March 1, 2017 by Sarah Gillie
This post is named after the ‘levels’ children are assigned as they progress through the early years of education provision in England. I wonder whether the obsession with quantifying and labelling our children from the moment they enter an education-related environment is at the rotten core of a mistrust and blame culture promoted by the popular press. It’s a culture we need to change if our children are to thrive as education evolves.
A fairly cursory search through education-related ‘news’ articles will suggest that schools are failing our children. This is not a new phenomenon, though it may have its origins in that misguided concept of the late 20th century that schools would improve, and that families would be able to make informed choices as a result of a sort of league table for schools. Here it is in its most recent incarnation.
Just a couple of examples:
I count myself fortunate that my children have had supportive teachers, willing and able to adapt to their needs, and that my own experience working in schools is generally excellent: colleagues are well-informed, proactive, caring and genuinely in the business of helping every learner to achieve. In my most recent school-based incarnation as a learning support teacher, I would act on concerns raised by teachers, parents or assessment data (not just summative). Working in partnership with colleagues and families, we would navigate the process of referral and diagnosis together, adjusting support and intervention based on current needs and professional recommendations.
Over recent decades across the UK it has become accepted and expected that, wherever possible, learning at school should be facilitated through appropriate differentiation and support to suit each pupil’s age, stage and needs (Rose, 2009; Great Britain, Department for Education and Department of Health, 2015; Wales, Department for Education and Skills, 2015). According to the Teachers’ Standards (Great Britain, Department for Education, 2013) “a teacher must…know when and how to differentiate appropriately, using approaches which enable pupils to be taught effectively.”
Reasonable adjustments are often needed, and the time, space and resources of the classroom can sometimes make these alterations seem major, if not unattainable. Usually, though, a way can be found to adapt the space, timetable or plan, etc. for the sake of the student. Sometimes there is a windfall benefit to other members of the class or the teacher, whether through the introduction of a support technique, improved differentiation or adults in the class having more time to spend with all pupils. I’m not claiming that it is always like this. There will always be some teachers who resist external advice, and for a multitude of reasons, just as in any walk of life.
“Early intervention is key” – it’s one of those phrases used so often that it should have become unthinkable that prompt support is not available to all children, regardless of age or geographic location. Surely early intervention in education or health should mean at the point when difficulties occur; any experienced teacher will tell you that students can begin to show signs of struggling at any age or stage.
There is still, all too often, a cut-off point at age 5 despite the supposed integration (or at least co-operation and communication) of health and education support services to age 25 through the 2014 SEND Code of Practice. A child who has received NHS Speech and Language Therapist (SLT) or Occupational Therapist (OT) intervention can abruptly cease to qualify, or one whose problems are masked or only emerge later can simply fail to qualify for support. What is harder to prove, but what many realise, is that children whose needs are not manifested extremely enough to qualify for support between the ages of 5 and 11 may be the very children who are later referred to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) – there’s an example in one of I Can‘s latest blog posts.
Last week, my interest and my heart quickened for all the wrong reasons as I waded through the multitude of articles written as a result of GL Assessment’s survey conducted with YouGov. Pushy parents causing children to be misdiagnosed with special needs, research suggests, is just one of these. The article, and several others, suggest that current diagnosis rates are manipulated by parents, and that some of the 1.2 million children in England who have a diagnosis of learning needs have been misdiagnosed.
Local Authority educational psychologists exist, but pressure on funding means that there are huge waiting lists and children sometimes do not ‘qualify’ for observation or assessment, let alone additional support, because their needs simply aren’t ‘severe’ enough, they are not unmanageably disruptive or refusing school. But failure to provide for these pupils can lead to far greater problems later on. How many of the students discussed in the articles at the top of this page fall into that category?
It is a sad fact that for many, access to appropriate support may be limited to those who are able to afford private diagnosis. These are the children of so-called ‘pushy’ parents. I have to ask: if a private diagnosis is sought, what professional of integrity would risk their reputation and certification, let alone the well-being of the student concerned, to appease a ‘pushy parent’? The battery of assessments and corroborating evidence required to establish a reliable diagnosis should preclude this. In my experience, parents are seeking answers and support, not excuses. Any headline suggesting otherwise is, in my opinion, little more than attention-seeking… (Yes, I did just post a link to Wikipedia!)
To say that I am at a loss to understand the motivation of a company, whose products include numerous screeners for learning difficulties, including their WellCom and Lucid ranges, to promote such inflammatory, divisive and emotive statements is an understatement. (Not providing free footfall with a link to those, sorry.) Perhaps in this new world of ‘alternative facts’ the old adage that any publicity is good publicity, has come into its own.
To put the survey results in context, it’s important to know the actual questions asked. These were:
“Do you think that there is currently a misdiagnosis of special educational needs amongst school children?” (57% of those polled agreed)
“Do you think that pressure from parents has led to some children at your school being categorised as having special educational needs unnecessarily?” (54% of those polled agreed)
“I worry some genuine special needs children don’t get as much help as they need because resources are being diverted to children that don’t really need the help.” (62% of those polled agreed)
“I think some parents who push for their child to be recognised as having special educational needs label do it to try and help their children gain a competitive edge during tests and exams.” (39% of those polled agreed)
“I think some parents who have a child with a barrier to learning that could be addressed by a teacher are too quick to want a medical or psychological explanation: How strongly do you agree or disagree?” (64% 0f those polled agreed)
I’ll just leave those questions there for you to consider their wording and intent.
Bizarrely, the report detailing these survey results also includes some thoughtful and well-considered articles by real experts. I must be missing the point.
Long before teaching, as a student and for a short time after graduating, I worked in market research. This was before the internet had become the ubiquitous tool it is today, and so actual calls had to be made to actual humans at actual businesses. We knew that the phrasing of questions was key to getting the answer that would most help our clients. I simply cannot understand what possible positive impact the GL Assessment exercise was meant to have.
At best, it’s arguing that we should not need a diagnostic label to provide the best and most supportive education to all our children. What teacher would not agree?! The issue, then is one of funding: sometimes the only way that truly adequate support can be given is though the provision of human time or other resources and equipment that cost money.
Let’s assume (which we would never do) that what these answers really are telling us is what the press have rather lazily taken from the survey results. I would like to know how long they believe this misdiagnosis has been going on for…
Each September, the Department for Education publishes figures from the previous January. The latest show that there were 8.56 million pupils in school in England. For a research paper I wrote last year I found that reported prevalence rates in the UK at that time for various learning difficulties were estimated at up to 15% for dyslexia (Rose, 2009;), up to 5% for attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD, NHS, 2016), around 1% autism spectrum disorder (ASD: NHS, 2016), and up to 5% for developmental coordination disorder (DCD: NHS, 2014). The Rose Report was published in 2009, but the data were gathered in 2008. Assuming (again) that trends in prevalence and diagnosis rates have remained unchanged over the past decade, 15% of 8.56m would be 1.284m. These figures do not account for other learning differences, such as developmental language disorder, sensory processing disorder and auditory processing disorder, to mention just three. We know that many people with neurodevelopmental differences have co-occurring difficulties, but even assuming (again) that EVERY student with autism, ADHD or DCD/dyspraxia also has dyslexia, it seems to me somewhat unlikely that the figures are grossly exaggerated, or even exaggerated at all.