SEN provision changes lives - including mine
The announcement of new special educational needs (SEN) legislation in the Queen’s Speech earlier this summer had a particular resonance for me. The last time SEN provision underwent such major change was in 1978 when Baroness Warnock’s review recommended that SEN pupils be integrated into mainstream schools.
At that time, I was an eight-year-old in a residential special school in Devon. I had been there since the age of 4. I was born with spastic diplegia - a form of cerebral palsy. My severe disability made it hard for my parents to cope with me at home at a time when support was scant.
Unlike today, the system wasn’t set up to educate children like me. There was no significant academic schooling - the focus was on developing physical ability. Then along came Warnock. I was part of the pilot for the scheme to integrate SEN children into mainstream schools and, at the age of 9 in 1979, my dad and I visited Fairlands Middle School in Cheddar. Fortunately, the enlightened headteacher, the late Harry Broome, was prepared to take me on as a pupil.
The visit didn’t go well at first. I was asked to complete a simple test of putting a piece of wood in a vice, but because of my physical disability I struggled to stand at the workbench and couldn’t do it.
I thought I had blown it and was worried that the school wouldn’t take me. But I insisted on going back into the woodwork room and, wedging myself into a gap between a bench and a wall, managed to get the stability I needed to manipulate the wood into the vice. I got into the school because I found a creative solution to a problem.
When I started teacher training at the age of 36 after a career in commercial training, some of the issues surrounding the Warnock revolution that I had been a small part of really started to hit me.
In one tutorial a discussion started about the difficulties trainees were having with students with additional support needs. One said that, in her view, the time taken to work with these students meant that the majority of the class had to suffer. Twenty years before, I had been at the receiving end of such views from a teacher who didn’t want me in his class.
For me, this points to a broader issue about how SEN - and non-SEN - children and young people learn. As well as ensuring that the right support is there for the right people, policymakers should also focus on giving children and young people of all abilities the tools to become more independent learners.
That was something I didn’t get in my school career. I wasn’t a traditional academic and I struggled to learn at the same pace as my classmates. I wasn’t expected to achieve at O-level standard and had to lobby the school to enter me for exams, which I passed.
Once, my life appeared to pivot on whether I could successfully clamp a lump of wood in a vice. Failure at what was, by today’s standards, a rather clumsy task, might have set my life on a very different course. Although we are now in more enlightened times, just as much is at stake for children and young people on the cusp of an SEN statement.
A step in the right direction
The reforms announced in the Queen’s Speech are a step forward. The plans to give parents budgets so that they can have more of a say on how the money is spent and which services their children receive is an excellent development.
The education system has long been set up to direct people to do things in a particular way. My parents were faced with a one-size-fits-all approach when they were considering my schooling at the age of 4. They had few options and not enough information to help them make a really informed choice. These plans will give SEN learners and their families the freedom to make real choices. It is a real move towards giving SEN learners real independence.
I agree with some commentators who have suggested that these proposals will lead to children and young people with more severe SEN getting more support. That is a good thing. But I do have concerns about the proposals to change the assessment of children with milder learning difficulties. I fear that as a result of these changes, children on the cusp of an SEN statement may miss out.
We need to make sure that future lawmaking in this area doesn’t exclude learners from the support that they may need. For example, only now am I being screened for dyslexia at the age of 42. That was an area of my special needs that was overlooked when I was a youngster in the education system.
We need a system that protects and supports all children and young people to ensure that none falls through the net. This should be backed up with a wholesale review of how all learners - not just those with an SEN statement or on the cusp of one - learn.
Warnock was good for me. The review gave me a real chance and changed my life very much for the better. My hope is that the new SEN legislation - and future education policymaking - will do the same for children today.
Simon Pearson was an ICT teacher before setting up Puzzlebox Potential, a learning and training skills business. www.puzzleboxpotential.com.