We're failing the children in our schools who have special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), in part, according to a study conducted by The Key, because SEND is underfunded.
I don't know much about funding, but reading the report made me reflect on my own experiences of teaching children with SEND. I don't know much about funding but I do know that as soon as a child is categorised as such, additional help and support is given. This is good. Clearly. Advice from educational psychologists, resources tailored to specific barriers to learning, and extra staffing are all welcome, and are all triggered by the diagnosis and labeling of SEND.
It felt great, as a teacher, to have an expert observe and run tests on little Terry so that she could advise me about which areas of learning he would need extra support in. It was exciting to receive resources which, though irrelevant to the rest of the class, helped little Terry immensely. And it was a relief to have an extra 10 hours of support from a teaching assistant who had been trained in an intervention aimed at helping little Terry catch up.
It felt great to be supported, but was it great? Well, regardless of the impact of this extra support on learning (which is debatable), I quickly became troubled by the message that this kind of support sends. It felt like the message I and other teachers were being sent is that we are neither able nor required to engage with Terry in the same way as anyone else. When Terry does x, teachers are told by SENCos or EdPsychs, do y. And stick to it: you need to be consistent, even if it feels awful. When the class are learning x, teachers are told, Terry can't join in, so he should be doing y, often on an iPad or a computer. And don't worry if you haven't established a decent relationship with Terry, because that's what you're TA's there for.
Obviously this was never the message that schools aimed to send to teachers, but in the context of a school system which is ever-more pressurised, this is the message that I, and others, heard. I was fortunate that this message was always mitigated by sensitive SENCos and school leaders, but I heard it nonetheless.
I've written elsewhere about the problem I have with the way we as an education system (and a country) treat those with SEND. They're hived away as a specialist subject to be analysed and judged and intervened with, rather than being seen as peoplewho can be engaged with meaningfully by anyone who is observant, sensitive and care-full. They're different, we're told, and they need to be treated differently. You can't just talk to them, or work out for yourself what their barriers are, or, heaven forbid, ask them.
What I experienced to be missing in the way that children with SEND were catered for, was the space for myself as their teacher to understand these children from their point-of-view. This isn't easy, and it takes trust - both in teachers and in students - as well as time. It takes training, too, in empathising and in understanding the causes of SEND.
In the absence of trust and time and training, though, we are forced to take the immediate, deficit-filling approach: we let the experts 'understand' and label the children with SEND, while the teachers fill their time with what they are being judged on (the progress of the slightly-lower-than-average-attainers). The upshot is that children with SEND are put into pigeon holes and treated as clusters of symptoms rather than people, and teachers are prevented from engaging in meaningful, human ways with these children.
Now, the picture I've painted is something of an exaggeration, I hope. There are pockets of good practice and humanity in every school and in some of the larger systems too. But my perception of the way teaching has changed over the past 10 years is that this dehumanising is a growing problem. And one that does not only apply to children who have SEND: at its base, the factor which limits teachers' abilities to engage empathically and creatively with children is the culture of fear and measurement. And this applies just as much to the non-SEND children as it does those who do have SEND. We don't have the space or time or trust to understand the non-SEND children either. We might think that they're easier to understand because they're 'normal', but this is just as big (and wrong) an assumption as it is to assume that every autistic child will require a visual timetable, and every ADHD child will need drugging.
Real empathy and understanding and engagement require time and trust. I don't know much about funding for children with SEND, but I do know that without that trust, all the money in the exchequer will not change the culture of isolation and specialisation which risks alienating teachers and students from one another.