Yesterday my good colleagues Mary and Julian asked me to do a short session with a group of special educational needs co-ordinators attending a course at the University of Northampton. Special educational needs co-ordinators (usually abbreviated as SENCos) have a statutory duty to manage provision for children described as having special educational needs in schools. In recent years teachers holding this post have been encouraged to take an accredited course focused upon providing them with the knowledge, skills and understanding required to manage the job efficiently.
Mary and Julian, along with other excellent colleagues provide a popular course based upon their years of experience and focused upon the ever changing demands made of teachers in schools, so to be asked to contribute to their course was something of a privilege. The session I delivered appeared to be well received, despite the failure of the projector, which meant that I had to proceed without the use of power point (a crutch upon which I feel sure we have all become too dependent). Whilst the teaching seemed to go well, as is often the case with sessions of this nature some of the best learning took place through the discussion at the end of the period.
During the session I had suggested to the SENCos that a critical part of their job was to assist teachers in considering the achievements of all pupils rather than simply concentrating upon their attainment. The distinction between achievement and attainment is one that I feel to be important, but does not always receive the attention that it might. Indeed, in some circumstances I have seen these terms used as if they have the same meaning, which they most certainly do not. There are, I would suggest, pupils who despite their attainment being well below age expectation, may be achieving far more than their most able peers. I have experienced this situation many times over my years of teaching. I have witnessed children who make far more progress in the development of, for example, their reading skills over a year than others in the class, but at the end of the year, because of the way we conduct assessments, their attainment remains behind that of their peers. They have made progress but not “caught up” and are therefore still seen as poor learners. The obsession of our education system with comparison of results across national and even international cohorts of similar aged pupils does a disservice to these learners and to those who teach them.
Similarly, in England, in common with many other countries, we have become fixated with academic attainment in a limited number of subjects and in particular mathematics and English. Sadly this means that some pupils who perform below average in these subjects, yet demonstrate outstanding performance in other subjects such as physical education, art or cookery, are not valued for their achievements when compared to their more “academic” peers. This denies the importance of these subjects and those who teach them, and also gives a message to children that being an accomplished athlete, artist, or cook is of no real significance.
I was however, heartened yesterday by one of the SENCos on the course who told me that her school had moved from the use of individual education plans based around targets to address learning weaknesses, to the introduction of a system that is focused upon pupil strengths. This means that a pupil who may be struggling in mathematics or English, or both, but who is an excellent swimmer or actor or musician, or who contributes through voluntary work in his community, has these achievements noted prominently in this new form of pupil assessment and recording. This does not prevent teachers setting targets for improvements in learning but does begin with identifying their strengths and enabling them to feel good about what they have achieved. A recent visit by inspectors to this teacher’s school had commended them for the attention given to the strengths of their pupils and the impact this has upon their self-esteem.
Listening to this SENCo talking about her experience and to the assent given to this approach from her colleagues was uplifting at a time when so many teachers feel that pupils with special educational needs are being placed at a disadvantage by bureaucratic assessment and reporting systems. I am quite sure that the actions taken by this school were seen as possibly high risk by the head teacher and staff, and they are to be commended for having the courage of their convictions to go against current trends in focusing solely upon academic attainment. This enables me to continue as promised, with a few days of optimistic stories demonstrating the progress being made towards a more inclusive educational approach.