Category Archives: learning difficulties & disabilities

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


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 holidays, Summer and that end of term feeling


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 –  or follow my articles and posts on LinkedIn




On SEND reforms, Personal Budgets and choice and control


Kind mit fußballThis past year has been a boon time for the education conference sector, with the SEND Reforms driving a seemingly endless yet necessary round of symposiums, national conferences and regional events.

I have been fortunate to be asked to speak at several regional SEN Leader conferences on the theme of Personal Budgets. It is not a favourite topic within the SEND Reforms, appearing more like the least favourite cousin who has come to stay the duration, with no end date in sight. I can quite see why it has been less favoured by the SEND pathfinders than other areas of the reforms – Education, Health and Care Plans, or Transition to Adulthood. Yet as I’ve absorbed myself in the work of the pathfinders and small scale studies, I have become more enamoured of the process and the potential it brings for many parents, carers, children and young people.

A personal budget is an amount of money identified by the local authority to deliver all or some of the provision set out in an Education, Health and Care Plan. By having a say in the way this budget is used, a parent or young person can control elements of their support.” (Draft SEN Code of Practice: Section 7.2)

Yet there are tensions within this new found freedom. It seems that in order for one group – parents and young people – to have more control, another must relinquish that control – schools, SENCos, early years settings and a host of education professionals. Already that tension presents itself in the many grumbles of discontent I’ve heard from practitioners, who see parents demanding x, y and z, as the immediate source of their problem. In a few cases, I’ve had requests for advice where parents and schools are at tribunal level over personal budgets and how money should be allocated. Ironic, when one considers that the a key argument for the SEND reforms was to avoid the adversarial nature of SEND practice and provision.

Here is a link to the full presentation for the SEN Leader Update conferences recently in London, Manchester and Birmingham (February and March 2014)-

SEND Reforms – Personal Budgets – Heather Stack March 2014

Here are some key themes from my presentation –

Key Challenges ahead

  1. Implementing the lessons (rather conservative and modest though they may be) of the SEND pathfinders
  2. Understanding local perceptions and strength of feeling towards the reforms and personal budgets
  3. Strengthening the role of key workers, advocates and independent supporters
  4. Gaining the involvement of children and young people in their EHC plans
  5. Understanding and knowing the diversity and breadth of provision from all sectors within a locality
  6. SEND providers having a realistic costing of service and provision that is shared with stakeholders

Key Opportunities ahead –

  1. An opportunity for schools, parents and young people to explore a greater breadth of provision and services than previously
  2. Incorporating the knowledge gained from One Page Profiles can give a new perspective on needs, support and provision
  3. Giving parents and young people a real say in the choices they can make about support is enpowering for all and far more likely to elicit partnership working between home and school
  4. Considering the needs of the child 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, rather than between the hours of 9am and 3pm, should ensure that social, leisure, sporting and creative activities become a part of the picture of a holistic support programme
  5. Enabling parents and young people to take an active part in determing support choices will take away the pressure from school SEN staff who may otherwise be imposing support interventions that are actively resisted by the child and the family
  6. An opportunity for local authorities to consider all the provision within their locality, whether from the private, public or third sector, as an asset, and not a threat
  7. A chance for specialist providers to collaborate to create flexible and timely services that are delivered at the point of need, and not when services become available.

Riding for the disabled

I will continue my theme in my next post, on the need to consider support needs 24/7 and not just 9am – 3pm. Once we liberate ourselves from the constraints of the school day, and think about what short and long term outcomes we are trying to achieve, the world really is our oyster.

For some reason, it is hard to fathom, the glorious words of Lewis Carroll’s The Lobster Quadrille come to mind.

Will you walk a little faster?” said a whiting to a snail,
There’s a porpoise close behind us, and he’s treading on my tail.
See how eagerly the lobsters and the turtles all advance!
They are waiting on the shingle — will you come and join the dance?
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the dance?
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you join the dance?

Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you join the dance?






On new ventures, SEND reforms, social enterprise & The Local Offer


TLO-logo (2)News Update: Launch date of The Local Offer – – Tuesday 22nd April.

I am tottering on a precipice of discovery, just weeks away from the launch of The Local Offer, a social enterpise and national web-based brokerage service on behalf of children and young people (0 – 25 years) with special educational needs and/or disability.

It is a demanding and challenging time, not least in that this new venture draws on great reserves of courage and confidence, reserves that I admit have been depleted somewhat over the challening past year.

As luck would have it, I am called in for my second post-cancer treatment check up with my oncologist, just a few days before the anticipated launch date of The Local Offer. I have decided that if I were to wait for a perfect moment, or a perfect year, or the very best of health, or the best of finances, to create something new, I might wait for ever…

What has given me courage and fortitude, these past few weeks and months, has been the great enthusiasm with which my social enterprise has been greeted, and the instant and unflinching trust of several national organizations who have already committed to coming on board, ahead of the site and service launch. Very brave and bold of them, and I am indebted to their vision and faith.

My especial thanks to Riding for the Disabled and Service Children’s Support Network, who, in the very early days of publicity about The Local Offer, have bowled me over with their enthusiasm and vision for the future

Links to both organizations are here –

Riding for the Disabled

girl and father

Now, with a strong team of support, there is much to do to ensure the success and long term sustainability of this venture, not just to those willing to come on board prior to the launch of The Local Offer, but for all those parents and carers out there, who struggle to find and gain the services and support they so badly need. Schools too, can often have a narrowly defined view of what services (typically those retained by Local Authorities) should take a dominant role in service delivery, in meeting the identified needs of a child through a Single Plan, or Statement of SEN, or an Education, Health and Care Plan. Sometimes, with the best of wills, there are not enough hours in the day to research every provider in a locality, and not enough incentives to change the direction of service acquisition..

As the SEND reforms take hold and begin to shape our landscape, I have a vision that that provision for all CYP on a single plan or with a EHC Plan, will take into account the needs of the child within the family or home context that arise during a 24 hour day, 7 day week, 52 week year. That would truly transform special educational needs provision.

Providers of education, health and social care services within the following categories are invited to subscribe to The Local Offer to showcase the great diversity and excellence of provision across the 9 regions of England and throughout the 152 Local Authority districts –

  1. Consultancy services
  2. Practitioners
  3. Community and Voluntary sector
  4. Representation & Advocacy

Early Bird discounts on subscriptions are available until Friday, 18th April.

If you have any queries about The Local Offer, as a provider, commissioner, school, parent or carer, please do not hesitate to contact me –

Swimming for the disabled


Smiles from the threshold of the year to come,

Whispering, ‘it will be happier.’

Alfred Tennyson




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


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 The Local Offer, optimism and building a road-map for the future


Isabel - portrait0001I have been truly blessed to meet some remarkable young people in my work as an independent education consultant. Sadly, not just some, but all of the young people I have been fortunate to become acquainted with experience special educational needs, to varying degrees.

For some, their difficulties may be transitory, context specific, single-issue areas of need, but for many, their difficulties are legion, they are not easily dispelled, and the discontent, anxiety and unease spills over into family life, into the day to day life of school, intofriendships and relationships.

Bridge to TerabithiaThe young artist whose portrait is displayed above, Imogen (not her real name), has suffered long term the debilitating effects of so many interwoven, complex needs – obsessive compulsive disorder, trichotilomania, friendship difficulties and delays in acquiring reading and literacy skills.

Her rich and inventive fantasy life could rival that of the characters in The Bridge to Terabithia. Her drawings, I have felt, are in some way a compensation for the paucity of friendship and beauty in her life.

My role as a consultant is necessarily that of one dispensing advice, in good faith that SEND Services and professionals are available and have capacity to respond to the needs identified. It is always a challenge considering recommendations against the reality of the context – being fully aware that the service needed to deliver the intervention, assessment or support, are running to capacity, or have a waiting list that would make you weep, or no longer offer that provision for that age range.

On many occasions, I have spent time sourcing the relevant support, before commiting to a course of action in pupil advice. It is a courtesy to client schools to make recommendations that are immediately ‘do-able’ and at the least, it offers encourgement to parents that certain steps can be taken in a timely manner, to address the special needs that present.

My next big venture, which will be an on-going project over several years, is to build up a Road Map of SEND Provision (England) showcasing and detailing all the service provision that exists within a locality.

I will be seeking the active engagement of providers across the public, private and third sector in Education, Health and Social Care, across all the Local Authority regions in England.

The service will operate as a web platform and social enterprise. The site is currently under construction – exciting times!

I say exciting times, but it is a long and challenging road, not least that the ideas contained in my head, the vision and ideal, must translate also to reality, to what can be achieved over a reasonable period of time. I am impatient to have more than just a holding page to my site, as at present, but all takes time. Several months of hard work and concerted effort have taken me so far and the journey has only just begun.

I am striving to build a Road Map for the future – and I need your support.

I’ve created a brief survey, courtesy of the genius that is Survey Monkey, to gather thoughts on the pragmatics of The Local Offer. I would be thrilled for a moment of your time and response –

I will keep you posted on progress as I move towards the launch of The Local Offer for the start of the new financial year, April 2014.

TLO-logo (2)

If you or children in your care have been affected by the difficulties Imogen has faced, here are some useful links –



With regards to you all, always, and in fond memory of some remarkable young people who have blessed my life by their presence.

On reading difficulties and parental power to influence success


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?


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


Boy, school image

No law or ordinance is mightier than understanding.


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


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 –

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


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  – –  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.

“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
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