Friday, 5 February 2010

SEN – the Conservatives' dilemma

The first law of holes
The future of SEN – V.

The Conservatives' predicament

Michael Gove, on behalf of what may be increasingly considered a Government in waiting,  introduced his conribution to Monday's meeting with a political statement of immense importance to everyone in the UK concerned with 'special educational needs', whether as users or providers::

Our Leader, David Cameron, considers that the families of children who have special needs are one of our highest priorities.

Would the Conservative Party accord this matter such priority without this direction from its very top? Given the pressure from despairing and articulate parents, bubbling up across the country over the last ten years or so, the universal media support that they enjoy, and the political weakness of any likely opposition from the established system, then the answer is probably: Yes – but not as much. 'The most vulnerable in society' are all politicians' stated priority, but 'one of their highest', I think not.

The Conservative Party, though, has to act otherwise, but does not have much of a feel for the technical issues involved. Few people in the country do – otherwise we should hardy be in such a mess in the first place. The Conservatives have to make a go of it nonetheless.

Stop digging!

There used to be a nice little souvenir stall on the way from St Stephen's Gate to Central Lobby. On Monday I saw that it is much bigger now, and its stock has gone upmarket. One staple for years, I noticed, is no longer on sale: an inexpensive fridge magnet which bears the House of Commons portcullis, and the following snippet of wisdom, as invaluable in politics as in every field of life:

The First Law of Holes
If you are in one, stop digging.
                            DENIS HEALEY

The Conservatives now know that they will inherit a big mess in this sector of education, just how colossal a mess I doubt that they have yet to realise. Take the question usually presented simplistically as 'teacher-training', not just a matter of teachers, nor of 'skills' to be trained. Yes, let's have more and better teacher-training (and associated actions). But who is going to train them, and more fundamentally, in what? Oh yes, and where is the money coming from? Mr Gove does already seem to recognise elsewhere that it might take a generation or two to put Humpty-Dumpty together, it is nowhere more so than across what is currently called 'special educational needs'.

The incoming government has a couple of ideas ready to implement,: jiggle the arrangements for statementing and have more special-school places (especially through the initiative of parents and bodies outside the present state sector). Neither will achieve fundamental change, and to a large extent the same things will be done to the same children, by the same people, with the same outcomes – one of which will continuing parental disappointment and dissatisfaction -- this time with the new Government.

So perhaps it is time to stop digging deeper and deeper in the same place, and face some previously unfaced questions. To use other words, technical rather than political, step outside the exhausted 'SEN'' paradigm.

Unfaced questions

What unfaced questions? Here are a few that leap immediately to mind, my mind anyway. Others will have their own, possibly overlapping lists of fundamentals. Good, let's hear them.
  • There is no operationalisable taxonomy of educational and developmental disorders.
  • There is no common theoretical structure under which to discuss them.
  • There is not even a common vocabulary for that.
  • There is no special pedagogy (no general pedagogy either!).
  • The is no explicit social compact on what the schools (all schools) are there for.
  • There are no explicit, concrete goals for the adulthoods of most children with educational/developmental disorders.
  • There is little or no common understanding of the relationship between teaching and learning (writ  especially large in the case of children who are 'special', in whatever way).
  • For most such children, contrary perhaps to unquestioned myth, there is little or no effective knowledge base on what to do about them.
  • There is, however, a large workforce dependent upon the myth that there is.
  • There is little relevant, practical, technical knowledge available in the existing services: there is little relevant knowledge in 'academe' either.
  • Society tends to regard such children to a large degree through the problems that they pose for the state education service.
  • Contradictorily, especially where children are young or developmentally disordered, a great rhetoric has recently arisen about the health and social-care 'needs' of these children.
  • This rhetoric may in effect be operationalised largely through the problems posed by marshalling over-elaborate state services (see for example the Audit' Commission's report on Sure Start this week).
  • There are no quick fixes to most individual children's educational/developmental problems – correspondingly there will be no quick fixes for remediating or compensating for the inadequacies of existing services, or in establishing new paradigms for services to succeed them.
  • There is no money to address most of these problems according to pesent ways of thinking.
  • There are but islets of political will to do so.
  • Realisable money and effective political will are likely here, as elsewhere, to be socially skewed.
  • To an overwhelming degree, it is only parents who love their children and hope for them – parents can do without the additional (often crushing) burden of negative, dysfunctional services, but may be vastly helped by collaboration with those who have relevant and effective knowledge and orientation.
  • Etc., etc., etc. This lot for starters, anyway. I could doubtless go on!

I will not venture here to state even these raw and unrefined fundamentals in any order of priority, never mind attempt to classify and hierarchicalise them. Gathering 'fundamental lists' of this sort, putting them together, arguing over and elaborating them, and starting to consider critically what might be done to respond, may be a necessary step towards solving them.

Previous items on this topic

The future of SEN – I.

The future of SEN – II.

The future of SEN – III.

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