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Special needs – who’s really to blame?

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Blog - Special needs – who’s really to blame?

Tuesday 14 September 2010

So Ofsted have discovered that too many children are being ‘labelled’ as having Special Educational Needs, when all they need is ‘better teaching’.  I listened to this report in the media today with mixed feelings. I want to make three key points about this.

Firstly, as soon as you set up a special needs system which puts children into very broad categories – currently these are ‘school action’, ‘school action plus’ and ‘statement’ – you create the potential for them to be in the ‘wrong’ categories.  The system is predisposed to failure.

Secondly, the whole idea of categories is too simplistic and is actually misleading.  It creates the impression that special needs are a ‘binary’ issue – either you have them or you don’t.  This is entirely wrong.  Learning needs are a range, a spectrum.  Everyone’s learning needs are different, and so in that way everyone has special needs.  Once you realize this, you understand that good, flexible, sensitive, differentiated teaching is what everyone needs.

Thirdly, needs are defined not only by the individual’s personality, but by the context they are in. If we lived in a tribal society, for example, then it may well be that those with ‘special needs’ would be completely different to those we label with special needs in our society, with all its complex, writing-based demands.  I would probably be labeled as special needs myself!  You can change the special need not just by helping or teaching the individual, but by addressing the context too.

Fourthly, having created the impression that special needs are a binary issue, and having failed to recognize that it is the character and demands of our society which are as much of an issue as the individual’s supposed ‘failings’, if you then manage classrooms, schools and the education system in a heavy handed, overly centralized way, and never miss an opportunity to humiliate schools or teachers who are ‘underperforming’ according to some rather narrow criteria, then, yes, the special needs categorization system will produce results which are wrong and misleading.  This should be no surprise.

Finally, I would not want anyone to misunderstand what I am saying. Of course there must be a way of ensuring that children with genuine and severe needs are not sidelined, but the current system is badly mismatched to that requirement, and in many ways is misleading and damaging.

So I have sympathy with what Ofsted are trying to say on this.  However, it is very regrettable that the tone of the media coverage is that teachers and schools are somehow ‘failing’ or ‘cheating’ by putting lots of children into a special needs category unnecessarily.  It is the fault of our educational leaders that a fundamentally flawed system, which was always going to at best be inefficient and at worst was doomed to failure from the start, has been allowed to take root and survive for so long – the Warnock review which set it up was in 1978!  Teachers and schools should not be blamed for trying to work within that system. 

Of course, all children benefit from good teaching which can respond to their individual needs.  But the enemy of such teaching is heavy, crude micro-management of schools and classrooms from the centre.  We have had too much of that in recent years.  Let’s hope that the review announced this summer of special needs, combined with the new government’s ‘lighter touch’ approach, allows schools, teachers and ultimately students as individuals to flourish, right across the broad spectrum of learning style and learning need.