An open letter to Nancy Gedge on inclusion
I’m writing to you with your article on exclusion (TES of October 9 2015) in front of me. It’s good to have a light shone into this dark corner. To put it in journalistic terms this is collateral damage happening right here at home with full official approval. Now it’s time to capitalize on your efforts and get into action. I’m writing to you in the form of an open letter because others share our commitment and may take your article and this letter in reply as an invitation to act. I hope you approve!
Your final two sections ‘When ‘no excuses’ is an excuse’ and ‘Progress not attainment’ provide a succinct summary of the problem and open the door to the solution.
There is a powerful force driving exclusion and you bring into the open with your first statement in ‘When ‘no excuses’ is an excuse’.
‘We don’t adapt to SEND children.’
What is an SEND child? They are they more than their disability, they are the same as all the other children, different from each other. But instead of focusing on their strengths, their hopes and their successes we trap them in the system of diagnosis and intervention that separates them from the other non-SEND children and then we send them on their way and often away.
Everyone from the Minister of Education downwards accepts that this is the correct procedure. Well not everyone. You can see the consequences of renaming difference as illness but you are fenced in by a system that catches many of us in its net. We are told that the small minority of children who cause all the problems must have something wrong with them because they are so different to the healthy others. As you rightly say records of behavioural incidents are used as rap sheets, but, and this is a big but, to use them as a basis for diagnosis of deficit and subsequent intervention as you mention would only be doing more of the same, keeping their difference and their illness at the centre of our thinking. Julie Dixon, the primary pupil referral unit head you quote, says that schools struggling to avoid excluding children cannot get the help of educational psychologists when they need it most. Why do we need a psychologist? Because if only we can get a diagnosis of deficit by a professional who does that kind of work, we’ll know what to do. Try to get specialist input in school. Send them away to special school maybe with all the other ill children.
So here’s the problem. We know that no two children are identical and a significant minority of children seem to be more than usually different to the others. We know that they are not physically ill but they have something wrong with them that makes them behave in ways we don’t like. In a very few cases we can tell by a blood test that a person is different but mostly we look at what they do, how they behave, and use that to fit them into a category of illness. We can put all of this different minority into a catch-all group, and label it SEND. Some people would say that we could put all children into the SEND category at some time in their lives but let’s keep it narrower than that. Within the big group we have smaller subgroups which are defined by specific behaviour. If we collect enough data we can assign children to their correct subgroup and may be able to suggest corrective strategies including medication, if we believe that change is possible. This presupposes that SEND is a fixed deficit of an individual child and we can design services to address the deficit.
To sum this up; the SEND child is fixed, they are what they are so services must adapt.
In ‘Progress, not attainment’ you write that Dixon gives advice to heads and SEND coordinators as an expert in behaviour and this is effective in reducing exclusions. That is a good thing. We recognise that some of these children with SEND do need highly specialized teaching and this may be in a specialized setting, not via exclusion but by planned action. It’s important to remember that the system of diagnosis of SEND and its subcategories of deficit is highly uncertain and many children are poorly understood at the same time as they are clearly struggling in school. You quote Sam Baars as saying that schools should look beyond the behaviour to its cause, the undiagnosed need that is driving it. This is asking a lot, for teachers as frontline professionals to be highly developed experts in all aspects of behaviour and mental illness. In practice the cause is usually to be guessed at by teachers, doing their best as always.
If all teachers cannot become behaviour experts this creates another problem, but at least it is a consistent problem and results in the most available categories of deficit, like ASD and ADHD and increasingly Attachment Disorder are the most likely to be assigned to children who are different. The current diagnostic system concludes that these children are mentally unwell and an adaptive service will do its best by giving them different treatment to their friends in school and we can call this inclusion.
All this exists, the diagnostic deficit focused process, the lack of training of teachers and the shortage of specialists like educational psychologists who might be in a better position to make more informed guesses.
And now at last we come to the point of this letter.
You quote Baars as saying that there is an opportunity to create a new system, valuing childrens’ progress rather than attainment and you add that ‘we stand a chance of creating a better future, a truly inclusive one, in which children who have SEND are understood and helped not shown the door.’ I might just edit this slightly by removing the label to say that we can create an inclusive future in which children are treated equally, understood and helped and not shown the door.
You draw this together in your last paragraph, a turnkey, where you do the same dreaming as you’ve always done.
I’ll quote you, with my emphasis;
‘It can be done and teachers know this from experience. We’ve turned kids around countless times before, we’ve gone off timetable, we’ve listened to them. We know what to do, we just need someone to give us permission.’
We’re teachers, we already have permission to stay with children’s needs, to be imaginative and kind. Indeed if we asked the parents and carers of children they would probably say they expect it of us and we certainly have their permission.
We need to be able to say ‘This is what we do and this is how we do it’.
What need to share our successes, to develop a clear voice to say that the future starts here, today with a structured way of working to create inclusion and allow exclusion to wither on the vine.
What kind of structure could possibly produce this result? The solution-focused approach can certainly make a strong contribution.
I can help with that.
We’ve made a great start, now let’s do more of what works.
With very best wishes,