Category Archives: ASD

On autism, the complexity of need against ability and school placement issues


Outdoors portrait of cute 6 years old child boy

I have a friend I have known many years, since my twenties (oh, for those halcyon days again). Her son was born around the same time as my son, before my total immersion in the world of special educational needs. But her son’s progress and development did not track that of my son’s or that of most other children.

This young boy remained silent in his pre-school years. My friend’s dismay was charged to action. The children she thought were influencing her son’s silent world were banished from his life and new friends sought. In the search for schools, my friend approached a local and well regarded private school where small numbers meant her son’s fear of change and meeting new people could be accommodated. She was fortunate indeed to have that opportunity.

My friend’s son shone at music and reading. He was quite the academic and equally, excelled at sport, but friendships remained problematic and understanding social situations, even more so. There were meltdowns and difficult moments (the school’s expectation of all performing in the annual Christmas production!) But, this all-age, small in numbers, 4 – 18 school catered for this young boy’s needs and grew to know him and his idiosyncrasies with immaculate attention to detail.

I pondered my moment many times over whether to intervene, but on each occasion, was pulled up short with my friend, who would hear nothing of her son’s difficulties. Her focus was fixed on his ability – his music, his sport, his love of books and reading.

During my year studying Childhood Autism at Birmingham University School of Education, under the guidance of the brilliant Dr Rita Jordan and Dr Glenys Jones, I was more anxious than ever that my new found knowledge was put to good use. But still my attempts to support or offer suggestions, along the route of moving towards diagnosis, were rejected by my friend.

In the present day, my friend’s son has a 2:1 degree from a Russell Group university with a bright career ahead. Friendships and social situations remain problematic, but they are managed lovingly and carefully by the family and all those involved in this young man’s education and independent life.

The problems that I saw as being insurmountable, life-long and complex, have been surmounted., although they may always remain present. My friend’s decision to stay with, at all costs (and challenges in meeting fees) an all-age small private school, has paid dividends.

I wonder if this young man would have entered university at all, with a Statement of SEN for ASD? I wonder if his path through school would have been as secure, as supported, in a mainstream setting with all the funding and support allocated to children with SEND? 

Cases like this challenge our thinking and it is good to be challenged.

So, in recent times I have been intrigued to read of one woman’s battle to find the right school for her bright son with ASD, a battle that has progressed so far that she has opened up her own school – The Rise School, a free school for children with autism.

Every morning Alex Paulson, a nine-year-old boy passionate about astronauts, is picked up from his home in west London by minicab and driven to his new school in Feltham.

The school, which is housed in a prefab grey bungalow that resembles a Tube train, has no bells, no fluorescent lights and no more than eight pupils to a class.

Alex is a pupil at a pioneering free school for autistic children set up by his mother and two major charities. Frustrated at the lack of state and private-sector options, Charlotte Warner, a mother of three, set about doing the seemingly impossible, finding the funds, the people and the wherewithal to set up a specialist school from scratch. It’s called The Rise School, it opened in September and it has just 32 pupils, all of them autistic.

I see parallels in the approach this mother has taken, in establishing The Rise, in the model of provision chosen by my friend, astutely recognizing the difficulties her son would face in the large, rambling open spaces of the many state schools she had visited in her search for her son’s first school.

There are significant differences however.

My friend chose never to go along the route of diagnosis, despite a very clear understanding of the difficulties her son faced. In the case of The Rise, this school will accommodate the needs of those children with a diagnosis of ASD whose academic needs might otherwise (too often, I would say) be over-looked as the focus and scrutiny remains on difficulties and deficits.

I am interested currently in recent discussions with the parent of a child in Year 6 (UK schools) who has a diagnosis of ASD. The parents have expressed a preference for a local Grammar School to be a first choice secondary school for their child.

Now, here’s a challenge again.

How many of our Grammar Schools, if any, would say that they could meet the needs of a child with a Statement of SEN? The Statement alone would seem contra-indicative and point to needs a Grammar School is poorly equipped to meet.

Yet there is a logic and strength in the argument that this is the right place, on many levels, for a child with high academic ability and a need for structure and a working pace that begins at a challenging and appropriate academic level.  

I will be interested to follow the progress of this particular case, and, as with many, interested and keen to support the development of other schools based on the model of The Rise, after a period of transition and review.

The escalation in the numbers of children and young people being diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorder is a challenge and one that all local authorities must meet, with ever constrained resources. We are in danger, as a nation, of seeing only the difficulties, of the cost of meeting needs.

It is high time a focus was placed on the worth and value that young people with ASD bring to our schools and communities, and the untapped potential they offer to our leading universities and institutions. For that to be achieved and realised, we all must recognize the strengths and abilities of the children and young people with ASD we meet and work with, as part of our daily routines.

Wishing the best of fortune to mothers like my friend, and Charlotte Warner, and mothers around the world who recognize talent and ability in their children. It is time to come out of the shadows and shine!

Quotes about children

For more information about the University of Birmingham’s School of Education, please follow this link –

To find out more about The Rise at Feltham, follow this link –

To read The Guardian’s article on The Rise and Charlotte Warner (1st Nov 2014), please follow this link –


On the exodus of pupils with SEN from state funded to private education


“Over the past decade the number of pupils with special educational needs (SEN) in private schools has almost trebled, with an extra 52,594 taking places, according to a recent report by the Bow Group.

Some time ago I was asked to write a comment on the exodus of pupils with SEN from the state to the private sector. Before that request, I confess, I had not given this matter much thought. I was aware of many parents sharing concerns about their child’s stressful transition to secondary education, and about several local families who were considering private education for their sons and daughters, driven by a fear that if they did not act soon, they would not be in a position to choose, such were the troubles and problems they faced.

Here’s a link to a copy of the full report by the Bow Group –,%20the%20Truth%20about%20Inclusion.pdf

My own work and professional concerns more frequently lie with those young people whose lives are blighted by the double-edged sword of difficulty in addition to often deep-rooted social deprivation and lack of opportunity. I have raised my concerns this past 24 months with the Dept for Education and with Sarah Teather in particular, about the escalation of additoinally resourced provision, units, learning support centres, call them what you will, that house increasingly small numbers of pupils typically excluded from local mainstream schools. There lies a whole pandora’s box of trouble, and is a matter that disturbs me greatly.

But back to this request to add comment to an article for the Independent Executive ––  about the exodus of pupils with SEN from state funded to private education. Here is an extract from my article –

Many children and young people with special educational needs have been dealt a debilitating blow by both our previous and current Government and its educational policies. The inclusion agenda has been blindly adhered to, regardless of consequence, casualties or cost. There are many children and young people whose lives have been blighted by the inclusion agenda, which promises so much, but delivers so little. Discussions about education placement have been marginalized as issues of provision have come to the fore, so much so that in many local authorities, real and urgent debate about the future of young people excluded from mainstream schools is taken out of the public domain.

Mainstream secondary schools too frequently over-promise and under-deliver, when it comes to the reality of provision following primary-secondary transition. Parents are persuaded that the early difficulties their child experiences are settling in problems, transitory matters that will soon resolve themselves, but it is possible to anticipate that concerns on-going at six weeks after transfer, are likely to be more pressing concerns and difficulties, some six months later.

Parents who have been swayed by the hard-sell of mainstream secondary provision, are frequently disillusioned and disappointed by the lack of care and apparent concern of those professionals working in the school’s Inclusion or Special Needs Department for their child’s needs. The needs of the young person that were formerly prioritised by the primary school, are now sidelined by the secondary as other more urgent and challenging needs absorb all resources, time and personnel.

What our good private schools do well, is recognize the need that all parents have, for time to discuss their child, time to discuss the petty and minor concerns as well as those more significant matters, time to reflect on progress and celebrate success. It is this unburdening the load of parental responsibility, this joint sharing of concerns, that reassures and calms the parent who has reached a point beyond which, only trouble lies.  It is about giving time and attention to the needs of each and every individual.

Our state education fares poorly in comparision, although our best performing schools recognize that need to understand and know each and every child and each and every family, that make up its whole.

What parent wouldn’t be swayed, where a place in a private school is within reach, by the Headteacher who regards their child as an asset, as a cherished and valued member of the school community, over the Headteacher whose only contact with the parent is to issue warnings, to formalize parental contracts, to exert pressure… It sounds stark, unreal almost, a falsehood, but that is the reality some parents face – a visit here that reassures, a meeting there that terrifies and causes such a rush of anguish and concern.

The transition of a child from one school to another, house moves and relocations aside, almost invariably comes about after some crisis or breakdown in relationships, communications, confidence and trust. In my role as SEN Consultant, I have been invited to attend many multi-professional meetings, where the final outcome is a decision by the school to exclude a young person, to pass on the burden of responsibility to another, to exert such onerous conditions that the likelihood of a return to the same setting, is marginal.

As a parent, as an active member of my local community, I am aware of many parents who have felt a great sense of injustice, who have felt robbed of choice, compelled to accept ever more restrictive conditions, as their child’s problems at school escalate and the school closes its ranks and pulls up the drawbridge.

Both sides and courses of action, are understandable. It is this choice that parents seem to be making in their droves, where it is even remotely possible, to move a child from state funded to private education, that intrigues. Aside the Bow Group, I wonder how much more attention is given to this great and current matter?

Private schools that appreciate their true value and appeal to parents of children with special needs, may be in great demand as the exodus of children with special needs from the maintained to private sector is in its infancy.

The reform of our special needs system and the vast sweeping changes in our educational landscape may come far too late to restore hope to many parents who remain fearful for the future, and fearful for their children’s prospects of making a successful transition to adulthood and independence.

What parent, after all, does not want their child to have friends, to be a part of a community, to feel valued and wanted? What should be the birthright of us all, presents as an elusive dream to some.

My heart goes out to those young people whose difficulties render friendships problematic, whose learning needs isolate them from the social and academic lives of their peers, who  struggle to get by in an  often uncompromising environment.

I applaud the efforts of those school who take time to get to know not only the students in their care, but also their families, to really know and understand what is going on in that young person’s life. Private or state education – excellence comes in many forms. It is about who strives to make a difference.

 “Even the rich are hungry for love, for being cared for, for being wanted…”

Mother Theresa of Calcutta


On fear and excitement – a child’s perspective


I’m clearing out my closet, so to speak, disturbing much that has lain undisturbed for some goodly duration. It is cathartic, and has left me wondering at some of the earlier work I have carried out with children and young people through service level agreements with schools near and far.

So here, vastly abbreviated, is the summing up of a project on transition planning for Year 6 pupils in UK primary schools, shortly before transfer to secondary education. The comments of one young man in particular, impressed me with their clarity and perception.

The project was based over a 6 week period on secondary transfer. This session is on fear and excitement. What it is we fear most in the transition to a new school and what it is that excites most, that may help banish some fears at least, to a far away place. 

Here is the response of George, aged 11 years. George has a combined diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, with some specific learning difficulties.

I’m worried about –

  • Going to secondary school and not getting the work right
  • Getting told off for things that other children have done
  • Getting enough help – I don’t think I get much help anymore
  • Feeling some punishments are unfair because the teachers haven’t listened to me
  • My spellings and my literacy
  • New teachers not knowing me and my problems (my ADHD)
  • Sitting still and being told off for fidgeting even when I can’t help myself
  • Missing some teachers I’ve known for a long time
  • Having a good partner to work with in class – what if I don’t know anyone?

I’m excited and pleased about –

  • High School and finding some new friends
  • Collecting more football cards over the Summer
  • Getting some good comments and house points for my maths
  • Sports at the new school, football, swimming, cricket and hockey
  • Getting better at my spelling and writing with my Mum
  • Drawing and doing art lessons
  • Overcoming my dyslexia and getting better at reading and spelling

It is easy to think in this highly commercial age, that the wants and needs and aspirations of our young are material, about gain and acquisitions. I read through this project today and it was a salient reminder that for some young people, overcoming difficulties, having friends, feeling valued, having support needs met and fears allayed, are all-consuming desires.

We do well to heed the words of our young when they tell us what really is important, what matters. For when we do not listen, those needs will make themselves apparent by their actions, through fair means or foul, when words are no longer enough.

Inclusion – Thoughts on a Need for a Fresh Perspective


The following is my first article published by The British Psychological Society in Assessment & Development Matters, Vol 3  No 1 Spring 2011 –

I was asked to extend my thoughts on a particular conference speech I had given for the Westminster Education Forum on ‘Next Steps for Special Educational Needs’. I have hoped to capture and crystalize my thoughts on on our current educational climate and some of the key concerns of our age.

Inclusion or Special Schools – the Future Direction for Policy

Mainstream or special school – thoughts on a need for a fresh perspective

This article is written prior to the publication of the Department for Education’s Green Paper on Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND). My interest lies in how our discourse around SEN has been constrained so that the language of failure of policies or doubt in our ideology is erased from the equation. Whatever the outcomes, our inclusion agenda endures as an untarnished ideal, enshrined in a climate of fear that permeates all areas of decision making: a fear of offending current political sensibilities; of dissent and tribunals; of league-tables and Ofsted ratings.

Provision v placement

What has been lost in this past decade is a capacity for open discussion between all stake-holders of issues relating to effective provision for young people with SEN against a relevant curriculum, within appropriate settings.  These issues extend far beyond notions of mainstream or special school and extend to issues of curriculum, of current examination and qualification systems and of external school support for SEN.

This lack of capacity is compounded by a rapidly changing landscape whereby 2,662 establishments have opened since 1997. In the same period, 4,420 schools have closed, including over 200 maintained special schools, an action that has sent sharp messages to schools and parents about the desirability and sustainability of specialist provision.  Hard hit has been provision for pupils with moderate or severe learning difficulties, with specialist and enhanced resource provisions closing their doors to future intakes.

Issues of provision have dominated the agenda at the expense of much-maligned issues of placement. The gulf that exists between mainstream and special education is exacerbated by a curriculum that serves the needs of our SEN population poorly, affording them neither academic success nor technical or vocational skills or qualifications.

Number of establishments opened in England since 1997    Number of establishments closed in England since 1997  
Type of establishment
City technology college 0 City technology college 12
Academies 130 Academies 0
Community 1,065 Community 2,548
Community special 172 Community special 374
European schools 2 European schools 0
Foundation 37 Foundation 66
Foundation special 0 Foundation special 5
Voluntary aided 208 Voluntary aided 316
Voluntary controlled 106 Voluntary controlled 218
Non-maintained special school 19 Non-maintained special school 14
Independent mainstream school 532 Independent mainstream school 779
Independent schools catering wholly or mainly for pupils with SEN approved under Section 347 of the 1996 Education Act 19 Independent schools catering wholly or mainly for pupils with SEN approved under Section 347 of the 1996 Education Act 17
Independent schools catering wholly or mainly for pupils with SEN not approved under Section 347 of the 1996 Education Act 372 Independent schools catering wholly or mainly for pupils with SEN not approved under Section 347 of the 1996 Education Act 71
Grand total 2,662 Grand total 4,420


(Source: Daily Hansard: Written answers – 6 November 2008 Column 766W)

Policy challenges and opportunities at school and Local Authority level

The following challenges arise from my work at the chalk-face with schools, pupils and families and in collaborative and consultancy work with public and private sector services:


  • Discussions of placement, erased from the agenda, must re-enter the discourse of children’s needs
  • There is a need for an informed school workforce with an understanding of the breadth and range of SEN and high expectations of success for all pupils.  “Even for pupils at School Action Plus level and with Statements … provision was often not meeting their needs effectively, either because it was not appropriate or not of good quality or both.” (HMI Ofsted, 2010)
  • There is a need to reduce an emphasis on identification of SEN based on literacy and numeracy attainment at key stages, where that may not in itself denote a special need
  • The needs of many young people with behaviour, emotional and social development (BESD) and Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD), frequently marginalized in our schools, should be prioritized where evidence indicates these categories of SEN are our long-term and high-cost SEN “…pupils with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties (BESD) were disadvantaged in that they were the least likely to receive effective support and the most likely to receive support too late.” (HMI Ofsted, 2006)
  • A move away from the ‘steam-roller’ approach to inclusion that prioritises mainstream inclusion even where a young person’s access to that education is curtailed through exclusion or other means, will support greater collaborative working. This challenge was outlined by Ofsted in 2006:  “Mainstream and special schools continued to struggle to establish an equal partnership. Good collaboration was rare.” (HMI Ofsted, 2006)
  • There is a need to act accountably and recognize that the collective silence of LA services about the quality and reality of mainstream SEN provision and outcomes for many young people is not helpful
  •  The need to plan for long-term pupil needs is paramount in our strategic and financial planning. This remains a challenge several years after The Audit Commission’s Local Government Summary stated that “Council budgets are rarely based on the full unit cost of forecast need, and financial planning does not often extend beyond one year.” (Local Government Summary 2007)


  • Recognizing local, regional and national educational establishments, including independent sector special schools offering residential 38 or 52 week care and education, should form a continuum of provision to guide our decision making in meeting pupil needs.


There is a need to distance ourselves from the constraints of the past, from the chains of the inclusion agenda. We all play a part in focusing attention on what matters: securing a quality of education, of life chances and opportunities for young people with SEN. It should be permissible, possible and desirable to consider issues of provision, of a relevant curriculum and of placement. Only when we can truly state the reality of a situation, can we plan for a more flexible and effective approach to managing pupil special needs.



The Special Educational Needs and Disability Review: A Statement is not enough.’

HMI Ofsted Ref:  090221/2010


Inclusion: does it matter where pupils are taught?

HMI Ofsted Ref: 2353/2006)


Out of Authority Placements for Special Educational Needs –

SEN Audit: Local Government Summary 2007

Gove’s Vision for Education & Special Needs


The title is a misnomer, actually, because I am referring to a vision that Michael Gove set out at a debate on special needs on 1st February 2010, prior to the General Election and the formation of the Coaltion Government.

In a rather roundabout way, I have come across my notes from this meeting, which I attended on the invite of Michael Gove and Sir Robert Balchin, at the Westminster Debating Hall just over one year ago.

Generally, I would say I am more efficient in my note-taking and store endless notes and files on numerous visits and meetings, not always with an end outcome in mind,  but in the event that in such an eventuality, they are available.  In this instnace, I am remiss, because, despite there being much that is of interest here in filling a few gaps for me in my understanding regarding this Coaltion Government’s view on SEN, I clearly failed to do anything with the notes I made at the time.

So, here are very abbreviated notes that arise from a debate on special educational needs, on 1st February 2010, at Westminster, from a range of speakers on the day, and from Michael Gove’s key note speech to his audience. It was actually, an inspiring day because it brought together the diverse views of many who would not normally stand shoulder to shoulder, or see eye to eye, on such matters and raised, for genuine debate, many important issues.

Where I have quoted extracts, as much as I can reliably ensure, these are verbatim, taken from Michael’s Gove’s, or others, address on that day and reflect phrases or words emphasised in some way.

Michael Gove set out a vision for the future of special educational needs that emphasised the need for parents to be in the driving seat, that lessened the adversarial nature of the tribunal system.

Gove commented that it is not necessarily about a need to lower ‘expections of academic achievement’  but that it may be necessary to ‘adjust our expectations’. There are many genetic, environmental as well as educational factors influencing special needs. There is a need to separate out special needs, disability and medical conditions, needs that are not usually clearly defined.

Groups of parents, including charitable trusts, should be able to fund and create new specialist schools based on models developed in Sweden and the USA, to replace the 9,000 special school places lost over the past decade.

Schools that have been deemed outstanding at Ofsted inspection, should have the right to be self-governing Academices. Maintained special schools could also take advantge of that move to Academy status.

At this point, the mother of a child with Autistic Spectrum Disorder was asked to describe her experiences of setting up a school for her child with ASD.  This school is now known as the Rainbow School. Forgive that I do not have in my notes the name of the lady speaking. Here is an extract from the Rainbow School site –

“The Rainbow School is an independent special needs school for children with autistic spectrum disorders. Rainbow School is located on two sites (primary and secondary) in Wandsworth, South West London and was founded in 2000 by parents of children with autism.

Rainbow was the third school of its kind to be opened in UK, the School offers a structured programme of intensive intervention based on the principles of Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) and Verbal Behaviour(VB). We provide pupils with a broad and balanced specialised curriculum adapted from the National Curriculum. All of our pupils receive one to one teaching throughout their day, as well as opportunities for small and large group work.

We are a non-profit making charity (no. 1082599) registered with the Department of Children, Schools and Families, (no. 212/6405). We are also registered as a company in England and Wales (no. 4041459)

Founded in 2000 we can currently accommodate up to 20 children with diagnoses of ASD from 5-12 years.

From September 2010 we have received DfE approval to cater for up to 50 children and young people with autism”

My notes include the following comments from this speaker:

‘The new school was established initially in a pre-fab hut on the site of a mainstream school. It began with 3 chhildren, and was not classed as a school initially because the numbers were too few.

In September 2002, there were 4 children attending and in 2010, there are 18 – 20 children within the existing space. Planning pupil intake and finding premises has been the biggest challenge. Colleagues in special schools have been very supportrive. The biggest challenge to the schools future has been money & premises.

This new school took on a big gamble in taking on commercial debt to fund new premises to enable up to 50 children to attend. The progress children are making in this school is incredible.’

A further contribution to Gove’s speech was made at this stage in the meeting by Mr Chapman, the Head Teacher of a Special School and the first to seek Grant Maintained status in the early 1970s. At that time, central costs of running the school went from 13.1% to 1% of the overall budget. All teachers were required to take on further training in SEN – (I have this recorded as a PGCE in SEN, but I am uncertain if my note-taking is accurate here).

Inclusion is often interpreted in very politically correct terms. Mr Chapman is a strong advocate of inclusion that includes an access to social activities, to education, to a community. Examples given included taking part in country dance lessons in a wheelchair. There is a need for ‘legitimate peripheral participation’. It is quite okay for young people to be to be on the periphery of an activity, participating on own terms.

Local Authorities use the argument of the Every Child Matters agenda to prevent an individual approach to inclusion. The concept of ‘congruence’ is used as a controlling mechanism by Local Authorities. There is the possibility of greater autonomy for special schools that is not always compatible with the needs of Local Authorities to provide unified services.

Back to Michael Gove’s address.

Local Authorities like to control ‘change and development’. Many children with special educational needs need not be on the SEN register. There is a ‘system generated population’ of children, for e.g. everyone falling below national expectations of Key Stage SATs targets is assumed to have special educational needs.

There are perverse incentives for schools to have more children on the SEN register – value added means that schools can go up in the league table ladder, for including more childrne with special educational needs. Many schools play the funding game.

The Conservative Party ‘Commission on Special Needs in Education’ proposes to lift assessment of SEN out of the processes for SEN. A proposal to procure the services of a willing provider of assessment.

The Special Needs Profiles (SNPs) promoted in the Commission on Special Needs in Education, would replace the current system of Statements of SEN.

State funded special schools often do not cater for the most challenging pupil needs, which are then met by out of authority private providers at high cost.

Many examples were given from the ‘audience’ of examples of out of county placements, and I noted at this stage in the debate, there was the first sign of a heated exhange, as many of those attending wished to give their perspectives, as parents of childrnen with SEN, as Head Teachers of Special or Mainstream Schools, and as heads of various services, about the failure of mainstream and state-maintained special schools to meet individual needs.

Examples given included – the funding of an out of county provision at £70,000 per year for a young man with ASD, where a local autism unit at a cost of £11,000 failed to meet this young person’s needs.

A speaker from Youth Justice argued that the cost of keeping a young person in a prison or young offender institution averged at £400,000 per year (a figure reading back on my notes I find hard to believe, but have no good reason to doubt my accuracy). An argument was put forward for much earlier intervention and support by CAMHS (Children and Adults Mental Health Services). A comment was made that there are many individual providers meeting individual needs, but the battle is for a greater value for money in provision and outcomes.

There was much debate around the need for joined up thinking and shared funding between Health, Education and Social needs and around the needs of parents and children in rural communities not to be neglected, where often, their access to specialist provision lay in schools that were very far removed from the locality. An example was given that typically, in Norfolk, a young person must travel around 100 miles per day to access maintained day, specialist provision.

Michael Gove responded to some individual questions, in particular, to comments around the joined up service delivery of Education and Health.  He stressed the importance of creating services and supportive environments in the early years, including work with parents to prevent social deprivation being a further factor in a young person’s life.

Discussion moved back to Special Schools. Where special schools show they are excellent or outstanding at Ofsted inspection, they can consider (under Conservative plans) converting to Academy status.

The need for a key worker to be involved in the life of all children with special needs was discussed with ideas mooted for the increased role of the Health Visitor in playing a key part.

Michael Gove gave a plea for all intersted parties to make a response to the Conservative Party Commission on Special Needs in Education, with the comment that there is a need for all to be very specific and precise in focus and argument in responding to the Commission’s report as ‘it is details that change strategy and policy.’

And here we reach the end of my notes, and my little nostalgia trip for the past and for a glorious opportunity that helped me feel a part of that wider debate on education, and special needs. I do feel very privileged to have been invited to attend and take part on that day, an occasion that I found very inspiring and worthwhile.

Reading back on these notes and creating this blog post on the basis of my recall and still, untidily assembed notes, I am drawn to a certain caution, about the accuracy of all the finer detail, and who precisely was speaking when that was said, or that…

I am also drawn to a strange sense of deja vu, as many events and conferences I’ve attended of late, have expressed very similar sentiment and views, to those expressed by Michael Gove, on 1st February 2010, long ‘ere the General Election and his rise to Education Secretary as part of the Coalition Government. In particular, I am struck by the remarkably similar findings of the Ofsted Review of SEND in the Summer of 2010.

Much to mull over. Do leave your thoughts. I shall endeavour to contact the Rainbow School and establish the accuracy of my note taking and who was the speaker for the day. If there is anything here you feel merits revision or is stated inaccurately, please do let me know and I shall be keen to revise.

with my regards.

How Green Was My Valley?


Specialist Colleges for Young Adults with LDD: Our Past or our Future?

I have been privileged to discover something about the kinds of provision that may be offered within the rarefied world of the Specialist College for young adults with learning difficulties and/or disabilities (LDD), most, if not all, under the protective arm of Natspec –

As I write this blog-post, the sun spreads its warmth through my study windows and BBC Radio 3 is playing Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, which seems most fitting, somehow.

I am pondering what part the specialist college may play in the mixed economy that is our provision for children and young people with special educational needs, post-the SEN Green Paper: Support and Aspiration. In doing so, I am trying to fathom if the ideals and values enshrined in such colleges, reflects our past or our future?

My knowledge of specialist colleges, of all the intricacies of their timetabling, their intake, their aspirations, their educational and vocational outcomes, is evolving. I owe a debt of gratitude to Ruskin Mill Educational Trust for opening my eyes to the wealth of opportunity that exists for many young people with LDD, post-16, and for inviting me to visit two of their specialist colleges , The Glasshouse College in Stourbridge, West Midlands and The Ruskin Mill College near Stroud, Gloucestershire. But to clarify, this blog is not a marketing pitch for either or a commissioned piece that will extol the virtues of both through rose-tinted spectacles. It is my observations and perceptions of what is happening to provision for young people with SEN/LDD as we rest on the precipice of a new order, post this long-awaited Green Paper.

How Green Was my Valley? I have taken the title of this blog from the1939 novel of the same name by Richard Llewellyn. That sense of nostalgia, for a golden era, for the halcyon days of a youth long past, seems fitting.  In the landscape and setting of these specialist colleges, enhanced as many are by vast acres of farm and woodland, how can we not say, how green is my valley?


The view at Ruskin Mill College, Gloucestershire, gives a glimpse of the beauty and tranquillity of the landscape and of the harmony that exists in abundance in the natural world, with the helping hand of man –

How do we harness the glory of our natural heritage for the good of our young people with LDD yet still meet the demands of those who distribute funding or who sit in judgement of its outcomes – the Young Person’s Learning Agency (YPLA) and Ofsted respectively?

NATSPEC (The Association of National Specialist Colleges) is a membership of over 70 independent specialist colleges providing ‘inclusive further education for learners with complex learning needs and/or disabilities.’ Independent Specialist Colleges (ISCs) provide FE for over 3,800 learners who require a personalised learning programme and multi-disciplinary specialism and support to make their transition to adult life.

Whilst NATSPEC’s membership is modest and its provision across its 70 colleges, would seem to represent a very small minority of our students with LDD, the aspirations of many of its member colleges are high, celestially so, in some cases. Talk of accessing ‘the four elements of Earth, Water, Air and Fire through the three Kingdoms of Nature’ or of working with ‘hand, head, heart and place’ (Ruskin Mill Educational Trust – Vision, Values, Purpose and Method) abound in college literature. Frequently the influence of Rudolph Steiner, William Morris and others seeps through so that trying to understand the practicalities, of what actually happens, may be a slippery concept, something that detracts from the romantic rural idyll of these special places.

Yet ponder these matters I must.

The value of the specialist college in transforming lives

There is no doubting the value of the specialist college, that selection of the most appropriate educational placement, in transforming the lives of young people with LDD. I do not for one moment question that real transformations are taking place. What I query, perhaps, is how much difference this experience may make to the trajectory of that young person’s life, if after the three-year placement, the end outcome is a return to low-paid, subsistence level menial work, or at worst, a dependence on families, friends and the state for the next six decades of that person’s life?

How much more could be done for young people with recognized SEN /LDD if such experiences and placements, part-time or otherwise, could be made accessible at a much earlier stage in that person’s life – 14 – 16 years perhaps, or 11 – 16 years for some students?

What more could be done if, in addition to re-engaging students with learning and in that love of the land and purposeful work that is so enshrined in the values of many specialist colleges, there was also a redoubling of effort to achieve a higher level of academic skills, including business skills, so that the student left the placement with so much more than a craft or skill that, with the best of intentions, is little likely to lead to prosperity, despite the high price we attach to hand-made artisan goods.

It is a pity that the case studies provided by NATSPEC in ‘Celebrating Achievements’ have not included any student who has gone on to prosper, to earn their living, however precariously, by using the artisan skills they have acquired through their placement.

The American based site Common Good Market shows a remarkable dedication to promoting the work of many artisans and crafts people –  I do not know its equivalent in England, but this is surely inspirational stuff for the specialist colleges of England and Wales.

The co-founders of Common Good Products, Rick and Elizabeth Conrad, have, I believe in common with the ideals behind many specialist colleges, a notion that they are making a difference to the local economy, to driving social change by mindful choices about what they buy and produce.

We have fully committed ourselves to supporting and fostering a new vision about economic, environmental, and social change—by buying and promoting locally produced goods. 

This is why we decided to start Common Good Market. We hope you will join us in making a commitment to become more purposeful in the decisions we make about the products we buy for our homes and our families.’

Rick and Elizabeth Conrad, Co-Founders

Common Good Market

But here I am drifting from my theme.

I ponder how best the skills and competencies of these young people may truly be measured, if, as I have heard say, students may achieve a level of competency in some craft areas in six months, that is the equivalent of that achieved by apprentices, over a three-year placement? I would that there were so, and that there may be evidence that matches the claim, that holds tight to scrutiny, that has a value in the reality of the market place.

I must finally refer to a report that is remarkable in its claims, though unsurprising, and one that I am astounded has not attracted more media attention. I suspect the timing of its launch on 11th March 2011, shortly after the publication of the SEN Green Paper has not helped, and of course, I may be vastly underestimating its significant impact. It is the DEMOS report on The Forgotten Half – a Demos and private equity foundation report by Jonathan Birdwell, Matt Grist and Julia Margo. It is available to download for free from

The DEMOS report claims that whilst graduate unemployment has repeatedly hit the headlines since the start of the recession, it is the 50 per cent of young people who do not go to university that are the least protected in the labour market.

‘The Forgotten Half explores the school to work transitions of these young people. It finds the educational offer is severely lacking and makes recommendations for how to provide the employment premiums that will give this forgotten half of young people a fair shot at the labour market.’

Of this 50%, a significant further percentage will have special educational needs and/or disabilities.

I said at the start of this blog that I am pondering what part the specialist college may play in the mixed economy that is our provision for children and young people with special educational needs. I do not know that I have answered that at all in my meanderings. I am sure of the place and value of these colleges. Perhaps, I am not convinced, that those who fund, who deliberate provision and placements, and commission services, are as aware as they could be of the high value of these specialist colleges.

I am not certain, also, if the colleges themselves truly appreciate their value in an increasingly competitive market-place with a vision that is not clouded by a sentiment for the past.

Special needs & inclusion – WEF speech


I was invited to speak at the Westminster Education Forum special needs seminar on 2nd November 2010, at the glorious home of the Royal Society, London, a splendid setting for a vigorous debate from the collective wisdom of many in education. 

I was asked to contribute, as one of a panel of five speakers, each giving their perspective on the state of SEN & Inclusion today.  Here is my contribution, which will later be published within the SEN seminar handbook through

WEF – SEN Provision – the next steps.

The prospect for change in our policy and direction is upon us.  Absolutely, we were sold a dream of an inclusive utopia, of an education system that was designed to meet the needs of all but a very small minority of children. That dream has become a living nightmare for many of our young people with special needs and for their families.

Localised interpretations of the inclusion agenda have constrained service professionals, many of whom, not much more than a decade before, were sending all and sundry to maintained specialist provision, according to the prevailing policies of the time.  

The pendulum has swung so far in the opposite direction, driven by a flawed ideology that has dictated the practices and policy of many, at the expense of some of our most vulnerable young people.

We have some opportunity ahead to stem the tide of despair and frustration at the failure of our inclusion agenda, yet I fear we are in danger of becoming dazzled by the side-show of free-schools, that we forget where our attentions should lie.   

I hope we have some opportunity for change, for a new perspective that does not seek to distance itself from the past, but uses the past to inform our better understanding for the future.

Undoubtedly there were errors made in the past that condemned the lives of many young people to one, where a bleakness of outcome, a dearth of opportunity, became the norm through the move out of mainstream into specialist provision.

I recall, still, families who fled from a fear that their children’s lives would be blighted by the stigma of special school, made more unpalatable by their own experiences in the very same school not so many years before.

Ironically, now we see that a bleakness of outcome, a dearth of opportunity, exists for many young people whose needs have been marginalized in this drive to secure our inclusive utopia.  For them, opportunities to have an education and a curriculum that is fit for purpose, are few.  

I spoke of localised interpretations of inclusion that have driven an agenda to its extreme. Many young people with special needs are casualties of a hostile war of attrition in which parents’ battle on, frequently alone, against schools, local authorities and health and education professionals. There may be conflicting views on what constitutes appropriate provision between many services, but always, there is a united voice that promotes still the virtues of a mainstream education.

I am not talking about months of disrupted education, of temporary setbacks or minor defeats. I am talking about the many wasted, destructive years in the life of young people whose needs remain so poorly met and inadequately understood.

If such tight reins have been held over access to our within county, specialist provision, what chance our young people may benefit from the very great advances in specialist knowledge, treatment and education, our independent special schools, at their best, can offer?

Yet even here, at the end of the road, as it were, for our young people, there is a sense of resignation as we come to recognize that the majority of students entering 38 or 52 week residential care, will never achieve any real sense of independence or autonomy over their own lives.

Choose where we spend our finite resources, the needs of all should be our priority to address as early as possible. Where we scrape, pinch & economise, where we down-play, minimise & marginalise the needs of young people so their profile fits what may be possible to address in our mainstream schools, we do not do ourselves justice. We do not do our young people and their families’ justice.

There are many, whose needs have not been met, or have been met too late to make a difference. We see our evidence for this across a range of contexts, not least in –

  1. The increase in the number of exclusions from primary and secondary mainstream schools;
  2. The growth in our Additionally Resources Provision that could populate many a new school build;
  3. The increase in the number of tribunals over assessments and placements;
  4. The demand for places in our maintained specialist provision and
  5. The demand for 52 week residential special school places in the independent sector;
  6. The escalation of our NEET population;
  7. The pressure on our residential care services for young adults with special needs &
  8. The drive to increase capacity for life-long residential care for adults with special needs.

For young people, who may be born with an access all areas pass at birth, life presents challenges enough, without our burdening of their lives with the needs of others, in some mistaken belief that our actions will make virtuous saints of us all.  Children need their childhood.

The increase in strategies that use peer support to address special needs should alert us to the reality that many young people in our schools are placed with intolerable burdens of care for the needs of others.  

To be included, to be a part of a community, part of a society, big or small, we need to be able, as a very basic requirement, to commune with others, to have friendships. Many of our mainstream schools do not provide that community.

Perverse financial incentives drive many schools, desperate for secure funding, to hold onto young people with complex needs, long after the point at which their needs are being met.

However we dress up the language, however we parade the charade of inclusion, we do not do our best by our young people when we blindly follow an ideology that has failed a generation of our school population.      

I have chosen three policy challenges for government to address that matter to me personally:

(1)   The need to ensure that specialist services across health and education are available as a first priority, and not as a last resort, in our identification and assessment of special needs;

(2)   The need to move away from matching the most complex needs of young people with our least skilled and lowest paid members of the school workforce;

(3)   The need to take seriously the concerns of all young people, who fear for their safety and well-being in our schools, whether as a consequence of their own special needs, or as a consequence of the needs of others.

With my regards to you always

Heather M Stack