They Are Supposed To Be Like That!

Why there is no need to “fix” kids with “special needs”.
Guest blog by Shelley Johnston: Dyslexic, doctor, home-schooling mother.

If I am going to have a rant, I will say that I don’t see anyone classifying children as “SEN” because they lack the extraordinary physical energy and courage of my next-door neighbour’s son. In comparison to him, many other children are frankly pathetic. I will say that I don’t see any children being “statemented” because they lack the ability to handle animals the way my childminder’s son can pick up anything from a preying mantis to a chicken and it appears to become tame. Nobody sighs and says “Never mind, dear, we can work on it,” because they can’t write backwards perfectly, as though in a mirror, like my daughter.

But do you know what? When I am old and sick, if I have a heart attack at 3.00 am, I really hope I find someone in A&E who was like my neighbour’s son as a child, because they have the energy to still be firing on all cylinders at three o’clock in the morning.

One day I WILL finally persuade my husband that a large portion of our household income needs to be spent on horses, and if one of those horses gets colic, I’m going to desperately want someone like my childminder’s son to show up and be able to soothe the thrashing hooves and snapping teeth as the poor thing tries to kick and bite its own tummy.

If I need an engineer, I hope they can flip shapes about in their head as easily as my little girl can.

The biggest trouble our children with “special needs” face is our own short-sightedness; our desperation that they go along with the pack, fit the mould and jump through all the hoops – the hoops laid out by the National Curriculum and Ofsted and other well-meaning bodies of people, who don’t seem to understand that Normal Distribution is a bell-curve; that it is NORMAL for people to be abnormal, that whole populations work by having a balance between lots of people who are good at one thing and a few who are good at others.

If we spend all our time trying to narrow the bell-curve and cut off its untidy tails we will find ourselves up the creek without a paddle. We not only do our “special needs” children a grave disservice by teaching them that what they are good at and enjoy is secondary in importance to the things that they are bad at and hate doing,  giving them the impression, albeit unintentionally, that they have to pretend to be something else before they are allowed to be themselves. We deprive the rest of the world of their brilliant talents. We bury our mathematicians, our architects, our philosophers, our Chelsea Flower Show gardeners, our Einsteins, our Chopins under a wave of “Yes, dear; that’s nice: you can do it when you have practised your spellings/when you have learned to sit still in class/when you can remember to put your hand up before speaking/ got your marks in your SATS (ooh , don’t get me started!).

Perhaps they aren’t meant to sit still. They can learn to read standing up, lying down, walking around, or sitting up a tree. Perhaps being “good” at school, sticking to all the rules and interacting with 30 children at a time is just exhausting for the child who is so sensitive that they read the signals of a frightened baby animal. And that’s OK: they are meant to be wriggly, or sensitive, or able to write in both directions. It’s our job to give them space to bloom – whether it’s in a mainstream classroom, a smaller group, a quiet place to hide, or not even at school.

But it doesn’t matter what they need: that’s not what this article is about. It’s about how we look at our children, because that is how they look at themselves. Do we feel sorry for monkeys because they can’t swim, or do we let them climb trees?

PS Of course we have to buy a life-boat as well, because we are 21st century parents with a pathological aversion to risk, and even though the monkey lives in a dry jungle we have to cover all our bases, but more on that some other time…

Lifting the lid on “exam factory” thinking.

Lifting the lid on “exam factory” thinking.

In a direct challenge to the government’s performance tables fixation and the use of “exam floor targets” to label failing schools, Amanda Spielman, the head of Ofsted, has said that some school leaders should be “ashamed” of the tactics used to bolster their league table standings. The Ofsted view is that some schools are simply becoming “exam factories”, burdening students with “meaningless exams” to improve their league table results.

Ms Spielman said, “At a time of scarce pupil funding and high workloads, all managers are responsible for making sure teachers’ time is spent on what matters most. This means concentrating on the curriculum and the substance of education, not preparing your pupils to jump through a series of accountability hoops… The idea that children will not, for example, hear or play the great works of classical musicians or learn about the intricacies of ancient civilisations – all because they are busy preparing for a different set of GCSEs – would be a terrible shame.”

The head of the inspectors in England continued, “All children should study a broad and rich curriculum. Curtailing key stage three means prematurely cutting this off for children who may never have an opportunity to study some of these subjects again.

“Rather than just intensifying the focus on data, Ofsted inspections must explore what is behind the data, asking how results have been achieved. Inspections, then, are about looking underneath the bonnet to be sure that a good quality education –one that genuinely meets pupils’ needs – is not being compromised.”

Answer the Question!
Is this the first breeze of a fresh wind about to blow through our Education system? More emphasis on teaching and learning as opposed to just focusing on achievement has got to be positive, and with the current state of uncertainty in the political landscape it is unlikely that the government will do much to oppose the direction Ofsted may be taking. This issue was highlighted in the context of maths learning difficulties at our SpLD Central conference yesterday, where Prof Steve Chinn (author of Maths for Dyslexics, The Trouble with Maths etc) was our keynote speaker. Steve pointed out that a frightening number of 16-19 yr olds were, basically, incompetent at maths. By incompetent I mean that they made fundamental place value errors; couldn’t work our simple fractions etc. By frightening we are talking about over 40%. At or near the top of the pile of achievement-based teaching (ie I want you to give me the answer to this question, now!) is learning times tables by rote. And in February this year we find Nick Gibb telling an education select committee that times tables testing would be returning to primary schools in summer 2019, as the government thinks “Times tables are a very important part of mathematical knowledge.”

Back to Basics
I don’t think any of us would disagree with the value of knowing what, for example, 6 x 7 equals. What Steve was showing us yesterday was the importance of making sure that children know what the numbers actually mean before we ask them to do sophisticated operations with them. In order to achieve that goal we sometimes need to go a long way back into very basic territory, then sometimes further back still, before we can put right errors and misconceptions that have been hard-wired into early learning experiences with number. What is easy to see in the context of maths learning applies right across the curriculum. Insisting on tests for times tables (and don’t forget, schools – we’ll be grading you on how many of your students give the right answers!) is just a symptom of the bigger problem which is driving the education standards it is desperate to improve.

So let’s hope Ofsted have their way, and get to inspect more of what is going on “under the bonnet”. Maybe we should send the schools minister one of our dyscalculia kits…