It’s been a series of rapid releases in education. I have had a lot of requests to write a response and to date I have struggled. And it’s taken me a while to figure out why.
I have realised it’s because the general response from the education system has been – well – broadly ‘pin the tail on the blame donkey’. Worse than that it’s been predictable circular pattern of:
- “it ain’t me failing these kids gov, it’s that guy over there you wanna talk to
- and please make sure I can continue to push these kids out because I cannot afford them/ can’t manage them/don’t know what to do with them
- but actually, these kids don’t deserve resources because they don’t try hard enough/don’t access what we give them
- and thinking about it – ain’t me failing these kids gov, they are failing themselves”
Let’s be clear. There are many remarkable schools, charities and individuals doing good work to support all children. And there is much sense (sometimes buried) in these pieces of work and responses to them.
But as a system – as a collective of those whose job, whose role, is to look at the needs of all children – our response has been lacking.
Whether its local authorities at the Select Committee washing their hands of kids who are legally entitled to support; government claiming that accountability systems have had nothing to do with off-rolling; Heads positioning approaches to ‘push out’ kids that are too hard as all about funding or government; lobby groups responding to reports on kids being killed with a cry to retain the right to exclude.
Honestly. Looking in at us a ‘sector’ or ‘system’ you’d be hard pushed from the messaging to think we were here for ‘all kids’.
And that’s it, isn’t it?
Increasingly we aren’t.
The kids most likely to die or suffer serious injury are generally poor. Those in the most deprived 10% of society are than twice as likely to die from suicide that than those in least deprived. Young men from black and minority backgrounds are most likely to be victims of knife crime.
White working class boys are told their choices are ‘less than’ unless they leave their home town, get saddled with debt and go to university.
Disabled children are twice as likely to be bullied in school. They are amongst those most likely to end school unemployed and/or with significant mental health issues.
These facts are clear. The link between facing additional life challenges and poor outcomes repeated in report after report.
And yet in response to this evidence the system shouted ‘that’s someone else’s problem’.
Hey – of course funding matters. Of course schools should be safe places. Of course systems are important. So go for it the lobby. Make your case for your organisation/ hobby horse/ cause/ preferred way. And if that could include funding and prestige for CAMHS, youth services, specialists, social workers, early years staff etc. that would great.
But the system as whole was silent on solution. Real collective solutions that focused on kids who need us the most. Those kids that the Children’s Commissioner identifies as most at need.
Worse than that. The response from the ‘system’ was to make sure these kids – these harder, more expensive, sometimes more challenging kids – are kept as far away from the increasingly homogeneous, middle class resources of the ‘meritocracy’. Exclude them. Put them in special schools. Arrest them. Push them out. Create more Alternative Provision. End universal provision of youth work. Deny them resources.
And of course. For some kids the secure estate is the answer. Special schools and alternative provision can be very right (indeed I am of the view we should just call these ‘schools’).
But the threshold for being moved into the ‘alternative’ is dropping daily. Who oversees the quality of outcomes for these children? Where do they appear in the narrative? The league tables? The policy responses?
And to justify this. To help the system sleep at night we increasingly ‘other’ these children. They aren’t the victims of bad behaviour they are the cause. Not the victims of grooming but the perpetrators of violent crime. Not the anxious child unable to attend school but the wilful truant. Not the child needing specialist help but a drain on the school budget that is needed for the majority of children. Parents who don’t like the way their child is treated in a school ‘can go somewhere else’ – presenting the illusion that choice really exists for many of our most vulnerable families. Any attempt to present ‘reasons’ presented as ‘excuses’. Any attempt to consider adaptions presented as lowering expectations.
We have reinvented the Victorian-age concept of the ‘deserving poor’. If you cannot access the system resources in a way that we find acceptable, affordable and in a way that doesn’t affect ‘the good kids’ then ‘screw you’. If you are willing to work hard to fit into the systems – as defined by us – then well done, you can join the club (well, almost, not too much now!)
But that’s not what a decent system does right? The decent system looks at the outcomes for all children and young people. Including the hard ones.
So. How to fix this?
Well first maybe calling it is part of the solution.
If an organisation’s first response to a report isn’t to say how they think we should support the most vulnerable kids, call it.
If kids are dying of knife crime and the first response is ‘we want the right to push them out of school’, call it. The first response should be how do we stop all kids dying of knife crime. This doesn’t stop the right to exclude, but it puts it right in its place.
When a school says it can’t include kids with SEND because of budgets ask them what they have done to reduce budgets for kids without SEND. Cut the physics class instead? It doesn’t mean schools are adequately funded – clearly they aren’t – but why have kids with SEND become the problem?
Secondly when parents, teachers, campaigners and young people themselves challenge the system maybe pause a second before setting up the defence. People are angry at being pushed out. At having to fight legal battles to get things others get without challenge. They are scared. When they read the DfE Behaviour Guru‘s latest newspaper piece bashing parents/children/SEND/SENCOs it doesn’t matter that his follow up blog is more nuanced (and that he was misrepresented again) – it matters that the message in mass media is the system finds you wanting. When they see 100% attendance awards they think about their anxiety ridden child holding onto the bannister too scared to go to school. They see her being branded a failure when in fact it takes more courage than most children will ever need to get through the school gates one day in three. When they read the prevalence of black boys like their son being excluded, or of black boys being stabbed, they want to hear the system talk about how they will challenge stereotypes and keep their child safe (and a challenge of systemic racism was sadly one of missing pieces of Timpson Review).
And thirdly we need to accept that for some parts of the system this ‘pushing out’ is an attitude. An approach. An ideological position. It’s not an accident or because they don’t understand. Some people believe society is best served by focusing resources on those who are most likely to be productive and who are most ‘like the establishment’ – often because that creates wealth. The 29 at the cost of the one. Others believe we should focus attention and resource on those ‘most in need’ – those who lack privilege – because the rest will broadly be ok anyway – and a rising tide floats all ships. The one receiving more than the 29. This is perhaps the real dichotomy in education and if we are to move to the 30 as a whole it needs more honest and nuanced debate.
On practical steps pledges about the behaviour that we expect from leaders can help. Our own is the Drawn In – is there a Head in the country who couldn’t sign it? There shouldn’t be. It doesn’t prevent legal exclusion. Why not sign? In fact it helps show a commitment to avoiding the gaming that today’s OFSTED Education Inspection Framework will be targeting.
And giving up power. That’s hard for all of us to do. But lets see more diversity in our system leadership. Young people involved in decision making. Parents of our most vulnerable children on trustee boards and governing bodies. Less people with degrees working for think tanks.
But perhaps most of all – as we look at the accountability framework – maybe the entire children’s system needs one shared target. One outcome by which every system leader will be judged.
What is your contribution to supporting truly the most vulnerable children? Even those some consider ‘undeserving’. What have you done and what did you achieve? And pay those, laud those, fund those who can answer. And perhaps a little less celebrating the ‘success’ of those who cannot/ do not.
Anita Kerwin-Nye is founder of both The Communication Trust and Whole School SEND and a national leader in inclusion and access. She is also Director at YHA and Lead of Every Child Should.
She is on occasion a little bit grumpy that her kids with disabilities are seen by some in the sector as a burden.
To follow the media responses to Timpson Review
Copies of recent reports will be uploaded to Drawn In.