Who should decide what is best for students with special educational needs?

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There was a recent attempt at school-shaming on Twitter*. School-shaming occurs either as the result of a newspaper article, perhaps about a headteacher clamping down on a school uniform, or, as in this case, when someone feverishly scrolls through a school’s website, looking for things they disagree with. School-shamers then take to Twitter to denounce the school and seek support from a Twitter mob. The impact of these campaigns can be profoundly negative on the schools involved. There is also an imbalance of power – often stories emerge from students or parents and the school cannot give their version of these events without breaching confidentiality.

However, something out there has changed. It was heartening to see a number of teachers speak out against this latest attempt at school-shaming, but there was a further twist. The school-shamers had attempted to argue that the fact that the school in question had high academic and behavioural standards meant that it was ‘selective’ because parents of children with special education needs wouldn’t want to send their children there. As I have noted before, this is an odd stretching of the definition of ‘selection’. By this standard, schools with poor behaviour or low academic standards are also ‘selective’ because many parents won’t want to send their children there either.

In this case, it was an overreach. These self-appointed experts in special educational needs were making pronouncements that did not resonate with everyone. One experienced teacher commented that, “I mostly work with SEN & vulnerable children & know the vast majority of their parents would be falling over themselves to at least get in to see & talk to such a school.”

Accommodate or address?

Which brings me back to a point that I have raised before and that I think is fundamental to any discussion of special educational needs. It is relatively easy to observe that a student struggles with their reading or struggles to concentrate in class, but the key question is what do we do about it? We can accommodate the difficulty by working around it. For instance, if a child struggles to read then we could give them a special pen that converts print into audio. Alternatively, we can address the need with a reading intervention. The same is true for other difficulties. For instance, we can either accommodate the behaviours of a child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder or we can attempt to address them.

For an individual child, it may be appropriate to sometimes address their needs and sometimes accommodate them. For instance, a child could be part of an intensive writing intervention but be given the option to not write in history class. However, I think the discussion, certainly the one driven by self-appointed experts in special educational needs, tends to assume that accommodation is the only option. That’s why they look at a school’s behaviour policy, suggest that it does not accommodate challenging behaviors or a lack of attention in class, and conclude that the school is therefore not catering to special educational needs.

Given that we are talking about abilities and behaviours with profound life-changing consequences, such as the ability to read and write, or the ability to behave in a socially acceptable way, my personal preference is to address special educational needs as much as possible and only accommodate them as a last resort or as a form of respite from intensive intervention.

Parental choice

As with any of my other opinions, I might be right and I might be wrong. Perhaps the best way to deal with special educational needs really is to accommodate them. Who should make this decision? In the absence of definitive evidence, I would suggest that parents are those who are best placed to make this call. If a parent thinks that a school with low academic and behavioural standards is the best option for their child then perhaps they are in the best position to judge. Alternatively, if a parent feels that a school with high academic and behavioural standards is preferable then perhaps they should also have this choice available. What strikes me as unreasonable is any attempt to try and ban schools with high academic and behavioural standards and so remove this option for parents.

I am pretty sure that there are plenty of parents in England, Australia and across the world who would like the choice of a free place at a school with high expectations, but who feel they do not have this choice. Don’t take it away from those who do.


*For obvious reasons, I do not intend to post links to the tweets in question, but I can supply them privately, on request.

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2 thoughts on “Who should decide what is best for students with special educational needs?

  1. I’m venturing onto dangerous ground here, but I would suggest that one of the reasons why the advocates are so single-minded about accommodation as opposed to what we might call a “deficit approach” is that the latter might go some way towards revealing the flimsy objective basis of some of these “conditions”. ODD is probably the best example, but there are others.

    The Special Ed unit was by far the best and most useful course I did in my Dip.Ed., mainly because the principles expounded in it (clarity of expression, clarity of instructions, avoidance of abstract nouns, active supervision, etc.) were actually perfectly applicable to mainstream students as well. And there’s a message in that.

  2. In the late 1990s, Ruth Miskin attracted a lot of publicity because all of her 7-year-olds at Kobi Nazrul in Tower Hamlets reached the required standard in English at KS1. When Telegraph reporter Minnette Marrin visited them in 1998, she discovered that despite having 90% ESL and 63% FSM, only 3% had been identified as having special needs–one primary school in Tower Hamlets had 55% on the register. She commented “Something stands out a mile here: a negligible rate of SEN registration seems to go hand in hand with a very high rate of reading success.” Ruth understood the basic principle that for novices, minimally-guided instruction doesn’t work. But there’s an even more important factor at work here–when children aren’t achieving, they’re bored beyond all endurance.
    It’s certainly refreshing to hear of a Special Ed unit that seems to have taken this on board. I suspect that in most schools, the role of the Sendco is still to fabricate excuses for failure and allocate TAs for ‘learning support’. An even more pernicious aspect of our mania for finding labels is that many parents are deluded into thinking that only specialist teachers hold the key that will unlock their child’s potential–in reality, there is very seldom anything wrong other than a need for adequate amounts of direct instruction of skills and knowledge at the most basic levels. Prior to becoming an SEN teacher, I worked in the building trades and served as an instructor in the TA, where you inevitably find our schools’ failures; yet given instruction such as you describe, they almost invariably become very keen learners.

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