How did your Christmas assembly go? Now retired, I didn’t have to prepare one this year. But in my time I did 27 of them.
I’m not talking about a formal carol service, nor a nativity play (with or without lobsters at the manger, as with Love Actually). I mean that end-of-term school gathering where a couple of carols or Christmas songs might be sung, and the headteacher or another well-intentioned colleague attempts to attach some relevant present-day meaning to the Christmas story.
I recall my deputy tactfully observing that I’d over-stressed the physical discomfort of a nine-month-pregnant mother travelling from Galilee to Bethlehem on donkey-back. I forget now why I’d set off on that particular empathetic track.
Besides, there are easier parallels for that heroic assembly taker to identify. Mary and Joseph, ordered by an occupying power to travel to Joseph’s birthplace to complete the census: it’s curiously comforting that, even 2,000 years ago, a sprawling empire spawned such bureaucracy. The couple failing to find anywhere to stay in Bethlehem resonates amid the current, shocking level of homelessness in the UK and offers many moral lessons. Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus, obliged to flee King Herod’s wrath (cue feeble jokes about the flight into Egypt being captained by Pontius the Pilot): there are endless parallels to be drawn with present-day migrants and refugees.
I suspect my Christmas homilies were painfully predictable. On the other hand, trying to be trendy or different in a season so tradition-bound tends only to irritate.
So in the spirit of such assemblies, let me compare the account of the Bethlehem baby with another group of children – one that has been excluded, disadvantaged, and which is suffering official prejudice. A report in the Times last Saturday described how “Councils put illegal blocks on help for special needs pupils”. The paper’s investigation found “unlawful or misleading information about the criteria for applying for an EHCP [education, health and care plan] on the websites of 12 local authorities or in letters written by the authorities to parents”.
It makes alarming reading; sadly, no one working in education will be surprised. Working in special needs for 20 years, much of that time as a special educational needs and disabilities coordinator, my wife frequently battled local authorities who seemingly went out of their way to deny support to children who were entitled to it.
The Times article cited Shropshire council as requiring schools applying for an assessment for a child “to provide 12 pieces of information, including a report from an educational psychologist”. None of these is required by law so why is that council setting its bar so high?
Of course, councils are in dire straits, with funding for all services slashed. Yet, people working in the field invariably describe council officials reacting as if they’re being asked to dip into their own pockets to fund support for children with SEND, prevaricating and blocking for as long as they can. Occasionally my wife would give evidence at tribunals, which invariably found in the family’s favour. More often, though, officials settled the dispute at the last second, at the door of the courtroom.
Nowadays mediation is the preferred route: less expensive, but not cost-free. Again, it seems it’s only at that formal process that councils finally agree to do their duty.
This behaviour, by the way, bears no correlation to councils’ political complexion. Horror stories emerge from those controlled by right and left alike.
The education secretary Damian Hinds' £350 million Christmas handout to support SEND is welcome. Such a sum must surely help. But the system doesn’t just need more money. To function properly, and to meet its moral and practical obligations, it requires root-and-branch review to ensure that the processes act for the benefit of the children who need support, not as a means of delaying action and leading desperate families a frustrating and harrowing procedural dance.
Above all, what’s needed is a genuine change of heart; maybe listening to our heart is another thing the Christmas story can teach us.
Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher. He tweets at @bernardtrafford