My personal journey as a disability campaigner has been informed by many things – not least my children – but the relighting of my campaigning fire was sparked by this speech by Stephen Unwin at the 2018 Cultural Inclusion Conference. As we look forward to the Cultural Inclusion Parliamentary Reception tonight I have been reflecting why I have had a life-long focus on inclusion for all children and young people and why I keep coming back to disability. And what disability tells us about the failing of contemporary education policy.
Access and equity of entitlement to public services, to a rich curriculum and set of life experiences and to all those things that we with privilege take for granted have underpinned my career for all those ‘groups’ that miss out. But I always come back to disability and I have been reflecting on why.
It is in part because if we get it right for those with disabilities then access across the piece tends to work. Addressing physical access, communication, costs and engagement for people with severe and complex physical and learning disabilities will improve access for all.
But its more than that. A focus on disability calls out some of the lies in our education system.
The catch with ‘catch-up’
Disability challenges the catch-up narrative. Because, you know, some kids just won’t catch-up. With the increasingly narrow range of measures for success: GCSEs and A- Levels, sporting prowess or moving to university or employment, it is a reality that some kids won’t achieve these status proxies like their peers. They won’t catch up. Ever. Not because of a lack of parental or teacher ambition (the usual accusation thrown at those challenging the catch-up narrative) but because they can’t.
And to be clear. This doesn’t mean that some kids with disability won’t catch-up, or even overtake, their peers in these measures (indeed one of the fights of the last 10 years has been to challenge the automatic placing of children with disabilities in the ‘bottom sets’). Nor does it mean that children with disabilities won’t make progress or achieve other things. But by the measures that dominate the current education narrative the reality is that for some catching up is impossible.
And in this some of those with severe and complex disabilities are a proxy for other children with adverse childhood experiences who need more than ‘hard work’ to miraculously become a Barrister – for example.
Disability makes a mockery of the meritocracy myth. Some people appear to have read Michael Young’s book and considered it a blueprint rather than a warning. There are those in positions of power who really believe that they got there purely on their intelligence and hard work.
Education has been narrowed the pursuit of intelligence – with an increasingly narrow focus of what intelligence means. ‘Knowledge rich’ is a worthy aim – indeed democritising knowledge is as Michael Gove suggests ‘a worthy progressive cause’ (thought which knowledge deserves ongoing and robust debate). But it is telling that in his latest book, Making Kids Cleverer, Didau puts the learning of wider skills – problem solving, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking – into the early years space. Ignoring the reality that these are the skills that many children with disabilities need to develop throughout their school careers. And that many children cannot be made ‘cleverer’ in the way that this book – and some educational theorists – suggest.
And hard work? Well, when being able to ‘hold your head up’ is a literal challenge rather than a call to be proud, and ignoring a call to ‘sit up straight’ is not a wilful sign of disobedience but rather because it is physically impossible, just getting through a day at school is more hard work than most of us will ever experience. When your learning disability means that reading 200 words takes an hour then passing one GCSE at level 3 is a call for celebration (not that you’d know it from the way that GSCEs are reported.)
Parent participation (but only the right type of parents and participation as we define it)
Disability challenges to us think again about parental involvement. Parents who want their children to achieve are fought over by schools. And parents who choose not to – or might not be able to – support their children are basically told to choose another school. This is a truth of our current system. Unless you are a child fighting for the best education for your child with disability. Then your aspirations for their achievement are seen as difficult, challenging and, for many schools and local authorities parent engagement is not welcome.
It’s all about the money
And – increasingly – in a culture that defines life success by financial outcomes disability – particularly severe and complex learning and physical impairments – forces us to consider our cultural values. Of course, employment and financial security are important. It would be foolish to pretend otherwise. But to only measure success – and indeed the purpose of education – in this way is – well – a mark of an uncivilised society.
For no other group is the cost of education as robustly debated, discussed and challenged (often in the courts) as it is with those with disabilities. It suggests that someone somewhere believes that they not worthy of the investment because the financial returns might be limited. Why spend additional money on their access to education when some of them might not achieve high paid roles? Or work at all? Or might be a drain on the public purse into adulthood? Or – hell – might not even make it to adulthood?
All – well All ‘like us’
Disability redefines the word all. Typically ‘all’ is defined along the lines of: used to refer to the whole quantity or extent of a particular group or thing. Over the years when challenging statements that all children should leave school able to read/with 5 GCSEs/to do A-levels I have regularly met the response ‘well but of course we don’t mean ‘those children’. When explaining that a narrowing curriculum and an absence of life skills development will impact negatively on children with disabilities I am reminded that its not ‘for them’ and that if they can’t cope they should perhaps be elsewhere.
And here is the real truth. Those shaping our education system don’t really want ‘those kids’ in their schools at all. Our education system is being designed to meet the needs of a broadly homogenus group of children and young people to meet a very narrow range of qualifications that support a very narrow range of life pathways. In essence replicating the life experiences of those that are designing the system.
I am a tremendous supporter of excellent special school and alternative provision – there are some children who need the specialist support that these schools can offer and – well structured – these schools can be a part of an inclusive community of provision. As can indeed home education. And it must be easier for parents to access all these options.
But increasingly disability also demonstrates the lie of the concept of choice in education. Many children are being denied their choice to be in mainstream because they don’t fit. They are pushed out of a system that increasingly only celebrates the progress and achievements of a narrow group. Educational ‘leaders’ hide behind their narrow mantra that EBACC, 100% attendance and ‘no excuses’ policies support those who are disadvantaged – and indeed they might. But the reality is that the system is designed to support the ‘deserving poor’ and push them down the narrow path of ‘meritocracy’ so they can be ‘like us’. And that’s fine. It shows some ambition for those individual children and at an individual teacher level of course takes some skill and hard work.
But those currently shaping education lack ambition and vision for education. They are taking the easy path. Of course teachers who take the most able children and the narrowest range of qualification will do well – both generally and in a system that is set up to measure progress for that group of children and rewards success for that group of qualifications. Duh!
Only human after all
So I’ve come to realise that I always return to disability because it challenges our very definition of what it is to be human. To have our achievements valued. To be part of the all. To be worthy of investment.
The poor and the powerless are being ‘othered’. And many people with disabilities are victims of this ‘othering’ Excluded from education, from society and – to be clear – dying.
To continue down this path is dangerous. Not just for education but for society. If we airbrush those who aren’t not the same from our definition of ‘all’ where are we? Whether by accident or design (I hope the former but I fear the latter) schools become part of the ‘othering’.
And othering is one of the 10 steps to genocide. It really is. That’s not hyperbole. That’s not ‘bloody progressive’ overplay. Have a look, we are arguably already on step four.
For all the progress that’s been made over these 35 years – and let’s be clear there are many great developments in anti-disabilism and disability rights – we are at a dangerous point.
Fighting for the rights of those with several and complex physical and learning disabilities is a fight all those who can’t catch up; for all those who work hard but are considered without merit; for those whose achievements aren’t those valued by those with power; for all those whose net financial contribution to society is consider insufficient.
So – that’s why I am back where I started. In every role I have. In everything that I do.