Category Archives: Education

On art and creativity, the Royal Academy Why & How Conference & magnetic moments

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Stellar Adler

“Life beats down and crushes the soul and art reminds you that you have one.”

Stellar Adler, American actress and acting teacher, (1901 – 1992).

There are moments in my working life when I feel truly blessed and thrilled beyond words at the invitations that find their way to my inbox. There are times also, when I wonder what path I have set out on, that is so challenging, lonely at times, devoid of recognition or appreciation. But that is another matter.

An invitation from Molly Bretton, Access Manager at the Royal Academy, London, to deliver the opening keynote presentation for their second annual Why and How Conference – engaging children with SEN in creating art and cultural experiences, has been one of the greatest delights of my professional life. I have loved this event, Saturday 19th March 2016, truly, madly, deeply.
Royal Academy
Here is the Reynolds Room, the venue for my opening Reith-style lecture, and closing panel discussions. The logistics of hosting a conference taking multiple gallery rooms on a busy working Saturday seemed vast, but all was handled with ease and efficiency.

I have been impressed with every aspect of the event – the venue, unfamiliar to me (guilty confession, keen to make amends), the programme, the workshops, the food, the people. Perhaps I should say ‘the good people’, echoing Susan Potter’s closing comments. It has been a journey of discovery, with so many magnetic moments. Of which, more…

This conference invitation has also held challenges for me in several weeks of deliberations: what shall I say, what form will my presentation take, am I using visuals, can I really expect an audience to listen to me, alone, for the duration of my allotted 50 minutes delivery time? I am of a mind to think, how shall I occupy my time now the writing of this great beast of an 8,000 word lecture, is complete. Or at least, the significant part of my task is over. My bibliography is still a work in progress.

I will not revisit my lecture here, but instead, the thoughts that flood my mind are the abundance of good, joyous, uplifting conversations with strangers who have been as dear to me as the most familiar of friends. There have been so many remarkable, inspiring, ridiculously funny and moving moments, borne out of the passion, insight and hard work of so many individuals and teams, setting out to inspire and bring creativity to an audience that includes some of our most vulnerable young people in society.

In my lecture I referenced a phrase I heard once on the radio, some years ago, but never did discover its origins. So I have seized upon it, eager to popularise its use. It is ‘magnetic moments in time.’ They are the moments that create a lasting imprint on the mind, so that, long after the details and minutiae are forgotten, there is an impression there, that lingers and attaches itself, like a magnet to our heart.

There have been so many magnetic moments this day.

In the workshop, Illustrating a journey of engagement with children with SEMH, the presenters, Jhinuk Sarkar, Robin Johnson of Keddleston Schools and Matthew Johnson, Outreach Officer at Nuneaton Museum and Art Gallery, shared some of the museum’s Inuit artefacts. Aside the very serious matter of how best to engage with young people with SEND, the workshop allowed us to explore the artefacts and create our own block prints. It was the most unexpected delight! I have to confess, though, finding the artefacts in much demand, my attention was caught by some fine bust of a gentleman on display in the Saloon.
November 2015  - February 2016 314

I suspect I shall not be in great demand for my print-making, but I am so keen to find further opportunities to explore this beautiful craft.

In the past I had some fanciful notion I would attempt to recreate the William Morris prints of animal and nature, scenes that I so love on post-cards and wrapping paper. And then, and then, create for myself prints of my own design on wrapping paper. How simple it all looks, but how complex the design and detail…

William Morris prints

 

 

Little way to go, huh?

 
The second workshop I attended, Understanding Creative Empowerment for Children and Young People with Learning Disabilities, with Corali and Greenside School, was also breathtakingly fantastic, unexpected, slightly surreal and almost spiritual in its beauty. Coralis use a partnership, performance-led, mixed-media methodology to provoke and discuss inventive and original ways that children and young people with LDD can be artistically and creatively empowered to engage with the arts.

Corali are the heroes of my heart. Whatever your audience, children, young people with LDD, adults, the corporate world, emotional and mental health and well-being, the potential is huge. I feel bereft already that I am missing my dancing partners, as we swirled and swooped and caressed and tip-toed on our precious object, inspired by the environment, a stretch of red velvet fabric.

What a privilege also, in a one hour workshop, to be gently encouraged to move and dance and create, and to conjure up such inventive scenes, around flowers, a bowl of fruit and a piece of red velvet. My words cannot do justice, but I was, and am, captivated. I loved the gathering around to watch the instant video playback of our shared movements, and performing as a group before a video backdrop of our earlier work.

In all the excited chatter with my fellow dancers, we decided that we each took on different persona, as we played and indulged our inner creative selves. One lady in the group was constantly tuned to practical uses of our precious red velvet; another erupting into bull-fighting drama and peek-a-boo scenarios, with another using the red velvet to soothe and caress. (I was told I was majestic, with my red velvet, so I will stay with that, thank you).

Sadly, I did not have time to attend all the workshops on offer, but with such a richness of choice, and in such a beautiful setting, how could delegates fail to be impressed?

Bringing together events like The Royal Academy’s Why and How Conference, is a challenging task. It takes great insight, courage, tenacity and flair to bring such diverse elements of a complex and ever expanding field of expertise together, in one venue. My hat goes off to Molly Bretton for a truly inspirational event.

I must also mention the precious joy of meeting colleagues I have only conversed with by phone, or have met too little – Noel Hayden, SEN Programme Manager from the Museum of London and Dermot Dolan, Training and Partnerships Manager of Whizz-Kidz. Dermot’s cheery greeting was the sweetest moment.

And then, there were the post-event discussions and far ranging chatter with Molly Bretton, Rachael Christophides, who so expertly chaired the close of day panel discussion, and Paul Anderson Morrow, artist, teacher and workshop presenter. Well, that was a world in itself. A brilliant end to a perfect day! Slight matter of my missing my last train home, aside.

chinua achebe

Art is man’s constant effort to create for himself a different order of reality from that which is given to him. Chinua Achebe (1930 – 2013) Nigerian novelist, poet, professor and critic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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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 – 

http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/schools/education/index.aspx

To find out more about The Rise at Feltham, follow this link – http://www.theriseschool.com/

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

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/primaryeducation/11200657/Inspiration-for-life-in-the-mainstream.html

On holidays, Summer and that end of term feeling

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Portrait of happy pretty mixed race child by side of poolI feel a pang of envy today (Friday 18th July) for my colleagues and counterparts in schools and local authorities across the country, whereby this day marks the end of term and the real start of Summer.

I gave up the luxury of the long Summer holidays in 2002, when I first launched out as Director of Learning Services (SEN) Ltd, bringing an independent special educational needs consultancy service to a number of schools in Warwickshire and North Oxfordshire. Goodness, how long ago that seems, before delegated budgets and an open market-place for services were the norm.

There are many things that compensate that loss of the privilege of the school holidays – but at the moment, in this glorious extended heat wave – I have to confess it seems hard to consider what they might be! As a small business owner, it is wholly impractical to neglect the day to day operations of the service over an extended period of time, but I shall be taking time out over August, without guilt or concern, and will steel myself not to be checking emails from my iphone in the duration, or my LinkedIn account, or my newly acquired Google Plus business profile (which intrigues me so!)

For families, reaching the long and weary term end, that age old complaint of what to do with the children over the Summer holidays has only just begun, and in many homes there will be as many tears and fraught tempers, as smiles and joy, as routines are shaken and pressure is put on working parents, and families with school-aged children.

Returning to my roots, I shall be posting each week (sans a week or two…) a series of articles on how to maintain a few routines over the Summer, and how to explore the new, for parents of children with a range of special educational needs, appreciating how challenging this time can be.

I do miss my end of term visits to The Works, where, in support of a number of primary schools, a great array of low-cost resources can be bought which help stave off concerns for the child who is reluctant to read, or is struggling to keep up with peers, or who has found the transition from foundation to key stage one, or two,  problematic. In many schools, with families desperate to know what can be done to support their child over the long Summer holiday, such resources can be a highly useful and effective alternative to sending home school text and work books and have the added appeal of being something new.

Watch this space! I shall back soon with ideas and a few thoughts to inspire you and your children over the Summer.

Meanwhile, may your days be blessed and your family content.

Life quote

 

For more information to support parents of children with special educational needs, please visit –

The Local Offer website –http://www.thelocaloffer.co.uk/one-page-profiles  or follow my articles and posts on LinkedIn  https://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=12045757&trk=nav_responsive_tab_profile

 

 

 

On positive word walls and the language of success for children with SEND

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Swimming for the disabledWhat is success? How do we measure it, outside of the host of data and targets and tracking records that schools have to complete? What does success look like in the classroom, on the playground, at home?

I suspect many children and teenagers with special educational needs shy away from the language of success, dwelling far more on those aspects of themselves that seem to be in deficit, found wanting, inadequate.

In my one-to-one discussions and subsequent assessment of children in schools, I ask the question – What are you good at? What are your strengths? To which, the inevitable reply is ‘I don’t know what I’m good at but I can tell you what I’m not good at…’

When we reach a point whereby a child’s definition of themselves is marked by failure, by difficulties, then we have let down that child badly. All children should have a strong sense of their successes, of what makes them happy, inspires them or gives them confidence, for all of those factors are the ingrediants of success – happiness, confidence, optimism, inspiration.

happy teenagersLooking back through old school files this morning I am struck by the wealth of advice and resources given out to many schools over so many years – advice and support that I hope has made some difference. Much though, as many school practitioners and independent consultants will know, will never make it to a publishing house or enjoy the longevity of being part of a book in print. Nevertheless, it is these little contributions that make our world and the educational landscape a better place for the children in our care.

 

So, here is an example of a Positive Word Wall that can be added to with illustrations and used for display within the classroom or as a personal resource for young people who struggle to see anything good about themselves.  Once we focus on a language that is positive, it is amazing hos our thoughts subtly shift to match the words spoken.

Positive Word Wall0001

For some young people, whose internal language is by default, unfailingly harsh and critical, their external environment has taught them that their inner critic, that subconscious voice, may be correct. There is much work to do to turn around a poor self-opinion and low self-esteem, but a starting point is to think – what is the language of success? What words foster positivity and how often, in the classroom, do we hear them heard out loud?

Some ideas to develop your own Positive Word Wall in the classroom –

  1. Draw up a table as above and head it as a Positive Word Wall
  2. Make your chart at least A4 or preferably A3 and decorate with an attractive border design
  3. Use the vocabulary from above, or complete adding also your own choice of Positive words
  4. Leave some blank spaces on the chart for words that are used within the classroom or school – add them as they are attributed to members of the class
  5. Be mindful that the focus is on raising the esteem and self-image of children with SEND, so ensure that new additions to the chart are not just from the same small cluster of high achievers
  6. Be mindful also not to make a public show of trying to bolster the confidence of one or two individuals – there is a fne line between encouragement and false praise
  7. Have a mantra at the start of the day that focuses on one or two words from the chart
  8. Bring this into a period of Mindfulness, by repeating a set phrase or expression incorporating two or three positive words
  9. Focus your attention as class/form/subject teacher on the qualities children display that reflect a positive language
  10. Use it as a motivation booster after difficult times or periods of disharmony
  11. Have a word a day to focus on and incorporate into everyday actions, words and thoughts. A chart with 30 words on will cover a typical half term worth of daily motivational thoughts
  12. Create a personal copy of the positive word wall for one or two children who suffer with low self-esteem as reminders of their capabilities, their potential and their qualities

Motivational quotesFor those professionals working hard to ensure a high quality of educational experience for the children in your care, mindful of every slight against their character, every challenge they must overcome, do remember also to focus on the language of success. Never forget the contribution you are making daily as you turn around lives of difficulty and despair, and create in its place, opportunities for hope, happiness and success.

“You’re off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting,
So… get on your way!” 
―    Dr. Seuss,    Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

 

 

 

 

On Results Day, UCAS, Clearing and the need to consider what lies beyond Plan B

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Exam results day - goodThe papers are replete with images of the success of students across the country, the day after Results Day. Incidental conversation at home has been interspersed with cries of Bristol, Cardiff, Nottingham, Manchester, as one after another friend and acquaintance of my daughter confirms their university offer.

My daughter has received her AS level results and much that there is good news, there is still work ahead, an action plan to be formed to address one area of concern, and discussions to be had in school, once the new academic year begins again. In Pret a Manger yesterday, we formed an action plan for the next year, although in reality, many actions to be taken are immediate, and some will need tracking through the year, to Summer 2014.

But what if results arExam results day - bade not as anticipated, and A2 results have lead to disappointment, despair, and a chasing after every place available through the UCAS Clearing system?

What if the consequences of yesterday and results that displease, lingers into today, and tomorrow, and the weeks and months to come?

So much planning and thought into progressing onto university after sixth form is begun at an early stage and is dependent on the outcome of results acheived, at both AS and A2.

As a parent and as a professional working in education the past two decades and more, it is possible to see the characteristics of those young people who will acheive success, in whatever form it takes. In striving to understand children and young people, and being immersed in their difficulties and challenges repeatedly, I see patterns of behaviour and of context, that are either conducive to success, self confidence and optimisim, or that hinder and actively work against success.

Sean Covey, in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teenagers, considers the following traits to be those most conducive to success;

  1. Habit 1:   Be Proactive
  2. Habit 2:   Begin with the end in mind
  3. Habit 3:   Put first things first
  4. Habit 4:   Think Win-Win
  5. Habit 5:   Seek first to understand, then to be understood
  6. Habit 6:   Synergize
  7. Habit 7:   Sharpen the saw

Aside the jargon, the essence is about being proactive and productive in thought, word and deed, and having the highest possible belief in oneself to acheive whatever outcome is desired.

At Pret a Manger, Gray’s Inn, my daughter logged into her results account and looked through her scores for each exam paper. From that action, I made a list of possibilities for a re-mark (at a cost of £40 per re-mark and £10 for the photocopy of her exam paper). One subject gave a result that was 2 marks off her predicted A grade, and so, seems a worthwhile investment of time and money to request a re-mark. We noted the deadline for requesting a copy of the paper and the deadline for requesting a remark.

We repeated that process for each paper but determined that there was only one borderline paper that merited a re-mark. There is a decision to be made regarding which subject to drop at A2 level, made more complex as my daughter achieved a higher grade in the subject she intends to drop, than in the one she has resolved to keep. The goal and purpose of our discussions – in an unfamiliar location during a rare day out in London – has helped create a context for action, for moving forward, for keeping the mood positive, light, optimistic.

confidence quotation - Arthur Ashe

There has been much talk in education circles on the need for parents to distance themselves from their son or daughter’s decisions on Results Day, to not interfere, to let them take control over calls to universities if they need to go through Clearing. I do not subscribe to that point of view and I would be wary of handing over the reins of responsibility entirely to young people, where the outcomes of poor decisions made in haste and despair, may have high cost consequences (with the typical cost of a three year degree now reaching £27,000 before interest starts to accumulate).

Those students who achieve most highly,  do so more often than not, in a context where relationships with parents, family and friends are mutually supportive, constructive, positive, even if not always harmonious. It is not necessary to agree, to have a productive conversation. Relationships with schools and colleges must also be ones based on trust and mutual respect.

There are wide variations in how much support schools give to students on Results Day, something that I do lament. There is much to be learned across the State/Private sector divide, in how schools prepare students for university and for the myriad outcomes that may materialize, in response to grades received. I would suggest that those schools with the greatest regard for the percentage of students acheiving a university place of their choice (which is necessarily different from stating a university place of their ‘first choice’) need also to be realistic and transparent about how many of their students acheive a university place through the clearing system.

One of the dangers of Clearing is that decisions are made at highly charged emotional times, with little thought of the long term consequences – the need for a university place is now, urgent, immediate. The consequences of that need are way off in the future, not to be regarded until some time down the line, when the course does not suit, and the location palls, and the cost of travel home to family or friends is restrictive, and exams taken reflect a tailed-off motivation…

The need for a Plan B and beyond reflects a belief that planning must always be completed in advance of the need. Plans cannot be constructed and hastily followed through on Results Day – they must be established as a firm order, well in advance  in order to be effective. It is not enough to have Plan A, if results are as wished for or anticipated, and a Plan B if not. Regard must be given to what lies beyond Plan B!

It’s not the plan that is important, it’s the planning. (Dr Graeme Edwards)

I advise always to have at least three scarios, that may kick into action as the need arises.

  • Plan A is the ideal, the dream scenario when effort is rewarded and grades are as predicted and worked for. Outcomes may follow a trajectory set in motion by thoughts and aspirations some years before;
  • Plan B is an alternative scenario, where achievements is just some little way off what has been predicted, but where opportunities abound, if one is prepared to be flexible, a little broader in choice, and more tolerant of aspects of a course, university or location that do not appeal;
  • Plan X lies beyond Plan B, and remains as firmly fixed in the mind’s eye as Plan A, and represents a purposeful response to unexpected outcomes, so that in effect, they are not unexpected at all. Plan X diminishes the power of the unexpected to derail one from goals and dreams determined long before.

Plan X must be forward-looking, must move towards a given goal, towards a desired destination. Even if that move forward is crab-like, side-ways on, still the action must be to advance. Plan X may incorporate a gap year with all the flexibility and opportunity that may afford, where an increase in relevant work experience together with taking on private lessons or enrolling at a college to increase grades, will enhance chances of a successful university application the following year.

Life doesn't have to be perfect

A weakness in our education system is that it does not encourage diversity of choice of destination, post eighteen. Plan B is too often poorly thought out, poorly executed because it does not have a place in our final school year. That is a failing, and a weakness in our schools today.

Equally, it is a flawed mindset that views alternative plans as signs of weakness, inability, or of poor self-worth. It is just as credible an option to consider Plan X, with all that entails, as it is to consider and achieve Plan A. Those opting to go on a gap year, anticipating that grades need to be improved, struggle far less with issues of self-esteem, self-worth, and self-confidence, than those taking a gap year as an unintended consequence of the failure of Plan A.

There is a need to shift mindsets so that each carefully thought through and drawn up plan, A, B and X, has equal merit, and equal appeal. That way, we may avoid the discontent, self-abuse and injurious thought that comes with failure to achieve…

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –

I took the one less travelled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost – The Road Not Taken

Results Day is a momentous occasion, a significant landmark in a young person’s life, a time of a myriad complex emotions – it is a time of change. Referring back to an earlier post on transition points, I reference again a familiar and favourite phrase – these are momentary modulations. Soon, life will resume a more normal pace, but that norm, will be a new norm, and so life goes on until another ‘momentary modulation’ – Graduation.

With my very best wishes to all, parents, students and teachers, as you navigate, or help navigage the way through Plan A, Plan B and what lies beyond.

On child protection, preventable deaths and my objection to the business of Safeguarding

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DanielAs a nation, we are recoiling still as the full scale of the horror of a young boy’s protracted abuse, neglect and death in Coventry comes to light. It is heartbreaking to hear news item after news item that reports now, not only of one boy’s suffering, but of the suffering also of his older sibling, who was witness to much of the abuse, and solely responsible for trying to feed and sustain his brother during his short and brutal life.

Two young and vulnerable children whose lives should have been protected by those people, abusing parents aside, whose responsibility it is to be alert and attentive to the protection and welfare of children in their care – teachers, support staff, social workers, doctors, health professionals, and the great body of people who are employed under the burgeoning industry that is Safeguarding Children Boards.

Despite that the older sibling still lives, it is nontheless equally shocking that no professional in Coventry’s Children’s Services picked up on the distress and emotional trauma that must have emanated from every fibre of this young child’s being. Witnessing a sibling’s near drowning, or poisoning with salt, or beatings, or starvation, must have impacted on this child’s academic, social and emotional development, and been evident to any professional with half a care for child welfare.

At a Public Policy Exchange symposium earlier in September 2012 on Child and Adolescent Health and Well-being, I offended some in the audience when I commented that I was highly critical of the rise of, and industry of, Children’s Safeguarding. I can see no great or measurable gains for children and young people in the growth of this sector. My argument being, that in response to one serious case review of several years ago, the death of Kimberley in April 2005, there has been an exponential rise in the number of professionals drawn into newly created Safeguarding roles, as the fervour for this course of action knows no bounds. There is a presumption that the more prominent and high profile an authority’s Safeguarding board, the more protection is afforded its young populace.

That premise, and that confidence has proven, time and again, to be flawed,  as more protracted and appalling cases of child cruelty and deaths have occured, in each case, deaths that could have been prevented, had certain professionals taken action.

What I see as happening with alarming frequency, even within the microcosm of an independent SEN Consultant’s world, is that less people, not more, take responsibility and take action for concerns over children’s welfare and safety. There is always another person, person x, who should deal with matters like that… I have heard that phrase so often, and with such sadness and anger. The person who should act, always, and with immediacy, on concerns of child protection of any kind, is always the person closest to the act, the witness, the observer, the one who is party to information that may convict, that may disturb the peace, that may save a child’s life.

The division of roles between Safeguarding, Child Protection and Special Educational Needs, has not helped and has had an adverse impact on consistency of approach, on clear lines of communication between professionals within and beyond any given setting and on multi-agency communications. There is a disparity of approach and understanding that serves the needs of our most vulnerable young people poorly. In some schools I have been alerted to ‘differences of opinion’ or ‘professional differences’ or even ‘personal issues’ between staff with responsibility individually for Safeguarding, or SEN, or Child Protection. What madness lies there!

The ‘safeguard’, if I can phrase it such, that schools now have in relation to child protection cases, is that there is always someone else out there who knows about such matters, whose reponsibility it is to deal with such issues. Child protection, issues of special educational need, of emotional or social needs, of neglect, of abuse, are seen as someone else’s problem.

Teaching assistant xxxxx broke down in tears in court, when she said he wanted to eat “muddy and dirty” pancakes which had been on the floor.

Daniel’s mother claimed he was being treated for a rare eating disorder and school staff were not to feed him. They complied with her instructions.

The family also had contact with social workers, doctors, health visitors and police.

Education officials investigated Daniel’s poor school attendance and health visitors went to the home but never saw him, the court heard

What I find most shocking and disturbing here, and that most enrages, is that from appearance, no professional lines of conduct have been followed. The ‘eating disorder’ should have been followed up immediately with documentary evidence, if that was the case, and with a multi-professional meeting to discuss how to manage eating problems within school, if any member of staff could really believe the story woven by the abusive mother. But then we counter that with the evidence of the boy’s weight, and the comment of another member of the school staff that the boy was like a ‘bag of bones’. How could so much damage, so much abuse, have been witnessed on a daily basis within the child’s school, and not acted upon?

Attendance issues should, at that early stage, have been picked up by school staff and teachers in the first instance, given the right of every reception teacher to visit family’s at home in those early pre-school years and to continue to follow up on practical matters through home visits. Visiting SEN professionals would have been alerted at a very early stage to concerns over this child’s behaviour, welfare, appearance, yet it seems that concerns, if they were raised at all, were dismissed.

It is a great tragedy that any pre-school child should die, hidden from the world, alone and unprotected, in the relative privacy of a family home.

It is a crime that any child of school age should die, and for that protracted neglect and abuse to be witnessed by so many professionals who could have taken action, at any time, that would have prevented such an appalling outcome.

I despair of the lack of appreciation or  understanding of how people operate within schools and within communities, despite the commissioning of the Munro Review of Child Protection (May 2011). I do not subscribe to Munro’s point of view that Local Safeguarding Children Boards are key to improving multi-agency working, or that they are

well placed to identify emerging problems thorugh learning from practice…

On the contrary, I would suggest that the growth of Safeguarding has left our most vulnerable children and young people defenceless, in their homes, schools and communities, as there is a reluctance by many education and health professionals to ‘escalate’ emerging problems to a level at which something may be done.

I am aware of schools who have turned a blind eye to evidence of neglect or abuse or distress, because they regard witnesses as unreliable, or out to stir up trouble, or because if actions are taken they will lose the confidence of the parents, and they in turn will remove their child from school, and if they go, this family will remove their children also… Fresh words in my mind’s eye, because the logic of it is unfailing, but the sentiment unpalatable.

Safeguarding Boards are too heavy handed an approach to deal with the range of issues that education and health professionals face daily. They are distant, remote, large and cumbersome bodies that are best kept at arm’s length, disturbed only at great peril. They are ineffectual at responding, with a light touch, to a teaching assistant, or teacher’s concerns over a child’s welfare. Collectively, they are failing our children.

Ofsted produced a report on Good Practice by Local Safeguarding Children Boards, in September 2011, but it does not reassure. And of those examples of good practice, how many Safeguarding Boards operate in such a manner? Too few, scattered thin and sparse around the country.

Executive summary

Local Safeguarding Children Boards are the key statutory mechanism for agreeing how the relevant organisations in each local area cooperate to safeguard and promote the welfare of children, with the purpose of holding each other to account and ensuring that safeguarding children remains high on the agenda across the partnership area.

In May 2011, the final report from the Munro Review of Child Protection, A child-centred system, was published. Within this report, Professor Munro set out the important role that Local Safeguarding Children Boards have in monitoring the effectiveness of partner agencies and recognised that they are key to improving multi-agency working, to support and enable partner organisations to adapt their practice and become more effective in safeguarding children.

Munro states that Local Safeguarding Children Boards are:

‘…well placed to identify emerging problems through learning from practice and to oversee efforts to improve services in response.’ [1]

She strongly advocates a move away from a compliance culture to a learning culture and sees the Local Safeguarding Children Board as key to the development of a ‘learning system’.

This report highlights elements of good practice in the operation of Local Safeguarding Children Boards. It aims to support the development of ‘learning systems’, by encouraging all Local Safeguarding Children Boards to reflect on their practice and plan for improvement.


In this context, I can see no good or fathomable reason why the board set up to protect children’s welfare in Coventry, and who so clearly failed in that duty, should be the ones to lead the inquiry into what went wrong. In such times, the need for honesty and integrity is never more paramount.

As a final comment, I am highly concerned that the body called upon to conduct a Serious Case Review should be the authority’s own Children’s Safeguarding Board. In all instances, what is needed is transparency and confidence – confidence in a system that seeks to ensure the best possible outcome for all concerned.

As a footnote to this post, I have added a link to Coventry’s SCB which has posted an update on its site – http://www.coventrylscb.org.uk/

On reading difficulties and parental power to influence success

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early experiences of reading

“I go back to the reading room, where I sink down in the sofa and into the world of The Arabian Nights. Slowly, like a movie fadeout, the real world evaporates. I’m alone, inside the world of the story.My favourite feeling in the world.”
―    Haruki Murakami,    Kafka on the Shore

Parents are often uneasy partners with schools, complicit in the failure of their child to develop reading skills, or to make apropriate progress. Despite the anguish and despair, many parents could do far more, quite easily and simply, at negligible or no cost, to support their child’s reading progress, with a little thought and analysis of what is currently the status quo with regards books and access to reading material at home.

I have often found SEN review meetings with parents to be somewhat tortuous, with protestations by the parent that the child can achieve certain skills when at home, and the school making equal protestation that those skills are not in evidence in the classroom. Many high horses are climbed at such times, yet I suspect the truth lies in some grey, muddied area along the continuum of skills that are just emerging, and may be evidenced in certain contexts, to skills that are consistent and evident across a range of contexts.

Just like self-confidence, which may be packaged up and good to go in certain contexts, so reading skills can be context specific – more secure in some settings than others.

So, what can parents practically do that influence the chances of their child achieving success in reading, and breaking through barriers to literacy?

I could write endlessly here, so will confine myself to a number of pointers, and will continue this theme in future blog posts.

To influence a child’s chance of success in reading, parents can consider –

  1. How reading friendly is the home? What books, magazines, newspapers, leaflets, or other reading material are visible in each room of the house?
  2. How much time do the adults in the home spend actively reading – whether on screen or on paper, books or kindles? Provided that the child is able to determine that the adult’s activity is reading, it does not matter what medium is in use.
  3. What time is allocated on a daily and weekly basis to reading to and with children? Is this a matter of minutes, or can this be counted in hours?
  4. Has each child got easy access to books or other reading material? Comics, magazines, fact sheets, information packs from days out, quizzes and information and speical offers on the back of cereal boxes all count as reading material
  5. Are stories and children’s rhymes and songs a feature of home life? Consider children’s nursery songs and think what stories lie behind each song, many of which can be found in print also.
  6. Is reading encouraged, in and away from the home? Reading road signs on the way to school, reading menus in cafes and restaurants, reading shop window notices, leaflets and posters about clubs and sports and local events, all foster an interest in reading and help children who struggle to read, see the purpose of reading skills.
  7. Is reading a spoken, shared activity at times, or is it always a quiet, private activity? Children can be compliant and agree to read a page of their school reader before bed each evening, but if no one hears that reading, what chance of ensuring progress or success?
  8. Do the adults in the house have their own collection of favourite reads, or spend time reading for pleasure during each day or week? The value of a reading household cannot be under-estimated in inspiring young people to want to read, and to persevere, even when difficulties are encountered.
  9. Is there a rewards system in place for rewarding a child’s progress, however slow and uncertain that may be, thorugh the school’s reading scheme? Marking progress through sticker charts and with special treats can be a means to keeping flagging enthusiasm alive, and help a parent notice dips in progress, sometimes before that dip is picked up by the school.
  10. Are books or comics or magazines bought regularly for the child, and is time spent browsing book shops? There are a host of discount book stores, traditional book shops and stationers in each high street that choice is never an issue, even where finance might be a constraint. Did you know that a child’s paperback book in a discount book store (The Works for e.g.) may cost no more than a packet of Haribo sweets.

If, as a parent, you are facing yet another fraught and emotionally charged SEN review meeting in school, or despairing your child’s lack of progress and interest in books, do consider not just what your child’s school can do to make a difference, but what you can do also that multiplies the potential for success?

children_reading

Two books that were a permanent bedside feature from my son’s childhood and remained firm favourites for many years, are Eric Kincaid’s Riverbank Tales, which my son would wish to have read incessantly. A second, much shorter but wonderfully rhythmic story, Ten in the Bed, amused my son greatly.  There is a pleasure to be gained in reading to a child – a pleasure that is infinitely rewarding and soothing, at the day’s end.

Summer 2013 - miscellaneous 125

Summer 2013 - miscellaneous 127

 

The more you read the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you will go.

Dr Seuss. ‘I can read with my eyes shut!’

On public and private sector responses to assessment of children and young people’s special educational needs

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Boy, school image

No law or ordinance is mightier than understanding.

Plato

I have made assessment of children’s special educational needs for over two decades. My methods have changed over the years and my client base has changed equally. In an employed capacity, working with a Local Authority support service for children with learning and behavioural difficulties, I was guided and constrained by set procedures, recommended assessment tests, imposed time limits for assessment and my remit within the team.

As an independent SEN Consultant since 2002, the nature of my work is more diverse and my role with a range of educational settings and organizations across the public, private and third sector, has widened, so that assessing children’s needs is no longer the mainstay of my working week.

So, it was a delight to be involved recently in a small scale project to assess the needs of a number of pupils in an independent school, pupils for whom previously, there had been little in the way of assessment, unless that had been instigated by parents. It has marked a process the school have undertaken to review their SEN practices and to move forward to a greater understanding of, and response to, individual pupil’s special needs.

Since the conclusion of that project, I have been pondering the differences in approach, between schools within the public and private sector, and present my musings here, in no great detail, but as thoughts to be explored further, in due course. My comments are in no way definitive, or represent all schools in all contexts, but reflect trends in practice as seen by my service.

Assessing Children and Young People’s SEN

Schools within the public sector –

  1. Tend to prioritise requests for advice for children approaching the end of each key curriculum stage
  2. Have a frustration that assessment advice is not always followed through to each key stage, particularly at transition points – pre-school to foundation, primary to secondary
  3. Refer typically 3 x more boys than girls for assessment and more Summer-born children than any other group
  4. Are frequently over-burdened with an expansive SEN register and finite resources to meet needs
  5. Are often forced into difficult decision making regarding which pupil is put forward for assessment
  6. Fall short on follow up, so that assessment advice becomes the end goal, rather than a starting point for action
  7. Refer pupils for whom concerns have been raised across multiple areas of need – learning, BESD, communication and interation, attendance, health related issues, or other co-morbidity of need
  8. Refer pupils for whom SEN has been a feature of school life over a protracted period of time
  9. Work within a mult-professional platform whereby health, education and social care services each play a part in a child’s assessment and support
  10. Strive to maintain effective communications between all services and professionals involved in a child’s SEN

Schools within the private sector –

  1. Tend to prioritise requests for advice for children approaching selective entry junior or senior school
  2. Rely overly on parents to identify, explore and seek external professional advice for their child’s SEN
  3. Refer more children with single issues SEN, for e.g. dyslexia, rather than children with complex SEN
  4. Have a narrow understanding of SEN that children may experience, even within a selective entry setting
  5. Frequently have a number of children whose SEN has been ameliorated by small class sizes and/or more personalized approaches to teaching and learning
  6. Can overlook SEN within children because resources and class sizes have masked difficulties
  7. Often rely on individual personnel or the SEN or Inclusion team within the school to manage needs, at the expense of having a collaborative, whole school approach to SEN
  8. Can value the individual to the extent that ‘needs’ are seen as idiosyncracies and not recognized as SEN
  9. Can act in isolation of local or national policy advice and remain static and outdated in p0licy and practice
  10. Can be innovative and pioneers of excellent SEN and Inclusion practice where the right professionals are involved and have status within the school

In each case, schools within the public or private sector are responding to demands placed upon them, by Ofsted, by the Local Authority, by parents, by the Independent Schools Inspectorate, by Governors, by other education and health professionals.

Smiling boy at school

Regardless of sector, I am struck by how all educational settings have responded to a growing awareness of the challenges faced by children and young people, as they progress from dependence to adult hood and independence. No child or adult is immune from the effects of disability. need or disadvantage, whether that be temporary, transitory or long term and complex needs.

A universal benefit of assessment, at the earliest point for intervention, is the time that is given to understanding and making sense of each child’s life and world. It is the greatest privilege to be able to meet young people and have time to learn about their lives and current difficulties and to have an opportunity to bring about change.

Always the goal of the assessor should be to understand, first and foremost, the young person who sits before them and their context, both within the school and at home. Without understanding we have nothing more than a collection of assessment data that could relate to any child, from any standardized group, from any context.  Understanding is key.

On public and private ambition, the significance of the past and dreaming big

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Dreams quotation

I am contrite. I made a faux pas, referencing my daughter’s boyfriend’s Gap Year plans in a public context, where those dreams and plans are in that early form, more private, tentative, speculative. In contrition, I am pondering how we all have that capacity to hold onto private dreams about ourselves, our capacity to achieve, to be, to exist in some form or other that defies who we are now. In keeping our dreams private, do we stifle or liberate our deepest desires?

A friend, anticipating her only child’s immient move to Birmingham University, and anxious about how her life may change, had commented on the need to find something new to do, that might satisfy her more than her current occupation. The future of her dreams is already shrouded by the loss of her son to university, to new friendships, to his blossoming romance. Her desire to find something that might fill her days until her son journeys home, which she hopes will be often, is poignant, somewhat forlorn, but not unusual.

We all of us, as parents, eulogize our children’s past. We embellish and adorm fragments of a past with oft-repeated accounts of favoured childhood incidents. Invariably there is humour and affection as we recount incidents, prompted by a cue here and there, that reinforce an impression of a son or a daughter who has a myriad qualities, all of which are locked in the time capsule of the past.

My own favourite is of the time my daughter and I forget to pack her rabbit and bear for a school ski-ing trip to Italy. In my panic and endeavour to make amends, I had her beloved Nerny and Teddy collected by courier to be delivered to the resort where her school were staying. Alas, they arrived after her departure, and the best efforts of a tracking service could not deliver them home before her return. Nerny and Teddy arrived finally, after their European adventures, some two weeks after my daughter’s return, encased in a battered parcel with stamps from over five countries. We teased that Nerny and Teddy had been on an adventure, but that night, my daughter slept with Nerny and Teddy tied fast to her stomach by the belt from her dressing gown.

The past has the power to hold us in its grip, to bring forth with a vengeance memories and incidents so powerful in their emotional intensity, that at their unkindest, they serve to limit our future. As parents we may eulogize our children’s past, but it is our children who must determine, tabula rasa, their own future, unimpeded by parental desire to hold fast to what is familiar, to our first born, our last born, our only child…

The philosopher John Locke, defined our concept of the blank slate (with thanks to Wikipedia).

In fact, our modern idea of the theory is mostly attributed to John Locke’s expression of the idea in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding in the 17th century. In Locke’s philosophy, tabula rasa was the theory that the (human) mind is at birth a “blank slate” without rules for processing data, and that data is added and rules for processing are formed solely by one’s sensory experiences. The notion is central to Lockean empiricism. As understood by Locke, tabula rasa meant that the mind of the individual was born “blank”, and it also emphasized the individual’s freedom to author his or her own soul. Each individual was free to define the content of his or her character.

In recent days, I have been interested in research by the Canadian Association of Neuroscience, that sheds light on why we find it so difficult to recall early childhood memories (though rest assured, there will be a parent somewhere, storing them up for future reference.)

The high level of neuron production during the first five years of life incresaes the capacity for learning, but also clears the mind of old memories.

“”We think our new studies begin to explain why we have no memories from our earliest years. Before the ages of four or five, we have a highly dynamic hippocampus which can’t stably store information. As new neurons are generated, memory may be compromised by that process.”

See this excellent site for more information on this research – http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/05/130524104634.htm

I’m interested to discover if research exists to suggest the same process may be at play in teenagers. I see also in these teen years, a time of great challenge, where experiences and knowledge tumble over each other in an excess that is scarcely replicated in later years. The emotional, academic, social, physical and sexual development of many teenagers, place everyday demands on the brain that are immense, and should not be under-estimated. I ponder if there are monents in the formative teenage years where there is a temporary incapacity to ‘stably store information’.

Dreams quotation 6 I rather like this quotation by the American satirist, Bill Hicks. Who are we if we are not the facilitators of our own creative evolution?

For many teenagers, the school years are dominated by the agenda of others: of parents who determine choice of school, subjects, activities, transport, waking, eating and sleeping hours; of teachers who determine curriculum, homework and exams; of friends and partners who exert a greater or lesser influence over how down-time may be utilisied. Follow 24 hours in the life of most teenagers and it will be dominated by an agenda created by a.n.other.

As an educator, that period of transition, from an agenda that is externally controlled, to an agenda that is internally driven, I find fascinating. How young people manage that transtion time also is endlessly diverse and equally of interest.

I have posted before on transition points, or ‘momentary modulations’ where life appears at once, urgent, chaotic, turbulent, pressed upon by change from all fronts, and then, resumes a more orderly pace, and settles into new routines, new rhythms, until the next momentary modulation, which may be some three or four or five years along the line.

Dreams quotation 5

The danger, in the turbulent transition from dependence to adult hood and independence, is that ambitions may be sacrificed, goals and dreams compromised to fit more readily the expectation of others. It is holding fast to that dream, the big dream, that matters. The tendancy of many young people to under-estimate their real potential, their great worth, is great, but should be countered at every turn.

In my work especially with children and young people with special educational need, I see too frequently, the low expectations of the child compromised further by even lower expectations of parents, who see too readily the challenges they have encountered, the difficulties they have fought to over come, and has an ever present list of their child’s academic or social and emotional short-comings. It is that time capsule of the past again, that surfaces, relentlessly, inconveniently, with a power to sabotage the promise of the future.

Finally, in returning to my post header, I have long held dear the words of Rabbi Hillel –

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if not now, when?

Wishing you the very best of days.

 

On the art of Keeping Sane, the needs of carers and Satie’s piano music

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Keeping Calm image and quotationThe pursuit of calm and tranquility is my theme for today’s post. Mindful of a pending engagement to deliver workshops to a parent support group, Guideposts  – http://www.guidepoststrust.org.uk/ –  on the subject and art of Keeping Sane, I am pondering how best my time with a small group of parents and carers of children with special educational needs, may be spent.

I devised a workshop entitled Keeping Sane, some two years ago, specifcally for the needs of those adults, carers and grandparents of children with SEN. For many of the target audience, life can seem a perpetual challenge, filled with frustration, doubt, insecurity, and the huge emotional demand of being a carer 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

I have delivered the workshop now in a variety of settings and locations, but still, there is always something new to learn, something new to consider in how the group dynamics may be managed, how the morning session can fulfil its stated goals – of creating strategies for keeping sane, in times of turmoil and challenge.

I am listening to Satie’s Gymnopedies, piano music I love and have admired for many years. I shall be opening my workshop to a backdrop of Gymnopedies 1,2 & 3, music that is calming, lingering, light.

In November 2012, I delivered the workshop at a Warwickshire venue to a group of parents and carers, many of whom had arrived at the venue filled already with a myriad grievances from the start of the day, the evening before, or in anticipation of what was to c0me that afternoon. Some, in a hurry not to be late, were in that agitated state of mind where worries abound, and the mind is not still.

My thoughts today are on how the opening moments of the workshop may inspire a calm and reflective response to the morning’s discussions and activities, so that thoughts may flow more freely, amongst the group, and ideas and strategies discussed, may begin to settle and take seed.

In creating an opening sequence of music, and time to read the initial outline of the morning’s activities, I hope there may be a few moments of calm, for minds to be still and responsive so that discussions within the group may be positive, supportive and considered.

In all things, we do best when we are cognisant that in a learning context we need to open our minds to be able to –

  • Listen – actively and attentively not just to what is being said, but to the mood of the moment
  • Reflect – on what is being said, what is under discussion, how this relates to one’s own world
  • Filter – what is on one’s mind, what is relevant to the context, what is unnecessary
  • Respond – in a way that is positive, that does not drain energy from the room but energises

scene of tranquility

Precious is the time we have to really consider what is going on in our lives, what is causing us stress or distress, what are the factors influencing our behaviour, our moods, our relationships, our peace of mind and quality of life.

I am looking forward to the next session of Keeping Sane and grateful for the insight and support of Guideposts for allowing these workshops an airing. They are rewarding events, not least for the insight each gives to the struggles and challenges many families face, and to the on-going needs that present. Overwhelmingly, the need for carers to be understood, to be listened to, to feel that one’s life and present situation matters to someone else, dominates the mood agenda.

Oprah
“Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough”  ―    Oprah Winfrey
For more information on Keeping Sane Workshops, please contact heather@hmstack.com, or send your query via wordpress, Twitter or LinkedIn.