Beyond Special Education

Beyond Special Education

By Simon Knight

As part of a panel at the London Festival of Education I had the opportunity to discuss the nature of transition beyond special schools for young people with special educational needs and disabilities. This addressed not just the pragmatics of a person with complex and highly individualised needs moving from one education setting to another, but also the broader issues around the opportunities available beyond education.

A statistic which I mentioned as part of the discussion was that, according to the Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities (2011), 65% of those with a learning disability would like to be employed and yet only 6.8% (Department of Health 2014) are. It made me think about how much effort and financial support is being given to addressing social mobility for those from challenging economic backgrounds, through organisations such as the Sutton Trust and the Education Endowment Foundation, and yet how little is given to those with a learning disability. Neither group chooses to face the challenges that they do, yet as a society we seem to have only committed to support some. Hardly an example of equality of opportunity.

However there are things which can be done to try and ensure that those with a learning disability have a better chance to realise the potential that they build within themselves through their education. There are things which can be done to challenge the perceptions of a society which sees the potential in the poor more easily than it does in the disabled.

One area in particular which may have a profound effect is the extent to which Special schools feel compelled to reflect a mainstream paradigm when it comes to communicating our young people’s capability to those beyond the school. We continue to focus on the accreditation of skills and knowledge through certification, which may have limited currency within the wider communities in which we exist. I suspect many employers would find it difficult to understand the difference between Entry Level 1, 2 and 3, or potentially to know which order they go in in terms of complexity. How many employers are familiar with the successes contained within a personal progress qualification?

One area in which we can take greater responsibility within education is to critically evaluate the quality of the accreditation we use and the extent to which it is understood by those beyond school. We need to ensure that accreditation accurately captures and articulates what has been learned and achieved, rather than just determining what is to be taught. Our young people are inherently unique and that must be reflected in whatever certification they leave us with. It makes me wonder whether schools might serve their students better by creating bespoke approaches to achieving this, rather than relying on commercially available tools.

We also need to ensure that what we teach within the school setting is transferable to environments beyond the school and the supportive structures which we put in place to scaffold success. The completion of targets may provide a professional feel good factor and lead to the creation of OfSTED friendly data sets, but the acid test of what we teach is the extent to which it can be applied elsewhere. A failure to do this is to create false expectations on paper which cannot be realised beyond school and is an abdication of our professional responsibility to prepare those we work with as best we can for a rich and varied life.

A further area for consideration is the extent to which additional information is communicated to other agencies and organisations. The emergent EHCP provides a potential opportunity for the successful integration of services within the administrative processes which surround the young people we work with, but this has yet to be realised. Until those lines of communication are better constructed we need to ensure that what we know is shared in a way that is unequivocal.

This may go some way towards challenging the culture of low expectations, which can at times exist, amongst those less familiar with the capacity to astound that young people with a learning disability possess. There is a relatively new technological tool which can be used to do this utilising multimedia, demonstrated below in ‘Shane’s Wiki’ https://vimeo.com/80887952, that leaves no doubt as to the unique characteristics and capability of the young person. Making effective use of tools such as this may work to better ensure that the momentum a young person builds through their education is not lost in transition.

Sharing Shane’s Wiki from Rix Research and Media on Vimeo.

We also need to challenge the extent to which special schools and those who attend them are absent from the broader education discourse.

Whilst significant amounts of money and intellectual energy have been expended revising the legislative and administrative systems which govern special education, little has been spent on the provision itself. It seems that the young people we serve are marginalised by consecutive Secretaries of State for Education failing to speak on their behalf, when we have Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools failing to analyse the inspection outcomes of special schools, when we conflate education and social care by having the Minister responsible for special educational needs entitled ‘Children and Families Minister’. We need to ensure that people with a learning disability are politically visible.

Finally we need to challenge the preconceptions of a society which is fearful of difference and ensure that we as schools do everything we can to be active participants within our communities, bringing them into us as much as us going out into them. After all it’s not just schools which have a duty to be inclusive.

Simon Knight is Deputy Head of Frank Wise School, Banbury and a NET Associate Director

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