What future for school leavers with special educational needs?

Out in the wilderness without a map, compass or guide.

We are all fleshy bags of personality, physicality, abilities, preferences, talents, joys and pains. We are all people. Each of us has a career, a pathway through life that we might make or have made for us, consciously or not. It might be a school career, a college career, a care career, an occupational career, a leisure career, a health career, a sports career…

There are as many pathways to the future as there are people. Generalisations and assumptions are very dangerous. What makes sense for one person will make nonsense for another. It’s why a professional careers adviser will ask so many open questions and listen so hard to the answers. There is no typical young person; certainly no typical young person with special educational needs. It’s why my job is so fascinating…

Although each pathway is unique, the map might sometimes lead us through the same places, processes and bottlenecks; the same challenges and conflicts; similar experiences, stages and institutions. Some areas of a map might be incomplete, unexplored or unfamiliar; there may well be quicksand and dragons out there; your satnav might be unreliable and the landscape may be changing but it’s not sensible to begin the adventure without one. And best not go alone.

The career pathways for young people with special educational needs are – in theory – the same as those for any young person. All the options are open, you will be told. There are barriers to achievement that need to be removed or overcome but the mechanisms to do this are in place. You just need the information, advice and ongoing guidance. You can consider your professionally qualified and experienced careers adviser your personal tracker and guide…but first you have to find one…

The Disruption of Careers Information, Advice and Guidance Services

We are in a very peculiar period.

Until 2010 careers advice was delivered through Connexions, a service provided by privatised careers companies working under contract to local authorities to diverse and demanding targets. The service had been underfunded and was of varying quality. In the private sector managers sometimes built their own careers by meeting tick-box targets and coming in under budget rather than necessarily enabling their highly qualified and experienced staff to open up young people’s motivation and potential. Often young people said Connexions was great. Sometimes they said it was “rubbish”. Something had to change. Connexions was capable of reform and redirection. There was still a valuable baby in the bathwater but something had to change.

Then there was an election…and the bath was tipped over.

On the basis that the experience was “patchy”, one of the very first things the Coalition Government did was cut the funding to Connexions. This resulted in the redundancy of almost all the professionally qualified careers advisers that worked with young people in schools, colleges and the labour market, including their managers. The publicly available national Connexions online careers information database was closed down. The networks of professional information gathering and exchange, training and support disappeared almost overnight.

The government then went further; removing the duty to provide careers guidance from local authorities and passing that duty to schools, without providing any funding to provide it. As a result we now have a splintered, varyingly qualified private sector careers guidance marketplace dominated by those former – remember “patchy”? – private sector providers along with a fair share of charlatans, simplistic life-coaches and productivity gurus. (Beware!).

Careers England (what the BBC refers to as the careers “trade organisation”) reports that 83% of mainstream schools had reduced careers guidance from the level provided by Connexions.

Where schools – mostly mainstream schools – have bought in private sector careers companies or individuals their contracts often specifically exclude work with pupils with Statements of SEN because they often have no staff with relevant expertise and experience. This is apparently acceptable, even when we have the Equality Act…

The government’s new National Careers Service provides a website and telephone call centre service for people over 18 with the possibility of three face to face interviews for those who qualify, where the service is available at all. Here’a the link https://nationalcareersservice.direct.gov.uk You decide whether it is any use to young people with SEN or their parents…

Making the best of the shambles for young people with special educational needs:

Local authorities continue to have responsibilities to help and encourage (e.g. through targeted youth support for gang members etc.) vulnerable young people and those who are not in education, employment or training (the infamous NEETS).

Local authorities also retain the duty to provide a representative (usually one of the very few remaining specialist SEN Connexions advisers under a variety of different job titles) to attend the Year 9 (and where possible subsequent) annual reviews for young people with SEN – where they can contribute to Transition Planning – and to provide Learning Difficulty Assessments to send to colleges of further education for young people whose Statements are about to lapse as they leave the school sector.

Luckily, many local authority managers also recognise the nonsense of their specialist staff contributing to meaningful Transition plans without providing ongoing professional, impartial, careers information, advice and guidance to young people with SEN and their parents and are committed to continuing to provide that service. So some of us go on meeting the young people and their parents – and working with schools, social services, colleges, educational psychologists, parent partnership services and other professionals – to help each individual young person find their way through the wilderness with its panels, assessments, funding bunkers and crises.

One of the risks of writing this article is that some politician will notice and sack us all…

Its time to get political:

The national Home/Host Agreements – under which pupils in residential or out-county schools were served by the Connexions service local to their school – has collapsed. Local authority staff will only work with their own residents. Some authorities have a policy of not allowing staff to travel to schools outside their area for reviews and where they do allow this appointments often clash and apologies have to be sent. It should be recognised that often too few staff were retained from Connexions for local authorities to meet their responsibilities.

Not all local authorities are enlightened. Some have forbidden their staff to give careers advice, information and guidance and have demanded that they restrict themselves to a diet of filling in forms and “turnupism” (making sure the authority is not challenged for not turning up at reviews). Moreover, some local authorities are exerting considerable managerial pressure to compromise the professional impartiality and independence of Connexions advisers; pressing them to distort their advice by recommending less expensive solutions e.g. favouring less than adequately supported local college courses against independent specialist colleges.

A challenge remains with regard to mainstream schools. The former Specialist SEN Connexions advisers retained by the local authorities – sometimes one or two people per authority – previously worked mainly in local authority special schools. The advisers that worked in mainstream schools have all gone in the redundancies. Parents of young people with SEN in mainstream schools might like to ask who is providing the services above for their children now.

Only 40% of the cuts to local authorities have gone through. 60% remain. The Prime Minister warns of tough decisions. It cannot be long before a Minister makes a speech questioning why the public purse is paying fees of £60,000 per annum to educate young people with profound and multiple learning disabilities on three year post-19 courses in residential specialist colleges when they have no prospect of making any economic contribution to Aspiration Britain. And so the rolling back of opportunity for young people with SEN begins – with what sounds like a common-sense, logical argument in very difficult times

In the course of the next year or so Sarah Tether’s white paper on the Reform of Provision for Children and Young People With Special Needs will pass through parliament into law. A new Code of Practice will follow. Pupils have the professional careers information advice and guidance that remains – in spite of the government – largely as a result of the last Code of Practice. Its place in the new one is as yet uncertain…

As always, to help your child most effectively you may have to consider legal action at times. IN THE NEAR FUTURE YOU WILL ALMOST CERTAINLY HAVE TO GET POLITICALLY INVOLVED. JOIN SOMETHING. SPEAK UP.

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Grammar Schools: This Time It’s Personal

At 60 I seem to be recovering from my childhood.

These days I sometimes enjoy watching sport. Not just Formula One and the motorcycle racing that I could once fantasise about excelling in but the actual running, jumping, hitting, kicking, diving, splashing, throwing stuff.

The Olympic Games is just about to begin; the stadium in reality a bullseye ringed by steel and my commute already complicated by drivers’ confusion over the status of the new Olympic and Bus Lane that’s appeared in Wandsworth High Street. I’m intensely – irrationally – irritated by most of the cyclists I come across on the open highway but I’m beginning to find even their sport strangely compelling when they are properly confined to the Velodrome. Last weekend I watched Wimbledon and allowed myself to Believe for a while. So what’s the connection to Grammar Schools?

There is Grammar School debate going on just below the surface in the Tory party with a vicious cat still hidden in Mr Gove’s bag; in a secret compartment just beneath the innocent and hesitant kitten of maybe, only maybe, replacing GCSEs with new O Levels and CSEs and vocational choices at age 12.

I could spend quite a few seconds on Google or Wikipedia gathering facts about when Grammar Schools were introduced, how many there were and cleverly quote the facts here: the history of the 11+, how demanding O Levels were, the transmission of the values of the British Empire, of civil society and of the polite customer service that’s so hard to find these days (because we have a service economy with few jobs that are not “customer facing”, employers are having to take on people I’d never want to face as a customer…).

There are academic dissertation questions here: Describe the extent to which Grammar Schools actually did deliver the Social Mobility in the 60s that the Coalition professes to believe in today? Did the new Comprehensives raise the standards for all to Grammar School levels or did they simply – in reality – shovel all the Grammar School kids into slightly larger rebranded Secondary Moderns where they had to play football instead of rugby? Did the closure of Grammar Schools end elitism in publicly funded education or simply divide the former Grammar School elite into those who could pay to enter the independent sector and those who were not prosperous enough to buy that choice or not prepared to prioritize school fees over the climb up a few rungs of the property ladder?

There’s another question about whether increased Social Mobility was delivered by education and how much by house price booms…And, incidentally, I’d question Niall Ferguson’s assertion in his BBC Reith Lecture that the collapse of UK civil society signified by the collapse of UK voluntary and hobby organizations is the fault of Facebook, TV and – somehow – comprehensive education. It’s more likely to be the collapse of Britain’s manufacturing economy and the closure of the mines, mills, foundries and factories that brought men, women and communities together. A colliery band is much less without the colliery, the factory drama club is nothing without the factory and the local social club becomes a haven for old alcohol-dependent men (rather like a Weatherspoons pub) when everyone else drives off to work in a call-centre or hypermarket. All that and what might be Marx’s predicted “increasing rate of exploitation”: even a part-time job demands you bring home and study the latest corporate bullshit so you turn up on-message next day. You have no time to gather and sing.

People write books about this stuff. So I’ll let them.

I am not writing a book. I just want to challenge the seductive, nostalgic and dangerous belief that the Grammar School of the 1960s was something akin to a Settlement House of academic excellence set down as a civilizing stairway of opportunity out of the mediocrity of the petty class-divided communities it served. They were schools for the children of home owners. The uncouth council estate kids could go to the secondary modern.

I can only really write about Mitcham Grammar School for Boys. I’ve no doubt that all its alumni that went straight through 9 good O levels and 3 A level and on to a good University will argue that it was a really fine school that got them where they are today etc. All I can really write about was my own personal experience of Mitcham Grammar School for Boys. How it was for me, what it taught me about boys and men and why I am only just now recovering enough to really enjoy sport without hating sportspeople.

Just now there seem to be echoes and small prompts that make this a good time to tell this story. There are the Olympics with their elite displays, the five year old who already has swimming skills that I have never had, gladiatorial Wimbledon on TV last weekend, the two bigger boys surreptitiously punching the arm of a slightly podgy boy as they passed in the doorway of a school fair, the short Year 7s, all burdened with backpacks, body punching and dead-legging another slightly podgy boy they called Sumo as they queued in a narrow corridor. (Me passing as a visitor not interfering with more than a look and feeling as the door closed that I had betrayed my younger self). The accepting observation of one mother to another at one of the school fetes that all teenage boys – including her own – are nasty, sneaky, vicious.

Writing can be dangerous. Everything has context. When one starts recording an episode in one’s life it is difficult to know just where to begin.  Zoom in on a period and the detailed memories flood back, sometimes along with tears of one kind or another. Mood-changers and polluters of dreams creep out of the past. Don’t spend too long there.

I am not yet quite ready to write the history of my first 11 years or of that one particular day in the November before I entered Mitcham Grammar School in my new blazer, cap, short grey trousers and long grey socks. But you should know that Dad was very proud.

Dad must have thought that his life was back on track. He’d remarried, he’d got a new mortgage. His eldest son, whom he’d taken to the Tower of London, Navy Days, The Royal Tournament and the Guards Museum (but never to a football match), the son whose mother had died beneath a tube train at Tooting Broadway 10 months before after a prolonged bout of post-natal depression, had since not only accepted the new wife his father had met on 1950’s Civil Defence exercises as his stepmother but had passed the 11+ exam! Off I went over Beehive Bridge to school with very shiny black shoes buffed to Grenadier Guards levels of gleam. A very smartly dressed, very damaged, under-skilled little boy in grey short trousers, a naive believer from the council flats heading for a new pecking order in Form 1L where the nasty, sneaky, vicious soon-to-be teenage boys waited to find out who they were.

Mitcham Grammar School was a disaster heaped upon a disaster for me and for the several others that found the same hiding places in (different) toilet cubicles, trombone lessons and pottery studios when we were turned out at break or dinner time. It was a little school for the middle classes that aped the schools of the upper classes. It was organised into four “houses”. Prefects had yellow braid around their blazers, teachers wore academic gowns, you got beaten by Dr C.R. Bingham (Oxon. and red Mercedes) if you got three detentions in a week, if he caught you cheating in German or if you farted during assembly. Everyone studied for those GCEs (five got you a job in a bank or as a clerical officer in the Civil Service). The 6th Form studied A Levels in proud preparation for a Good University or, more quietly, for Kingston Polytechnic. Cross-country running (around Mitcham Common) offered the shame of coming in last. Rugby and cricket offered the humiliation of not being picked for any team, ever.

There are emotions I wouldn’t want my children to experience. I felt them at Mitcham Grammar School.

The curriculum at Mitcham Grammar School celebrated the elite and only coached boys who could run fast to run faster, those who could jump high to jump higher, those who could already swim well to dive from higher boards. The whole school was designed for the 1st XV and the 1st XI. And, like Mr Thomas the Welsh, plimsoll-wielding PE teacher, Mitcham Grammar School wished the rest of us would go away.

All schools have a “hidden curriculum” that parents choosing schools should be aware of and which head teachers should seek to manage (just as CEO’s must manage the company culture if staff are not going to view personal development plans as “more corporate crap”).

The hidden curriculum at Mitcham Grammar was one of petty snobbery with a further undercurrent of what can only accurately be described as fascism. (Fascism with a capital F is really only an adult political form of an adolescent disorder. Fascists never grow out of their bullying phase and build an ideology of strength naturally exploiting or driving out weakness, the elite over the masses, the Nation against the outsider, any expression of compassion a perversion etc. etc.) This was odd when all the teachers had survived, if not fought in, the Second World War.

My first three and a half years at Mitcham Grammar School were absolutely awful. And three and a half years were a long time then, a quarter of my lifetime. I was the last in my year – by about a year – to replace my short trousers with long trousers. I had to wear a belted gabardine raincoat. I went to school dressed as a target.

I’d be willing to argue that at 11 years old almost all boys are technically fascists. And at 11 years old boys are mostly pint-sized, below an adult’s line of sight and invisible except for their new uniforms: in school corridors, in playgrounds, in the street, on the bus, even in art galleries and museums, in any unstructured and unsupervised context. The point is that nobody sees them. Or most of what they do. Ganging up, punching, kicking, dead-legging, robbing, humiliating and baiting victims to show who is the baddest; establishing the pecking order of terror. It is important to understand that there are not just one or two bullies who bully everyone else. There are just one or two victims who are victimised by everyone else. It turns out you are weird if you are not a bully. And the weird get bullied.

So…this could become a true and detailed book – with rich characters with only slightly altered names – of how an emotionally damaged 11 year-old boy came to believe the bullies and further bully himself for his cowardliness in not following his Guardsman father’s instruction to “punch the biggest one back”. A story about the boy’s absolute uselessness at everything academic, his desperate desire to be something other than absolutely useless at running, jumping, hitting, kicking, diving, swimming, throwing, catching stuff. About the absence of any talent at all except perhaps a talent for masturbation, which added the ingredient of sin and crusty underclothes to the extreme anxiety and the venomous daily puncture of any hint of self-esteem. A friendless, distrusting, disgusting, bullied boy learning to lie and run away from the Grammar School of Social Mobility to the Tate Gallery, the National Gallery, The Imperial War Museum, The London Transport Museum and all the Museums of South Kensington. A story about a boy whose father threatened him with a psychiatrist if he didn’t stop lying and bunking off. A boy coming to believe that he should never have survived infant whooping cough, measles and mumps. A boy ashamed to be curious to learn which platform his mother jumped from….But this is a blog not a book…yet.

It will come.

Back then I thought I was useless because I was useless. Now I know I was useless because I lived with constant fear and anxiety. And someone should have called an educational psychologist. Or at least looked below their line of sight as they walked down the corridors. Or maybe have bought me some long trousers.

I’d like to be able to tell you I was helped to find my personal worth by the school counsellor, who worked with my form teacher to address the problems thoroughly and carefully. But I can’t. It was my Dad. One day someone started throwing my books out of my desk and I actually lost my temper. I punched him hard and his nose bled all over his Mitcham Grammar School tie. He staggered back across the classroom as I continued to hit him. Other kids got out of the way.

It was…liberating beyond belief.

There were a couple of other incidents where people I should never have allowed to bully me in the past got punched. And suddenly – very suddenly – I got some respect. Not enough to swagger about with but enough to join a small gang of guttersnipes of my own, to go shoplifting, to smoke in the corners I used to cower in, to vandalise stuff, to have…friends. Later, when I was retaking my O Levels some of my best and most talented friends were the few who joined the 6th Form from Western Road Secondary Modern. I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t passed that 11 Plus.

My education didn’t recover for 10 years but I learnt a lot at Mitcham Grammar School:-

  1.   All men have been bullies.
  2.   No men talk about it
  3.   Most bullies grow out of bullying, some become psychopaths
  4.  You cannot run from bullies for then they will have delegated their work to you.
  5.  Sometimes the humiliation of running away hurts more than bleeding just a bit
  6.  Sometimes a gang is family.
  7. All difference is vulnerability
  8. Terrance is a stupid name spelt wrong

These days we’d hope that OFSTED uses a more balanced scorecard when judging schools and that it is not all about building the school’s reputation or its league table position on the examination results gained by it’s elites. These days we’d all hope that schools of all kinds have active and efficient anti-bullying policies, that children have a named person to speak to; a person they can have confidence in, who will listen and take action on their behalf without that action leading to another sneaky beating, kicking and humiliation later on. These days we’d hope that schools are monitoring and actively developing the intellectual and physical abilities and skills of all their children and taking particular care to spot the overweight, the unfit, the unskilled, the silly attention-seekers and to help them grow more quickly. Invest in them because they are our futures too.

But not so much has changed. I have many clients with Asperger’s Syndrome. One has been educated at home by his mother because schools could not meet his needs, another has just dropped out of a Level 3 mainstream college because the college insists he must now be an independent learner and a lecturer insulted him, another who is so afraid of gangs that he will not walk to his Putney corner shop and another who will not leave his bedroom because the world is “ugly” and it is the only place he feels safe. All these young men are over 18 years old. The world is not good enough for them and the government wants to spend less on the residential specialist FE Colleges which might provide them with respite from fear and a chance to shine in the history and astronomy which are their special subjects.

And me? I find myself liking football, athletics, swimming, gymnastics, ski-ing and even tennis and show jumping now mostly without wondering what bastards the participants were when they were at school. I even enjoy watching them in pubs. But sometimes I still want to avoid crowds. I’m still a bit odd. I ride a Harley but can’t talk football with the rest of the men. Sometimes I can be too cautious. Sometimes I can be too reckless. I am watchful. When I drink I talk too much and eventually I can meander into loud swearwords and louder politics. Even then I think I am watchful. But watch out for me. There’s a lot to come out.

Oh and don’t bring back Grammar Schools.