What it takes is a change in attitude

18th February 2005 at 00:00
Teachers must stop viewing pupils with complex needs as a handicap, says Frank Lennon

At the beginning of this month, the findings of an NOP poll commissioned by a coalition of leading children's charities showed that nine out of 10 people think vulnerable children should be an election priority, and more than half of voters feel the UK government is not providing enough help and support. Last week, the Scottish Executive published the report of the national review of guidance, Happy, Safe and Achieving their Potential.

It includes the following statistics compiled by the NCH children's charity:

* One in five children and young people report experiencing bullying in school.

* 80 children under the age of 16 become homeless every day.

* 9,000 children under 16 run away from home and 25 per cent of them sleep rough while away.

* 11,200 children under 16 are looked after by local authorities.

* 4 per cent of young women aged 13-19 become pregnant.

* 17 children in every 1,000 are now born to drug misusing mothers.

* 100,000 children live with the domestic abuse of a parent or carer.

What is clear from these figures is that some vulnerable children face significant challenges. What is not so clear, in spite of the public interest in the issue evident in the NOP poll, is what we do about it. The report of guidance review is an attempt to deal with this increasingly complex area.

It describes principles for the development of what is called "personal support" for all pupils in Scottish schools, sets out a standard for personal support and tries to clarify the roles of school staff, local authority personnel and partner agencies. With the publication of yet another report, schools might be forgiven for thinking that teaching in Scotland is like being on a kind of educational Pianosa (the fictitious island setting of Joseph Heller's Catch-22), where insensitive and out of touch superiors keep raising the number of missions.

However, the publication of Happy, Safe and Achieving their Potential does not mark another hike in the number of "missions" teachers are expected to complete before retirement. It deserves to be read carefully because it contains some key messages - right from the ministerial foreword where Peter Peacock states that "integration of services is vital if we are to meet the needs of young people". Mr Peacock goes on to describe an aspiration of "caring school communities in which children and young people are seamlessly supported".

The report sets out to do three things. First, it deals with the structural issues involved in providing personal support. It is explicit but not prescriptive about the increasing complexity of the role of schools and summarises current models of provision with operational examples interspersed throughout the text. It describes the new legislative context, the link with A Curriculum for Excellence and other key documents, and sets an agenda for future action.

Second, the report refers to "core features of personal support" and defines 10 standards for personal support which should be common to schools across Scotland's 32 local authorities.

Third, the report recognises the central importance of values in the provision of personal support. In this sense Happy, Safe and Achieving their Potential, together with A Curriculum for Excellence, constitutes an important milestone in Scottish education. They are documents firmly grounded in shared values. To the values of the Scottish Parliament mace referred to in both documents, we might add the key concepts of "inclusion", "integration", "accessibility", "partnership" and "community" which permeate both reports.

This is all the more important because we live in a professional context where fragmentation is the great danger. Opportunities intended to facilitate greater inter-agency and collegiate working can just as easily become occasions of deepening professional tensions. New funding, often ring-fenced, may result in the creation of posts, projects and "units" which, however desirable in terms of additional resources, nevertheless bring with them problems of fragmentation.

A clear example is that it is now common for an individual S1 or S2 pupil with specific learning difficulties in a Scottish comprehensive to have to deal with 16 subject teachers, a registration teacher, a guidance teacher, a support for learning teacher, a behaviour support teacher, an educational psychologist and an attendance officer - to say nothing of the social worker, health worker, befriender and quite possibly police officer who may be working with them outside the school in the community.

The danger here is that rivalries, based on the competitive need for the various professionals involved to justify the funding of their particular specialism, become a defining part of the process. Any concept of the "whole child" can so easily become lost amid the inevitable professional turf wars.

In addition we have the continuing problem of the professional identity of teachers. When faced with issues concerning particularly vulnerable young people in secondary schools, teachers often define themselves by what they are not: "I am not a social worker psychologist guidance teacher support for learning teacher." Many secondary teachers continue to see themselves as teachers of an increasingly complex subject curriculum rather than as essentially teachers of young people leading increasingly complex lives.

Teachers are being constantly urged to act co-operatively and share good practice on the one hand while, on the other, repeatedly set against one another and compared (often by the very people who urge collegiality) for the purposes of accountability. This only exacerbates the problem of developing an identity for teachers that is child-centred and school focused rather than subject-centred and departmentally focused.

A consequence of the aim to provide the best possible package of support may be the tendency to classify issues according to some notion of specialism: "That's a guidance support for learning social work matter."

Thus senior staff can often feel that they spend as much time arranging, running, recording and reporting on meetings of specialist professionals as they do providing the support to vulnerable pupils. There are too many people -most them professionals - involved n these children's lives.

Staff development therefore, is crucial. A national staff development strategy is required. This should be concerned less with sharing good practice, which invariably leads to a focus on specialist expertise, than with sharing values: it should be concerned with the personal growth of teachers, their attitudes and relationships rather than with their skills, competences and the processes, procedures and management of support.

The central problem is that the pupil with complex needs continues to be seen as a barrier to the effective teaching of the subject or course and a drain on the school's resources. This is, in fact, the major issue: to affect significant attitudinal change among staff in schools. In many Scottish secondary schools, this will require nothing short of a transformation of the professional culture of the school.

Happy, Safe and Achieving their Potential may help provide an impetus to the kind of staff development required to move things forward.

Frank Lennon is headteacher of St Modan's High in Stirling and was a member of the guidance review reference group.

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