I was fortunate enough to recently have been able to speak at the launch of the National Education Trust’s new collection of essays, Special Education for the Next Generation, hosted by @TBSLondon. Here is the text of what I said, minus the observation that the Pot Noodle (1977) was conceived of and marketed in the UK prior to the right to an education for a child with a learning disability being enshrined in law (1981).
Special Education, as a facet of education more broadly, is in many ways still within its relative infancy. If we take its emergence as being around the 1981 Education Act, then it is in fact younger than many of us working in the field. I suspect there are relatively few professions where I would be able to say that is the case outside of the tech industries and some elements of modern medicine.
It is also one which has, in comparison to the mainstream, been largely left to its own devices by the political system.
Including the 1981 Education Act, there appears to have been approximately 25 Education Acts passed since and if we look forward to the anticipated acceptance of the current SEN legislation there will have been four that have dealt significantly with the education of children with Special Educational Needs.
As of June 2013, there were proportionally more Special schools with an Outstanding grade as defined by OfSTED than any other aspect of inspected education with the exception of Nurseries.
However this does not mean that there is not significant work to do. The variance in quality of provision is great between those graded Outstanding, let alone those who are yet to achieve that designation. The equality of opportunity between and within geographical regions is, in places, poor.
The challenges we are facing are increasing and yet the investment in provision is reducing, in fiscal terms, if not intellectual.
We are undoubtedly doing more for less.
The new legislation in trying to improve access, transparency, multi-agency collaboration and continuity, appears, based on the comments of the Education Select Committee, to raise as many questions as it provides answers.
And we also need to be mindful of the fact that many of the statutory tools for judging the quality of progress and making comparative analysis within Special education do not fully recognise or appreciate the uniqueness of the children with whom we work.
And yet the best Special schools are a hot bed of innovation and invention, driven by aspiration and a belief that the children they teach have a right to be the best that they can be and that it is our collective responsibility to ensure that this is achieved.
The best Special schools are filled with scholarship and pedagogical exploration. They are non-Procrustean, evidence based and inherently individualist.
And that breeds variance.
As a country we are also creating choice within a system that has at times stifled choice for those with Special Educational Needs.
The needs of individual children are returning to the heart of the decision making process and systemic personalisation is being promoted across Education, Health and Care.
Choice is being created that is as much a wider societal responsibility as it is an individual legal right.
Parents and young people can chose whether they want education which specialises in a particular need or which addresses the collective needs of many.
Professionals can choose whether to work in schools that take a clinically influenced approach or one in which the label is not as important and everything in between.
Special schools continue to be philosophically, pedagogically and pragmatically diverse.
And that is, in part, our challenge as we look to develop the next generation of Special schools. The variance in quality is currently too great, but the danger in seeking to create consistency is that we may inadvertently drive uniformity and our children are anything but uniform.
All children are anything but uniform.
So as we move forward we need to continue to share effectively, not only our successes, our Best Practice, but also how we got there, our Best Processes.
We need to be honest about our failures and in the best schools they will exist, because we take informed risks in order to improve outcomes.
We need to continue to take an intellectual and analytical approach to what we do and have the courage to be honest in our evaluations of our capability.
We need to ensure that we have a clear voice within the educational community at every level so that the needs of our children are considered and catered for at the outset of developments in policy and practice. So that when the Secretary of State makes his next speech maybe there will be a Special school or someone from the field of Special education mentioned.
We need to embrace the change that is happening within education and ensure that we continue to be valued and active contributors to initiatives such as Teaching Schools, School Direct, the personalisation of Education, Health and Care and what else may be to come.
But as we look forward towards the next generation of special schools one thing that needs to remain constant is that we must be true to the children, families and communities that we serve, ensuring that as school leaders the decisions that we make continue to be made with the needs of children at their heart.
So, what do we want from our next generation of Special Schools?
I hope that is a question which we will be perpetually seeking to answer as we move on a restless journey of continual school improvement.
And it needs to be as we try to maintain pace with the pedagogical challenges being placed upon us.
But in doing so, for me, what we are trying to achieve, is a balance of the Inspirational, the Aspirational and the Functional and in doing so, the closer we get to getting that balance right, the better our schools might become.
But when we look back in the years to come, in terms of knowing whether the next generation of Special schools has succeeded, what we should we be examining?
The extent to which we are graded as “Outstanding” by OfSTED, the sub-levels of progress our young people make against the P-Scales, the degree to which we compare favourably with other schools within the context of the Progression Guidance?
Or should we also be examining more thoroughly what our young people do once they leave us?
Should the real mark of success for the next generation of Special schools be not only what is achieved within school, but also how our young people are enabled to use what they have learned beyond school.
The extent to which they all have fulfilling and meaningful lives in which they are enabled to contribute to and access the society in which we all live.
How we realise that broader ambition might be our greatest challenge yet!