Cough up before you slam SEN

15th January 2010 at 00:00

Apparently, when Ronald and Nancy Reagan visited London for the first time, Nancy turned to her aides and said, "Will they be showing us the orphans?"

I was reminded of this extraordinary question while reading the foreword to a new DCSF booklet. Excitingly titled The National Strategies: Progression Guidance 2009-10, it purports to be useful advice on maximising the progress of children with special educational needs (SEN). And it is written by a new minister who is the "Parliamentary Under Secretary Of State For Schools and Learners", no less.

I began to wonder if the lady has the slightest idea what a child with SEN is like. For too long, she says, we have not set high enough ambitions for these children. They should be a prompt for putting in place the support required to help them learn and succeed.

Well, for starters, who is the "we" she refers to? The Government? Her? No, suspect it's the poor bloody infantry, those idle teachers who don't bother enough about poor old Simon who sits in the corner waiting to be "stretched". And "support"? Actually, this tends to cost something called "money". Frankly, I think it's a miracle teachers do what they do with SEN pupils on the budgets they have.

Parents with SEN children have a right to choose which school they want for them, and there is currently an emphasis on inclusion. This is laudable, provided the resources are forthcoming too. Often, they are not.

Some years ago, I was told to admit a child who had been in hospital until he was three. It was a miracle he had survived. He needed to be fed via a machine linked to his stomach, and he had no control over his bowel movements. He needed full-time support ... which wasn't forthcoming, so I refused.

I received pressuring visits from inclusion officers, and I told them I would be happy to take the boy, but only with the appropriate help and a refurbishment of my dowdy old shower room, because he would need to be changed often. After a lengthy battle, I got what I wanted, and the child thrived. I know from bitter experience that authorities can promise the earth, but help has a habit of disappearing mysteriously if you take a child before you have actually got what you need.

And why this bizarre obsession with SEN children making "at least" two levels of progress in a key stage "just like other children"? Tell that to Allan, Year 4, whose mum has tried to commit suicide five times. Tell it to Jaynal, Year 5, whose brother was killed in a street fight. Tell it to Annie, Infant, who watched her father stab her mother, or Mercy, who was thrashed with a belt. All of these children feel wanted, happy, and loved in school due to the efforts of my staff and devoted Senco. All are making steady progress, but two national curriculum levels over a key stage? The fact that we are keeping them in school - and that they are keen to come - is a huge achievement in itself.

I think it highly unlikely that the Parliamentary Under Secretary Of State For Schools and Learners has actually read the booklet. I can't imagine any teacher bothering with it. From front to back, it's filled with the usual incomprehensible graphs and management speak. "Gobbledegook," said my deputy, who can usually decipher this sort of stuff.

Perhaps the Parliamentary Under Secretary would like to visit my school. I could show her what SEN teaching is really all about. And hopefully, she'll bring her purse.

*All children's names have been changed

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

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