Far from ideal; but thank goodness for a dedicated head teacher and her staff

School entry requirements - designed to exclude a visiting professor!

School entry requirements – designed to exclude a visiting professor!

The end of school term is almost upon us, and yesterday I visited a school to meet with a head teacher colleague who has given more than forty years’ service to teaching. This week she will retire from her post and should look back with immense pride and satisfaction at the contribution she has made to the lives of so many children and families. Typical of so many committed retired teachers I meet these days, she has decided that she cannot simply walk away from some of the challenges that she sees in education, and has therefore decided to continue supporting the school in a new role, which will enable her to assist with researching the effectiveness of teaching and to identify the professional development needs of staff.

As I arrived at the school today I was confronted with an obstacle that has sadly become a feature of most schools in England today. In order to enter the premises I was required to press a button outside the school gate that should have connected me via an intercom device to the school office. The theory is that once I had established my bona fides, and proven that I was not a risk to be repelled, I could be admitted under the control of the school staff. Having made several hapless attempts via the ubiquitous button to gain the attention of anyone in the school, I was beginning to wonder whether I had been seen on the school surveillance cameras as an undesirable character most definitely to be refused entry. Eventually a boy who I would guess to have been around twelve years old, and who happened to be crossing the school playground noticed my dilemma and came to investigate me through the safety of the gate. Looking at me rather as he might have done a chimpanzee in a cage he began a brief conversation:-

“Who are you mister?” he enquired. “Can’t you get in?”

Having confirmed that this was indeed my predicament he shrugged his shoulders and after a brief stroll across the playground entered the school. A couple of minutes later the intercom crackled into action, I announced my arrival and was granted entry. Arriving in the school entrance hall I once again encountered the boy from the gate and thanked him for his assistance.

“It wasn’t me that did anything,” he said. “you must have just got lucky.”

With a cheeky grin he turned away and disappeared along a corridor. I wasn’t quite sure whether this lad had actually spoken to someone in order to have me admitted or if he really had enjoyed my situation as a visitor struggling to gain access. Whichever of these scenarios was true, I decided that rather than pursuing the issue further it was better to be grateful that I was now where I needed to be, and let the moment pass.

I suspect that my morning experience would not have come as a surprise to many of the staff at the school yesterday. As the head teacher explained to me, the end of the school year and the approaching summer holiday is often a period of tension for many children within the school. Unfortunately at this particular establishment, for too many pupils school offers the only real stability in their lives. When they are in school they are managed consistently, treated with respect and provided with a wide range of interesting learning experiences. Such a situation may well not be replicated in their lives outside of the school, and therefore the impending school holidays are not universally greeted with joy.

The school I was visiting is a special school for children who have been labelled as having social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. Many who attend have been excluded from mainstream schools on grounds of their poor behaviour, and a significant number come from dysfunctional homes where parents and siblings are under stress and family life is far from stable. When I speak to the pupils here, they are usually full of praise for the staff who work with them, admit (though sometimes a little begrudgingly) that they enjoy school and see this as a safe haven where they have friends and a consistent environment.

In an age when we would ideally wish to see all children included in mainstream classrooms, special schools such as this may be seen as a dilemma. However, there are factors at play here that need to be understood and which suggest that a simplistic view of educational provision is not helpful. The same pupils who tell me that they feel secure and enjoy attending this school, often report a very different story about their experiences in mainstream schools. When pressed on this point, it is common for them to single out the attitudes of teachers, who see them as problems rather than people, as the single most critical factor of difference. At the special school they feel valued and respected, and sadly this has not always been the case elsewhere.

Talking to a couple of boys about the forthcoming school holiday it was evident that whilst for many children this is seen as a welcome period of freedom and relaxation, this is not necessarily the case for pupils from this special school. Here they told me, we have things to do and people to help us get organised. Outside of school there is a lack of direction which sometimes results in boredom and at times ends in trouble.

As I left the school, saying goodbye to a head teacher whose dedication and professionalism I greatly admire, I found myself asking how long it would be before the children with whom I had spent a morning would not be labelled as problems, and if they would someday be welcomed back into mainstream schools. I am quite sure that this is a situation towards which we should all be working, but I am equally concerned that far too many schools are ill-prepared to accept this responsibility. This being the case, I am relieved that there are professional colleagues who are concerned to ensure that those pupils who others reject are given opportunities for learning. This is far from an ideal situation, and will I suspect continue to challenge teachers and policy makers for the foreseeable future.

You can’t hit the middle of the target every time

 

It's not possible to hit the middle of the target everytime, but that shouldn't discourage us from trying.

It’s not possible to hit the middle of the target every time, but that shouldn’t discourage us from trying.

I had a brief conversation yesterday with a lady who works in one of the many offices in the university, and also happens to be the mother of a child who attends a local special school. As we both waited patiently in a queue, for a paper cup of the tepid brown substance that passes itself off in the guise of coffee, served in the university canteen, we fell into a casual conversation.

“How’s Adam (not his real name) getting on these days?” I enquired.

“He’s fine thanks,” replied Adam’s mum, “he’s doing really well at school.”

“I’m glad to hear that. I saw him recently when I visited the school, he seemed to be very happy,” I suggested.

“Oh yes, he’s really well settled,” she responded, “and making excellent progress. They set new targets for him every month and he always achieves all of them.”

Leaving the scene, gripping my purchased container of dark sludge (why do I go back for more of this unpalatable concoction?), and having made polite goodbyes, I pondered on this conversation and admit to feeling slightly troubled. It was certainly good to hear that Adam is happy and settled in school, but there is something about the target setting process that leaves me wondering.

Target setting, it seems to me, is far from being an exact science. No matter how well we know a child, there are always so many personal variables that can impact upon the ability to learn. Progress is seldom measurable in a smooth line, but tends to form a profile of humps and hollows affected by mood, health, disposition, motivation and several other factors. The use of individual education plans and more recently in the UK “learning passports” (I still await the introduction of learning visas to enable me to access geography!) has served to focus teacher attentions upon the needs of individual pupils, and to consider how these may be met in the melee of the classroom. (Though I do worry that they also tend to dwell upon learning deficits rather than pupil strengths – but that’s perhaps a discussion for another day.)  The individual education plan invariably identifies targets which it is hoped the child will achieve as a step towards greater attainment and achievement. But from where do these targets emerge? Are they simply drawn from the ether, or is there a more systematic approach to their identification?

Quite rightly, teachers will tell me that they take considerable time when planning for individual pupil needs, and that an important part of this approach is the identification of learning targets. In the best practice, teachers, parents, pupils and other professionals work together to ensure that they are in agreement and have identified targets that are meaningful and well-focused. Despite this attention to detail, target setting remains an inexact process, and one that in my experience can be as much a source of frustration as it is an aid to teaching and learning.

The very fact that Adam “always achieves his target,” makes me question the veracity of this process. In most other situations a target is something at which the marksman aims, knowing that despite his skill and best endeavours it will not always be hit. Does the fact that Adam always hits the mark mean that he is truly making outstanding progress, or might it be that the target is too easily achieved? What does the target actually mean to Adam? Or for that matter to his parents or teachers?

I’m all for aspirational teaching, and for planning that gives teachers and learners a clear direction of travel. I also believe that teachers work incredibly hard to ensure that they provide the best approaches possible to meeting the needs of their pupils. However I find myself questioning whether we necessarily understand the complexities of the systems we have put into place. It is quite easy to develop a process, get it operational and then simply go through the motions of applying this every time. We have been using individual education plans and setting targets for several decades, is it perhaps time to pause and consider whether we have got this process right? Work related to the efficacy of target setting is, to say the least, limited.

There has long been a debate about whether teaching is a science, a craft or an art, Nate Gage wrote very lucidly on this subject thirty years and more ago. Personally, I think that the finest teachers draw on elements of all three of these. This in itself may be why the concept of target setting is likely to remain a somewhat flawed, if necessary concept.

Now then, where did I put my darts?

Please, let’s not see children as business assets!

What is the value of a child?

What is the value of a child?

I am very uncomfortable with the marketization of education. Once children become commodities we lose touch with their humanity and personality and are in danger of forgetting what schools should be about. Yet I see some evidence that in legislations around the globe, schools are increasingly being treated as businesses with managers seeking to make a profit.

This came to the forefront of my thinking yesterday when Suchitra Narayan from Kochi in Kerala posted a response on this blog (Ever Decreasing Circles 12th May). Suchitra has been an advocate for inclusion for many years and has clearly been affronted by the attitude of a school in the area where she works. Here, a mainstream school had established a working partnership with a special school in order to begin a process of moving a child from segregated provision to learn alongside his peers. Examples of this joint approach to working have been cited from many parts of the world and have been seen as a positive step towards enabling children to be gradually accepted into a mainstream classroom. In schools where the staff may lack the confidence to move directly into fully including a child, the support of specialist provision has often been seen as an appropriate way of working. However, alarm bells are now ringing for Suchitra who tells us that:-

“Apparently the special school has told them yesterday, that unless they attend all days in the special school, their names will be struck off the list…as only full attendance will help the special school get grants!!”

So then, here is the motivation for keeping a child on roll, his or her presence there will attract financial rewards!

What does this tell us about the attitudes of the managers of a school that sees the child in financial terms rather than as an individual with a need, and indeed a right to receive an education?  The school apparently wants this child, not because they can provide him with the best of educational experiences, but simply because he will attract a financial grant to boost the coffers of the school.

I promised yesterday that I was going to post a series of optimistic reports – or to be more accurate I asked for positive responses to the Salamanca Statement and Framework for Action that would enable me to tell positive stories. So far everything I have posted in today’s piece sounds rather negative, for which I apologise. So let me then turn this around and tell you of a story that is the direct opposite of that provided by Suchitra.

Here in Northamptonshire, in a small town often regarded as having many social problems, a local head teacher declared that any child living within the catchment of his school would be welcome to attend. Furthermore, he would never exclude a child from the school and saw it as his responsibility and that of his staff, to serve all children in the area. Over the next few years he fought many battles, initially with some anxious teachers, some with parents who didn’t want their children taught alongside a pupil on the autism spectrum or with a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), some with psychologists who insisted on labelling children in inappropriate ways. He was, however, firm in his belief that children had a right to attend their neighbourhood school. He always listened politely to parents and won most of them around to his way of thinking, though sadly, a few decided to take their offspring elsewhere.

This head teacher committed himself to ensuring that all of his staff, not only the teachers, had access to high quality professional development and that there was open discussion about some of the challenges that existed around teaching and learning in inclusive classrooms. The reputation of the school grew and it was soon recognised as a centre of excellence for teaching in respect of all children. Consecutive inspection reports applauded the school for its contribution to the local community, its commitment to social justice and the quality of teaching and learning.

All this happened around twenty years ago and raised the eyebrows of many other headteachers in the area. When the head teacher left twelve years after beginning this initiative, I observed the school with some concerns. Would the new school leadership be able to continue along these inclusive lines or would there now be issues around children labelled as having special educational needs? I need not have worried. The culture of inclusive teaching and community commitment is now so embedded in that school that all of the staff, parents and other professionals simply see what is happening as the norm. The school continues to serve all children in its neighbourhood, regardless of need or ability.

How have they succeeded? I think the answer to this is quite simple. For the school community every child is a valued and respected individual. Not valued in monetary terms, but rather as a child with an entitlement to learning.

Take heart Suchitra. Development takes time, but with determined teachers who are committed to inclusive principles much can and will be achieved. So I hope that my confidence in and admiration for the dedication of colleagues in a school here has begun to fulfil my promise of a few days at least of optimistic postings.