Be amazed - I think Ofsted is right

8th October 2010 at 01:00

Recently, we learned that Ofsted thinks schools have an abundance of special needs children because the quality of teaching isn't up to scratch and lessons aren't very interesting. Well, I think Ofsted may have a point. But before you reach for your pen to blast off an angry "Mike's Gone Mad" letter, let me explain where I'm coming from.

Regular readers will be aware I'm not a fan of Ofsted. It is an organisation that has done a great deal of damage. It has caused good teachers and leaders to leave the profession in anger and despair, promoted the view that all schools can be judged by the same parameters and employed many inspectors of doubtful ability. And since its brief isn't to give useful advice even if it had any, it has obediently bowed to the previous government's mantra of data gathering and box ticking.

But... it can't be denied that the number of children deemed to have "special needs", particularly in primary schools, is rising relentlessly. And I think there are clearly defined reasons.

The educational psychologist who visits our school was chatting recently to our Senco over a coffee. Despite our school being in a challenging environment, he was trying to work out why we only made a handful of referrals to him. In all but two of the other schools he visited, he said, he was swamped with demands that he "did something about" the large percentage of children who appeared to have every SEN syndrome in the book. He then asked if he could come and spend a day with us, to look at the school in detail.

What he discovered was something we knew already. Because I've been at the school a long time, I've gradually gathered a team of exceptional teachers who love the job and have great rapport with children. School is, therefore, an immensely enjoyable experience, not just for the children, but for the teachers, too.

The psychologist noted that our Senco spends most of her time organising engaging activities for children who need extra support, not filling in forms about them, although incredibly that earned her Ofsted's disapproval because she didn't have a mass of paperwork for inspectors to examine. The quality of teaching, then, is paramount, and I wouldn't pretend that all teachers in every school are shining examples of their trade. But I wouldn't mind betting that the number of alleged "special needs" children in a school relates directly to the quality of teaching - and the quality of leadership - within it. And there will always be the school, in an area like mine, where the headteacher says, "I'm afraid our children have many behavioural special needs. They come from such disadvantaged backgrounds, you see. You can't expect anything else." This is nonsense, and an insult to the children, their parents and their backgrounds.

In fact, I suspect many of the special needs children Ofsted refers to are the ones displaying behavioural problems. But then, when they arrive at your school, inspectors want to scour data and tick boxes, and schools are pressured into believing that the attainment of Level 4 for a child is the sole parameter for success. So lessons can easily become dull and repetitious, which leads to poor behaviour, and children ultimately labelled as "special needs".

Perhaps Ofsted ought to take a very close look at itself, and apportion blame where it actually lies.

Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove Primary in Camberwell, south London. Email:

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