This time last year, I found myself passing a primary school sports day. There was the usual air of delightful chaos. Parents were chatting, and not being over-competitive for their children or in the dads’ race. It was one of those happy, informal school events that are a joy to behold.
Until I recognised one little boy, Jason, whom I knew a little through his mum. Aged 8, and autistic, he’s one of those children who cannot cope with noise, and certainly not with the merry mayhem of a sports day.
Jason was cowering behind his mother, as uncomfortable as any child could be, short of throwing a tantrum.
“Well,” we might say, “at least he was there, being part of it.”
But he wasn’t part of it. He was inhabiting his own private hell, and entirely excluded. He was present (a tick in the attendance register), but experiencing only misery.
Isolated in school
Jason frequently wasn’t at school, partly because of his refusal to attend (which I’d term his inability to cope with school) and partly because, when he wasn’t coping or, indeed, whenever the school was short of a teaching assistant to mind him (which was effectively all they did), the rural primary school would ask mum or dad to come and collect him. It wasn’t a formal exclusion, just “better if he has some time at home today”.
Jason’s parents had been battling to get adequate cognitive assessments done. He seemed academically able: he could do calculations, but didn’t know where to start when faced with pages full of similar sums. There was a fight to get a proper Education, Health and Care Plan and, when that was finally achieved, another to persuade the school to act on even some of the recommendations. Meanwhile, meetings called by the school – with the Sendco, headteacher, class teacher, local-authority attendance officer, team around the family – would be arranged and then abruptly cancelled.
Before I moved away and lost touch with that family, I think things were improving. But I’m not betting that school will work out for Jason long-term.
Lack of training in SEND
Though I instinctively spring to schools’ defence, I cannot do so on occasions when pupils like Jason are badly treated. That real example, under a pseudonym, is replicated up and down the country. Many of these shortcomings stem from underfunding and lack of alternative provision, and some from the fact that too many schools still lack skills and training in SEND.
I was reminded of Jason while reading about Edward Timpson’s recent session with the Commons Education Select Committee. The admirable Timpson family know more than most about the plight of excluded and vulnerable children, having fostered them for decades. The Timpson Review is authoritative, and the government has promised to implement all of its 30 recommendations.
The demand for earlier intervention is welcome, but I worry about holding schools responsible for the results of any children they exclude, their outcomes forming part of their performance tables.
It sounds logical enough. However, like the whole of our benchmark-related accountability system, it presumes that all children should achieve the same, if we just level the playing field.
Don’t misunderstand me here. I’m not saying that we should remove all challenge from the lives of children with SEND, or lower our expectations for them.
Nonetheless, requiring schools to hold on to those children who find it so hard to fit in, and to record their results, risks seeing more Jasons forced into situations more inimical than sports days. Square pegs will be not so much squeezed as hammered into round holes. The misery currently heaped on post-16 students obliged to keep resitting maths GCSE, reinforcing their failure and successive results decline, gives a hint of what we might see more widely.
Our high-stakes, results-driven accountability system creates perverse incentives that lead some schools to behave unethically: off-rolling “problem” pupils, for example. I fear that the Timpson suggestion, entirely well-intentioned, will load still more pressure on to schools. Rather than preventing wrong behaviours, past history and the law of unintended consequences suggest it’s more likely to create further perverse incentives, and give rise to more problems than it will solve.
Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher. He tweets @bernardtrafford