How philosophy and theatre can help us value profoundly disabled people

John Vorhaus

A series of philosophical questions arise from reflection on profound disability and dependency, with implications not only for profoundly disabled people, but for all of us at some stage in our lives. A few thoughts about our moral status will illustrate the point, with  help from the world of theatre.

What does our moral status depend upon?  A common response is the capacity for autonomy and rationality. But not all human beings have much of either. What about the importance of human relations and relationships? But where would that leave the lonely or unloved? Belonging to the same species? For some this is just a matter of biological taxonomy, yet for others it is of the upmost moral significance, a reminder that we are all ‘fellow creatures’.

Philosophers think about these features of humanity in strikingly different ways. Some explore the meaning of a human life and the language we employ to understand it. Others emphasise empirical enquiry, looking especially in the direction of the neuro- and cognitive sciences. People with profound and multiple learning difficulties and disabilities (PMLD) present a challenge. What exactly is their moral status? They lack what many see as the hallmark of moral agency – a capacity for rational autonomy.

When thinking about these questions it can help to get one’s head out of a book and spend time with parents, carers, teachers, interpreters, therapists – and theatre directors. Tim Webb first set up Oily Cart over thirty years ago, producing “all sorts of theatre for all sorts of kids”. His company offers interactive, multisensory theatre to profoundly disabled children, and what it provides is not only ‘theatre’ as you or I might understand this, but an experience of smelling, hearing, touching, and feeling a rush of fanned air against your face. It’s a world in which, as Lyn Gardner of The Guardian described one performance, “soundscape, sensory diversions, colour and water come together in a liquid world of enchantment”.

The work of Oily Cart – what they bestow on the children, and what they succeed in bringing out of them – whether a smile, stilled attentiveness, or chuckling pleasure – is a wonderful thing to behold: magical, sensitive, clever, pretty, thoughtful, imaginative and –above all – a world which reaches inside the children, exciting their senses and imagination, and making an intimate connection with a group of human beings who number amongst the most dependent and hard to reach on earth.

Possibilities abound: how theatre might reveal what someone is capable of that might otherwise be thought impossible (adults watching on sometimes cannot believe their eyes); how the subtlest enticing of the senses might draw out and enliven a previously inert and ‘unreachable’ child.  And while these children may never participate in politics or anything like it, they might succeed in contributing to a theatrical event, becoming – if only momentarily – members of a group sharing in a common human endeavour.

These possibilities are open to ridicule as the product of sentimental wishful thinking. But the thoughts inspired by theatrical work of this kind are not to be dismissed out of hand. We are shown how a human being may surprise herself, and us, when brought alive by something captivating, becoming part of something beautiful that she will not see for herself, but which she is yet contributing to and representing. Thoughts of this nature, prompted by remarkable theatre, and a remarkable and exceptionally vulnerable group of human beings, are worth reflecting on when thinking about the contours of their moral status, and ours.

John Vorhaus’s forthcoming book, Giving voice to profound disability: dignity, dependence and human capabilities, will be published by Routledge next year.

Education about Europe is not a panacea but does promote European identity

Avril Keating

The European Parliament (EP) elections won’t take place until the end of May, but campaigning is already well underway. In Britain, much of the recent debate has focused on the impact of UKIP on the national political landscape, and its apparent ability to attract new voters and influence the electoral strategies of the more established political parties.

While UKIP makes for interesting headlines and analysis, this focus obscures the fact that turnout for these elections is likely to be low. Only 35% of people in England voted in the 2009 EP elections. Across the EU, turnout has remained ‘stubbornly low’ and by some measures is even declining. Participation rates among young Europeans were even more alarming; only 29 per cent of 18-24s voted in the 2009 EP elections, a figure that is 14 percentage points below the European average and 4 percentage points less than young people in this age group voted in 2004.

This downward trend in youth turnout has prompted EU policymakers to redouble their efforts to raise participation among young European citizens. At times such as these, it is not unusual to hear policymakers and commentators call for young people to be taught more about European integration while they are at school. Knowledge among the general public about European institutions, policies, and citizenship has consistently been low (regardless of age), and this lack of information is believed to be one of the key reasons that EU citizens do not vote in EP elections.

Providing information through schools would seem to be a natural and efficient solution. After all, schools are a key site of socialisation and citizenship learning, and nation-states have long used this forum to provide children and young people with the information, skills, values and norms of national citizenship. Likewise, the European institutions have for many decades encouraged their member states to provide a ‘European dimension’ to their school curricula and to teach young citizens about the history, culture, institutions, and languages of Europe. Over time, member states have gradually adapted to this proposal, and the latest Eurydice review of citizenship education found that all EU member states (and most candidate countries) now have a European dimension to their citizenship education, at least at lower secondary-level education, but often throughout formal schooling.

But does education about Europe ‘work’? We know that individuals with higher levels of education are more likely to vote and to support European integration, but in the past, few studies have examined whether introducing a European dimension to the school curriculum will have a similar effect. However, data from the 2009 International Civic and Citizenship Education Study (ICCS) allows us to consider this question, and it provides a somewhat mixed picture. On the one hand, this data suggests that students who have more opportunities to learn about Europe at school are more likely to report having a European identity and are more likely to report positive attitudes towards freedom of movement for EU citizens. Individuals with higher levels of European identity are, in turn, more likely to vote in EP elections and support European integration. Yet the data also suggests that in and of itself, education about European issues made little or no difference to students’ intentions to vote in EP elections in the future.

In short, if the goal is to create active European voters, simply including more information about European issues in the school curriculum is clearly not sufficient. Indeed, for a more immediate impact, policy activists may wish to concentrate their efforts on media and political campaigns, which have been shown to have a stronger relationship with voting preferences. This is not to say that education, and education about Europe, is not important. Rather, it simply underlines that education is not a panacea for Europe’s democratic deficit, and that simply tinkering with the education system, or proposing more education, will not bridge the gulf between the political actors and citizens of Europe.

Seeking to address this gap is particularly important at this critical juncture in the European political project. The financial crisis that started in late 2008 has damaged not only the European economy but also the relationship between governments, citizens and the European institutions. And it is worth noting that the decline in EU support has potential implications not just for European integration, but also for power and politics in the national arena. In particular, a rise in Euroscepticism is associated with an increased likelihood of voting for radical right-wing parties, who are skilled at exploiting dissatisfaction with European integration.

At this critical juncture, citizenship-projects are in an unusually high state of flux, and it is still too early to tell what the long or medium term implications may be for the relationship between political institutions and their citizens, be it in national or European arenas.

In this often tumultuous context, it is not clear that European citizenship will be viable or desirable project in the future. But regardless of its medium and long-term prospects, EU citizenship at least, is currently a reality and therefore its citizens deserve to be informed about their rights, how the institutions work, and how they can seek to influence these institutions. For this reason, then, we need to continue to seek to understand the role that education plays in this process – be it in schools, policy texts, or informational campaigns, and regardless of one’s beliefs about European integration and EU membership.

Avril Keating is an ESRC Future Research Leader and a Senior Lecturer in Comparative Social Science at the LLAKES Research Centre. She is the author of Education for citizenship in Europe: European policies, national adaptations and young people’s attitudes, which will be published by Palgrave Macmillan this month.

AERA reminds us that education research is part of a genuinely global discourse

Chris Husbands

The annual conference of the American Education Research Association cannot really be described: it has to be experienced. Every year, it attracts almost 20,000 education researchers, not just from North America but from the entire English speaking world, and, in the last decade, increasingly from East Asia. So any individual experience of the conference must still be partial.

For five days, AERA takes over the downtown of a large American city, so the sheer logistics of running the annual conference must be mind boggling. The conference programme is the size of a telephone directory and about as readable: even the app which has been available for the last few takes some navigation. You have to really know what you are looking for to master the search function, but if you only want to browse it’s difficult – although the AERA2014 app does contain abstracts for the thousands of papers.

In essence, AERA is not one conference but several. AERA is organised into 12 divisions, from administration, organisation and leadership (Division A) through to Education Policy and Politics (Division L), taking in Measurement and Research methodology (Division D) and Learning and Instruction (Division C) with much else besides. Each division runs several parallel sessions at any one time. Then there is the conference of the highlights: the large, set piece lectures and panels led by genuine global stars such as Diane Ravitch (this year on the challenges of quality and equality), Andreas Schleicher (this year on why we should care about international comparisons), Charles Payne (in 2014 on the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act) and Linda Darling-Hammond (on issues in the validity of high stakes assessments): their sessions fill the ballrooms of large hotels, standing room only.

Then there is the conference of the post-doctoral researchers, for whom AERA is a grand hiring fair – a good 20-minute performance reporting on your doctorate to a room of perhaps nine people can be instrumental in landing a prestigious position. And of course there is the conference of the corridors: knots of people meeting up to compare experiences of research funding and research policy, to complain about their miserable lot, to plot and to scheme and to gossip, to broker deals and agreements – people who have not seen each other since San Francisco last year and won’t meet again until Chicago next year.

And the range is huge: to deploy some (all too frequently observed) stereotypes, sessions on structural equation modelling led by earnest young think tank econometricians in sharp blazers, sessions on the endless reverberations of race in American education full of lively, disputatious people of colour, sessions on urban school reform led by harassed school superintendents looking for better teacher or school evaluation strategies.

This year’s conference (April 3-7) was in Philadelphia – the conference is always in one of those vast American cities where a wrong turn at one block will take you into parts of town where you’ll come across urban Americans uninterested in the finer points of methodology – and its over-arching theme was “the power of education research for innovation in practice and policy”. Barbara Schneider (Michigan State University), this year’s president, chose to speak about the “college mismatch problem”: why American teenagers from poor backgrounds apply to universities of lower status than their grades could get them into; Ruby Takanishi from the New America Foundation and Rachel Gordon from the University of Illinois looked at what we are learning from universal preschool education.

There are major methodological innovations: the impact of learning analytics on the knowledge base for lifelong learning, what the evidence is saying about recent immigration and its consequences for education. But all this makes it sound too ordered. Opening the telephone directory programme randomly I find ”an Australian perspective on inequality and education”, “blacks, hip-hop and the sociocultural milieu”, “dental school deans’ perception of dental education costs”, ”does teacher and student race congruence help or hinder student engagement in ninth grade science”, “ the common core standards and teacher quality reform” , and “comparing three estimation approaches for the Rasch Testlet model”: and on and on through literally thousands of sessions.

It’s almost impossible to discern trends, though economists seem to be growing in number and influence; ‘big data’ and its promises and pitfalls pre-occupy more people; and even in America – that most inward looking of melting pots – questions of international comparison and globalisation are more than ever in evidence. Being at AERA is a reminder of the similarities and differences between American and English experience in education.

There are some common themes: the relationships between quality and equity, between social structure, education experiences and performance, between the dynamics of research and the dynamics of policy. Others look similar but are really different: academies, for example, are not, in the last analysis, quite the same as charter schools. Others are genuinely different: the American experience of urban school reform is not the English experience; America’s experience in curriculum reform and teacher education has been quite different from England’s.

AERA is always simultaneously disorienting – you inevitably feel you are in the wrong place, that there is a more interesting and important session just around the corner – and energising – thousands of exceptionally able and engaged people enthused about education, and above all reminding us that education research is part of a genuinely global discourse.

How I failed to meet the criteria for Blob membership

John White

We have known for some time that Michael Gove has taken up arms against ‘The Blob’. This is his name for an amorphous group of people opposed to his policies from the educational world, including teacher unions, local authority officials, and academics from university education departments. But only now, thanks to his ally Toby Young’s new Civitas pamphlet, do we have a definitive idea of ‘The Blob’ and what it stands for.

He tells us that “They all believe that skills like ‘problem-solving’ and ‘critical thinking’ are more important than subjectknowledge; that education should be ‘child-centred’ rather than ‘didactic’ or ‘teacher-led’; that ‘group work’ and ‘independent learning’ are superior to ‘direct instruction’; that the way to interest children in a subject is to make it ‘relevant’; that ‘rote-learning’ and ‘regurgitatingfacts’ is bad, along with discipline, hierarchy, routine and anything else that involves treating theteacher as an authority figure” (p2).

He later adds to these criteria of inclusion ‘the belief that children are essentially good’; a view of learning based on ‘as few facts as possible’; and an ‘epistemological relativism’ according to which ‘no one point of view is more valid than another’ (pp. 4-5).

I am one of the two Institute people identified in Young’s pamphlet and in the Telegraph as belonging to ‘The Blob’. Before I read the details of its membership requirements, I was delighted with my new badge of honour. But now, having absorbed them, I see regretfully that I am not in ‘The Blob’ after all.

I do not denigrate subject knowledge. I want students to learn plenty of good science, history and geography. True, I don’t think that constructing the curriculum should begin with taken-for-granted blocks of subjects rather than overall aims, but that’s another story – and one that my colleague Michael Reiss and I have recently told.

I am not opposed to ‘direct instruction’ where appropriate. I accept that some rote learning may be helpful on occasion. I am not in favour of indiscipline, or opposed to all routine. I do not think that children are naturally good, but would argue that they learn to be kind, fair, thoughtful and so on through habituation into these virtues. I have always been opposed to the idea that knowledge is relative. It is true that London is the capital of the UK and daffodils come out in spring. If someone thinks something else, it is false that their point of view is as valid as anyone else’s.

I can give Toby plenty of evidence, if he wants it, to back up the claims I’ve just made about my beliefs: I know he’s a stickler for knowledge. Mind you, he can have his lapses. He says, for instance, that I think that knowing the names of the Kings and Queens of England is a middle class perspective. I don’t know where he got that from.

As I said, I have to conclude from all this that, although in all sorts of ways I’m opposed to Gove’s policies, I’m not a member of ‘The Blob’. More alarmingly, I don’t think I know anyone who is. Perhaps if you are reading this and feel you meet the criteria laid down, you will say so. In this way we could begin to draw up some kind of membership list.

Meanwhile, I’m beginning to wonder whether anyone belongs to ‘The Blob’. Has Toby’s imagination made the whole thing up?

Election 2015: education is too important for politicians not to intervene

Chris Husbands

What should be in the 2015 election manifestos? This was the question for a public debate at the IOE in March, run in conjunction with The Independent. One of my colleagues, in an email explaining that he could not attend, had a short, sharp answer: the single word “less”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it wasn’t a line pursued by our panellists: two former secretaries of state (Estelle Morris, now a Labour peer, and Kenneth Baker, now a Conservative peer), a former director-general for schools in the DFE (Jon Coles, now chief executive of an academy chain) and the chair of OFSTED, Baroness Sally Morgan.

Perhaps the most striking feature of the evening was the degree of overlap, if not quite agreement between the panellists. Jon Coles argued that there is now a political consensus in England about most major education issues and that politicians and the public worry much less about the wider purposes of education than some specialists: it’s about breadth and depth, about skills for life and creativity.

And this consensus ran through the evening. It was Kenneth Baker, the Tory architect of the 1988 Education Reform Act, who argued that the so called ’royal route’ of GCSEs, three A-levels and university, was producing too much graduate unemployment, and Labour’s Estelle Morris who argued that in vocational education we are still living with the failures of the 1944 tripartite system.

Jon Coles – from many years’ experience of policy implementation – said that vocational education really demanded consistent political will over a decade to embed a national programme. And what was true of vocational education was true of other topics: the panel agreed that the national curriculum had defined a core entitlement for learners – itself worth having – but too frequently was taught in ways that were inimical to the skills required in the workplace: group work and collaborative working (Baker), or the development of persistence and resilience (Morgan). As Estelle Morris pointed out, government, almost by definition is not good at stimulating creativity in the curriculum – that depends on teachers.

Jon Coles developed the theme, wondering what it would feel like if we did genuinely have a much more confident school system. In curriculum, assessment and teaching, there was a view – actually put from the floor, but capturing the spirit of the panel – that the radical reforms of the last four years have defined the policy territory for the foreseeable future: academisation will not be rolled back, the curriculum has been decisively re-shaped and assessment reform has been extensive. The challenges for the next parliament may well be pressing but unglamorous ones: securing enough school places in the face of rising rolls, addressing the challenges of school governance in a system in which education is provided by 25,000 autonomous institutions, developing a common and reliable funding formula. Across the panel there was unanimity that publicly funded schools should not be run for profit – despite some noise from think tanks – and a concern, articulated by Sally Morgan that whoever is in government after 2015 will face a growing issue over financial probity in school funding.

Sharp challenges came from the floor: a recently retired London headteacher posed the very real challenges created by the tight accountability framework for heads dealing with the challenges of poverty. Another questioner pointed up the challenge of ensuring high quality careers advice. And another the challenge of community cohesion.

Most of the debate focused on the school system, and, within that, most of it had a strongly secondary flavour. It was Sally Morgan who highlighted the challenge that policymakers face in joining up big ideas, arguing that – on a 15 year time scale – if we really want to raise attainment at 16 and 18 and reduce NEETs we need to invest in ‘school readiness’ in the early years.

There was a sense that the next five years will be a demanding slog in education policy, and Jon Coles encapsulated it all, suggesting that after years of change in what he called the ‘tectonic plates’ of education we needed a period of policy stability. Whether that delivers the “less policy” my colleague looked for is another matter: education is too important for the politicians not to intervene.

Teaching against the odds: education and the criminal justice system

Brian Creese, NRDC (National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy)

A few years ago I filmed a group of young people in a young offenders institution. The group was doing car maintenance and I found it an enjoyable if slightly nerve-racking experience. What sticks most in my mind, however, were the comments from the Head of Learning. Teaching in a prison, he said, was like gathering all the most difficult, challenging and awkward students you have ever met across all your years of teaching and putting them into one class.

Many teachers, he told me, don’t last their first week. If they do, however, they will probably teach in prisons for the rest of their lives.

In general we think education is a ‘good thing’ for prisoners. Most governments accept that it can help prevent re-offending. In some countries it is even considered a human right.

However, there has been a change of attitude recently in the UK: the current government views education mainly as a way of improving a prisoner’s chance of gaining employment on release, and Ministers would actually prefer to see prisoners working than learning.

Many ex-offenders attest to the beneficial impact of education in prison, and some academic studies back them up, though most are too nuanced and subtle to support any overt political policy. Ideally, of course, education and work experience together give prisoners the best chance; the publicity around the recent opening of the ‘Clink’ restaurant at Brixton prison suggested that only one of the 80 or so prisoners involved in these schemes has ever re-offended.

All this is why I was interested to read the report “Prison Educators: Professionalism Against the Odds”, from the University and College Union (UCU) and Centre for Education in the Criminal Justice System (CECJS), at the IOE. The research is based on a survey which was returned by over one fifth of all prison teachers, and it tells us a great deal about this group. They are older than the average for further education, and better qualified but less well paid, with fewer holidays. This workforce is positive about the benefits of education in prison, highly motivated and enthusiastic – but many seem to be slowly giving up.

I’m rather glad I’m leaving prison education. I feel so sorry for my colleagues remaining in this downhill spiral. The young inmates are so suffering in lack of education it’s appalling to see inmates and teachers used as pawns by college, prison and government. Trouble is no one can breathe a word of this to the outside community, so it continues while society believes the inmates are where they should be. But surely without some help from good teaching staff this will never be corrected.

Prison teaching is overseen and funded by – another acronym – OLASS, the Offender Learning and Skills Service. The current regime is actually OLASS 4 because the current system is a result of the fourth re-tendering in its nine-year history. Not surprisingly, this constant re-tendering leaves teachers feeling insecure and unsettled. OLASS 4 also saw the introduction of ‘payment by results’, which, say teachers, disadvantages those prisoners who need education the most.

Payment by results is all very well but it actively discourages low ability learners from attending any form of education because they are unlikely to complete the course within the specified time – so the provider doesn’t want to take the risk of them failing and costing them money. 

Prison teachers are experienced, enthusiastic, well qualified and have a passion for their work. But this survey suggests that prison education is no longer seen as a viable career and is losing its potential to play a positive part in the rehabilitative process.

I strongly believe the current policy of payment upon results is totally WRONG – there should be a policy to help offenders once they are released from prison, currently they are thrown out with no support, often with nowhere to live, and no job – prison education is not valued by employers therefore the offenders feel they have no option but to reoffend to get a roof over their heads. Rehabilitation of the offender is not working at the moment.

The picture I gained from reading these distressing accounts from teachers is of a service dying a death by a thousand cuts. The prison population is hovering at just under 85,000. We send a greater proportion of our population to prison than any other country in Europe and they spend longer incarcerated than in other European countries. Rehabilitation must surely be the overriding aim of the service, not simply the narrow focus on job skills.

Education needs to be a central plank of the prison system. Prison teachers must be properly rewarded and supported and, perhaps most of all, valued.

Self-improving school system: will it be survival of the fittest or team effort?

Toby Greany

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog that trailed some of the ideas from my inaugural lecture on 18 March. In it, I identified four criteria for a self-improving school system and I set out four distinct policy approaches that the Government is following simultaneously and some of the tensions and issues that that causes.

The big risk here is that a two-tier system will emerge, in which the confident schools and leaders thrive, but the remainder struggle because they do not have the capacity to self-improve.

Now I want to suggest some possible ways forward. My thinking here starts with an acceptance of David Hargreaves’ core argument that if England’s 21,000 schools are to be autonomous, with minimal external support, then most of them will need to work in deep partnerships that provide challenge and support and that meet the needs of every child.

We know that achieving such deep partnerships is intensely difficult: according to the OECD, partnership is a vulnerable strategy – all it takes is for one school to break ranks and act competitively and its partner schools will feel intense pressure to do the same.

When I work across local areas I do see some genuinely exciting partnership arrangements emerging, whether as part of academy trusts, teaching school alliances or other local responses to change.

But the wider picture I see is much more mixed. Often, a group of visionary head teachers in an area is working hard to develop school-led approaches, but they complain that other schools aren’t really engaging and contributing.  When you talk to those other schools they often feel oppressed by accountability, which prevents them from looking out beyond their school, and/or they feel suspicious about the motives of the visionary heads.

So what might be done? The Government’s current approach is all about reducing central and local support in the hope that a self-improving system will spontaneously emerge.

Instead, I think we need to recognise that the system needs more time and support to develop deep partnerships that meet the needs of every school and every child.  Some areas are more mature than others in terms of how schools are working together, so we need a differentiated ‘local solutions’ mindset. In less mature areas schools need help to build their capacity to take on more. Such help might include the facilitation of workshops for Governing Bodies and heads to shape a shared vision, support for emerging system leaders and rigorous evaluation and feedback loops.

So here are some recommendations:

  • develop a revised, coherent vision for reform that is focussed on supporting the development of a self-improving system for all schools, including by stopping or reshaping policies (such as market-based reforms) that detract from that vision
  • create a budget for building capacity. I would do this by topslicing 0.5% of the existing schools budget, the Schools Block Allocation.  This would provide around £150m per year, of which 100% should be made available to schools
  • adopt Ofsted’s proposal in the Unseen Children report for local area challenges in the lowest performing areas
  • make Teaching Schools more sustainable and more focused on impact
  • offer funding that higher performing areas and partnerships could bid for if they had a credible proposal for how they would pass greater responsibility for school improvement to schools over time
  • develop evidence-informed teaching, including by pausing any further expansion of School Direct until an evaluation has been concluded to understand what works.

I can see two possible scenarios for the journey we are on towards a self-improving system.

The first is drawn from Mortal Engines, the amazing series of books by Philip Reeve.  In a post-apocalyptic world, London is the first city to move itself onto wheels, so that it can then devour and asset strip the other cities and towns in its path, forcing their citizens to work as slaves.  Of course, the other towns and cities follow suit by moving themselves onto wheels, and the world quickly descends into a brutal fight for the survival of the fittest.  As this happens, an entire belief system – known as municipal Darwinism – emerges to describe and justify the culture that has developed: the epitome of a two-tier system.

The second is the Tour de France: cyclists competing in a tough professional sport with clear and consistent rules, supported by expert coaches and the best equipment money can buy. The critical point here though is that even though cycling appears an individual sport, it’s very much a team effort: the national teams work together, for example by taking turns in the lead in order to break wind resistance.  If the lead cyclist gets a puncture then the whole team will wait for him to get back on the road.  If they are successful they share the prize money.

I think we’re seeing both scenarios playing out on the ground.  Collaboration will always remain vulnerable to the stronger competitive pressure, so policy must do more to help make sure it is not crushed.

Be careful what you wish for: parents, professionals and the new SEN system

 Rob Webster

The long-awaited Children and Families Bill has now achieved Royal Assent, paving the way for new reforms that will overhaul how the needs of children and young people with special educational needs (SEN) are assessed and met.

In September, a new accompanying Code of Practice comes into force, initiating a three-year process of replacing SEN Statements for those with the highest level of need with more comprehensive Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs).

Families deserve a responsive and efficient SEN system. The changes to statutory assessment (the process leading to an EHCP), which expressly places the child at the centre of consultations with local authorities (LAs), were prompted by, and are designed to address, long-standing concerns relating to parents’ expectations and confidence in the SEN system.

However, parents are still likely to enter the assessment process in the hope of securing one-to-one support from a teaching assistant (TA) – particularly when their child’s needs can be met in a mainstream school. Under the outgoing system, support is quantified in  TA hours. Many agree ‘TA hours’ are the accepted currency of Statements, and as things stand, are likely to feature in the new EHCPs.

With the best of intentions, schools have sustained arrangements heavily reliant on TAs in the name of inclusive practice. The new Code of Practice, however, suggests a move away from the widespread ‘default model’ of one-to-one TA support. It emphasises the significance of ‘high quality teaching’ and gives a coded warning about how ‘special education provision…is compromised by anything less’.

Behind this warning appear to be findings from the recent Making a Statement study (which I co-directed with Peter Blatchford) on the day-to-day teaching and support for pupils with high-level SEN. We tracked 48 Statemented pupils in mainstream primary schools and found they had a qualitatively different educational experience compared with their non-SEN peers, characterised by having fewer interactions with teachers and classmates, and almost constant and lower quality support from a TA.

Put together with results from our previous research, which found that pupils with high-level SEN receiving the most TA support made significantly less academic progress than similar pupils who received little or no TA support (even after controlling for SEN), we see a worrying trend: pupils with Statements are negatively affected by the very intervention intended to help them.

The new Code is encouraging, as it reinforces how every teacher is responsible and accountable for the development and progress of every pupil in their class. TAs have a very useful role to play in making this work in practice, but it also requires a fundamental rethink about how schools manage teaching and provision for vulnerable learners, and how they ‘do’ inclusion.

For me, more needs to be done to manage expectations when families – hoping for the magic bullet of TA hours – start the statutory assessment process. SENCos, educational psychologists and new SEN ‘champions’ (among others) have a crucial role to play here, as these are the people with whom families tend to deal with first when a request for assessment is sought.

Their work and training must reflect the research evidence that provides a clear warning of persisting with the dominant, TA-heavy model of provision, and (depending on the professional) provide alternative guidance in the form of appropriate and effective pedagogical techniques.

None of this is to say that parents should ‘get real’ and accept whatever cash-strapped LAs can afford; nor that most parents have unreasonable expectations of the SEN system. The key issue is that, from the very start, those working in the best interests of the child need to do more to help parents understand that the quality of support their child receives really is more important than the quantity, and propose arrangements that follow this principle.

Statutory assessment is a rigorous and evidence-based process. The new SEN reforms make it incumbent on educationalists to approach SEN provision in the same manner.

For more on the research, visit www.teachingassistantresearch.co.uk.