Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Much more than a good read

One of the most powerful texts I've recently been working on with my students is Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo. It has triggered some curious, thoughtful classroom discussions and allowed us to venture into analysing propaganda posters and persuasive speech. For Level 3 - 4 students, it's proving a real hit in terms of their engagement and developing their higher-level thinking skills.

For our next step we are going to write and deliver a speech from the perspective of Tommo Peaceful on his return from the frontlines in 1918, based on the premise that he may feel a calling to speak for his fallen brother, Charlie, who previously expressed strong views about the nature of the conflict before he was charged and shot for desertion. The speech will serve primarily as a counter to the recruitment speech portrayed in Chapter 7 of the book, although they will be encouraged to also consider Tommo's earlier pro-war views and whether he might retain some of them.

The story of Private Peaceful is a thought-provoking one on a wider level given the recent news about government initiatives to bring former military personnel into schools as teachers - and thinking ahead, with the upcoming 2014 commemorations to mark a century since the start of 'The Great War'.

I have a close friend in the military and he has talked about becoming a science teacher when his time as a Royal Marine medic comes to an end. I can see he would have a lot to offer young people in this capacity but I feel his suitability is more based on his personal qualities rather than his military experience. I think the same could be said of many soldiers and other armed forces personnel - with thorough training, via a PGCE or GTP-type route, they could build on their personal qualities and be transformed into fantastic teachers.

However, my concern over recent proposals is that the government sees their entrance into schools as being more about simply parachuting in tough Rambo-types, fully kitted out with military lingo and boot-up-the-backside behaviour strategies. I share the view of Brian Lightman, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, who was quoted as saying, "...a military ethos belongs in the military - schools need a learning ethos..."

Having worked for the past three years in a fantastic Salesian school, I have come to see the value of having a well-rooted, missional ethos - but one that seeks to impose a power driven, no questions hierarchy goes against much of what education should stand for. And whilst I recognise there is a need for clear expectations and boundaries within a student community, a military-style approach to discipline is likely to prove counter-productive for those students with autism, ADHD, attachment issues and other more-unique personalities.

Chris Keates, General Secretary of the NASUWT, hit the nail on the head with his observation, "There is a distinction between the skills and expertise required to maintain discipline among adults in the armed services with that required to ensure there is positive behaviour in schools. “To say you can simply transfer the skills from one to the other is an oversimplification of the complexities of dealing with pupil behaviour in schools.” 

A more appropriate initiative for schools who are genuinely failing to manage challenging behaviour, which is likely to be rooted in both social-emotional and learning difficulties issues, would be to return to the learning principles of Orton-Gillingham and to hook into the Nurture Group approach towards promoting social-emotional well-being.

In terms of how I choose texts to use with the young people I teach, I have recently written a short guide for The Guardian's Teacher Network website on the key things I look for. Some time ago I also put together a list of 'books to engage teenagers reading and get them thinking...' via Amazon's Listmania! feature (although you can obviously buy them elsewhere).

As we approach WWI commemorations next year, I will be looking to go further with Private Peaceful and the themes it raises. For me this is not about brainwashing young people into becoming pacifists, but it is about nurturing their critical thinking skills and awareness as well as their reading - particularly as we know lower-attaining students, boys in particular, are often the ones who go on to make up the rank and file of the armed forces.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

A day in the life of me...

Today the Guardian Teacher Network published an article of mine looking at 'a day in the life of an SEN coordinator'. I feel a million and one disclaimers are needed, given the way the role varies acoss schools, but I hope it will prove generally useful - and encouraging - for those looking at following this career route.

Jackie Stewart on dyslexia, Suli Breaks on education...

I have now found time to upload the updated presentation on 'Dyslexia Friendly Classrooms' (also made available here and here) I delivered recently (free of charge by the way, I'm not a consultant!) at Blackrod Church School. It was good to try and look at dyslexia from a primary perspective given my experience has nearly always been in secondary settings.
In the presentation I have included a clip from the BBC's 'Don't call me stupid' documentary, featuring actress Kara Tointon. Having watched it a number of times now, I still think it's one of the best introductions to dyslexia - particularly so because you get to see first-hand a person with dyslexia reading. I have a lot of respect for Kara Tointon allowing herself to be filmed publicly demonstrating the difficulties associated with this condtion.
On looking around, I also found this from Jackie Stewart which I also think is worth showing to colleagues and perhaps also showing to older students with dyslexia as part of a mentoring programme around self-awareness.

Speaking of older students, I think the following article by Bernadette McClean succinctly sums up the general strategies that can be used to support them.
Finally, if you really want to get older students with dyslexia to engage in meaningful discussions about how they learn best, what future study and career path is most suited for them etc., then it might be worthwhile showing them this by Suli Breaks:

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Two more bits on the TA debate

Following yesterday's blog post in which I looked at how the debate over teaching assistants now appears to be gathering momentum - with the very real prospect of cuts by the current government - I have been recommended these two short articles:

These obviously highlight a different side to the story presented in the Daily Mail on Monday.

Two further points I have noticed, regarding the reporting of this, is that the Sutton Trust's findings on teaching assistants was based on what they (fairly) openly acknowledge to be limited evidence. Also, the Daily Mail article says £4billion per year is spent on 232,000 teaching assistants - at an average wage of £17000 per year. I am not sure this figure is accurate as most teaching assistants I have worked with over the years have been paid approximately £10000.

This is not to rubbish the valuable research out there, but there is a need to stay critically minded.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Comings, possible goings and redefinings...

I've spent a few hours over the past few days updating some training I originally put together 2 - 3 years ago on the subject of 'Dyslexia-Friendly Schools'. The updates were mainly centred around a desire to place more emphasis on dyslexia, and SEN in general, as an issue of diversity rather than disability. The articles below demonstrate this shift, the first one relating to the thought-provoking book 'The Dyslexic Advantage' by Brock L. Eide and Fernette F. Eide.


It seems to me that we are at the beginnings of a shift in our thinking around 'learning difficulties' with a much greater emphasis on the multiformity of personality and ability. It occurred to me today that in a decade or so, if this blog is still around, it may well be looked upon as 'backward' in its perspective and vernacular, in the same way we now tut-tut at the era of the 'remedial class' and 'school for the maladjusted'.

That said, I do think we do still need to focus much of our dialogue and resource creation around addressing the very real, and very much prominent, difficulties experienced by young people in the very particular and peculiar environments of schools. With dyslexia, this is primarily literacy, organisational skills and self-esteem. With autism, this centres around coping with a large, bustling, socially diverse and not always emotionally-healthy community. To ignore difficulty to dogmatically chase the notion of 'staying positive' would ultimately do a disservice to the student under the label.

In terms of shift, it is also worth noting an item in the Daily Mail yesterday reporting on the prospect of huge cuts to the teaching assistant workforce in the UK. I admit to having very mixed feelings about this. I naturally have a strong loyalty to teaching assistants given I work with them closely in my role as SEN Coordinator. They work tirelessly and despite the weight of evidence, I maintain they do much to ease the life of vulnerable young people in schools (and in doing so, free up teachers), undertaking tasks that cannot be easily measured in terms of national curriculum levels - tasks such as making sure a student with blood sugar issues and weak memory eats his lunch everyday or ensuring a student having an anxiety attack calms down quickly to return lesson. The TA role also acts as a de facto internship for many graduates wanting to go into teaching and related professions such as social services.  

The Sutton Trust report into Pupil Premium funding kind of kicked off the radical rethink by deeming teaching assistants, as an intervention to raise achievement amongst cohorts targeted by the funding, to be both ineffective and costly compared to other interventions. However, there is a body of research - such as 'Reassessing the Impact of Teaching Assistant' by Peter Blatchford, Anthony Russell and Roy Webster - which has been growing for some time. It is a body of research that cannot be ignored.

As such, I read with interest May 2013's edition of 'NASEN Special' which featured two articles on this issue. The first by Roy Webster and Peter Blatchford, titled 'Rethinking the TA role' offered a summary of their book mentioned above and their smaller project, 'Making a Statement', sponsored by the Nuffield Foundation. The standout points of their findings are:

- Students with a high-level of TA support do even less well academically because of the presence / intervention of a teaching assistant.
- This is not the fault of teaching assistants themselves, rather a result of the systems, common practices and cultures spawned over time as TAs have grown in number.

They recommend the following:

- TAs should be trained sufficiently, in the theory and practice of teaching & learning, to act in an instructional role. TAs need to become a more qualified, specialist workforce.
- TA and teacher communication about schemes of learning content, clear planned outcomes of their role, individual needs of students and so on needs to happen before, after and around lessons not ad hoc in the lesson. The TA role needs to more symbiotic with the teacher role rather than an blunt add-on.
- TAs need to be coached specifically in 'learning conversations' with students rather than communication that 'closes down' and is preoccupied with task completion.

Having read this article, I turned the page to find an article on the use of pupil premium funding, 'A good investment' by Gill Finch and Hugh Steele, which looks at how The Dale School used their pot of money to create an intervention team including a physiotherapist, speech and language therapist, a family support worker and several other 'specialist assistants'. I have long thought this kind of model would be more suitable than the current model.

The bigger issue is changing the way Statements of SEN are written at LA level and the culture that has developed around it. For while ever Statements of SEN or equivalent personalised plans stipulate TA hours, schools will feel obliged to implement them and in turn, parents and carers will continue to demand their child's funding is spent in this way.

It seems the two articles combined suggest a way forward for the role of the teaching assistant - perhaps fewer in number but more specialised and more autonomous. What also mustn't be forgotten is that if this is to happen, the pay scales of TAs will also need reviewing.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

New Code, New Era?

In case you didn't know, the Department for Education has now published a rough draft of the new 'SEN Code of Practice' with supporting documents - which I've listed below for easy access:

Indicative Draft: The (0-25) Special Educational Needs Code of Practice
Illustrative Regulations for Special Educational Needs
Childrens and Families Bill 2013

Over the past year I have witnessed a lot of anxious talk about the coming changes in SEN in the UK, centred mainly around the recent SEND Green Paper and the wider-reaching implications of Pupil Premium, specifically the burgeoning body of research around its effective use.

I was recently asked to sum up, via a PowerPoint presentation, the challenges and opportunities in light of these changes and this can be viewed here. Ultimately though, I take the position we have to simply 'wait and see' - reasoning that it's best to keep a close eye on things without jumping the gun in terms of drawing hard-and-fast conclusions or prematurely changing policy & practice to prepare for a brave new world. 

I am quietly hopeful it will lead to much earlier identification, a more consistent approach to allocating funding and much greater cooperation between social & health agencies and schools - and greater accountability on the part of these agencies to carry out long-term, specialist work with our most vulnerable young people, rather than dipping in and out. Of course this will mean much better resourcing of these agencies to enable them to play a full part in narrowing the attainment gap and raising the well-being of our most vulnerable.

Time - and money - will tell!