Over the weekend I received an email from a colleague who teaches in a school in a county in the north of England. A few months ago this teacher, who I have never met, contacted me and asked if I would be willing to run a one day workshop in the primary school where she works. The focus of the workshop was to be on enabling pupils with special educational needs to be involved in planning for their individual education plans. Having negotiated a suitable date I was very happy to agree to this request and had begun a little planning for how I would organised the day.
I was somewhat surprised and a little disappointed on Sunday morning to find a message in my inbox from the teacher who had negotiated these arrangements, informing me that the event would have to be cancelled. In one sense, this is not a problem, it relieves a little time in my diary, but I was none the less somewhat disturbed by a part of this colleague’s message. Having made a number of apologetic opening remarks, hoping that I had not been inconvenienced and that I would understand that the decision was not her own, this obviously stressed lady went on to explain:-
“At a staff meeting on Thursday the head teacher informed us that special educational needs was no longer on the priority agenda, and that all of our focused training for the next year would be on raising standards, particularly in mathematics where we need more children reaching the highest grades. Therefore any work involving SEN would have to be shelved until a future date”
I could feel this teacher’s frustration and anxiety leaping at me from this email, and have the feeling that she felt somewhat embarrassed to have to cancel the event. Naturally I wrote back to her telling her not to worry and that I was in no way inconvenienced. Trying to reassure this colleague I emphasised that I recognised the situation and explained that I fully understand the situation. But do I?
What does the expression “special educational needs was no longer on the priority agenda” mean? More particularly, is the implication here that raising standards in mathematics does not have implications for children with special educational needs? Is it possible to raise standards in a school without considering this section of the population? Can standards across the board be raised by looking at the performance of one section of the school population whilst ignoring others?
I have no difficulty with the notion of raising standards in mathematics in a school. The teaching of the subject is obviously important, and we would hope that all children are enabled to achieve mathematical competence according to their need. But surely this is the point, we should be enabling all children to achieve. It is essential that all teachers feel competent and confident in teaching mathematics and that they should therefore receive professional development in this area. However, I would hope that somewhere in this training there might be an emphasis upon supporting those children who have particular difficulties with learning mathematical concepts and applying these in a range of situations.
I have long held the belief that if teachers learn the skills of planning and differentiating to ensure that pupils of all needs and abilities can be included in lesson, this is a major step towards raising standards for all children. Teachers who think carefully about how they can provide effective access for those who have difficulties with learning, usually develop strategies that benefit all learners.
I hope that in reading the email received on Sunday, something was lost in translation. Perhaps the head teacher meant to say that the focus of training for the coming period will be on raising mathematical standards for all children, including those who find the subject particularly difficult. Some of these children are probably not destined to reach “the highest grades”, but yet may make significant progress if provided with the right kind of teaching and support.
I would like to think that this time next year the achievements of all children in this school in mathematics are significant, and that the performance of both the most gifted mathematicians and those who have made progress with more basic concepts, is recognised and acknowledged. I would also hope that my colleague who has clearly been made to feel uncomfortable by the decisions made in her school, is fully involved in speaking on behalf on the pupils for whom she clearly feels responsible.