Category Archives: Special educational needs

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


Outdoors portrait of cute 6 years old child boy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are significant differences however.

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

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

Now, here’s a challenge again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quotes about children

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

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

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


On reading Keeping Katherine by Susan Zimmermann


On Rett Syndrome, on reading Keeping Katherine by Susan Zimmermann, and a moving post by Charlottetwenty09.


It will be almost 2 years in a few weeks, since I received the call from my paediatrician , of a positive result for Rett Syndrome for our Charlotte.
It was a diagnosis I had hoped she didn’t have as it talked about seizures, low life expectancy, severe mental retardation, non purposeful use of hands and lifelong dependency. It was one I had found after many nights trolling through the internet. Another paediatrician mentioned the possibility of autism before Charlotte was 2years old, but one of our early amazing physiotherapists commented she didn’t think her hand repetitions were stims, which normally fits with autism. So there I was googling repetitive hand movements and loss of hand skills and it led me to question whether it was Rett Syndrome.
I didn’t think I would still be feeling so devastated about it all, 2years later. Isn’t 2 years long enough? to grieve…

View original post 1,267 more words

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 stories for boys and reluctant readers – Max and his black dog.


Max story illustration - fishingIn a departure from the norm, I thought I’d share with you one of a series of extended stories I have written for reluctant readers, with a protagonist called Max who is little inspired by school and yearns to be anywhere but school. Max is based on a number of young boys I have worked with who have great skills and many talents beyond the classroom, but struggle to cope with the demands of the school day. One young man in particular, inspired me to write stories, with his love of fishing, tales of adventure and his longing to explore the great outdoors.

Max and his black dog

Max and his best mate Pete had to work as partners in class. They had a big history project to finish before the end of the week.  Max thought it was boring. He didn’t want to do any more writing.  He couldn’t write. His spelling was awful. He didn’t want to do the project.

He didn’t want to do any more reading. He didn’t like reading. It was hard work, and he didn’t think he could read well. Not like some of the other boys in his class. Some were really brainy. Everything was easy for them. Everything was easy for Pete too, which was why he made such a good partner for Max. Also he was older, but Max suspected, even if Pete was the same age, he would still be better than Max at almost anything.

Pete kept on finding things to share with Max. Sometimes he got really excited and walked around, holding a book and reading out loud, talking loud and fast. The teacher told him to sit down once, but she didn’t mind really, because she could see that Pete was working.

The teacher wasn’t so kind with Max. She came over many times to ask him to concentrate, to work with his partner, to not let Pete do all the work. Pete was very good and stuck up for Max and but Max knew really that it was Pete who was the brainy one. Max didn’t know what Pete was talking about half the time.

Max pretended to listen but really he was dreaming. He day-dreamed a lot about all the things he could be doing, if he didn’t have to be at school. Max imagined himself out on the river bank, fishing, or alongside the canal with a fishing-net at his side, full of shiny, fat fish. The sky was blue and the weather hot and he was wearing his own clothes, not his school uniform.

Max saw himself with Pete, pacMax story illustion - boys on bikesking bags with a few sandwiches, crisps and a drink and setting off on their bikes. He saw himself riding along an open lane, free-wheeling down-hill.

He could feel the wind against his face and the breeze, and the freedom. He could see the blue sky and feel the heat of the sun. He could hear the birds singing in the trees and in the fields. He could see the green of the hedge-row and the dusty grey of the road ahead.

Max saw all this in his head, but when he looked around him, there was only a classroom full of boys and girls, his teacher, and lots of books. He remembered that it was just another school day. The end of the week was getting closer and the history project wasn’t finished. They hadn’t even agreed what they were writing about.

Max and Pete couldn’t agree who to write about. They had to choose a famous person in history, who had made a difference to the world. Max didn’t think he knew any famous person in history. When he was at school, he didn’t feel like he knew much at all, but when he was out of school – that was a different story.

Pete kept on choosing books, and reading about different people. He was doing most of the work, but he was a good mate, and he didn’t complain. He knew that Max didn’t enjoy reading and he knew that he was a better reader than Max. And better at spelling, and writing, and remembering to get his homework in on time.

Sometimes Pete wondered if Max really tried at all, or if he just couldn’t be bothered. And then sometimes Pete wondered why he should be the one who cared when there were teachers who should help Max more.

Winston ChurchillPete began to read a book about Winston Churchill. He had found a chapter in a book about famous people that was all about Winston Churchill in his days as Prime Minister.

Pete wanted Max to listen to him and to agree that this could be their famous person. He was getting tired of Max pretending to listen and doing nothing. He knew that Max didn’t really want to do the project but he didn’t want to do everything by himself.

Pete wished their teacher had given him a different partner. Then he felt bad that he wanted to work with someone else. Max was his best mate. He had to stick up for him, but it was hard work sometimes, and he couldn’t get everything done that he wanted to himself.

Pete began to read about Churchill. He read about different parts of his life. He tried to get Max to listen, but Max just yawned and looked out of the window. Max had his head on his hands. He felt sad that so many good days should be spent like this. He wished he didn’t have to come to school. He wished he had more time to do what he wanted to do. He wished – so many things.

Max thought about home. He thought about his Mum being cross with him in the morning because he hadn’t done his homework.  He had spent the weekend at his Dad’s and had been too busy to do homework. He had been outside, doing more important things. He had been on a long bike ride. He had been fishing with his Dad.

They had sat in silence, for almost a whole day, catching just one or two small fish. It had been a good day.

Max’s Mum couldn’t see how that could be a good day, but to Max it was. He didn’t think his Mum had ever been fishing. She couldn’t understand what it was like. How much he liked the peace and quiet and no one making demands of him or being cross or angry about silly things like homework.

But then, somehow, he had not managed to catch up with all the other things he had to do for school. His Dad didn’t worry about homework like his Mum did. His Dad didn’t think it was important. Max thought about all these things. He felt miserable and alone. His life was hard. Why didn’t people realize that when they wanted him to do so many things. Everywhere he went there were different rules, one lot of rules at home, one lot of rules at his Dad’s, one lot of rules at school. It was all too complicated for him.

Pete was going on about Churchill’s black dog.

‘Max, just say yes and then we can get on and get the project finished. Have you been listening to me? What did I just say?’

Pete could be annoying sometimes, trying to catch him out, like a teacher. Max caught a little of what Pete was saying. He heard something about a black dog.

‘You said that Churchill kept a black dog. Of course I’ve been listening, and I said yes ages ago. You just didn’t hear me.’

Max scowled at Pete. They were best mates but that didn’t mean Pete didn’t bug him sometimes. He was just too clever, always working hard at school.

Pete was smiling. ‘Yeah, sounds like you were listening. He didn’t keep a black dog. He became depressed sometimes and that was the name he gave to his depression. He called it his black dog. It says so here, look!’  Pete handed Max the book. It showed a picture of a large man, wearing a bowler hat and smoking a fat cigar. He didn’t look like a man who could ever be depressed.

Pete kept on talking. Max began to listen. How could this man who was so important and famous be unhappy? How could he do anything if he was depressed? Max found himself getting interested. Pete kept reading on, more and more from his book. They discovered lots of information about World War 2. They saw lots of photographs of Churchill in a big coat, smoking a cigar. Max thought Churchill looked the most powerful man in the world.

Pete read about World War 2 and the air-raids on Britain and the blitz on London. He read about how Churchill walked around the rubble of thousands of blown up houses. He wondered how Churchill could be so brave, so unafraid.

Max smiled to himself. He thought about his life. About all the problems that sometimes made him feel so small and unhappy. And he thought about this great man and all the problems he had to deal with, to help protect the country during the war.

Suddenly Max didn’t feel so sad anymore. It wasn’t always a waste of time being in school. He felt a huge black cloud lift from his shoulders. He turned around. He thought he saw a large black dog leave the classroom.

Max smiled. He thought about Winston Churchill. His black dog had left him.

‘Let me have a look then’ he called across to Pete. He reached for the book and looked up at Pete.

‘Better late than never’ said Pete. They both began to laugh.

Boys fishing


Comments are always welcome – what do you think?

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


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 –

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.