a short history of special education

In 2006 a House of Commons Select Committee described the special educational needs system as ‘no longer fit for purpose’. By September 2014 a new system was in place. Two years on, it’s safe to say it hasn’t been an unmitigated success. To understand why the new system hasn’t worked – and indeed can’t work – it might help to take a look at the history of special educational needs and disability (SEND).

a short history of SEND

Education became compulsory in England in 1880. Some local school boards set up special schools or special classes within mainstream schools for physically ‘handicapped’* children, but provision was patchy. What took people by surprise was the number of mentally handicapped children who turned up to school.

At the time, teachers were expected to teach according to the official Code – essentially a core curriculum – and many schools in the fledgling national educational system were seriously under-resourced. Teachers were often untrained, paper was very expensive (hence the use of rote learning and slates) and many schools operated in conditions like the one below – with several classes in one room. They just weren’t equipped to cope with children with learning difficulties or disabilities.

Shepherd Street School in Preston in 1902

Shepherd Street School in Preston in 1902§

Two Royal Commissions were set up to investigate the education of handicapped children, and reported in 1889 and 1896 respectively. Both recommended the integration of the children in mainstream schools where possible and that special provision (classes or schools) should be made by school boards. The emphasis was on children acquiring vocational skills so they could earn a living. Those with the most severe mental handicap were deemed ‘ineducable’.

The Royal Commissions’ recommendations, and many others made over the next few decades, were clearly well-intentioned. Everybody wanted the best outcomes for the children. The challenge was how to get there. After WW2, concerns about the special education system increased. Parents felt they had little control, the number of pupils in special schools was rising, and children were still being institutionalised or marginalised from society. In 1973 Margaret Thatcher, then Education Secretary, commissioned a review of the education of handicapped children, led by Mary Warnock, whose Committee of Enquiry reported in 1978. A year later Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister and some of the Warnock recommendations came into force in the Education Act 1981.

The Warnock report introduced a very different way of understanding ‘handicapped’ children. They were no longer seen as being different, but as having special educational needs – as did up to 20% of the school population. Special educational needs were defined in terms of the support children needed, rather than in terms of their physical or mental impairments. What was envisaged was that many children in special schools would gradually migrate to mainstream, supported by Statements of Special Educational Need. And mainstream schools would gradually become more inclusive, adapting their buildings, equipment and teaching methods to meet an ever wider range of educational needs. The new system might have worked well if the rest of the education system hadn’t changed around it.

context is crucial; one size doesn’t fit all

The Warnock recommendations were made in the context of a very flexible education system. In 1981 Local Education Authorities (LEAs), schools and teachers had a great deal of autonomy in what was taught, how it was taught and when. That all changed with the 1988 Education Reform Act that heralded a compulsory National Curriculum, SATS and Ofsted. Central government essentially wrested control of education from local bodies, something that had been actively opposed for the previous 100 years – few people wanted education to become a political football.

The new education system was at heart a one-size-fits-all affair. Governments find one-size-fits-all systems very appealing. They look as if they are going to be cheaper to run because professional training, equipment and resources can be standardised and performance can be easily measured. Unfortunately for governments, human populations are not one-size, but are very varied. If a universal service is to meet the needs of a whole population, it won’t do that if it’s designed to meet only the needs of the average person. A stark choice faces those designing universal systems; either they can design a system that meets everybody’s needs and resource it properly, or they can design a system that doesn’t meet everybody’s needs and then spend years trying to sort out the ensuing muddle.

The 1880 education system was one-size-fits-all and the next century was spent sorting out the problems that resulted for handicapped children. There was a brief period after 1981 when the education system took a big step towards meeting the needs of all children, but seven years later it flipped back to one-size-fits-all. The last 30 years have been spent trying unsuccessfully to limit the damage for children with SEND.

So what’s the alternative? The answer isn’t further reform of the SEND system, because the causes of the problems don’t lie within the SEND system, but with the broader education system. Two key causes are teacher training and targets – the subjects of the next post.

*I’ve used the term ‘handicapped’ because it was in widespread use in the education system until the Warnock Committee changed the terminology.
§ © Harris Museum and Art Gallery http://www.mylearning.org/victorian-school-and-work-in-preston/images/1-3215/

Originally posted in July 2016 here.

standardised testing: what’s it good for?

A campaign by parents to keep their children off school as a protest against SATs prompted a Twitter discussion about the pros and cons of standardised tests. One teacher claimed that they’re important because they hold schools to account. I think that’s a misuse of standardised tests. First, because test results are a poor proxy measure of teaching quality. Second, good teaching (and hard work on the part of the student) are necessary but not sufficient conditions for good test performance. Third, using test results to hold schools to account overlooks the natural variation inherent in large populations.

test results as a measure of teaching quality

Tests such as the National Curriculum Tests (commonly known as SATs) GCSEs and A levels sample students’ recall and understanding of a particular body of knowledge – the KS2 curriculum, GCSE/A level course. The knowledge is sampled because testing the student’s knowledge of all the material in the course would be very time consuming and unwieldy. In other words, test results are a proxy for the student’s knowledge of the course material.

But the course material itself is a proxy for all that’s known about a particular topic. KS2 students learn basic principles about how atoms and molecules behave, GCSE and A level students learn about atomic theory in more detail, but Chemistry undergraduates complain that they have to then unlearn much of what they were taught earlier because it was the simplified version.  So test results are actually a second order proxy for the student’s knowledge of a particular topic.

Then factors other than the student’s knowledge impact on test results. The student might be unwell on the day of the test, or might have slept badly the night before. In the months before the test they might have been absent from school for weeks with glandular fever or their parents might have split up. In other words, test results are affected by factors other than teaching and learning; factors beyond the control of either the school or the student.  In other words, test results are a weak proxy for both the quality of teaching and the student’s knowledge.

good teaching and hard work are necessary but not sufficient for good test performance

There’s an asymmetry between the causes of high and low test results. It’s difficult to get a high test score without hard work on the part of the student and good teaching on the part of the school.   But there are many reasons why a student might get a low score despite hard work and good teaching.

That’s at the individual level. Similarly at the school level it’s safe to conclude that a school with consistently good results in national tests is doing its job properly, but it’s not safe to conclude that a school that doesn’t get consistently good results isn’t.

The education system has been plagued over the years by two false assumptions about student potential. Either that all students have the potential to get good test scores and that good teaching is the key determining factor, or that students from certain demographic groups won’t get good test scores however well they’re taught. In reality it’s more complicated than that, of course. Students from leafy suburbs are more likely to do well in tests for many reasons; even if they are taught badly, they have access to resources that can sometimes compensate for that. Students from the kind of housing estate that motivates Iain Duncan Smith are at a higher risk of adverse life events scuppering their chances of getting good test results no matter how good the teaching at their school. And the older they get, the more adverse life events they are likely to encounter.

So, test results are a pretty good first order proxy for a student’s knowledge of course material. They are a not-so-good second order proxy for a student’s knowledge of the topic the course material represents. And only a weak proxy for quality of teaching.

life is just one damn thing after another*

Those in favour of standardised testing often cite cases of particular schools in deprived areas that have achieved amazing outcomes against the odds. Every child can read by the age of six, or is fluent in French, or whatever.   The implication is that if one school can do it, all schools can. In principle, that’s true. In principle, all head teachers can be visionaries, all teachers can be excellent and all families can buy in to what the school wants to achieve.

But in practice life doesn’t work like that. Head teachers get sick, senior staff have to work part-time because of family commitments, local housing is unaffordable making recruitment a nightmare, or for many families school is just one more thing they can’t quite keep up with.

On top of that, human beings are biological organisms. Like all populations of biological organisms we show considerable variation due to our genes, our environment and interactions between the two. It might be possible to improve test performance across the education system, but there are limits to the improvement that’s possible. Clean water and good sanitation increase life expectancy, but life expectancy doesn’t go on increasing indefinitely once communities have access to clean water and sanitation. Expecting more than 50% of children in primary schools to perform above average simply shows a poor grasp of natural variation – and statistics.

standardised testing: what is it good for?

Standardised testing in primary schools makes sense. It samples children’s knowledge of key material. It allows schools to benchmark attainment. Standardised testing as a performance measure can alert schools to problems that are impacting on children’s learning.

However, the reasons for differences in students’ performance in standardised tests are many and varied. Performance will not improve unless the reasons for poor performance are addressed. Sometimes those reasons are complex and not within the schools’ remit. To address them local families might need better public services, better jobs or better housing – arguably not the core responsibility of a school. Poor teaching might not be involved at all.

However, successive governments haven’t used test results simply as broad indicators of whether a school is on track or whether there are problems that need to be addressed (not necessarily by the school), but as a proxy for teaching quality.  Test results have been used to set performance targets and determine funding, regardless of whether schools can control the factors involved.

This shows a poor understanding of performance management§, and it’s hardly surprising that the huge amounts of money and incessant policy changes thrown at the education system over recent decades have had little impact on the quality of education of the population as a whole.

First posted 3 April 2016 here.


*A quotation attributed to Elbert Hubbard, an American writer who died when the Lusitania was sunk in 1915.

§ The best book I’ve read on performance management is a slim volume by Donald Wheeler called Understanding variation: The key to managing chaos.  A clearly written, step-by-step guide to figuring out if the variation you’ve spotted is within natural limits or not.  Lots of references to things like iron smelting and lumber yards, but still very relevant to schools.

play: schools are for children, not children for schools

Some years ago, the TES carried an article about a primary school that taught its pupils how to knit. I learned to knit at school. My mum dutifully used my first attempt – a cotton dishcloth – for months despite its resemblance to a fishing net with an annoying tendency to ensnare kitchen utensils. The reason I was taught knitting was primarily in order to be able to knit. But the thrust of the TES article wasn’t about the usefulness of knitting. It was that it improved the children’s maths. It seemed that at some point since the introduction of mass education in England the relationship between schools and the real world had changed. The point of schools was no longer to provide children with knowledge (like maths) that will help them tackle real-world problems (like knitting), but vice versa – the point of useful real-world skills was now to support performance in school.

school readiness

I was reminded of the knitting article when Sir Michael Wilshaw, then chief inspector of Ofsted, suggested to inspectors that not all early years settings are preparing children adequately for school. In a comment to the BBC he added;

More than two-thirds of our poorest children – and in some of our poorest communities that goes up to eight children out of 10 – go to school unprepared,” he said. “That means they can’t hold a pen, they have poor language and communication skills, they don’t recognise simple numbers, they can’t use the toilet independently and so on.”

His comments prompted an open letter to the Telegraph complaining that Sir Michael’s instruction to inspectors to assess nurseries mainly in terms of preparation for school “betrays an abject (and even wilful) misunderstanding of the nature of early childhood experience.” One of the signatories was Sue Cowley, who had blogged about the importance of play. Her post, like Sir Michael’s original comments, generated a good deal of discussion.

Old Andrew responded promptly. He comments “This leads me to my one opinion on early years teaching methods: OFSTED are right to judge them by outcomes rather than acting as the “play police” and seeking to enforce play-based learning“.

The two bloggers have homed in on different issues. Sue Cowley is concerned about the shift in focus from childhood experience to ‘school-readiness’; Old Andrew is relieved that Ofsted inspectors are longer expected to ‘enforce play-based learning’. The online debate has also shifted from the original question implicit in Sir Michael’s comments and in the response in the letter to the Telegraph i.e. what is the purpose of nurseries and pre-schools? to a question posed by Old Andrew; “Is there any actual empirical evidence on the importance of play? All the “evidence” seems to be theoretical.”

empirical evidence

Responses from early years teachers to questions about evidence for the benefits of play are often along the lines of “I have the evidence of my own eyes”, which hasn’t satisfied the sceptics. Whether you think it’s a satisfactory answer or not depends on the importance you attach to direct observation.

The problem with direct observation is that it’s dependent on perception, which is notoriously unreliable. David Didau has blogged about some perceptual flaws here. He also mentions some of the cognitive errors that occur when people draw conclusions from observations. The scientific method has been developed largely to counteract the flaws in our perception and reasoning. But it doesn’t follow that direct observation is completely unreliable. Indeed, direct observation is the cornerstone of empirical evidence.

Here’s an example. Let’s say I’ve noticed that every time I use a particular brand of soap, my hands sting and turn bright red. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to conclude that I have an allergic response to an ingredient in the soap – but I wouldn’t know that for sure. There could be many causes for my red, stinging hands; the soap might be purely coincidental. The conclusions about causes I could draw solely from my direct observations would be pretty speculative.

But the direct observations themselves – identifying the brand of soap and what happened to my hands – would be a lot more reliable. It’s possible that I could have got the brand of soap wrong and could have imagined what happened to my hands, but those errors are much less likely than the errors involved in drawing conclusions about causality. I could easily increase the reliability of my direct observations by involving an independent observer. If a hundred independent observers all agreed that a particular brand of soap was associated with my and/or other people’s hands turning bright red, those observations wouldn’t be 100% watertight but they would be considered to be fairly reliable and might prompt the soap manufacturer to investigate further. Increasing the reliability of my conclusion about the causal relationship – that the soap caused an allergic reaction – would be more challenging.

is play another Brain Gym?

What intrigued me about the early years’ teachers responses was their reliance on direct observation as empirical evidence for the importance of play. Most professionals, if called upon to do so, can come up with some peer-reviewed research that supports the methods they use, even if it means delving into dusty textbooks they haven’t used for years. I could see Old Andrew’s point; if play is so important, why isn’t there a vast research literature on it? There are three characteristics of play that would explain both the apparent paucity of research and the teachers’ emphasis on direct observation.

First, play is a characteristic typical of most young mammals, and young humans play a lot. At one level, asking what empirical evidence there is for its importance is a pointless question – a bit like asking for evidence for the importance of learning or growth. Play, like learning and growth, is simply a facet of development.

Second, play, like most other mammalian characteristics, is readily observable – although you might need to do a bit of dissection to spot some of the anatomical features of mammals. Traditionally, play has been seen as involving three types of skill; locomotor, object control and social interaction. But you don’t need a formal peer-reviewed study to tell you that. A few hours’ observation of a group of young children would be sufficient. A few hours’ observation would also reveal all the features of play Sue Cowley lists in her blog post.

Third, also readily apparent through direct observation is what children learn during play; the child who chooses to play with the shape-sorter every day until they can get all the shapes in the right holes first time, the one who can’t speak a word of English but is fluent after a few months despite little direct tuition, the one who initially won’t speak to anyone but blossoms into a mini-socialite through play. Early years teachers watch children learning through play every day, so it’s not surprising they don’t see the need to rely on research to tell them about its importance.

The features of play and what children can learn from it are not contentious; the observations of thousands of parents, teachers, psychologists, psychiatrists and anthropologists are largely in agreement over what play looks like and what children learn from it. This would explain why there appears to be little research on the importance of play; it’s self-evidently important to children themselves, as an integral part of human development and as a way of learning. In addition, much of the early research into play was carried out in the inter-war years. Try finding that online. Or even via your local library. Old Andrew’s reluctance to accept early years teachers’ direct observations as evidence might stem from his admission that he doesn’t “really have much insight into what small children are like.”

play-based education

The context of Old Andrew’s original question was Michael Wilshaw’s comments on school readiness and the response in the Telegraph letter. A recent guest post on his blog is critical of play-based learning, suggesting it causes problems for teachers higher up the food chain. Although Old Andrew says he’d like to see evidence for the importance of play in any context, what we’re actually talking about here is the importance of play in the education system.

Direct observation can tell us what play looks like and what children learn from it. What it can’t tell us about is the impact of play on development, GCSE results or adult life. For that, we’d need a more complex research design than just watching and/or recording before-and-after abilities. Some research has been carried out on the impact of play. Although there doesn’t appear to be a correlation between how much young mammals play and their abilities as adults, not playing does appear to impair responsiveness and effective social interaction. And we do know some things about the outcomes of the more complex play seen in children (e.g. Smith & Pellegrini, 2013).

Smith & Pellegrini agree that a prevailing “play ethos” has tended to exaggerate the evidence for the essential role of play (p.4) and that appears to be Old Andrew’s chief objection to the play advocates’ claims. Sue Cowley’s list describes play as ‘vital’, ‘crucial’ and ‘essential’. I can see how her choice of wording might give the impression to anyone looking for empirical evidence in the research literature that research findings relating to the importance of play in development, learning or education were more robust than they are. I can also see why someone observing the direct outcomes of play on a daily basis would see play as ‘vital’, ‘crucial’ and ‘essential’.

I agree with Old Andrew that Ofsted shouldn’t be enforcing play-based learning, or for that matter, telling teachers how to teach. There’s no point in training professionals and then telling them how to do their job. I also agree that if grand claims are being made for play-based learning or if it’s causing problems later on, we need some robust research or some expectation management, or both.

Having said that, it’s worth noting that for the best part of a century nursery and infant teachers have sung the praises of play-based learning. What’s easily overlooked by those who teach older children is the challenge facing early years teachers. They are expected to make ‘school-ready’ children who, in some cases and for whatever reason, have started nurseries, pre-schools and reception classes with little speech, who don’t understand a word of English, who can’t remember instructions, who have problems with dexterity, mobility and bowel and bladder control, or who find the school environment bewildering and frightening. Sometimes, the only way early years teachers can get children to engage or learn anything at all is through play. Early years teachers, as Sue Cowley points out, are usually advocates of highly structured, teacher-directed play. What’s more, they can see children learning from play in real time in front of them. The key question is not “what’s the empirical evidence for the importance of play?” but rather “if children play by default, are highly motivated to play and learn quickly from it, where’s the evidence for a better alternative?”

I’m all in favour of evidence-based practice, but I’m concerned that direct observation might be being prematurely ruled out. I’m also concerned that the debate appears to have shifted from the original one about preparation for school vs the erosion of childhood. This brings us back to the priorities of the school that taught knitting in order to improve children’s maths. Children obviously need to learn for their own benefit and for that of the community as a whole, but we need to remember that in a democracy school is for children, not children for school.

Originally posted in August 2014.


Pellegrini, A & Smith PK (2005). The Nature of Play: Great Apes and Humans. Guilford Press.
Smith, PK & Pellegrini, A (2013). Learning through play. In Tremblay RE, Boivin M, Peters (eds). Encyclopedia of Early Childhood Development [online]. Montreal, Quebec: Centre of Excellence for Early Childhood Developmentand Strategic Knowledge Cluster on Early Child Development 1-6. Available at http://www.child-encyclopedia.com/documents/Smith-PellegriniANGxp2.pdf Accessed 11.8.2014.

the new SEN legislation and the Dunkirk spirit

First posted in August 2014, just before the new SEN legislation came into force.  I put my head above the parapet and predicted what would happen.  Judging by this account of an LA’s Ofsted inspection, I wasn’t far wrong.

In less than a week an event will take place that’s been awaited with excitement, apprehension, or in some cases with something approaching the Dunkirk spirit. On 1 September part 3 of the Children and Families Act 2014 comes into force. It’s been described as the biggest change to special educational needs in 30 years.

it won’t work
. If I were a betting sort of person, I’d put money on the next government having to review the system again in a couple of years. How can I be so sure? Or so pessimistic? It’s because the ‘problem’ with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) isn’t the special educational needs and disabilities, it’s the education system. And not just the SEN bit of it – it’s the education system as a whole. To find out why we need to go back in time…

we have a history

Education became compulsory in England in 1870. The new education system was essentially a one-size-fits-all affair focusing on reading, writing and arithmetic. Or more accurately one-size-fits-most; what took the government by surprise was the number of children turning up to school who didn’t fit the education system. Government essentially saw these ‘handicapped’ children as a problem, and its solution was to provide special schools for them. Although the solution made perfect sense, it wasn’t entirely successful. Handicapped children often ended up socially marginalised and sometimes institutionalised, and there were still children in mainstream schools who were struggling.

By the 1970s, the education system had changed considerably. There was more emphasis on an individualised education and local education authorities (LEAs), schools and teachers had a good deal of flexibility in the education they provided. The time was right for Margaret Thatcher as Secretary of State for Education to commission a review of the education of handicapped children, headed by Mary Warnock. The Warnock Committee reported in 1978. It defined special education as ‘provision not generally available in normal schools’ (p.45). In other words it saw the ‘problem’ of special education not as the children but as the educational provision available in mainstream schools. The committee’s recommendations fed into the 1981 Education Act that:

• assumed children would attend mainstream schools where possible
• did away with the old categories of handicap
• introduced the concept of ‘special educational needs’
• gave LEAs a duty to assess children’s special educational needs and to fund the additional provision required for their education.

The Act had the potential to transform the lives of children marginalised by the education system, but it clearly hasn’t done so – not in a good way, anyway. In the last 20 years we’ve had three SEN Codes of Practice, numerous inquiries, reports and tinkerings with SEN legislation and regulations. One select committee described the system as not fit for purpose. So…

what went wrong?

The Warnock recommendations were made in the context of a highly flexible education system. A contemporary account describes a fruitful collaboration between a school for children with visual impairment (VI) and a mainstream junior school, pioneered by a keen LEA officer (Hegarty & Pocklington, 1981). Children with VI were gradually integrated into the mainstream school and teachers trained each other. Everybody won.

In order to undertake such a project, LEAs, schools and teachers needed a fair amount of control over their time and budgets. Projects like this might have eventually been rolled out nationwide, except that within a decade the introduction of a compulsory national curriculum and standardised testing had begun to steer the education system back towards a one-size-fits-all approach. Within a few short years central government had essentially wrested the responsibility for education and its funding from local authorities and education had become a serious ‘political football’. Successive governments have focused on raising educational attainment as an indicator of their own effectiveness as a government and ironically that’s what’s resulted in SEN becoming a problem again in recent years.

Essentially, if you want an efficient one-size-fits-all education system and world-beating exam results it makes perfect sense to remove from the equation children who don’t fit into the system and are unlikely to do well in exams however hard everyone tries. That’s what the government did in the 1890s. If you want an education system that provides all children with an education suitable to their individual needs, you can forget about one-size-fits-all and world-beating exam results; you’ll need a lot of flexibility. That’s what the education system had developed into by the time of the Warnock committee. If you want both you’re likely to end up where we are now.

“Relativity” by MC Escher

The Warnock committee defined special educational needs in terms of the educational provision ‘generally available in normal schools’. By definition, the better the provision in normal schools, the smaller the number of children who would be deemed to have special educational needs. The committee couldn’t have emphasised the need for SEN training for all teachers more strongly if it had tried, but perversely, the education system appears to have taken a step in the opposite direction.

teacher training

The Warnock committee recommended the inclusion of SEN training in the initial teacher training (ITT) for all teachers. Following the 1981 Education Act, the assumption that many children with SEN would be taught in mainstream schools and that all teachers would be trained in SEN led to the cessation of many special needs teacher training courses. They obviously haven’t been replaced with comparable training in ITT. This, coupled with the retirement of special education teachers and a reduction of the number of children in special schools, has meant that the education system as a whole has suffered a considerable loss of SEN expertise.

Reviews of SEN provision have repeatedly reported concerns about there being insufficient emphasis on SEN in ITT. But it’s only been since 2009 that Special Educational Needs Co-ordinators (SENCOs) have been required to be trained teachers, and only new SENCOs have been required to have SEN training. The current government has allocated additional funding for SEN qualifications (para 53) but only until 2013. This isn’t going to touch the problem. DfE figures for 2011 show that only around 7% of the total education workforce has SEN experience and/or training, and most of those people are concentrated in special schools. And special schools report ongoing difficulties recruiting suitably trained staff. This, despite the fact that the Warnock report 35 years ago pointed out that based on historical data, around 20% of the school population could be expected to need additional educational provision at some time during their school career. The report made it clear that all teachers are teachers of children with special educational needs.

Teachers’ expertise, or lack of it, will have a big impact on the attainment of children with SEN, but that hasn’t prevented government from developing unrealistic targets for all children under the guise of raising aspirations.

expectations of attainment

I mentioned earlier that over the last three decades education has become a ‘political football’. Concern is often expressed over the proportion of young people who leave school functionally illiterate or innumerate or without qualifications, despite evidence that this proportion has remained pretty constant for many years. In the case of literacy, it’s remained stubbornly at around 17%, by bizarre coincidence not far from the equally stubborn 20% figure for children with SEN.

But the possibility that some of those young people might be in the position they’re in because of lack of expertise in the education system – or even because they are never going to meet government’s arbitrary attainment targets and that that might actually be OK – doesn’t seem to have occurred to successive governments. In her keynote address to the inaugural national conference of the Autism Education Trust in 2009 the then Minister for Schools and Learning Sarah McCarthy-Fry, saw no reason why young people with autism shouldn’t achieve 5 A-C grade GCSEs. Some of course might do just that. For others such an aspiration bears no relation to their ability or aptitude, part of the definition for the ‘suitable education’ each child is required, by law, to receive.

Currently, funding for post-16 education requires young people to have or be studying for A-C grade GCSEs in both English and Maths. Post-16 providers are rolling their eyes. Although I can understand the reasoning behind this requirement, it’s an arbitrary target bearing no relation to the legal definition of a suitable education.

it’s the system

Currently, local authorities, schools and teachers are under pressure from the SEN system to make personalised, specialised educational provision for a small group of children, whilst at the same time the education system as a whole is pushing them in the opposite direction, towards a one-size-fits-all approach. This is a daft way to design a system and no matter how much effort individual professionals put in, it can’t work. But it isn’t the SEN system itself that needs changing, it’s teacher expertise and government expectations.

Over recent decades, successive governments have approached education legislation (and legislation in general, for that matter) not by careful consideration of the historical data and ensuring that the whole system is designed to produce the desired outcomes, but essentially by edict. A bit of the education system is wrong, so government has decreed that it should be put right, regardless of what’s causing the problem or the impact of changing part of the system without considering the likely consequences elsewhere.

In systems theory terms, this is known as sub-system optimization at the expense of systems optimization. That mouthful basically means that because all the parts of a system are connected, if you tweak one bit of it another bit will change, but not necessarily in a good way. Policy-makers refer to the not-in-a-good-way changes as unintended and unwanted outcomes.

The new SEN legislation is a classic case of an attempt at sub-system optimization that’s doomed to fail. It requires the education, health and social care sectors to do some joined up thinking and extend the support offered to children with SEND for a further decade – until they are 25 – at a time when all three sectors are undergoing massive organisational change and simultaneously having their budgets cut. It introduces personal budgets at a time when all three sectors are changing their commissioning arrangements. It fails to address the lack of expertise in all three systems. (Recent reports have pointed out that teachers aren’t trained in SEN, GPs don’t have paediatric training and children’s social workers don’t know about child development.) It fails to address the fundamental systems design problems inherent in all three sectors; a one-size-fits-all education system, and health and social care sectors that focus on cure rather than prevention.

This approach to systems design isn’t just daft, it’s incompetent and reprehensively irresponsible. People who have made hopeful noises about the new SEN system have tended to focus on the good intentions behind the legislation. I have no doubt about the good intentions or the integrity of the ministers responsible – Sarah Teather and Edward Timpson – but they have been swimming against a strong tide. Getting through the next few years will be tough. Fortunately, in the world of SEN there’s a lot of Dunkirk spirit – we’re going to need it.

Hegarty, S & Pocklington, K (1981). A junior school resource area for the visually impaired. In Swann, W (ed.) The Practice of Special Education. Open University Press/Basil Blackwell.
Warnock, H M (1978). Report of the Committee of Enquiry into the Education of Handicapped Children and Young People. HMSO.

not enough jam: select committee report on SEN legislation

Sad person that I am, I love reading Parliamentary Select Committee reports. Select Committees don’t always get it right, but they are an example of democracy at its most transparent. Evidence, written and verbal, is presented verbatim so anyone who cares to can see how the Committee has taken evidence into account in its recommendations – and anyone can learn from the expertise and insights of witnesses. And because government responses to Select Committee reports are also published, anyone can see how much notice the government has taken of the Select Committee – and therefore of the evidence presented. Just before Christmas 2012, the UK’s House of Commons Education Select Committee produced a report on its pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft special educational needs legislation published the previous September. I want to comment on the report in the light of my previous post about upstream and downstream factors in the education system.


The first thing that struck me about this report is that it is firmly grounded in the evidence submitted by individuals and organizations involved with special educational needs; almost all the recommendations are based on information from the frontline. The second thing was that it brings a systems perspective to the draft legislation. And the third thing (I have mixed feelings about this) is that I’m not the only Cassandra out there. The impression that the report as a whole conveys is that although the government’s intention and direction of travel in reforming the SEN system is heartily welcomed, that welcome is accompanied by long list of misgivings.

In this post, I want to list some of the key misgivings that emerged from the evidence presented to the Select Committee and then look at the upstream factors that might have prompted them.


Joined-up thinking:
• no statutory duty for health or care services to provide the support specified in the Education, Health and Care (EHC) plans
• questions over how EHC plans will fit in with adult Care and Support plans.

• doubts about the capacity within the system to carry out assessments – without enough people with sufficient expertise, young people will continue to need multiple assessments from different agencies as is currently the case
• a conflict of interest if assessment and service provision are carried out by the same parties.

• lack of clarity about who is accountable to whom for what and how that accountability can be enforced.

SEN Code of practice:
• to be revised, but not as a statutory document laid before Parliament.

Children and young people falling through the net:
• concern about children who have non-educational needs (e.g. pre-schoolers, children with disabilities but not SEN, young people in supervised work placements, apprenticeships)
• concern about children currently on School Action, School Action Plus or lower Statement funding ‘bands’ levels – SA and SA+ categories will disappear.

The Local Offer:
• no minimum standard required – concern that LAs will simply provide a service directory
• no minimum requirement regarding parent participation – a risk that parent participation will be tokenistic

The task of government

As I see it, the primary task of government is to ensure the maintenance of an infrastructure that allows the community it serves to go about its lawful business without let or hindrance. That doesn’t mean government has to design the infrastructure – the evidence suggests that design is far better left to people with relevant expertise. But government does need to maintain an overview – to make sure the different parts of the infrastructure interact effectively, to legislate in order to resolve conflict and to ensure the community’s cash isn’t wasted. Government departments have different areas of responsibility and one of the tasks of the Prime Minister or his/her office should be to ensure that those departments interact effectively. This is a thankless and difficult task and conflict between government departments is unlikely ever to be eradicated, but someone, somewhere needs to have oversight of what’s going on in different departments to ensure that government policy is coherent – that legislation drawn up by one department isn’t going to conflict with legislation drawn up by another, or that budgets aren’t going to scupper policy. Unfortunately, in the case of the draft SEN legislation, this doesn’t appear to have happened.

The biggest reform in SEN legislation for 30 years is being introduced at the same time as the NHS is undergoing the biggest structural change in its history, the school leaving age is being raised to 18, school funding is changing to reflect the increasing autonomy of schools and public sector budgets are being cut year-on-year for the foreseeable future. The SEN legislation rests on several assumptions about the way other public sector services will be working. But no one actually knows how they’ll be working. Witness after witness drew the Committee’s attention to the large number of ‘unknowns’ in the proposed SEN equation.

Sub-system optimization

The SEN legislation is a perfect example of what’s known as sub-system optimization at the expense of whole system optimization. In other words, the proposed SEN sub-system on its own might be great; but the SEN sub-system doesn’t exist on its own, it interacts with several other systems many of which are also undergoing change. Re-designing a service so that it works effectively is a challenging task and one that’s best undertaken by a team of people who have expertise in different aspects of the service, in consultation with a wide range of those working at the front-line – including service users. The reason for this is not to ensure that all parties feel they have been consulted, but to avoid the unforeseen and unwanted outcomes of poorly designed legislation that often end up as part of the judiciary’s caseload. Large-scale or rapid structural changes should be undertaken only when absolutely necessary otherwise there is a big risk of costly knock-on outcomes elsewhere. Over recent decades, the speed with which legislation is introduced seems to have gathered pace. This is certainly true for special educational needs legislation.

The Warnock Committee responsible for the previous re-design of SEN provision was set up in 1974 and consisted of 27 members. Its terms of reference were as follows;

To review educational provision in England, Scotland and Wales for children and
young people handicapped by disabilities of body or mind, taking account of the medical
aspects of their needs, together with arrangements to prepare them for entry into
employment; to consider the most effective use of resources for these purposes; and to
make recommendations

The Committee took nearly four years to report and legislation based on its recommendations wasn’t enacted until 1981. The recent equivalent was the Lamb Inquiry. Its Expert Advisers Group had six members (although it had a larger Reference Group). It was commissioned in 2008 in response to Select Committee reports critical of SEN provision published in 2006 and 2007, reported in 2009 and its recommendations have prompted legislation that has been drafted before pathfinder local authorities’ pilot studies are complete. Its terms of reference are very different from those of the Warnock Committee, focusing on parental confidence in the SEN system:-

In formulating their advice, the Inquiry would:
● consider whether increasing parental confidence could be best achieved by:
–making the provision of educational psychology advice ‘arm’s length’ from
local authorities;
– sharing best practice in developing good relationships between the
authority and parents, through effective Parent Partnership Services and
other local mechanisms;
– effective practice by schools and local authorities in meeting the needs of
children at School Action Plus;
– developing the ‘team around the child’ approach in the school stages;
– other innovative proposals;
● commission and evaluate innovative projects, in the areas identified, that can
demonstrate the impact on parental confidence of a particular approach;
● draw on the evidence of other work currently commissioned by the
● take into account the evidence of the submissions to the two Select
Committee Reports in 2006 and 2007.

In 1981, the changes resulting from the Warnock report would have been applied to a fairly flexible education system – it would have been up to individual schools or local authorities how implementation took place. A decade later, a compulsory national curriculum and standardized testing had completely transformed that educational landscape. Ironically, the SEN reforms had been both introduced and undermined by changes to the wider education system by the same person – Margaret Thatcher. The constraints imposed on schools and local authorities by performance indicators have led to unforeseen and unwanted outcomes for children with SEN.

Unforseen and unwanted outcomes

The recent Select Committee report draws attention, for example, to the disincentives in the education system for schools to educate children with special needs. The NASUWT cites the case of the flagship Mossbourne Academy in Hackney (founding principal Sir Michael Wilshaw, currently Chief Inspector of Schools) where parents have successfully challenged the school in relation to admission of pupils with SEN. My attempts to find a reference to ‘special educational needs’ on Mossbourne’s website met with failure – as they did on a number of websites for secondary schools in my local area. This might be because the search function on the websites doesn’t work – but frankly, I doubt that’s the cause.

In addition, giving schools increased autonomy and removing them from local authority control has resulted in a lack of clarity about who’s responsible for what and to whom. Edward Timpson, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education assured the Committee that

all schools will have a vested interest in ensuring that the services that they have available are part of the local offer. Parents will be able to hold them to account for whether they do or they do not” (para.138)

I suspect the Committee wasn’t assured, since this means that the only way for parents to ultimately hold schools to account will involve taking legal action against them – which many parents will be unable or unwilling to do.

In short, making sure that a suitable education is available to all children and that schools actually provide that education is no longer safeguarded in the design of the system – by, for example, ensuring that all education providers have ready access to relevant expertise and resources and that there’s a clear pathway of accountability that doesn’t require parents to resort to legal action. Instead, government appears to see its role as having good intentions.

In response to the Select Committee’s suggestion that the draft clauses in the legislation lacked substance the Minister stated;

“I am confident—and it is borne out in many of the conversations I have already had with many of those who played a part in bringing it together—that it does illustrate, very clearly, the ambition of this Government and many other people to ensure that the system we move to is a vast improvement on the previous system” (para.13)

That might be perfectly true, but ‘ambition’ isn’t all that’s required to design and run an education system, health or care service. As I see it, over recent decades governments have become increasingly involved in the design of public sector services for political reasons, but are reluctant to take responsibility for flaws in the design of those systems – flaws that are unsurprising given the unavoidable lack of relevant expertise of government ministers and their special advisers.

Upstream factors

I said I’d look at upstream and downstream issues. Not surprisingly, the factors I flagged in my previous post – lack of expertise, insufficient resources and capacity and inadequate needs analysis, cropped up in the evidence submitted to the Select Committee.

Expertise The NUT drew attention to the fact that schools were already reporting difficulties accessing specialist advice regarding children with School Action or School Action Plus support, implying that at least some teachers don’t currently have the expertise required to support children at these levels. Witnesses also asked for the legislation to require SENCOs to have appropriate training.

Resources and capacity The difficulties experienced in accessing specialist advice suggest some local authorities are already cutting back on support services. One headteacher had been told by her local authority that children currently with lower band Statement funding would not be eligible for EHC plans. Funding cuts across the public sector have significant implications for the viability of the SEN proposals.

Needs analysis The task of local authorities is, and always has been, to provide services that meet the needs of the local population. By now, LAs should have accumulated sufficient information about the needs of local children to have a reasonably accurate idea about what services those children need. But currently, many LAs prioritise the needs of children with severe difficulties, suggesting that services are not based on need, but on budgets. The NHS hasn’t been around for as long as local authorities, but 60 years is quite long enough to have formed a good awareness of what children’s needs are. But long waits for diagnoses, to see specialists or get wheelchairs suggest that again, children’s healthcare is based on budgetary considerations rather than needs.

Not enough jam

In a letter to the Education Select Committee, Sarah Teather, responsible for the Green Paper that initially set out the proposals for change to the SEN system, asked whether there was ‘a case for extending the scope of the integrated provision requirement to all children and young people, including those with SEN’ (para.73). The consensus amongst witnesses was that doing this would mean ‘spreading the jam too thinly’.

One can appreciate concerns about limited resources being diverted from those who need them most, but this response does beg a couple of questions: The first is ‘Why are children categorized as those who need jam or those who don’t?’ Difficulties that require educational, health or social support are distributed across the population and vary during the lifetime of the individual – some children need more support than others and some might need support at some times but not at others. In other words, all children need access to the jam, even if they never need the jam itself. The second question is ‘Is there enough jam in the pot?’ If service design is based on the outcomes of a needs analysis, there should be. If service design is based on budgets, then assessments determine children’s eligibility for support, not what their needs are. And if there isn’t enough support to go round, this means that there are likely to be children who need support but who aren’t getting it.

The saying ‘children are our future’ might sound trite, but it’s still true. Child abuse by individuals has, rightly, received a great deal of attention in recent years. But public sector systems that withhold support from children who need it is also abusive and needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. Treating children with special educational needs and disabilities as second-class citizens is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

First posted in January 2013 at https://logicalincrementalism.wordpress.com/2013/01/04/not-enough-jam-select-committee-report-on-sen-legislation/


the dead sheep in the stream and new special needs legislation

Many years ago, on a walking holiday in the Lake District with friends, the conversation turned to how clean the water in the mountain streams might be. One of the more intrepid members of our party said; “So it would be OK for me to drink this?” “Probably,” replied an experienced fell-walker, “But not if there’s a dead sheep in the beck higher up.”

mountain stream

I was reminded of this incident by my local parent carer group newsletter. It included a couple of articles about the proposed legislative changes for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). The proposals include;

• joint planning and commissioning of services by local authorities and Clinical Commissioning Groups
• individual support specified in a single Education, Health and Care (EHC) Plan
• support extended to age 25 and
• that families of children with EHC plans should have the option of a personal budget.

The proposals have, overall, been welcomed. However, concerns have also been expressed.

The changes were first put forward in March 2011 in a Green Paper entitled “Support and aspiration: A new approach to special educational needs and disability”. I was involved in several groups that responded to the consultation that followed and the general feeling was that it was difficult to comment on the proposals because they hadn’t been set out in enough detail. The Department for Education’s response to the consultation, “Support and aspiration: A new approach to special educational needs and disability – progress and next steps” was published in May 2012 and draft legislation was published in September. The Department for Education appointed 20 pathfinder authorities to pilot and evaluate the proposed changes, with a final evaluation due in the summer of 2013 – almost a year later. Queries about how the proposals would be implemented were generally greeted with advice to wait for the pathfinder reports. In the event, not surprisingly, the pathfinder evaluation has been extended and it is likely that the legislative programme will be delayed until after the final pathfinder evaluation is published.

In discussions about these changes, I’ve felt like a Cassandra, prophesying doom and gloom whilst many around me have remained relentlessly upbeat. After all, the fact that there’s a SEND Bill at all shows that the government recognizes there are problems with the current system, and the proposals show that the DfE knows what the biggest ones are. Many children are likely to benefit from the changes. But in my view the proposals merely tweak problems caused by much more fundamental factors in the system, and that if these factors aren’t addressed, the current set of problems will simply be exchanged for another. One parent I sat next to in a consultation meeting kept saying “At least it couldn’t be worse than the current system.” Well, actually it could. It could be like the situation before the Warnock report in 1978, which recognized that many able children were denied a suitable education because of a physical disability, and many less able children were considered ineducable. Or, as I suggested, the legislation might result in a different set of problems.

Core components of a service

A service – whatever it is and whoever it’s for – has to have several core components. First, expertise. The people offering the service need to know how to accurately assess their clients’ needs and how best to meet them. Second, capacity and resources. An effective service will need enough people with the right expertise and sufficient equipment, materials, buildings etc. Thirdly, before designing the system the service will need to carry out a requirements analysis for all the people who need the service – described as a needs analysis in the case of children with SEND. No service has an unlimited budget, so once planners and commissioners know what the needs are, they can decide what expertise and resources are going to be most cost effective and what service users can probably manage without. This might seem self-evident and appear to be what central and local government are doing already, but since the current system of support for children with SEND clearly isn’t working – and I would argue that it has never worked, in terms of ensuring that most children with SEND achieve their full potential – there must be something going wrong somewhere.

What’s going wrong?

The Department for Education seems to have decided that the problem lies in the way support services are planned, commissioned and delivered. Planning and commissioning aren’t joined up enough, despite local authorities having integrated children’s services for nearly a decade. The process of statutory assessment is too cumbersome and takes too long, even though in principle assessments could be completed within weeks, rather than months. Support doesn’t go on for long enough, despite adult services being available. Local authorities aren’t allocating finance in the most effective way, even though it’s their job to do so. Consequently, the planning, commissioning and delivery of the system are being changed. Since the people who designed the current system presumably thought it would work, and viable processes for planning, commissioning and delivery are already in place, a key question does not appear to have been asked; what made the system go wrong in the first place?

The dead sheep in the stream

This is where the sheep in the stream analogy comes in. Imagine that you live in a farmhouse at the foot of a mountain. The farm is too remote for a mains water supply and for three hundred years the inhabitants have relied on water from a stream fed by a spring halfway up the mountainside. The purity of the water is renowned locally and the only problem has been that the stream flows sluggishly during extreme droughts. Then one day everyone at the farm gets sick. The illness is identified as water-borne and further investigation reveals the source – the body of a sheep in the stream just below the spring, hidden in a densely wooded area. The farming family is advised to boil their drinking water or install a purification unit; but they might not need to do anything involving that level of inconvenience or expense. It would be simpler to remove the body of the sheep from the stream and let the water flow for a couple of days.  Then the farmers could continue drinking the spring water for the next three hundred years without mishap – provided no more bodies end up in the stream.

Requiring local authorities to undertake joint planning and commissioning, implementing EHC plans, extending children’s services to 25 and providing personal budgets are all the equivalent of the farming family boiling their drinking water or installing a purification unit – while there’s still a dead sheep in the stream. So what’s the equivalent of the sheep? I’d say it was a problem with each of the three components of service provision I mentioned earlier – expertise, capacity and resources, and requirements analysis – not downstream in the system near the point of delivery where most of the amendments are taking place, but further upstream.


First, let’s look at expertise. Recent independent reports have indicated a lack of expertise with regard to children in the education (Lamb, 2009), health (Kennedy, 2010) and social care (Munro, 2011) sectors. Despite the Warnock recommendation that children with SEND be taught in mainstream schools where possible being implemented since 1978, it’s only since 2009 that teachers have been required to have any SEN training and that new special educational needs co-ordinators (SENCOs) have had to be qualified teachers. Teaching Assistants (TAs), who now make up around 25% of the mainstream school workforce, are generally not qualified teachers and don’t necessarily have any educational training, but are often the people who spend most time with children with SEN. A recent study (Webster & Blatchford, 2012) revealed that teachers aren’t usually trained to work with TAs, so many TAs are having to work ‘on the hoof’ in the classroom with little or no preparation with a child with learning or behavioural problems. The study found that when TAs worked with the rest of the class for part of the lesson so teachers could spend time with the children with SEN, the achievement of the pupils improved and teachers understood their learning difficulties better. What’s puzzling is how this situation arose in the first place. Here’s an extract from a piece about SENCO training published in the Times Educational Supplement in May 2009.

The [training] courses have been set up to address serious concerns about the perceived “low status” of Sencos and to raise the profile of special needs and disabilities in schools.”

I find it intriguing that although the professional status of SENCOs and poor awareness of special educational needs might be relevant issues, the TES reporter frames SENCO training in those terms of rather than in terms of the expertise required to help all children learn. What does this say about perceptions of SEN?

Capacity and resources

A second factor is capacity and resources; I’ll talk about capacity first. A recurring problem for parents of children with SEND is how long it takes to see professionals who can carry out assessments. Often all that children get is repeated assessments; because of limited service capacity sometimes parents (and occasionally teachers) are expected to implement therapies even though they have no idea what might be causing the child’s problems or what outcomes to expect. Another recent report (Bercow, 2008) suggested that speech and language therapy in England was a postcode lottery, and there doesn’t seem to have been a significant improvement since then. The British Psychological Society has expressed concerns (not for the first time) about cuts in the number of educational psychologists employed by local authorities. And if you google ‘shortage occupational therapist’ you’ll find reports from various parts of the globe. Then there’s resources. Parents report problems getting wheelchairs and large nappies; even the NHS website says that there might be a waiting list for assessments (waits for the actual wheelchair aren’t even mentioned). My local occupational therapy service apologized for the delay in providing therapy for my son. One problem was that they hadn’t been able to access his school to show teachers how to integrate exercises into his school day. Another obstacle was that because their equipment takes an hour to put up and an hour to dismantle, the only time they were able to book a room large enough and available for long enough for them to treat several children in one day was during the school summer holidays.

Requirements analysis

And then there’s the requirements analysis. Under the 1989 Children Act, local authorities are required to keep a register of children with disabilities. This should provide the information they need to enable them to design support services. The register is a voluntary one in the sense that parents volunteer information about their children, and there are obviously questions over what qualifies as a disability, so at best such a register is only going to provide approximate information about the needs of children with disabilities in a given locality. But an approximation is all that’s required. In the past twenty years, it should have been possible to form a fairly accurate picture of local needs, trends over time, and year-to-year fluctuations. But judging by recent reports, support for children with SEND has been getting worse, rather than better. So what’s gone wrong?

I suggest that because education, health and social care systems have been evolving piecemeal during this time, national government initiatives have cut across local authorities’ ability to use data to design effective services. For example, following the Warnock report in 1978, local authorities were encouraged to educate children with disabilities in mainstream schools where possible. An inspiring example of this is the collaboration between a mainstream junior school and a school for children with visual impairment described by Hegarty and Pocklington (1981). At that time, local authorities and individual schools had complete control over such initiatives. Then in 1988, the Education Reform Act introduced a compulsory national curriculum, followed in 1991 by national curriculum assessments, commonly known as SATs. Although there might have been good reasons for introducing both, they have each had an impact on the Warnock recommendation for the inclusion of SEND pupils in mainstream schools. If the performance of schools is assessed by pupils’ performance in standardized tests, systems pressures will inevitably lead to a tendency to marginalize pupils with SEND, either overtly – by schools discouraging admittance or by formal or informal exclusions – or covertly by simply not allocating sufficient resources to their education. Add to this the absence of SEN from initial teacher training and the reduction in SEN expertise within the education system as a whole due to a focus on children within the normal range and the closure of special schools, and no amount of tinkering with statutory assessments or who holds budgets will be able to compensate.

Failure demand

Overlooking shortcomings in factors that are upstream in a system means that whatever you do to problems downstream, they won’t get fixed. In fact the upstream issues create the need for further resources that wouldn’t be needed if the upstream problems were fixed. This phenomenon is what John Seddon calls failure demand – demand created solely by failures of system design. A common failure demand in the case of children with SEND is that avoiding early intervention in an attempt to reduce costs often means that simple problems become complex ones, requiring expensive interventions later on. Not to mention the sometimes permanent damage done to a child’s development and self-esteem, and the time wasted by teachers, parents and professionals trying to get problems resolved in the meantime. Providing sufficient resources to meet needs in a timely manner might not cost more; in fact, once failure demand is eliminated, costs usually go down.

In short, until teachers, healthcare and social care professionals are trained to meet the needs of all children (not just those within the middle range), until there are enough people with that training working within the education, health and social care sectors, and until there are enough materials, equipment and space available to meet the needs of all children, the needs of all children will not, and cannot be met.


Hegarty S. and Pocklington K. (1981). “A junior school resource area for the visually impaired” in W. Swann (Ed.) The Practice of Special Education, Basil Blackwell/Open University Press.

Webster R. & Blatchford P. (2012). “Supporting learning?:.How effective are teaching assistants?” in P. Adey & J. Dillon (Eds.) Bad Education: Debunking myths in education, McGraw Hill.


Photograph: Tullynaglack, Donegal, copyright Louise Price, used under Creative Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mountain_stream,_Tullynaglack_-_geograph.org.uk_-_974248.jpg

First posted in December 2012 at https://logicalincrementalism.wordpress.com/2012/12/14/160/ and edited for clarity.

what we learn in school

More years ago than I care to remember I taught, briefly, at a parent controlled school – along the lines of Michael Gove’s free schools, but in those days parents had to stump up the cash themselves. One of my first tasks was to draft a curriculum. The experience stood me in good stead when I found myself educating both my children at home.

What had concerned me most about my children’s education at school was not so much what they knew or didn’t know but what they understood about the world they live in. As my eldest put it; “We were taught about the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans, but I never understood why, or what they had to do with each other.”

After some trial-and-error (the standard school timetable was a non-starter) we adopted the history of the universe as a narrative spine for our learning. We started with the Big Bang and proceeded from there. We made a timeline of the universe that stretched the length of the house. The periodic table filled one wall of our dining room and the rest of our home was festooned with posters from the excellent Edugraphics. We found out what life must have been like for the young Mendeleev and for the inhabitants of Darmstadt during WWII. We studied evolution and creation stories, unearthed skulls with Leakey and watched our distant ancestors farm and develop city-states. My youngest returned to school just after the fall of the Roman Empire. I must remember to let him know what happened next.

Few teachers would think of introducing an eight year-old with special educational needs to sub-atomic theory, but for my son, that knowledge made sense of everything. Once you have a basic deep structure understanding of the connection between energy and matter, how elements interact, what DNA does, how brains process information and how people tend to behave, you have a broad framework into which all new surface features of knowledge fit. So new knowledge, whatever it is, makes sense.

But the school curriculum (in the UK at least) tends not to start from first principles. It usually begins – understandably and justifiably – with building on young children’s existing knowledge (My Family, Our Town, sand and water play). It’s later dominated by the requirements of academia. What undergraduates are required to know largely determines the content of A level courses, which in turn determines what is learned at GCSE level and so on. Add to the mix what politicians or other interested parties believe children should learn and you have a curriculum that is derived neither from the deep structure of knowledge nor from how children learn.

Using deep structure as a starting point has a number of advantages. It enables you to understand:

-how everything is related to everything else (however distantly)
-how skills and knowledge are related
-the importance and relevance of different skills and different types of knowledge

Schools have always had a problem with non-academic skills like plumbing or painting and decorating, partly because they are non-academic skills but also because of their social status. Because fewer people have the skills needed to become lawyers or doctors, these professions command high salaries and high status. Schools tend to measure their success by the number of their graduates who go into high status professions. Not on how happy those graduates are with their work or how useful they are to their communities.

We are frequently reminded that our knowledge about the world is growing at an exponential rate and that specialists can’t hope to keep on top of their own field, never mind others. This has led to increasing specialization and as a consequence there is pressure on the school curriculum to become fragmented and unconnected. Increased specalisation might be inevitable but it doesn’t follow that economists don’t need to understand human behaviour, or that doctors don’t need to grasp the principles of nutrition or that journalists don’t need to know how the brain works. Nor that it’s OK for politicians to understand only politics and not the principles that link everything together.

First published on 29 March 2012 at https://logicalincrementalism.wordpress.com/