How many times did parents say that? The reality is always that the words do hurt, perhaps not physically, but they can cause untold harm and result in the aggrieved person self-harming in extremis. The education system, perhaps, is at a point where it needs to look at the words that are being embedded in the articulation of new assessment systems. If you are in a vulnerable position, the misuse of words can hurt even more.
Since 1978, when Baroness Warnock produced her landmark report, Inquiry into the education of handicapped children, which became known as the Warnock report, the individual needs of children have been seen as paramount. A large number of schools have developed very good systems for ensuring that those children with specific needs receive an appropriate curriculum that enables them to make progress in their learning, monitored against systems that were developed against National Curriculum level statements or P levels.
In 2010, Baroness Warnock, in a review of the impact of her report, Warnock, M (2010) Special educational needs: a new look: M. Warnock & B. Norwich, Special educational needs: a new look, ed. L. Terzi. (London, Continuum), looked at the essential premise of her report and made a number of reflective suggestions, the gist of which was that children should receive the education that suited their needs, and that not every child was suited to a mainstream situation, because, schools being a microcosm of society;
“They are full of people who are as yet immature, who cannot be expected to know how to behave until they are taught, and who are even more prone to persecute the weak and gang up against the eccentric than are people in the world outside”. (Warnock, 2010: 35)
She asserts: ‘Statements should indeed be used as passports’ (Warnock, 2010: 33) (To appropriate support and provision)
I know some people dislike anecdote as a start point for discussion, but, in this instance bear with me.
Imagine an extended family with three children of the same age; one seems to be getting on really well in school, one enjoys intermittent success, but will achieve at an appropriate level and one is seen to be struggling.
All three, at times, can appear to be in schools where the teachers don’t quite know how to support their learning, the first, because they don’t often get “high flyers” so are not sure how to add value on an incremental scale. The second, as a result of teacher and in-school changes, that have led to disruption in the flow of learning. The third, as a result of again being outside the school norm, so challenging the school expertise.
The recently published Performance Descriptors for Key Stage 1 and 2, do not impact on these three children, as they are year 2 and will be judged on levels. Looking at potential outcomes for each, there is a significant chance that one will get level 3s, one 2s and possibly a 3, and the third, will get level 1 possibly, but with a chance of less.
However, were they to be judged on the outcome terms of the new Performance Descriptors, the outcomes are likely to be one at mastery level, one at or “working towards the national standard”, one “not at national standard”.
One currently presents as potentially bright and able, one within the average range, some things good, others to be worked on, the third struggles. The parents are aware of each of them and their successes and areas of need. Like all parents they praise where praise is needed and seek to support where that presents as a need. This can, at times be a very subtle art, as the children with some areas of need actively present as resenting the need to “do schoolwork” at home, raising tensions. Worried and anxious parents pass their anxieties onto their children, often unwittingly, quite often overtly, reinforcing the negative status of the child.
In the case of the second and third children, for parents to be told, possibly at the end of year 3, that the child is “working towards the national standard” or “on track not to be at national standard”, as might be the case, especially given the school approaches, will not help the child, the parents or the school; the child because the self-esteem is not enhanced, the parents, whose anxiety levels will raise further and the school, because, unless they use the outcome as an audit of need and set up clearly defined interventions, the child will experience the same situation in years 4,5 and 6. There is also a likelihood that the needs will become more pronounced and leave the child prey to less accepting children.
The whole depends on the school, and the individual teacher ability to implement support for different learning needs. This is no different to the situation in the past, before levels, now or under a level based system.
For some teachers, the idea of “not at national standard”, as there is no mention of potential special educational needs, might not seek to investigate fully the needs of the child, preferring instead to use that label as a catch-all descriptor.
The words that we use matter; Every Child Matters, always have and always will.