Saturday, 6 February 2010

SEN – time for political decision

But, please, a measured one
The future of SEN – VI.

A journalist, who would very much like to do a story on 'special educational needs', writes to me during this last week –

I agree, the general concept (and stupidity) of SEN is an interesting one to look in to...and one that manages to baffle any half-interested media observers to the point where – even if they did have the motivation – the whole area is too muddy and vague for them to get involved...

She is so right, but what she writes is in no way specific to journalists. The same goes for politicians too. The mechanisms involved in a thoroughgoing examination of matters of disordered development – and what to do about them – are not what most people really wish to hear about (the same goes for many in the medical and paramedical professions, and even in education). Folk would much rather hear some apparently crisp, uni-factorial explanation of cause and effect (hence the immediate attraction of, say, dyslexia, or the mad panic over MMR). Multi-factorial, transactive models require time... and are not amenable to the quick-fix magic bullets that every one would so like to see,

A couple of weeks ago I heard Michael Gove remarking à propos another systemic problem within our education service, that it would take a generation, perhaps two generations to fix. Well, 'SEN' is another one.

So, what to suggest that the Conservatives do about this? Very soon they will be told by their Leader to return home and start preparing for government. As far as 'SEN' goes, presumably this Commission will have produced the third part of its report by then. Whether it does or not, the Conservative party should thank it very much, and send it home. On coming to power, a Conservative government would doubtless wish to consider implementing such things from that Report that seem seems politically apt – but in doing so, it should recognise that it will have barely set out upon the long road of needed reconstruction. The Commission's recommendations will soon be history, already foundering on the continuing operation of all those fundamental problems that it has not faced.

A Royal Commission

If one accepts that there can be no quick fix, then there is no need to rush.. So here's a solution that politicians might like, since it shows that they have done something concrete but it leaves their options open. In the meantime, others must take up the burden of critical examination of what has gone wrong, winnowing down the hard specifics of what is proposed in reponse into new generalisable, operationalisable notions more readily managed by the normal political processes.

This approach not of course involve just the evidence and interests of those implicated in present arrangements and approaches, but those of all citizens who want to contribute to the process). A Royal Commission is no informal discussion like the Conservatives' present Commission on Special Educational Needs. It is not a cheery, consensual group drawn from existing professional establishments, like Mary Warnock's Committee of Enquiry. It is not an assemblage of the usual suspects. A full-blown Royal Commission potentially brings to bear the power and the intellectual force, the independence, that those 'most vulnerable in society' require on their social case if their problems are even to be properly understood, never mind have anything effective done for them.

A sledgehammer to crack a nut?  No. There is precedent, albeit a long time ago now, when services for such children were first emerging as priorities in this county and in other advanced economies around the world. Yes, it was more than a century ago now, but social mechanisms and structures set in train in those days have now largely run their course. It is high time to start anew. Given the likelihood of the United Kingdom's having a Prime Minister who has had himself the indellible experience of parenting a disabled child, there is perhaps opportunity too. If not now, when?

What a nice election pledge a Royal Commission would be.

Footnote: Royal Commissions

In... Commonwealth realms a Royal Commission is a major government public enquiry into an issue... A Royal Commissioner has considerable powers, generally greater even than those of a judge but restricted to the 'Terms of Reference of the Commission.... Royal Commissions are called to look into matters of great importance and usually controversy. These can be matters such as government structure, the treatment of minorities, events of considerable public concern or economic questions... using the very broad coercive powers of the Royal Commissioner to defeat the protective systems that powerful, but corrupt, public officials had used to shield themselves from conventional investigation. Royal Commissions are usually chaired by one or more notable figures. Because of their quasi-judicial powers the Commissioners are often retired senior judges.


1885 Royal Commission on the Blind, Deaf and Dumb set up
1889 Report of the Royal Commission on Blind, Deaf, Dumb and others.

1904 Royal Commission on the Care and Control of the Feeble-Minded set up.
1908 Report of the Royal Commission on the Care and Control of the Feeble-Minded

Previous postings on this topic

The future of SEN – I.

The future of SEN – II.

The future of SEN – III.

The future of SEN – IV.

The future of SEN – V.

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