Tuesday, 2 February 2010

The Conservatives' seminar

The future of SEN – II.
Setting the scene

The event was held in the Grand Committee Room of Westminster Hall, a location evoking powerful memories from the early, glory days of Conductive Education's explosion out of Hungary on the shoulders of parent-power (it may be worth returning to that occasion at a later point, but this should not divert me further here).

The Grand Committee Room is not really all that big (or really all that grand), a modest piece of Victorian Gothic (think Hammer House of Horror out of Past Times), and was well-filled by its present audience of some 125 people. I squeezed myself as far to the front as I could, particularly so that I could watch Michael Gove who, as likely next Secretary of State, was clearly the focus of the show

For those who wonder, I stayed awake for the meeting's whole hour and three-quarters.

Some 'seminar'

One should not really write 'audience' in the context of a seminar but this was not really a seminar in the proper sense. There were three fairly short addresses from the platform, a couple of set-piece presentations from the floor (about special schools) and most of the rest of the proceedings were given over to those from the floor who has something that they wished to say to Michael Gove on the platform .

The first of these, expectedly, had 'autism' clearly evident in its opening sentence but to tell the truth I was not always clear what all these individual presentations were actually about. Partly blame my diminishing hearing – but the room was not designed with acoustic properties in mind and, to be honest, not everyone who spoke was at home with this kind of presentation.

It was not of course a seminar at all, not that it could be given its circumstances. The meeting was a way for the platform to hear and call for ideas (of which more anon). There was no amplification system in operation, no written agenda nor any other distributed papers, and no list of participants. It was very interesting to watch the process and I do hope that the platform learned something useful from what it could hear at the head of that long, muffling room. What this might be, and how it might be sifted and integrated would be interesting to learn, but there will be no written report.

(To be fair, I have been to a number of such semi-public occasions over the years since Iain Duncan Smith began opening the Conservative Party up to the outside world a few years back. They have always been interesting to watch but I have always wondered whether they have really served purposes other than their stated one of enlightenment. And no, I do not know whether other parties run such shows: just that I have never been invited to one).

Each of these meetings that I have attended has been larger than the last. I did not, however, recognise anyone at this one whom I recall meeting from previous ones, no one whom I have known else where from 'special educational needs', and no one from Conductive Education.. There are several ways of understanding this, of course.

The audience was predominantly white and middle-class. I had anticipated more younger people there but the audience was primarily greying, and included some oldies. I can only guess who the people there were:
  • some special-school headteachers
  • some parent-campaigners (especially those who have opened their own facilities)
  • some people from smaller voluntary bodies (not the big ones, they will be lobbying by other means
  • some individual parents with links to the party
  • some local Conservative politicians
  • nobody with an apparent disability (though one man did declare himself to have attended an ESN school)
  • no obvious education academics, none that I recognised anyway (but I no longer know many)
  • most glaringly – and predictably –  no trace of the great majority of those whose children fall under the wide 'SEN' pseudo-category: the families and children who are poor, powerless, alienated, dispossessed and ill-educated..
I had the impression that most of these who were there do not know each other – i.e. there is no coherent lobby out there, and that these were largely individuals with their own personal concerns to advance. They too then are in their own way alienated. If converstions atprevious meetings can serve as a guide, many or most of those present hold no great truck with the Conservatives. Having given up on 'the present lot' , they have increasingly regarded a modernising Conservative Party as the next Government and the only possibility for change.

Noticeable was common accord from the platform and from the floor towards two great issues of the past, once unquestionably good things, now agreed to be bugbears and a blight on people's lives: unthinking inclusion and heartless local authorities. Schools and teachers got off quite well.

The mood was calm if insistent, People felt strongly, but they 'behaved'. It felt perhaps that they might be feeling greater cause for hope than they could remember having done previously. Why? Well, at last they were being listened to and taken seriously.

What was said?

Tomorrow this series continues with an account of some of the things that were actually said at the seminar, with particular reference to what the Commission is actually saying.

In fact, not a lot appears to be said that has not already been said in the Commission's Second Seport: I should like to offered keener readers some homework, a URL of the Second Report, but I cannot find it on line. Maybe somebody will be able to oblige.:

A copy of the Commission's 'interim recommendations', from November 2005, which seems much the same, can be found at:

I have no news of the Third Report.

Previous item in this series

The future of SEN –  I:

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