Look at the bigger picture

4th May 2007 at 01:00
The record of pupils with special needs in Scotland and England compares badly with other developed countries

EXCESSIVE TESTING and low expectations are blighting the education of some of the UK's most vulnerable pupils - and failure to address those issues will cost society dearly in years to come, conference delegates have been told.

Martyn Rouse, director of Aber-deen University's Inclusive Practice Project, said that the record of pupils with special needs in Eng-land and Scotland compared badly with other developed countries, and some who did well early in their education faltered as they got older.

"Britain's highest achievers do very well, but the gap between the haves and the have-nots in the UK is wide," he said, adding that the UK has "one of the longest tails of underachievement in the developed world".

Although the gap is not as wide in Scotland, Professor Rouse - speaking at last week's Scottish Support for Learning Association conference in Fort William - stressed that the record north of the border was "nothing to be proud of".

He argued that long-term approaches had to be taken to improve the lives of vulnerable children, and that any extra spending would be offset by economic and social benefits in the future. Otherwise, he believes, there will be heavy costs in terms of increasing prison populations, welfare payments and higher insurance premiums: "It's pay now or pay later."

Professor Rouse said that the UK's poor record was partly because expectations of children deemed to have special needs were often low, but that teachers "should not underestimate their power" to help such children.

He pointed to a reliance on testing and exams in the UK that failed to make the most of many pupils' abilities. Again, however, he stressed that this was not quite as pronounced in Scotland as in England.

Others factors he identified as contributing to exclusion and underachievement included: the belief of some that education is a privilege; school structures and cultures; "territorial disputes" between professionals; and different beliefs about the ability and worth of some children.

Professor Rouse argued that, rather than focus on individual children, learning support staff should be encouraged to look at the bigger picture and work closely with other school staff. "So instead of going out to fix the children, they're going out to improve the system."

He underlined a strong link be-tween poor ed-ucation and poverty, as well as the UK's ranking of second from bottom in international comparisons of well-being. He is encouraged by the Scottish Executive's attempts to get different agencies to work together in the interests of children's welfare, citing the Getting It Right For Every Child document.

He also stressed that initial training of teachers should prepare them better, and that this should have closer links with continuous professional development.

Professor Rouse looked at the international picture and found that most countries had children who underachieved or were excluded, with economic and social consequences throughout society. These issues cause confusion in many countries for a number of reasons, including stigma attached to those with special needs, a lack of clarity about who has special needs, and "opaque funding mechanisms".

Human rights also informed Professor Rouse's speech, which highlighted the difference between a right to education and the rights to participate and achieve once in education.

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