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Cynical Exploitation of Special Needs Children

Baroness Mary Warnock laid the foundations for special needs education thirty years ago. Here she reveals how her seminal report has been betrayed by schools who have exploited children to meet their own financial ends.

Thirty years is a long time in politics. It is high time that a Committee of Inquiry, or even a Royal Commission, were set up to recommend a fresh start on Special Educational Needs. This was the recommendation of the All-Party Commons Select Committee under Barry Sheerman in 2007 and it should be followed up now. This week’s damning Ofsted report is enough by itself to justify starting again.

When, as chairwoman of the Committee of Inquiry in 1978, I published what became known as the Warnock Report, things were totally different. It was only a few years since severely mentally disabled children had been deemed educable at all, and the concept of a continuum of educational needs, from the most severe and permanent to the relatively minor and remediable, was new. The educational cuts of the Eighties were a mere cloud on the horizon. We were still, just about, in the era when things could be recommended on the grounds of their educational merit, without too much calculation of costs.

So though the committee knew that its recommendations would not be cheap, it never thought that, as the Ofsted report appears to show, children’s supposed special needs would be exaggerated and exploited in order to attract more money for schools; still less in order to allow schools to slither out of their responsibility to ensure that as many children as possible achieved a respectable standard of literacy and numeracy, and a reliable understanding of how they ought to behave.

It was the idea of the continuum of needs that gave rise to the belief that the committee had recommended that all children, whatever their disabilities, should be educated in mainstream schools. What the committee actually recommended was that the large number of children with moderate learning diffculties already in mainstream schools should be identified, and their needs provided for where they were. We also thought that this would enable more children to be taught in mainstream rather than special schools because provision for their needs would now be better, and would become part of the recognised mainstream provision.

But the commmittee as a whole never proposed that all children should be taught under the same roof or that special schools should be abolished. This was, and remains, an extremist position.

We worked on the assumption (the figures being provided by the then Department of Education and never challenged) that about two per cent of school-age children had severe learning or other difficulties that affected their education. But that as many as 18 per cent more than these had educational needs that went beyond the “normal”. It was these children (briefly known as “Warnock Children”, rather to the dismay of my own five) who had hitherto been much neglected and who were supposed to have their needs met in mainstream schools by the provision of extra help and extra monitoring of their progress.

It was for these children that mainstream schools would be given extra money, for specialist teachers or for classroom assistants, for adaptation of school buildings or even for the setting up of units or withdrawal classrooms on the campus, for use by the mildly autistic, or what used to be called the “maladjusted”. We had been warned not to discuss the needs of the dyslexic, dyslexia being at that time widely regarded as a condition invented by the middle classes as a cover for the stupidity of some of their children.

Nor, unbeliveably, were we permitted to point to social deprivation as the cause of many special educational needs, though the link between deprivation and the development of language was as obvious then as it is today, and indeed the number of children eligible for free school meals was then, as now, taken as a rough indication of how many children in a school would have special educational needs.

This link between deprivation and educational failure or special needs struck me then as of the greatest possible importance. And in this respect things have not changed. We were not allowed to mention the link because the myth still persisted that social services and the teaching profession were two completely different sources of provision, dealing in completely separate things, or meeting totally different needs.

And though we on the committee continually urged the two services to work in partnership (what in Blair-speak became “joined-up thinking”) we failed, as did the Blair government, to make any difference to this insane dichotomy. If you believe, as I do, that education is the only way out of the under-class, then you cannot help believing in the link. But this also has a profound effect on the duty of teachers to engage their pupils in the educational process, and to inspire them with educational ambition.

By this I do not mean that they should encourage them all (or even half of them) to go to university, but that they should instil in them a desire to do things well, and understand them better and discuss them articulately. When pupils are thus excited by what they learn, not bored, they behave better, and can indeed be taught to do so. Linguistic poverty is a prime cause of boredom and of disruption and violence in the classroom.

Teachers have a huge responsibility for developing the language of their pupils, both spoken and written. I do not believe that teacher-training puts enough emphasis on this, nor on the connection between linguistic poverty and behaviour. Teachers have to tackle both together, and must be ready themselves to articulate the limits they will impose on rudeness, violence and disregard for the feeling and interests of others. If teachers are not explicitly to introduce, by precept and example, the basic rules of civilised, morally good behaviour, then they should quickly leave the profession.

But of course a teacher who teaches in this way, though she recognises that she will have far more difficulty with some children than with others, is fundamentally optimistic. She believes that most children can become engaged in and excited by the process of learning, can want to succeed, can like their teachers enough to want to please them, can therefore improve their performance, even if by halting steps and slow.

There will be some children who face obstacles too great for the ordinary teacher to remove, but these will be relatively few. For them, specialist help is required, either in the short or the long term. (For instance, only specially trained teachers can help severely dyslexic people, children or adults; without special training, a teacher may do more harm than good, but when she has had it, she may achieve wonders.)

Therefore it is absolutely necessary for the non-specialist teacher to be able to identify those children who genuinely need specialist help. Perhaps the greatest obligation of teacher-training is to make such identification central, a matter of routine but constant vigilance and good judgment.

But this is a far cry from the present trend, if the Ofsted report is to be believed. A good teacher believes in her ability to engage the imagination and therefore the co-operation of her pupils, however unpromising they may seem. A good teacher and a good school flourish on hope. A bad teacher gives up at the first setback and runs to the school Senco (special educational needs coordinator) asking for help. And now she is positively encouraged by management to do so, for the sake of a cash injection, and so that her pupils need not be counted among those whose examination results will be made public.

This is institutional pessimism, an institutional announcement that the pupils for whom extra is sought are, deep down, beyond hope and so little worthy of respect that they may be used merely as a means to an end.

The concept of special needs and its related statement (the supposed guarantee to a parent that her child will get the help he needs) must urgently be overhauled. It may have been inevitable from the beginning that these ideas would live on to be abused. At least from the 1981 Special Educational Needs Act, which made clear that no extra funds would be available for its implementation, we should have foreseen the future. However that may be, the Ofsted report suggests such a cynical reversal of the benign intentions of the original committee and the subsequent legislation that it cannot simply be overlooked. A fresh start must be made.

By Baroness Mary Warnock

17 September 2010

www.telegraph.co.uk

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Literacy Other Research

Only NSW Makes Right Sounds on Learning to Read

FOUR years after the national inquiry into teaching reading, one Australian government has finally embraced the key recommendation that children be taught the sounds that make up words as an essential first step in learning to read.

The NSW government has released literacy teaching guides incorporating the latest research evidence on the best way to teach reading.

The guides mandate that children from the first years of school be explicitly taught the sounds of letters and how to blend and manipulate sounds to form words in daily 10 to 20-minute sessions.

The guides set out key principles for teachers to follow in reading instruction, stipulating that phonics need to be taught to a level where children can automatically recall the knowledge.

They also debunk “common myths” about phonics that “have almost become accepted as truths”, including that “phonics knowledge is caught, not taught” or that having a sound of the week is an effective way of teaching.

Devised in response to the 2005 national review on teaching reading, the NSW guidelines were yesterday lauded as the benchmark for the rest of the country.

A bitter debate has raged for the past three decades over the teaching of reading, with the proponents of phonics pitted against those favouring the “whole language” method, which emphasises other skills instead of sounding words.

Whole language advocates encourage students faced with an unfamiliar word to look at the other words in the sentence, the picture on the page or the shape of the letters rather than by “sounding out” the word. The national review, released after an inquiry led by the late educational researcher Ken Rowe, was one of three large international studies in the past decade to examine all the evidence about teaching reading, including an earlier US report and Britain’s Rose report, completed in 2006.

All three reviews concluded the same thing, that teaching children phonics and how to blend sounds to make words was a necessary first step in learning to read, but not the only skill required.

The Australian inquiry was prompted by a letter from reading researchers and cognitive psychologists, many based at Macquarie University, concerned about the state of literacy teaching in the nation.

One of the signatories to the letter, Macquarie University professor Max Coltheart, yesterday said the NSW guides were entirely consistent with the recommendations of the reading inquiry and that “Ken Rowe would have been delighted”.

Professor Coltheart called on the other states and territories to follow NSW’s lead.

Jim Rose, author of the British report and now reviewing the English primary curriculum for the British government, praised the NSW guides for “establishing the essential importance of phonics”.

“It provides some firm guidance for principals and teachers rather than leaving them to reinvent reading instruction, school by school,” Sir Jim said.

The assistant principal and kindergarten teacher at Miranda Public School in Sydney’s south, Susan Orlovich, has already started using the guides in teaching her students. “For the first time, we have really clear materials and guidelines for setting up an early literacy program that’s integrated and balanced but ensures we also teach phonics and phonemic awareness explicitly and systematically,” she said.

Ms Orlovich said the guides had struck the right balance between teaching the skills necessary to sound out words and decode the alphabet, and comprehension with students being able to write their own words.

They also gave teachers strategies for students at different stages in recognition that some already understand the phonemic basis of language.

“Some kids can learn with whole language, and make those connections and do phonemic substitution, so if they know how to write ‘look’, they can write ‘book’,” she said.

“Some kids are able to make that substitution without being taught, but for other students, you need to teach them explicitly, make it visual for them.”

In an interview with The Australian during a visit to Australia last week, Sir Jim said the simple view of reading was that it had two dimensions, comprehension and word recognition.

While teaching sounds is often denigrated by the whole language side of the reading debate as a decoding skill unnecessary to be able to read, Sir Jim said it was essential children knew how the alphabet worked and that it was a code to be understood.

“It’s not just barking at print, although that is a stage you go through,” he said.

Professor Coltheart, said he understood the new national English curriculum being written would include extensive material on the teaching of phonics in the early years of school, including phonemic awareness in the first year.

“This alignment between the national curriculum and the NSW guides for teachers is going to be of enormous benefit for the state’s young children. I hope other states will be following in NSW’s footsteps,” he said.

Sir Jim said the reading debate was a false dichotomy and the two sides had more in common than the extremists were prepared to recognise.

“A picture has emerged from the research that is overwhelmingly clear; I can’t see any conflict, they’re closer than they admit,” he said.

“I don’t understand why they can’t accept good evidence that would enrich both sides.”

The NSW Education Department has produced two guides, one focused specifically on phonics and a companion guide on phonemic awareness, or the ability to hear and manipulate the sounds that make up words.

In response to the myth that phonics knowledge is “caught, not taught”, the guide says letter-sound correspondences are arbitrary and therefore difficult to discover without explicit teaching.

“Left to chance or inference alone, many students would acquire phonics knowledge too slowly or fail to learn it at all,” itsays.

Another myth debunked is that teaching phonics impedes student comprehension by having them rely too much on “decoding” rather than “reading for meaning”, resulting in students “barking at print” without understanding what they’re reading.

“Effective phonics teaching supports students to readily recognise and produce familiar words accurately and effortlessly and to identify and produce words that are new to them. Developing automatic word recognition will support and enhance students’ comprehension skills,” the guide says.

  • Justine Ferrari, Education writer
  • From: The Australian
  • September 29, 2009