, social policy and sociology disciplines.

Read more…

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A slow journey towards the pejorative

This week I became aware of a campaign called “Lose the Label”, a campaign that articulates a parental view that reflects my educational one. The school I work at has the following as one of its absolutes, key to everything it represents and stands for:

We aim to ensure that pupils are respected as individuals and not defined by social, medical or psychological labels.

For us the uniqueness of the child is paramount and using person first language is integral to that, but that is not always the case in Special Schools. I have heard staff in schools reflecting the full range of OfSTED designation refer to children as ‘Biters’, ‘Runners’ and ‘Bouncy Boys’.

The defining of children on the basis of their clinical diagnosis or on the basis of characteristics of their behaviour is deeply worrying and for me contrary to everything that we in Special Education claim to represent. It reduces individuality and the uniqueness that should characterise a Special school education.

When you begin to define children by their diagnosis or their behaviour, rather than who they are, you contribute to a process in which the child loses their singular identify. (Although we also need to be mindful of and respect the fact that some people may choose to define themselves in this way.)

Defining children by their diagnosis or behaviour can lead to a process of presumption in which expected characteristics can become self fulfilling and people begin to see the characteristics before they see the child. On an educational basis this can lead to reduced aspiration based on crude generalisations around the capability of people with a particular diagnosis.

There are also some interesting patterns in the way language is used and how it becomes appropriated by society. If we go back some years, someone with Cerebral Palsy would have been described as a ‘Spastic’. Equally someone with Down’s Syndrome would have been described as being ‘Mongoloid’. Both of these terms were definitive rather than descriptive and both became pejorative in their use and were eventually replaced. Consigned to the dustbin of inappropriate language.

However we are seeing similar patterns today. Some learning disabilities have labels associated with them which are descriptive in their use (Cerebral Palsy) and some are definitive (Autism). People are described as having Cerebral Palsy, whereas they are described as being Autistic. There are some such as Down’s Syndrome which seem to sit somewhere in the middle with general use being descriptive, but some using it as the definitive.

The risk here is that by contributing to the use of labels in the definitive we may be contributing to a slow journey towards the pejorative. The examples around disability that have ended up being used by wider society as terms of abuse are often those which have had a common usage as definitive language. As teachers, by subscribing to this approach and defining our children by the diagnosis, we are contributing to a use of language that continues to surround difference with negative connotations.

We are also at risk of failing to enable the children we work with to maximise their potential, limiting them with presumptions based on label led generalisations.

So lets stick to person first language and lets not fall into the trap of perpetuating stereotypes by defining children by what they have rather than who they are.



How do we judge the success of a Special School?

There has been a lot of talk recently about progress and what it looks like, how do we measure it, should we measure it, why do some make it and others don’t, how can we close the gap…

But within the context of Special Education the debate is being somewhat stifled as we still have the P-levels, indefinitely.

Whilst the mainstream is looking for alternatives to the National Curriculum levels, in Special schools we still have to report against a statutory tool that is of questionable quality.

Others have developed approaches, both school led, such as MAPP and government led such as Routes for Learning. But these supplementary tools still focus on a measure of progress within the context of taught education. What they don’t measure is the impact of that progress.

Within the context of an educational system which is sharply focussed on economic outcomes, the social justice models which underpin so much of Special Education have become somewhat undervalued. We talk of progress with an eye to potential employability at the expense of the wider contribution to society that education can bestow upon the young. But in Special schools that relationship with society, of which employment is part, is key to ensuring that our young people are able to make an active contribution to, and access, the societies in which they live, in order to have enriched and fulfilling lives.

So how do we know whether or not what we do matters? How do we know whether the impact of the education we provide is good enough? We might know what ‘outstanding’ looks like in school, but do we know what it looks like once we have gone home or a young person has reached 19?

As Government beings to look at the nature of assessment and the tools available to define progress, through opportunities such as the Assessment Innovation Fund, should we in Special schools begin to consider how we evaluate our impact on our pupils’ lives beyond the movement from one developmental level to another. Should we be conceiving of ways to establish the extent to which our pupils realise their potential once they have left us?

Answers on a Postcard please…

A quick introduction to…….. Differentiation

Tristram Hunt commented in his recent speech:

Imagine, for a second, a school where every lesson can be tailored to the needs of each individual pupil simultaneously…

In Special Schools this really is our bread and butter, or at least it should be. So if this notion is something he is aspiring to develop further, then it maybe of value to consider how we do this in Special Schools.

Differentiation is an essential area of professional development, as when done effectively it underpins high aspirations and the success you have in making learning challenging but achievable impacts directly on both the rate and nature of progress.

When considering developing differentiation skills, one of the approaches that may be helpful is to consider to what extent you can take learning back to the point of birth. How can you enable every child’s learning needs to be meaningfully met within the context of a cohesive and inclusive lesson?

By having a well developed understanding of learning, both in terms of patterns of development, but also how children learn to learn, you can equip yourself with both the knowledge and the skills to make sure you differentiate effectively.

Here is a basic list of different ways of differentiating learning that may be worth considering.

By outcome – This changes what the pupil is expected to do. An example of this may be a writing session where one pupil is producing three sentences using a combination of four information carrying words and another is producing two sentences at a three information carrying word level.

By input – This changes the level of support that a pupil may require to be enabled to complete the task. This could be either Physical Prompting, Verbal Prompting, Gestural Prompting, Imitation, Unaided (Completing the task when all resources have been provided, but without direct adult support), Independently (Completing the task without having resources provided, but having been asked to do so) and Spontaneously (Completing the task without the resources having been provided or having been asked to do so e.g. Getting a drink just because you feel thirsty).

By resourcing – This changes the tools that you may make available to enable the work to be completed. An example of this may be one person completing addition calculations using a pen and paper method, whilst someone else may be supported with real objects.

By response – This focuses on how you might respond to the work or actions of a child in relation to their peers. For example if a child finds it challenging to attend to a task for more than 30 seconds and they manage to stay focussed for 45 seconds, then this is a big achievement and should be celebrated. Another child may only have their hard work recognised if it has been sustained for the whole lesson. This can cause some interesting discussions around fairness with those children who are aware of the difference.

By stimulus – This changes the way in which an objective is delivered. By that I don’t mean the idea of Visual, Auditory or Kinaesthetic approaches, but rather the use of particular multi sensory information. For example you may focus on the development of visual memory with one child whilst another is focussing on auditory memory, or the recollection of tactile stimuli.

By task – This changes the very nature of what the learner is expected to do, but would be delivered within the context of an inclusive activity, rather than by having someone sat separately with direct adult support. An example of this may be where a group are writing descriptive sentences in response to a target image. The alternative outcome may be to select symbols reflecting the content of the image from within a choice array, or sustaining attention to a sensory object related to the content of the image.

Downward  – This is, anecdotally,  what people seem to find easier and involves the deconstruction of a particular learning objective into its prerequisite parts. This would be done in order to make a more complex learning objective accessible to those who are at a lower level of development in that particular area. However the danger of relying on this approach all of the time is that it can place the less able pupil in a position where their needs are less likely to be directing what is being offered. This can result in tokenistic practice where less able pupils are ‘doing’ whilst their more able peers are ‘learning’.

Upward – This is sometimes harder as it starts with a lower level learning objective and is then extended upwards to make it more complex. It is a bit like finding you way to a location, finding a destination is often harder than getting back home. However it is vitally important that this approach plays a part in order to ensure that all pupils’ needs are valued and considered when constructing lessons.

This is not an exhaustive list by any means and shouldn’t be seen as a collection of single approaches to be used in isolation. Instead it is important to become confident at combining these different areas in order to ensure that in every lesson is tailored to the varied needs of each individual.

Whose Local Offer is this?

As we inch ever closer to the passing of the Children and Families Bill, it is starting to become clear what the implementation of some of the key legislative changes is going to look like. Whilst we are still at the early stages of the construction of the systems that will be needed to fulfil the ambition of the Bill, what I am seeing currently is profoundly disappointing.

The concept of a Local Offer is one of the key changes within the Bill. Described by the Council for Disabled Children as:

….to enable parents and young people to see more clearly what services are available in their area and how to access them. The offer will include provision from birth to 25, across education, health and social care and should be developed in conjunction with children and young people, parents and carers, and local services, including schools, colleges, health and social care agencies.

However what seems to have been lost in the journey from policy to practice is a clear understanding of the relationship between the Local Authority producing the offer and the parents and young people who make up the audience. There seems to be confusion as to whether this is a Local Offer from the Local Authority or whether it is a Local Offer to parents and young people.

If the philosophical ownership of this fundamentally important resource sits with the Local Authority, then what we are seeing is broadly understandable and predictable. The majority of Local Offers available to view are characterised by a public sector mindset reliant on existing paradigms. They resemble enhanced information directories, an online catalogue of services with poor search capabilities, which work well for those who know what they are looking for.

However if we consider that the ownership of the Local Offer should sit with its audience, with parents and young people, then we have a problem.

For me the most important issue is an apparent lack of understanding regarding how to make information accessible to those who are likely to need it most. In the views of young people captured by the Council for Disabled Children, the challenge is still that:

…..access to information on SEN reform continued to be a significant barrier for disabled young people’s engagement; suggesting an urgent need to produce materials in a range of formats for young people to develop their understanding of the reforms and what the local authority provides.

The failure to achieve this is characterised by two things within many of the Local Offers. Firstly the belief that by making the online landing page icon base rather than text based, somehow makes it accessible.

This may be the case if the use of symbolic forms of communication is embedded throughout the architecture of the site, supplemented with video and auditory information as a minimum. Something similar to the ClickStart websites being used in certain London Boroughs.


However, invariably as soon as you click on the icon you are taken straight into a page of plain text. The carrot of accessibility is dangled only to be snatched away as soon as you go beyond the homepage.

The other common characteristic is the use of symbolic communication to highlight where information is within a page, only to have directly under the symbols paragraph after paragraph of text. This is the equivalent of asking for a book to be translated from a foreign language, only to have it returned with the front cover and the chapter headings having been done and nothing else. You are given a hint of what the text contains, of its importance and significance, but that is all.

What is particularly concerning is that within the context of the reading of the Bill in the House of Lords, this tokenistic approach is being held up as an example of best practice and authorities lauded for having the vision to produce a version of the Local Offer for young people using this approach. It makes me worry that we will see more of it as a result, as Local Authorities lacking an inclusive vision take inspiration from what is being produced by other authorities.

Imagine if we did this with the physical environment, having lift access up to the first floor before depositing you in front of an endless flight of steps. It would not be considered acceptable.

What we need is an acknowledgement that if this much needed universal point of contact is going to have any pragmatic impact on those with a learning disability, then it needs to be created with their needs at its heart. We need the Local Offer to be inherently inclusive, rather than a mainstream tool into which a passing reference to accessibility is integrated.  At the moment this does not appear to be the case.