Sifting through noise
One of my highlights at the Whole School SEND Summit in February was meeting a deaf parent and her signer. Because the event was being staged at large round tables, with acres of bright windows facing Gallions Point Marina and the London City Airport, unsupported lip-reading would have been impossible: signing provided the parent with essential support to enable her participation. Without it, we would have lost one of the most perceptive and challenging contributions of the day. Rearranging positions at the table was easy, with signer and parent at opposite sides, able to see all members of the conversation at once.
For six years I supported a deaf pupil from his preparation for secondary transition until he’d successfully completed his GCSEs. When I first met him, in Year 5, he was a charismatic boy, prone to going off in the wrong direction but cheerful and quite determined. As early as the end of Year 1 he had set his own stamp on the place. He was reading well and could be assertive (both are difficult to achieve for children with sensory impairments); but neither of these by itself makes you independent; and giving him the sense that he really belonged was still a challenge for the school to understand properly. Progress and purpose in Years 2, 3 and 4 seemed to dwindle. The family became unsure of how much he was achieving and how much was merely activity on his behalf.
Given the chance, he expressed his views firmly (although his articulation was still developing and his words were few, he was ‘to the point’). But at Review meetings in Y5 and Y6, nothing flowed: everything was orchestrated and I was disappointed that he was invited to leave before the end of each one. I found myself sifting through noise as much as him. I needed to see his quick expression, his wonderfully truculent shoulders shrugging when he thought something was below par. Really, with a bit of preparation he could have led those meetings and they would have been so much more useful.
So when he finally made it to my school, I was on edge, still puzzled. A new FM radio set arrived and we held training for all his teachers but the early days were frustrating: I could arrange twilight training for staff but getting INSET time was a discouraging battle. Then there were the emails. Colleagues always have too many to read but I was obliged to send them more as we learned vital lessons about his needs: teachers forgot to mute the microphone when raising their voice (so he would simply turn off the system he was wearing but said nothing for fear of offending us). For a while we experienced the same drifting effect I had observed at his primary school – he went through the motions but couldn’t say he was enjoying it; and teachers felt under scrutiny to “do it right” but lacked practice and didn’t give him a chance out of class to voice his opinion.
The solution was to check everything against my experience in the job, against his experience at his previous school and against the parents’ experience with him. We had to recognise that some things had changed, out of our control, and would continue to change: these made comparisons more difficult but, in the end, more balanced. His friends had mostly gone to other schools; he had limited experience of using friendship for support anyway. So he was less worried about appearing isolated at that stage than I was. His hearing was changing and continued to do so for some years; plus he was going through puberty. Understanding how the family functioned and communicated also proved enormously helpful and I spent a lot of time just keeping up a dialogue with them via SMS (my habit of free communication with parents at all hours, which started then, became key to our SEND provision and later led me to Twitter!).
Things settled in Year 8 and at the Review I suggested I should work with him on raising his aspirations for the future. In Year 9 I took him to St Catherine’s College, Oxford, who welcomed him warmly. He interviewed two undergraduates, recording the interview on the iPad we had supplied a few months earlier. Overnight he produced an excellent video of the event and his ambition was fired. From there, he became determined to achieve a good GCSE in French, to strengthen his applications for Higher Ed, and I practised the Speaking and Listening with him most weeks. It was a source of pride to him that his French voice was as accurate as his speech in English and he became expert in the regulations for the exam, always checking what picture symbols I would use and how much intonation. He achieved an A* and the rest of his grades were good. All of these issues would be captured by the section on Working with pupils and parents/carers of pupils with SEND and the section on The quality of teaching and learning for pupils with SEND would have picked up many of the difficulties we experienced at the beginning. As schools focus more on the role of the class teacher to meet additional needs and place less reliance on floating experts to solve problems, having a consistent and agreed framework to audit practice is essential to identifying areas for development.
All of these issues would be captured by the section on Working with pupils and parents/carers of pupils with SEND and the section on The quality of teaching and learning for pupils with SEND would have picked up many of the difficulties we experienced at the beginning.
As schools focus more on the role of the class teacher to meet additional needs and place less reliance on floating experts to solve problems, having a consistent and agreed framework to audit practice is essential to identifying areas for development.
The SEND Review Guide, part funded by the Department for Education, was created in partnership with over forty outstanding special and mainstream schools, as well as organisations such as Contact a Family, Ofsted, Council for Disabled Children, the Institute of Education and Teaching Schools Council. It is powered by the London Leadership Strategy (LLS), a not for profit organisation created by school leaders for school leaders to transform schools and improve outcomes for children and young people. It is free to download here. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for support.
Barney Angliss is an independent SEND Consultant working with schools, colleges, parents and local authorities.