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Updated: Apr 20, 2020

Like so many teachers, I spend a lot of my time in pupil progress meetings. At these meetings, we talk about targets and interventions and, in theory, about children. However, much of the conversation is dominated by the data, percentages and the government set thresholds. Increasingly these discussions are dominated by what teachers need to do to ensure that the school’s data  on Raise Online will be good enough to give it  a chance of obtaining a ‘good’ or even ‘outstanding’ grade from OFSTED.

We talk about where children were, where they are and where they need to be academically. We talk about progress and attainment. But it is much rarer for us to talk about ‘why.’ Why are some children finding learning more difficult than others? We have emotional literacy and nurture support. We discuss vulnerable groups- summer born boys, pupil premium and those with English as an additional language. We identify interventions to move children on. We use provision maps and tracking to measure the impact of the interventions and vulnerability scales to identify needy pupils. Even with all this good practice, still I fear the child is getting lost in the data.

Too often we hear children described by their behaviour or difficulty. It is very telling when you hear teachers talk about ‘the little boy in Year 1 with autism’, rather than ‘David’. In theory, all those working in schools know that they need to see the child and not the behaviour. We are constantly told that when dealing with behaviour incidents we must be clear to ourselves and the children that it is the behaviour we don’t like, not the child. However, we know that when we are dealing with difficult, and often aggressive and disruptive behaviour day in and day out, this can be hard. It is made harder by the constant emphasis on data. These children are disrupting learning and so impacting on data.  Furthermore, it makes it so much harder to be patient with a child who just can’t get it or can’t remember what they knew 30 minutes ago when the pressure is on to produce ‘the data’.

In Steve Silberman’s fascinating book on autism: Neurotribes, there is a quote describing the work in Hans Asperger’s[i] clinic in Vienna in the 1930s:

‘Fundamentally, there appears to be no special interest in the differences between normal and abnormal as it is felt that theoretically this is unclear, and practically it is of no great importance.’ (p.88)

However, there is a drive in schools for labels for those with special needs to differentiate the ‘normal’ and the ‘abnormal’. In many cases, this is driven by parents who want to understand why their child is finding learning difficult or appears different. Additionally, some are wanting an excuse and some are searching for funding. Whatever the reason, they find the label helpful and often comforting. Teachers can find these labels supportive to enable them to identify appropriate and supportive strategies (and occasionally to access funding). But the labels can also limit and affect our understanding of the child in front of us. There are dyslexics for whom coloured lens or an ACE Dictionary or teaching Toe by Toe work. There are those for whom these interventions don’t work and they can even cause them distress. We need to consider what works for the individual child, not apply generic solutions based solely on their special need. We need to be aware that children and their needs change. We need to see the child, not the label!

When working with children with social, emotional and mental health needs we must be aware that the impact of aggressive, disruptive and threatening behaviour goes beyond the child. We know it makes it harder to hear and understand what the child is trying to communicate. Furthermore, it impacts not only on the learning (and data) of other children, but on their well-being and that of staff. To promote the learning of all, we need to ensure children and staff are supported when they are faced with this kind of behaviour. It is rare, in most schools, but it can be traumatic. Even without physical or emotional threat from another’s behaviour children need to be equipped with an understanding that a range of behaviour and learning abilities and styles are normal. This is key to developing an inclusive school ethos and can even be linked with ‘British values.’ So ticking another box for OFSTED.

Key to supporting learning for all and understanding children’s learning difficulties is the ethos of the school and the attitudes of the teachers and school leaders. It must be part of the school’s DNA to accept and value all members of its community, not just measure their impact on data. The emphasis on data can too often mean teachers (and parents) look for ‘someone’ to fix the child. If they have support, the problem will be solved.

There are still classrooms and schools where a Teaching Assistant is expected to take away ‘the problem child and fix them’. The result is the most vulnerable children are taught by the less experienced and expert professional- not a logical response and possibly a form of exclusion. It is essential that all pupils access ‘quality first teaching’. Again, and again, research shows that this is what makes the most difference to learning.

Sometimes the school turns to an outside ‘fixer’. They summon ‘an expert’ from an outside agency or increasingly the parent pays for an outside ‘expert’ to give an opinion. There is often an expectation that this will solve the problem. It may provide a label or more usually advice. But the advice is not an answer. It is a step on the journey. Teachers and parents need to work together with the child to follow the advice. Key to this being effective is dialogue and listening to the child. The child may not be able to say what is working, but they can communicate it through their behaviour and learning.  We need to listen to and be aware of their responses. We need to remember that the teacher, and even more the parent, know the child better than the expert who saw them only briefly. We need to be proud and confident to use our professional expertise and knowledge of our children to support their learning, not be disempowered by ‘expert advice’, labels and the demand for data.

Occasionally, a child will have sufficient need to be granted an EHCP (Education, Health and Care Plan). This brings funding and means that the child is shown differently on the school’s data, but it is not an answer in itself to the child’s difficulties. The children will still have needs which teachers need to use their professional skills to meet. Also professionals and parents must continue to have high expectations that a child is entitled to and can still make progress, even if it is more slowly than some other children.

There is no magic answer. Children, both those with special needs and without, learn at different rates and in different ways. Their progress is not a smooth upwards progression. Their attainment will not always be at age expectations or above, despite the constant drive on data in schools. As OFSTED increasingly pre-judges schools by external data without knowledge of context, schools are placed in a position where it takes real courage to hold onto what we know is important in education and that is the children.  We need to remember to focus on and pinpoint what a child can do and avoid a ‘deficit’ model which merely identifies the gaps in age expectation descriptors. With this approach there is a real danger that children will be described by what they cannot do, rather than what they can.

Both children and schools are more than just the data which represents them. During his successful presidential campaign against George H Bush, Bill Clinton used the slogan, “It’s the economy, Stupid.’ We need to remember that education is ‘about children, Stupid!’ and children are more than data. They are individuals with their own needs and strengths. As teachers we know how to work with children to support them to learn. Let’s make sure the data celebrates our achievements and doesn’t inhibit the ability of our children to learn or our ability to teach and meet their needs.

[i] Hans Asperger was one of the first describers and identifiers of what is now called autism and after whom Asperger’s Syndrome is named. The book is Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and How to Think Smarter About People Who Think Differently by Steve Silberman.

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