Competing against a balmy evening outside, we were delighted to welcome so many people to our debate this week on Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) and, specifically, the legacy of the 1978 Report of the Committee of Enquiry into the Education of Handicapped Children and Young People, otherwise known as the Warnock Report.
The report was hugely significant for how society thought about the education of children with, using the new terminology of the time, ‘special educational needs’ – encouraging these pupils’ inclusion in mainstream schools and pressing for their needs to be met as an entitlement. At the time, its recommendations were radical and, in the words of our first panellist, former Chair in Special Education at the IOE, Klaus Wedell, represented ‘a paradigm shift’. On the report’s 40th anniversary we wanted to reflect on how those recommendations have played out in practice and whether the time is ripe for another enquiry of the same scale and ambition. On the basis of our panellists’ contributions it would seem that it is – and for a paradigm shift that encompasses all pupils. As our second panellist, Vijita Patel, Principal of Swiss Cottage School, outlined, today the vast majority of pupils with SEND are based in a mainstream school. This is the result of the Warnock recommendations. The burning question is the quality of those pupils’ experience. Access is one thing, the educational journey from there quite another. The contrast between ‘being tolerated’ and ‘being accepted’ is a stark one.
Our discussion quickly homed in on language and definitions. Our third panellist, disability rights activist and Director of ALLFIE, Tara Flood, compared inclusion and integration: while the former infers system change and the removal of barriers, the latter suggests fitting in to pre-existing structures, which cannot work for all. In the same vein, award winning writer and actress Sally Phillips wanted to talk about ‘education’ not ‘inclusion’. Both rejected the language of ‘needs’ over ‘rights’.
For some, these are points of principle; for others, the discrepancies between such ideals and what has been possible in practice will have caused them to question the aspiration altogether. There are challenges (to put it mildly, as Sally Phillips so vividly conveyed) in formulating Education, Health and Care Plans, as was the case for the Statements of SEN that preceded them. Squeezes on funding have limited schools’ ability to adequately meet the needs of all their pupils. But, for all of our panellists, the impact of school accountability loomed largest. Successive governments have pursued high stakes testing and school league tables that are each focused on academic attainment. For mainstream schools, these measures run counter to, for want of a better term, an inclusive approach. They may also help to explain the high rate of exclusions among pupils with SEND. It would be remiss not to note how some mainstream schools have squared the circle, and how schools like Swiss Cottage are working to positive effect in the system, but these schools are still the exception rather than the rule.
Is it for schools to unilaterally adopt broader measures of their performance, or for the national system of accountability to more explicitly value all children and young people? This question applies for all pupils. What opportunities might a different accountability system open up, in curricular and pedagogical terms, to provide a more inclusive and more rounded education for all? Our previous debate on the implications for education of the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ highlighted the argument for a broader view of education.
Our panellists were clear that culture needs to change beyond the school system, not least among employers. Teacher training was also singled out for reform in our Twitter poll, suggesting that the emphasis should be placed on training as much as funding. What happens in our education system – the values it reflects and what it prioritises – is important in setting the tone. The Warnock Report helped us make great strides, but the wider talk of ‘crisis’ in the system for pupils with SEND shows the many tensions that have built up since. Any ‘Warnock #2’ might need to start with the more fundamental question of what education is for.
You can watch the debate in full, and our interview with Baroness Warnock, here.
Our next debates:
What if… we were able to say more about how the brain learns? – 15th May 2018, 17:45
What if… we wanted all kids to love maths? – 12th June 2018, 17:45