Dear Ted

4th April 2003 at 01:00
The of my for pupils with learning difficulties has for my class of four to six-year-olds . What can I do?

Ted Wragg, professor of education at Exeter University, answers your professional problems, big or small, every week. Ask him for independent advice - or offer some of your own - by writing to: Dear Ted, The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX. Or email:

Ted says

There are two issues here. The first is whether a three-year-old should be in a class of older children, the second concerns headteachers overruling their colleagues.

You know your own classroom, its facilities and the children in it very well, so you are in a good position to judge whether a younger child with moderate learning difficulties would fit in. It depends, of course, on the individual and the nature of the learning difficulties. Some three-year-olds may more readily fit in with older pupils than others.

However, caution needs to be exercised, so that a single younger child's needs are not submerged under the demands of the older ones.

It is a delicate matter when a head overrules a teacher. One question would be whether this happens frequently, or rarely, whether he or she overrules all teachers, or whether your experience is unique. Since heads carry ultimate responsibility, they are entitled to make the final decision when there is disagreement, but they must make every effort to take their colleagues with them. We all understand that we cannot always be right, but it helps if the person overruling us is someone who is known for being a good listener.

You could discuss it with another experienced colleague, such as the deputy head. Better, talk directly with the head, not just about this particular case, because the decision has now been made and the child concerned should feel at home, but about your feelings as a professional being overruled.

There may be two sides to the story.

Perhaps one way ahead would be to agree a date when the situation could be formally reviewed. The two of you could then see how the child is progressing and make an honest appraisal of whether it has worked out well.

You say

Consult a wider audience

It is difficult to know from your letter how rational your headteacher normally is when a problem occurs, or how much you (and other staff) are usually involved in decision-making. There is, for example, an argument for saying that the head's role is to look at the whole context of a problem and come to a reasonably informed decision about it - even if it isn't a popular one - simply because that is partly what he or she is paid for. Let me give you an example. A child with special needs has just joined my nursery class and the mother is a difficult, abusive woman who swears at her daughter - and at other parents when she feels like it. I'm within my rights to ban her from the premises, but if I do, I know I won't see the child again - and she desperately needs the quality social context that my nursery offers. The mother is going to be a daily battle, but I believe it'll be worth it.

Nevertheless, in your case, it seems odd to accept a three-year-old if you normally have four to six-year-olds. There must be a reason why this decision has been made - though it doesn't say much for your head's powers of negotiation if it hasn't been properly talked through with you. That in itself is enough to make any teacher react negatively. You need to take this matter to a wider audience; your deputy or senior management team should be your first port of call. If at all possible though, treat the matter as a challenge. At least if things don't work out nobody can say you haven't tried, and it'll give you much stronger ground on which to negotiate.

Primary head, Halifax

Get a legal opinion

You could ask to see the educational psychologist who has managed to diagnose a three-year-old with mild learning difficulties. Because such a diagnosis is extremely unlikely, you could then ask for any relevant paperwork. If this is not produced, claim that the school is not equipped to deal with a three-year-old, with or without learning difficulties. If the head persists, inform him or her that you will have to consult with the relevant local authority to investigate the legal aspects of dealing with such a young charge.

Anthony Ireland, Prestwich

Put your hurt pride aside

It seems the decision has been made and all the "whys", "maybes" and "ifs" are of little use. The child, who is now part of your class, needs to be at the forefront of your mind. You cannot go far wrong if this is your priority.

Your indignation and hurt pride needs to be put aside and dealt with separately. Heads are under a lot of pressure to fill places within their schools. And chronological age is not always the best criterion for placing "special" children. This three-year-old could be performing as a two-year-old, as I am sure are many of your four-year-olds. Nevertheless, meet with your head and be candid. Bad feelings that are repressed will always result in anger and resentment. This will damage your relationship with your head, and children are sensitive to conflict, even if it is unspoken. I do think it is important, mainly for the child, that a formal review date, after a settling-in period, be arranged now. If the child is happy and settled, as are his or her peers, then your worries and concerns are behind you. Try to be positive and look forward. Negativity gets us nowhere.

Kathleen Doyle, Senco, south London

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