John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector. He is Vice-President of the Conservative Education Society.
“You become a teacher,” said the kindly deputy head to a younger me, “to change the world.” I hadn’t. I had become a teacher in order to teach people to read, which I saw, then as now, as a basic human right. So I was disappointed, though not entirely surprised, when the Government’s Action Plan to tackle the disastrous, miserable and ruinous situation that has developed in the provision for special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) said nothing whatsoever about ensuring that everyone who can learn to read, does so. The omission reflects a deep-rooted division, amounting to a schism, over the purposes of education that has set academic activists and local authorities against central governments of both parties, and the views of most parents, throughout my 50 years in the state system.
The story begins with the Warnock Report of 1978, the principles of which were made law by the 1981 Education Act. Baroness Warnock’s experience of education was at the other end of the spectrum, as headteacher of Oxford High School for Girls, and she had great confidence in the ability of philosophy, “Queen of Disciplines”, to solve problems. Her committee’s solution was simple. Children whose difficulties were “significantly greater” than those of most children of their age should have a formal Statement of these, and provision to meet them, prepared by local authorities (LAs). Simple? The one LA that tried to do this, Cumbria, quickly ran out of money and sacked its Chief Education Officer for implementing an Act of Parliament.
Warnock and her colleagues had set LAs a task they were not equipped to carry out, and written a blank cheque for someone else to sign. The signature was not forthcoming. Most Statements were replaced by staged assessments in schools, and individual education plans written by special educational needs coordinators (SENCOs), whose work moved from specialised teaching of reading to completing dozens, or even hundreds, of paper plans for less skilled teachers and assistants to carry out. LAs’ interpretation of Warnock reinforced this trend by requiring support to be provided in mixed-ability classes, whether or not the children were learning anything as a result. Many special schools were closed. Failure to attend to the children’s intellectual needs became endemic. On inspection, a colleague saw a deaf child in distress for a whole afternoon when she did not understand anything that was going on, and I observed a child with Down Syndrome being spoken to in English in a French class by a teaching assistant and distracting all of the other children. The child had no idea of what French, or indeed France, was.
The Lib Dem minister, Sarah Teather, extended the utopian principle to include health and support for young adults. Alas, LAs could no more produce good Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) than they could Statements, and the result was even more formulaic paperwork that left parents and schools in the impossible position described in the government’s SEND Review. Minister Teather renamed SENCOs as SENDCOs. She achieved nothing else. The inclusion principle that followed Warnock left teachers stressed out, at times to the point of mental breakdown or leaving teaching, by having to cope with extreme behaviour while teaching a class, denied children the closely-focused teaching they need if they are to make progress, and drove parents to distraction and litigation in their attempts to get some kind of education for their children. The Review notes that over half have had to give up their jobs in order to do so.
The Action Plan, the result of several years’ hard work and genuine (for once) consultation, is pragmatic, and takes important steps forward. The first is “integrated provision” – specialised, school-based units that allow children, whose behaviour prevents learning, to be removed from the classroom to a place where they can no longer harm others, and can be taught. Next, off-site provision, badly run down since Warnock, is to be extended. The preferred system of special MATs rather than LAs will prevent local ideologues from determining policy, as will a national qualification for SENDCOs, though it is not clear where the expertise to run either is going to come from. Funding helps, but improvement will take time.
Which brings us back to that long-ago conversation with the deputy head of the often-rebadged Beaufoy School in Lambeth, and the teaching of reading. A child who can’t read knows that they can’t achieve success and satisfaction in most of their school work, and this is a major, unrecognised, cause of frustration, misbehaviour, and bullying of other pupils and of teachers, which gives an alternative feeling of success. As one pupil put it in the BBC series Tough Young Teachers, “It’s about the power of winning.” The conveyer belt to prison begins with failure to learn to read, via truancy – why go to school if you can’t learn anything? – and crime. I told this to Labour’s Jack Straw in the early 90s, and the drugs trade makes it still more true today.
Yet the prevalent view of teacher trainers and academic activists is the comment of Professor Becky Francis that grouping children according to their learning needs and abilities is “symbolically violent”. This reflects an unsupported remark by the Warnock Committee that children learn as much incidentally as from teaching. What they will not learn in this way is how to read, write and carry out the basic mathematical activities that are essential to modern life. The truth is that the teaching of reading has been sacrificed to this goal of inclusion throughout the educational establishment, so that there is almost no expertise in teacher training, professional and voluntary organisations, the DfE, the EEF, or anywhere else on the teaching of reading to children for whom it is not a straightforward process.
Phonics are fundamental, but enabling these children to move beyond associating one letter to each sound – essential, as some letter patterns in English are based on the sounds of other languages – requires closely-focused, bespoke teaching that has almost disappeared. A child who can’t read knows better than anyone else that they can’t achieve success and satisfaction in most of their school work, and this is a major, unrecognised, cause of the extreme behaviour that is making teachers’ lives a misery. This paper that I’ve submitted to the DfE and the Chartered College of Teaching, offers one effective way of tackling the problem.
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Author: John Bald
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