Tonight I find myself unexpectedly emotional. I couldn’t tell you exactly why – it could be that last week I spent the majority of my children’s waking hours at work, in meetings, on theatre trips, and planning things for other people’s children. It could be that it has become clear that despite all my hopes that child 1’s fine motor issues could be resolved, dealt with, made disappear, it is now clear that this is probably not the case, and he will be coping with it for the rest of his school life. It could be that the government’s plans for tougher tests for seven year olds has made me, more than ever before, realise that I don’t want my children to be part of an education system in which the government insist on testing small children for no reason other than to force the school to show their progress. It could be that when I stare this education system in the face I can’t see any way in which my child, my lovely, complex, sweet, generous, clever, unique, wonderful boy, will navigate his way through it and not feel like a failure.
And as I’m thinking of him, I wonder how many other children in Britain there are like him. Children with a specific educational need, children whose worth and ability and intelligence can’t be seen in a written test, children who no matter what the school and the teacher put in place, will never manage, in this system, to do as well as their counterparts – the ones without an additional need, the ones like my daughter who can pick up a pencil and write, the ones who have never known the despair of not being able to hold a pencil the way they need to, the ones who ‘can just do it’. And worse, those children like him who don’t have parents who have the confidence or the knowledge or the money to help their child in the way they need just to level the playing field just a little.
I’ve never felt that the education system fails SEND children before. I’ve been proud of how well the SEND children I’ve taught and been responsible for have done. I’ve been proud of the differentiation that we’ve put in place and the access arrangements systems that allow us to try to level the playing field. I’ve had incredibly talented SEND students, all of whom have been amazing in different ways. I’ve never thought I work within a system that lets them down – because for some children they don’t. And over the last twelve years since I started teaching, I’ve seen so many SEND students flourish.
But as Nicky Morgan and her cronies backtrack to an era of education that should be long, long gone, with its emphasis on testing and favouring the more able and complete and total lack of trust in any school or teacher to track the progress of their students themselves instead of continually demanding more data to test the schools, I find myself fearing more than ever for child 1. In his head, he’s an able child. He reads way above his age, devouring three or four novels a week. He has perfect verbal comprehension. He spells beautifully. But he can’t get any of this down on paper. And he’s part of an education system that depends so heavily on tests that all of these skills and talents he has lose their brightness, lose their specialness – because they’re submerged under all that he can’t do.
He, if there can be such a thing, is one of the lucky ones. He has had exceptional teachers, who have always, and continue to, recognise his skills and his ability and encourage and push and chivvy him. He has a school with an excellent SEN co-ordinator, who is determined he won’t be left behind and gives me more hope for him every time I speak to her. He has a lovely TA who chivvies and encourages and pushes, and scribes for him when he needs it. He has parents who are educated and confident enough to work the system, to demand what he needs, and to pay for what he may not get in a funding-challenged state system. And I am so grateful for all of this.
But, in the end, none of this makes up for the fact that he goes to school every day and has to write much, much more than what he is capable of. He doesn’t want to go to school as much as he used to, because he has to write all the time. And the reason he has to write all these pages? The reason he’s being pushed to write pages at the age of six? Because the government have decreed that our children, who in other countries would be yet to start school, have to be good enough writers that they can be tested at the age of seven. Children who should be developing a real love of learning, be experimenting, be problems solving, be reading or being read to, who should be discussing, inquiring, resolving – instead they’re sitting at desks writing, writing, writing and preparing for tests that will tell us next to nothing about their actual progress – in order that the government can check that schools are doing their jobs properly. And when or if he doesn’t make the progress the government think he should, the school will be held to account for the fact that they didn’t do enough, or his needs weren’t identified early enough, or just simply that there’s a seemingly inexplicable gap between his progress and that of the child sitting next to him.
The gap, Mrs Morgan, comes from your system and your tests and your lack of ability to recognise children’s differences. It’s ironic really, given Ofsted’s focus on personalised learning, when nothing in these tougher tests you propose could ever promise to look anything like personalised learning. And I understand that I could rant all day and never make any difference, because you believe that you are doing what’s best. But your best isn’t good enough. Really. Because in this system that you seem so proud of, real children are getting lost. Real children are being made to feel like failures. Real children’s lives are being damaged for ever.
Try closing the gap on that.