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Out of the shadow

It is not where children go to school that matters, but how they are taught, writes Karen Gold

How can the child be let in on the secret without telling them the answer?"

That conundrum, formulated by Dr Derek Bell, chief executive of the Association for Science Education, hovers around any discussion about teaching children with moderate learning difficulties. For those with MLD, the largest single group of children with special needs in the school system, the question, say experts, when their identity and needs are ill-defined and often neglected, is what do we teach them and how best do we teach it?


It used to be clear who the children with MLD were. They were the ones scoring between 55 and 70 points (average intelligence = 100) on IQ tests.

Then IQ tests fell out of fashion, and interest in learning styles came in.

The outcome was a much better understanding and teaching of those children in the below-average IQ range with an idiosyncratic learning style: children with Down Syndrome (visual learners) or with autism (concrete learners), for example.

The children left behind - and they comprise almost 30 per cent of all children with special needs - are those who simply, and rather unglamorously, appear to think and learn in the same way everybody else does, only much less efficiently.

The result of this, says Brahm Norwich, professor of SEN at Exeter University and author of a recent book on MLD, has been to blur the boundaries of what once was a very precise category. Children defined as having MLD today may have IQs some way below or above the old 55-70 boundary. Their difficulties may stem from genetic, physiological or environmental factors: some researchers argue that since MLD so often goes hand in hand with an impoverished background, it should be categorised as a social, not an educational special need at all. They may have additional language difficulties (60 per cent do) or emotional and behavioural difficulties (16 per cent do: rather fewer than might be assumed).

What they are not is slow learners who can cope with the national curriculum, slowly. Slow learners will, for example, reach level 3 at the end of keystage 2. Children with MLD, always easier to define by what they are not and will not do, rather than what they are and will, may end key stage 2 still at level 1.

The official 2003 government definition of MLD also rests on negatives.

Children with MLD, it says, will not achieve age-related expected levels, despite teaching interventions. They will struggle to acquire basic skills and understand concepts. They are quite likely not to have adequate speech and language, self-esteem, concentration or social skills.

Above all, it says, "needs will not be able to be met by normal differentiation and the flexibilities of the national curriculum". In other words, what suits the general run of children will not suit them. And yet, says Brahm Norwich, what these children frequently get is "a sort of benign overlooking, either when schools focus on those with more severe difficulties, or because schools only focus on them when they become disaffected".


How obvious should we make it to children with MLD that their abilities are not within academic norms? It's a question at the heart of the still on-going controversy about what inclusion means for them. (Increasingly, they attend mainstream schools, but whether they should is still highly-contested by parents and special school staff.) Recent research by Professor Norwich and others showed that children with MLD who went to special schools had a more positive view of their own academic performance than did MLD children in mainstream schools. He says:

"They were bigger fish in a smaller pond."

That might suggest that these children's always fragile self-esteem would be better protected in special schools. Yet the story is not so simple.

Professor Norwich also found that MLD children in mainstream schools did not have lower self-esteem than those in special schools. What they had was a mixed view of themselves. They knew they were at the bottom of the academic pile, but they believed they still had value. A perspective, which, advocates of mainstream schooling would argue, bodes better for their future in the real world.


The answer is that it probably matters more what happens to these children than where. They need a nurturing environment, with many opportunities to succeed: in their own academic progress, in music, sport and art, in friendships, in serving the school or wider community. Every little achievement needs praise.

Some of the time, wherever they are, they also undoubtedly need separate teaching. Even the most inclusive primary schools will split them off, usually with a specialist SEN teacher, for the literacy and numeracy hours.

"However, in secondary school," says Felicity Fletcher-Campbell, principal research officer at the National Foundation for Educational Research, "so often these children get lumped in the bottom set, alongside children with behaviour difficulties. They might do better outside the classroom, in a small, quiet group with a good teaching assistant, rather than tagging along."

In fact, smaller groups suit these children for many reasons. Children with MLD are very "outer directed", says Derek Bell: "They appear to become over-reliant on the opinions and behaviour of others, and very reluctant to use their own judgment and reasoning."

Partly, he adds, this is due to lack of self-confidence. In a small group they can be helped to think more independently. But they can also be protected from their own tendency to immaturity, so they do not become either shadowy or easily led into trouble.

And above all, they may be less vulnerable to bullying. A shocking 83 per cent of the MLD children in Professor Norwich's study, across special and mainstream schools, reported having been bullied, mostly by name-calling.

These children face daily taunts that they are "stupid" and "thick".

Although the charity Mencap produces anti-bullying posters and materials on learning difficulties (as well as a free pack, Listen Up, designed to help schools encourage children to assert their rights) in general, says Professor Norwich, the glaring absence of learning difficulties within schools' anti-bullying materials is remarkable. Materials about gender and ethnicity abound. Most children know it is wrong to be sexist or racist.

Many seem not to know that it is also wrong to call someone thick.


Given their vulnerability, say researchers, it becomes clear that what these children need is a very personalised and detailed map of what they are learning and how, where and alongside whom they learn it. Are they in the bottom set all day long? What does that do for them socially? Where do they experience respect and success? Do they simply move through the day from one simplified worksheet to another, "included" in the same subject matter as the rest of the class, but never work on a coherent curriculum and, even more important, skills development, which are tailored to their needs?

What does each child with MLD know? What can they understand and do now? What step could they take next? Schools which scrutinise individual children with those questions in mind would probably come up with a curriculum including literacy and numeracy, thinking skills, problem-solving, and personal and social skills, he says. Then they could start to think about how to teach it. And that doesn't mean an individual education plan, he adds: "My view is the IEP system doesn't help these children at all, because the IEP is seen as supplementary to the curriculum. It's three targets to work on over three to six months, but it doesn't touch the curriculum itself."


A good starting point when planning for these children, says Rona Tutt, former MLD special school head, is to think of them as substantially younger than their chronological age, and to give them the time, experience and materials you would give that younger child: "It's no good talking to them at length: they need something practical to help them grasp an idea.

They need to feel, touch, explore things and have time to talk about them."

Their short attention span means activities need fragmenting. It also means they tolerate more repetition than other children. Good teaching for them means presenting the same concept or practising the same skill in different ways.

The problem with these principles arises when students become conscious of how they appear to others. No child wants to be seen working with "babyish"

materials, even though tangible objects may be essential even for older students to grasp principles of number. Secondary-aged boys are particularly difficult: Brahm Norwich's study showed they most resented being segregated (as they saw it) in special schools, but were also most resistant to receiving help in a mainstream classroom. They couldn't bear to be different.


Ideas for inventive teaching within these tricky parameters are often found within subject associations. Start by looking at how these children communicate what they do understand, says Derek Bell: "These children may show knowledge by doing rather than saying things. It's important to be sensitive to that, so you can help them express their knowledge verbally or in some other form.

"Sometimes that means a change in teaching style. Open questions, for example, are not helpful. If you say to a child with MLD 'Here's such and such, what do you think is going to happen?' they will look blank. They may not have any experience of it. They may not understand what you're saying or what you want. They can't make the links.

"If you say 'How do you think you can make this bulb light up?' they're going to struggle. But if you say 'If I put this wire in there do you think the bulb will light up?' there's a yes or no answer. Then say 'Let's try it'. These children need a mini-scaffold helping them go further each time with their explanation."


Small steps improvement continues well beyond the age of 16, says Will Spurgeon, head of Marshfields special school in Peterborough. Seventeen and 18-year-old students make substantial strides in literacy and numeracy in his sixth form, as well as in life skills, he says. "Lots of Year 10 students can't wait to leave school. But when they do work experience in Year 11 they realise the gap between what the job demands and what they can offer. They come back wanting to learn more."

Finding the right qualifications for them is delicate. GCSEs at anything but entry level are generally too hard; the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's "P" scales generally too easy. One difficulty is that no one has yet used the Government's individualised pupil data to see what MLD students are achieving, either between key stages (a value-added measure) or on exit. So no one knows what they can do.

What we do know is that their post-school prospects are often bleak. Few go into open employment. Some enter a college "merry-go-round". Many fade from work and study statistics, reappearing in social exclusion ones. But not all.

With planning and tailored provision these students too can excel, says Will Spurgeon: "We had one young man taken on by Sainsbury's. After a while, he'd won their employee of the month award so often they had to ban him from the competition to give everybody else a chance."


Association for Science Education runs courses on inclusion, teaching science to children with SEN:


Design and Technology Association:

Inclusive Science and Special Educational Needs:

Languages and SEN bulletin published by CILT:

Cilt's discussion forum on teaching mfl to pupils with SEN:

Moderate Learning Difficulties and the Future of Inclusion, by Brahm Norwich and Narcie Kelly (RoutledgeFalmer pound;21.99).

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