SEND learners are airbrushed from education policy

Influential literacy reports by leading think tanks and charities have ignored the thousands of children who will never catch up in reading and writing but who can still achieve a full and rounded education, says Chris Rossiter

“Dyslexia isn’t even a thing”; “exam extra time is a middle class purchase”; “the dyslexia industry selling specialist courses”. These are all things that I have heard recently, in my role as the Director of the Driver Youth Trust. From teachers.

Whether or not we agree with the label of dyslexia; whether we recognise the condition or not, surely we all know that there is a significant group of children – with dyslexia or other impairments – who will never achieve the same level of literacy as their peers without significant specialist support. And that there are some young people who – even with all the support in the world – will never come anywhere near the arbitrary GCSE score that makes them ‘literate’ in the eyes of the world (and how much more arbitrary is that score with this year’s grade changes).

But we cannot blame teachers – the leading think tanks and others who form and frame policy are writing glowing and glossy pieces on achieving 100% literacy that airbrush out those who cannot be saved by a ‘love of reading’ or poor fathers reading to their children.

Our latest report, Through the Looking Glass, adds weight to the concern that learners with Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND), are being airbrushed from education thinking.

Glossy pieces airbrush out those who cannot be saved by poor fathers reading to their children

We analysed 21 influential reports on achieving literacy standards for all children, and showed that leading think tanks and charities have ignored these pupils – the majority of whom are educated in mainstream schools.  Read on Get on – run by Save the Children – sets recommendations for 100%  of 11 year olds reading well by 2025, without once mentioning dyslexia, and suggests the target can be achieved with “some additional tailored help for the poorest pupils and extra help in the early years”.

Claims from organisations such as Ofsted, the Sutton Trust, Education Policy Institute, the Fair Education Alliance and the Department for Education amongst others, reported since 2010, provide a sanitized image of education and schools. In some instances, SEND pupils simply do not feature and where they do, they are identified in the main as a homogenous group. Reports talk of a vision for 100% literacy but – when you look a little closer – only, it seems, for those children where the solutions are simple: more reading with parents or catch-up programmes.

Of course investment in the early years matters. And the focus that Pupil Premium puts on social and financial ‘disadvantage’ is welcome. But these reports paint a picture where either a child can catch up easily, or they are in a special school with serious difficulties and literacy doesn’t matter.  These are in themselves both false positons and they ignore the thousands of children who will never catch up in reading and writing but who can still achieve a full and rounded education.

The notion of specialist input – of educational psychologists, speech and language therapists and the dyslexia teachers – is all but invisible in these reports.

The notion of specialist input is all but invisible in these reports

This reflects the reality on the ground, where schools and parents report waits of over a term – some much more – for referral to a specialist for assessments and support. As budgets are getting tighter, are these thought leaders  colluding with a system that plays the numbers game? In following their recommendations, we would be focusing resources on the those that can catch up. These are the children ‘worth more’ in the progress 8 scores and league tables. Do these reports make it easier to exclude those who might cost a school more in cash or position?

Consider, for example, Education Policy Institute’s Annual Report 2016. It claimed overall levels of attainment are rising in both primary and secondary settings, only to then explicitly state: ‘The analysis excludes special schools and Pupil Referral Units’; although there are 199 mentions of disadvantage.

Of course this is not an either/or argument. Focus on social disadvantage is not wrong. Catch-up initiatives are not wrong and bristol post office. Much that benefits children on pupil premium in terms of reading and writing will help most children with SEND. However, some children do need specialist help. Those with significant learning disabilities. Those who need augmentative and alternative communication.

In Through the Looking Glass we make practical recommendations for change: including a review of all government literacy strategies to ensure they have realistic goals for all learners, including those with SEND.

Moreover – for us all – we need to consider carefully the assumptions that are bound up in the terms ‘disadvantaged’, ‘SEND’ and ‘literate’: a child does not become illiterate if they don’t achieve the appropriate GCSE grade, nor are they doomed to failure in life if they do.

Chris Rossiter is Director of the Driver Trust

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  1. Remarkable straight talking from someone who ought to know. When Independent schools get slated by the press and politicians for having so many more children given examination concessions,they fail to consider just how and why so many enter our sector with such serious learning difficulties in the first place. It’s the same reasons as behind the Olympic medal count; specialist identification, coaching support requires far more resources than are made available in the state sector.

  2. Stephen Fowler

    “learners with Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND)”

    In my experience a lot of these are misdiagnosed. I taught a girl aged ten who was supposed to have ADHD but when she was in my group her behaviour was perfect and her concentration was excellent and there was nothing wrong with her at all in my view. All the girl needed was ‘to be told boundaries’ ie who is the boss. The girl thought it was herself at home due to the way the mother treated her. She responded immediately and positively to firmness. I implored the mother to ignore the advice of the “specialist” at her school to put her on Ritalin, but the mother ignored my advice and the girl stopped coming to tuition and went on the drug.

    Another example – a boy came from a wealthy middle class home with ‘dyspraxia’ and apparently this was hindering his progress in maths. I gave a different diagnosis – that he simply was not paying attention or listening. Eg he was turning round while I was speaking initially, but then when I laid down the rules he stopped doing this. When his mother came to pick him up I asked him some quick-fire questions in maths in front of her that were quite difficult and which he could not do at the start of the lesson but could do easily by the end, and, guess what, the mother was NOT impressed at all when I said there was nothing wrong with his maths ability and in fact he had a very high level of natural ability in maths. She went off in a huff and did not return, saying ‘dyspraxia covers other things too’.

    For some reason these types of parent seem to WANT these diagnoses, so I agree with the teachers’ comments in the top paragraph.

    I taught another boy who ‘had Asperger’s’ diagnosed by ‘an expert’ and once again there was nothing wrong with him except he was out of control due to slack parenting. This boy played an air guitar and sang in front of the other children and was highly sociable. You could not get further from Aspergers than him, yet there was the official diagnosis. Once again, the mother seemed to want the diagnosis, and I believe she paid several hundred pounds for it. He told me he was cured of his Asperger’s and the next week his mother stopped bringing him.

    PS I have had genuine cases of Asperger’s also, and they were genuine. And I have seen cases of abnormal social interaction, but I have never yet seen a child with an inability to read properly or write neatly out of hundreds of children. I have had many cases of children who intensely avoid reading and writing and whose skills therefore remain very low, but that is not the same as having no ability. Often under pressure these children will write perfectly, eg a page of A4, but then revert immediately back to scribble the next week. They simply do not want to write correctly and have an immense capacity to resist what their teachers and parents are asking them to do.

    • Jannonymouse

      then you don’t know me. I struggled immensely with reading and writing. i found it incredibly difficult to do. Yes I did have “some ability” in writing, but my processing issues were such and are such that it would take ages to write one side (dyslexia). Then usually I would find spelling errors and i would have to start the whole thing again, very bad for one’s self esteem.
      I also struggled immensely with catching a ball and doing laces. I have other issues with dyspraxia too.
      I do understand that some diagnoses are not correct. All I can say mine was and is correct.