I have just been struck a dreadful blow – it is just possible that I may have reached my full potential! On the other hand, there is a vague possibility that I may yet have untapped resources, that will enable me to achieve greater things in life.
Of course, I don’t actually regard either of the statements made above as having any currency. Both are completely meaningless and speculative, but they are used here to illustrate the vacuous nature of an expression that I have heard throughout my career in education, the use of which can serve either to limit or create putative expectations of children.
I recall when I was appointed as headteacher of a school in the 1980s being informed that my principle task was to ensure that every child reached his or her full potential. A few weeks ago I heard the chief inspector of schools for England commenting that too many secondary schools are failing to enable children to attain their potential, and this weekend, a report in the Independent newspaper informs me that mainstream schools are failing to enable children with special educational needs to reach their full potential. This last observation is based upon a report recently published by Mencap, a national charity supporting children with learning disabilities and their families. I will return to this in a while, but firstly let me ask you a few questions.
Do you personally feel that you have achieved everything that may have been possible in your life? Have you reached your full potential or fallen short of this? Might it be that you are still striving to reach this ultimate goal? More importantly, no matter what answer you may have given to these questions, I wonder how you came to this conclusion? Who decided what your potential might be? Has that which was regarded as your potential been exceeded, or inhibited through the expectations of others? Perhaps the most contentious question of all (if you work as a teacher) might be, how well equipped are you to judge the potential of others?
The history of education has not always reached the highest of standards in the art of prediction, as excerpts from a number of school reports reveal:-
“She writes indifferently and knows nothing of grammar”, wrote one of Charlotte Bronte’s teachers who clearly could not have anticipated the success of the novel Jane Eyre a few years later.
Equally wide of the mark was the observation made in 1895 that “He will never amount to anything.” A comment that must surely have been a later source of some embarrassment, to the teacher who uttered these words in respect of a young Albert Einstein.
It is, of course, easy to mock those who have made such wayward comments or made predictions that have proven false with time, but there may equally be an important message here to which we should take heed. I am sure that not all students possess the determination and tenacity of Charlotte Bronte or Albert Einstein, and that for some, the setting of a low benchmark may have an inhibiting effect upon the progress that they could make.
Returning to the Mencap report based upon a survey of 1,000 parents of children with learning disabilities who attend mainstream schools, I find that it contains much useful information which deserves careful consideration. In particular, it is apparent that many parents feel that teachers within mainstream schools are inadequately trained to address the needs of pupils with complex needs. Some of these parents express their frustrations with a system that has low expectations of their children and provide limited opportunities for them to interact with their peers. Examples of children who spend most of their time with a teaching assistant, working on separate tasks to those set for the rest of the class are provided. Is this inclusion would seem to be a legitimate question to ask.
I feel fairly confident in stating that low expectations have hindered learning for children with disabilities and special educational needs for as long as there have been schools. However, I still have some reservations with regards to the language that is used in debating this situation. The article in the Independent newspapers reports that Jan Tregelles, Mencap’s chief executive stated:-
“Parents feel the education service is woefully ill prepared to properly support children and young people with a learning disability to reach their full potential,”
It is that term “full potential” which, having read this far into these ramblings you will have appreciated is giving me cause for concern. I am wholly in accord with the suggestion that we need to raise expectations and to provide the kinds of resources and training that may enable all pupils to succeed in schools. I am however concerned that in using this term “full potential” we are instilling in teachers a belief that we can set targets for children, which if achieved will enable us to feel content in both their and our accomplishments. Is there, I wonder complacency here, based upon a spurious notion that we can determine what an individual should achieve, according to their age or ability? How does this differ from the now discredited belief that we can set our expectations of the potential achievements of pupils on the basis of their gender, ethnicity or social class?
Like Jan Tregelles, who has given an immense commitment to improving the educational opportunities for children with learning disabilities, I have concerns that many schools are not addressing the needs of all their pupils. Unlike the authors of the Mencap report, I feel that there are significant dangers from teachers or policy makers who believe that they have the ability or right to determine the potential of others.
I have no doubts that some who read this article will say that this is simply a matter of semantics. However, I would contend that the language we use about children can be powerful. We are well aware of the negative influence that placing a label on a child, such as “learning disability”, “dyslexia” or “autism” may have on the achievements of the individual. Might it not be equally dangerous to believe that we have the right or the ability to sit in Judgement on the potential of a child?