Putting the special back into special needs.

I can still vividly remember Michael Gove’s first speech to the House of Commons as Secretary of State for Education in 2010. A blast of oratory in which he charged the outgoing New Labour government of failing poor children with talent.

During Labour’s 13 years in office, Gove thundered, on average only 45 children on free school meals had won a place at Oxford or Cambridge – a ‘shameful record’.

In the decade since then, this theme of social mobility has continued to dominate public and political debates regarding the success, or otherwise, of our school system.

But what about the educational experiences of the many hundreds and thousands of young people not considered conventional ‘winners’, particularly those with SEND? Here, the debates become rather more muted and evasive.

Most politicians talk the talk of inclusion, but their rhetoric sits uneasily with the decade-long drive to increase exam results come what may, and the overhaul of SEND funding that took place in 2014 amid the swingeing cuts of the austerity years.

Things have worsened still in the wake of COVID-19. A recent poll of a thousand parents highlighted a ‘widespread failure’ to restore SEND provision when children returned to school in September 2020, leaving a ‘sizeable’ proportion of SEND children unable to return to school at all.

Yet there are some bright spots on the horizon. The issue of SEND provision in English schools is increasingly coming under the spotlight, thanks to a form of parental campaigning that’s much louder than before, more effective and better at shaping the debate and shaming policymakers.

In 2018/19, the Education Select Committee looked at SEND provision in what was one of the longest and most wide-ranging inquiries ever undertaken by a Select Committee, receiving over 700 submissions in the process.

According to Committee Chair Robert Halfon, the resulting report showed up how, “Families continue to face a treacle of bureaucracy, a postcode lottery of provision, buck-passing and confusion in a system that breeds conflict.”

Another new book Young People on the Margins, edited by Loic Menzies and Sam Baars from the Centre for Education and Youth ( my review to be published soon) highlights six discrete categories of students, including those with special needs, who have been marginalised over the past decades: their specific needs and circumstances misunderstood or neglected by a system needing to prove its ‘high standards’ in narrow terms.

But we mustn’t forget those on the frontline – the skilled and experienced practitioners continually developing new approaches to learning. The central argument of Clare Ward and James Galpin’s inspirational new book, The Anxiety Workbook for Supporting Teens who Learn Differently, is that uncertainty lies at the root of many difficulties for neurodiverse teens.

Ward and Galpin gently remind us that understanding this takes us to the heart of the common human experience; we all struggle with existential uncertainty, now more than ever.

A new book by Adele Bates, Miss, I Don’t Give a Sh*t, meanwhile offers lively guidance from an expert in behaviour management.

Bates is a sharp critic of mass school exclusions and an advocate of setting clear boundaries, but also stresses the importance of understanding what lies behind the difficulties exhibited by troubled teens – be it hunger, or an unstable and unhappy home life.

Again, given the disruptions of the past year, wider society is now more receptive to such approaches.

Bates also stresses the necessity of putting in place the right sort of support in schools. For this, we could look to Finland, where every classroom has a full complement of teachers ( many educated to Masters level) who possess a deep understanding of the full spectrum of special needs.

Finland is no utopia, but we can certainly learn from its measured approach to the inevitability of difference among children. The Finnish experience further encourages us to develop a different narrative around what a successful school system might actually look like – one in which there’s room to celebrate, rather than merely manage difference.

Michael Gove was right to claim that our school system lets down too many children, but his ambitions were too limited, too narrowly focussed on a select few. We’ll never truly flourish as a nation until we have an education system that genuinely nurtures the many kinds of intelligence possessed by our young people – not just the ‘Oxbridge kind’.

An earlier version of this piece was published in Teach Secondary magazine in April 2021.

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