Martyn Rouse

27th April 2012 at 01:00
The professor emeritus at the University of Aberdeen's School of Education shares his views on inclusion, special schools and why all children should be allowed to take a few risks. Interview by Julia Belgutay Photography by Alistair Linford

How did you come to be involved in additional support for learning?

Early in my teaching career, a headteacher at the secondary school in which I was working told me I was good at that kind of work, good with those kinds of children. So I became head of the remedial department.

What is your fondest memory from your teaching days?

Working with children out of the classroom, having them canoeing, skiing, doing drama and theatrical productions. Many children do so much better when they are not in the formal classroom situation. But, also, I loved the humour and the wit that particularly teenagers have - that banter, the repartee.

Any haunting memories?

In the early days of my teaching, it was would I be able to cope with the challenge of just getting through to the end of the lesson. It's a common feeling among teachers, and I think it is a particular challenge at the beginning of their careers.

How inclusive are Scottish schools?

They vary hugely. There are some of the best inclusive schools in the world in Scotland, and there are some that are really struggling. One of the great challenges in Scotland is the tendency to start making judgements about children and their potential at too early an age. Once a child gets seen as difficult or having learning difficulties, then the institutional structures take over.

The Additional Support for Learning Act now includes more groups of children than ever before. Why is that important?

A broad definition is one that recognises children have difficulties for loads of different reasons. A child doesn't have learning difficulties in isolation from the context in which they live. We are far more aware now that emotional, social, economic, health and education issues all overlap. By taking this broad definition, it's possible to provide support for children when they need it, for whatever reason.

How do you feel about special schools?

In an ideal world, where all children attend their local school and it is a fully-functioning inclusive school, of course we would not need special schools. But the reality is not all children can attend their local school with their peers and have their learning needs met. The aspiration would be to increase the capacity of what is generally available to children in mainstream schools, so the need for alternative forms of provision is reduced.

How dependent is the provision of ASN services on parents' ability to make their case?

Parent advocacy is one of the prime movers for development in this area. But some parents are more skilled than others, they have more social capital, and are more likely to be able to get a good deal for their children than are parents who do not know how to work with the system.

How prepared are teachers at the moment for dealing with all the varying needs they may encounter?

Within the constraints of time available, much better than in the past, and there have been some exciting initiatives in Scotland over the past few years.

You said in the past that adults' aversion to risk can be detrimental to young people. Why?

Some of the richest learning experiences children have are when they are allowed to take chances. Failing is not necessarily a bad thing as long as you are not made to feel stupid. Children need challenges, they need to push themselves and learn where their limits are - not only physical limits, but emotional, and cognitive. I'm not saying we should put children in harm's way, but I think we need to ask ourselves whether we are making the learning experience too safe, too secure.

Does that apply to children with additional support needs?

Of course it does.

What are your thoughts on Curriculum for Excellence?

I think the principles are entirely consistent with the development of an inclusive education system. I know there are concerns around subject content knowledge, and there are real fears that there is not sufficient professional development to understand the implications of CfE. It provides a wonderful opportunity for creative approaches to learning and teaching.

How do you feel about the notion of experiences and outcomes, compared with traditional ways of measuring attainment?

I am more concerned about those traditional ways of measuring attainment, based on the principles of ranking children. If we can find ways of recognising children's learning against a set of criteria, against what it is they could do previously, rather than feeling we have to rank children all the time, then that could present profound opportunities for more children to be successful learners in schools.

What one thing would improve provision for children with additional needs in schools?

Greater optimism about what is possible for them and looking at the current definition of learning support and the limitations it places on the development of provision - the current definition being that which is "additional to, or different from" what is generally available. I think we need to put more focus on what is generally available.

PERSONAL PROFILE

Born: Smethwick, 1945

Education: St Cuthbert's Primary School; Holly Lodge Grammar School for Boys, Smethwick, Staffordshire; Institute of Education, University of London

Career: Drama teacher; ASL teacher; tutor in special educational needs at Cambridge; Institute of Education; professor emeritus at University of Aberdeen School of Education.

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