we’re all different

We’re all different. Tiny variations in our DNA before and at conception. Our parents smoked/didn’t smoke, drank/didn’t drink, followed ideal/inadequate diets, enjoyed robust health or had food intolerances, allergies, viral infections. We were brought up in middle class suburbia/a tower block and attended inadequate/outstanding schools. All those factors contribute to who we are and what we are capable of achieving.

That variation, inherent in all biological organisms, is vital to our survival as a species. Without it, we couldn’t adapt to a changing environment or form communities that successfully protect us. The downside of that inherent variation is that some of us draw a short straw. Some variations mean we don’t make it through childhood, have lifelong health problems or die young. Or that we become what Katie Ashford, SENCO at Michaela Community School, Wembley calls the ‘weakest pupils‘.

Although the factors that contribute to our development aren’t, strictly speaking, random, they are so many and so varied, they might as well be random. That means that in a large population, the measurement of any characteristic affected by many factors – height, blood pressure, intelligence, reading ability – will form what’s known as a normal distribution; the familiar bell curve.

 The bell curve

If a particular characteristic forms a bell-shaped distribution, that allows us to make certain predictions about a large population. For that characteristic, 50% of the population will score above average and 50% below average; there will be relatively few people who are actually average. We’ll know that around 70% of the population will score fairly close to average, around 25% noticeably above or below it, and around 5% considerably higher or lower. That’s why medical reference ranges for various characteristics are based on the upper and lower measurements for 95% of the population; if your blood glucose levels or thyroid function is in the lowest or highest 2.5%, you’re likely to have a real problem, rather than a normal variation.

So in terms of general ability that means around 2.5% of the population will be in a position to decide whether they’d rather be an Olympic athlete, a brain surgeon or Prime Minister (or all three), whereas another 2.5% will find everyday life challenging.

What does a normal distribution mean for education? Educational attainment is affected by many causal factors, so by bizarre coincidence the attainment of 50% of school pupils is above average, and 50% below it. Around 20% of pupils have ‘special educational needs’ and around 2.5% will have educational needs that are significant enough to warrant a Statement of Special Educational Needs (recently replaced by Education Health and Care Plans).

Special educational needs

In 1978, the Warnock report pointed out that based on historical data, up to 20% of school pupils would probably have special educational needs at some point in their school career. ‘Special educational needs’ has a precise but relative meaning in law. It’s defined in terms of pupils requiring educational provision additional to or different from “educational facilities of a kind generally provided for children of the same age in schools within the area of the local education authority”.

Statements of SEN

The proportion of pupils with statements of SEN remained consistently at around 2.8% between 2005 and 2013 (after which the SEN system changed). http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200506/cmselect/cmeduski/478/478i.pdf https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/225699/SFR30-2013_Text.pdf

It could be, of course, that these figures are an artifact of the system; anecdotal evidence suggests that some local authorities considered statutory assessments only for children who scored below the 2nd percentile on the WISC scale. Or it could be that measures of educational attainment do reflect the effectively random nature of the causes of educational attainment. In other words, a single measure of educational attainment can tell us whether a child’s attainment is unusually high or low; it can’t tell us why it’s unusually high or low. That often requires a bit of detective work.

If they can do it, anyone can

Some people feel uncomfortable with the idea of human populations having inherent variation; it smacks of determinism, excuses and complacency. So from time to time we read inspiring accounts of children in a school in a deprived inner city borough all reading fluently by the age of 6, or of the GCSE A*-C grades in a once failing school leaping from 30-60% in a year.  The implication is that if they can do it, anyone can. That’s a false assumption. Those things can happen in some schools. But they can’t happen in all schools simultaneously because of the variation inherent in human populations and because of the nature of life events (see previous post).

Children of differing abilities don’t distribute themselves neatly across schools. Some schools might have no children with statements and others might have many. Even if all circumstances were equal (which they’re not) clustering occurs within random distributions. This is a well-know phenomenon in epidemiology; towns with high numbers of cancer patients or hospitals with high numbers of unexpected deaths where no causal factors are identified tend to attract the attention of conspiracy theorists. This clustering illusion isn’t so well known in educational circles. It’s all too easy to assume that a school has few children with special educational needs because of the high quality of teaching, or that a school has many children with SEN because teaching is poor. Obviously, it’s more complicated than that.

What helps the weakest pupils?

According to Katie what ‘the weakest pupils’ need is “more focus, more rigour and more practice if they are to stand any chance of catching up with their peers”.   Katie goes on to unpack what she means. More focus means classrooms that aren’t chaotic. More rigour means expecting children to read challenging texts. More practice means practicing the things they can’t do, not the things they can.

Katie’s post is based on the assumption that the weakest pupils can and should ‘catch up with their peers.’ But it’s not clear what she means by that. Does she mean the school not needing a bottom set? All pupils attaining at least the national average for their age group? All pupils clustered at the high end of the attainment range?  She doesn’t say.

In a twitter discussion, Katie agreed that there is variation inherent in a population, but

katie ashford bell curve

I agree with Katie that there is often room for improvement, and that her focus, getting all children reading, can make a big difference, but improvement is likely to entail more than more focus, more rigour and more practice. In an earlier post Katie complains that “Too many people overcomplicate the role of SENCO”.   She sees her role as very simple: “I avoid pointless meetings, unnecessary paperwork and attending timewasting conferences as much as possible. Instead, I teach, organise interventions, spend lots of time with the pupils, and make sure teachers and support staff have everything they need to teach their kids really, really well.

Her approach sounds very sensible.  But she doesn’t say what the interventions are. Or what the teachers and support staff need to teach their kids really, really well. Or what meetings, paperwork and conferences she thinks are pointless, unnecessary and timewasting. Katie doesn’t say how many children at Michaela have statements of special needs or EHCPs – presumably some children have arrived there with these in place. Or what she does about the meetings and paperwork involved. Or how she tracks individual children’s progress. (I’m not suggesting that statements and EHCPs are the way to go – just that currently they’re part of the system and SENCOs have to deal with them).

What puzzled me most about Katie’s interventions was that they bore little resemblance to those I’ve seen other SENCOs implement in mainstream schools. It’s possible that they’ve overcomplicated their role.   It could be that the SENCOs I’ve watched at work are in primary schools and that at secondary level it’s different. Another explanation is that they’ve identified the root causes of children’s learning difficulties and have addressed them.

They’ve introduced visual timetables, taught all pupils Makaton, brought in speech and language therapists to train staff, installed the same flooring throughout the building to improve the mobility of children with cerebral palsy or epilepsy and integrated music, movement and drama into the curriculum. They’ve developed assistive technology for children with sensory impairments and built up an extensive, accessible school library that includes easy-to-read books with content suitable for older kids for poor readers and more challenging texts with content suitable for younger kids for good readers. They’ve planted gardens and attended forest schools regularly to develop motor and sensory skills.

As a child who read avidly  –  including Dickens – I can see how many hours of reading and working through chapters of Dickens could improve the reading ability of many children. But I’m still struggling to see how that would work for a kid whose epilepsy results in frequent ‘absences’ of attention or who has weak control of eye movements, an auditory processing impairment or very limited working memory capacity.

I’m aware that ‘special educational needs’ is a contentious label and that it’s often only applied because children aren’t being taught well, or taught appropriately. I’m utterly committed to the idea of every child being given the best possible education. I just don’t see any evidence to support the idea that catching up with one’s peers is a measure of educational excellence, or that practicing what you’re not good at is a better use of time than doing what you are good at.

Section 7 of the Education Act 1996 (based on the 1944 Education Act) frames a suitable education in terms of an individual child’s age, ability and aptitude, and any special educational needs they may have. The education system appears to have recently lost sight of the aptitude element. I fear that an emphasis on ‘catching up’ with one’s peers and on addressing weaknesses rather than developing strengths will inevitably result in many children seeing themselves as failing to jump an arbitrary hurdle, rather than as individuals with unique sets of talents and aptitudes who can play a useful and fulfilling role in society.

I’d be interested in Katie’s comments.

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