Bishop of Southwark: special educational needs children “not a burden but a gift”

On 26th May 2016 Lord Addington led a debate in the House of Lords “That this House takes note of the case for improved individual school capacity to deal with commonly occurring special educational needs and disabilities, in the light of the increasing number of academies and free schools.” The Bishop of Southwark, Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, took part: 

SouthwarkThe Lord Bishop of Southwark: My Lords, I am also very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Addington, for securing this debate. Our schools prepare young people for our communities and are committed to seeing that all children are valued and respected, which serves to build a society where all know the fullness of life. Last week in this House, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ely reminded us:

“Life in all its fullness means being exacting, rigorous, ambitious and having appetite for all that excellence demands”.—[Official Report, 19/6/16; col. 63.]

He added in another speech that,

“we cannot allow our commitment to academic rigour blind us to the fact that we are teaching people, not subject matter”.

This is core to the Christian idea of education as a matter of mutual flourishing, of which academic achievement is only a part, albeit an important part.

Schools should not accept underperformance, but reaching one’s potential does not look the same for all children. Our schools must be supported in the important work of ensuring that children with special educational needs and disabilities reach their potential. It is not enough for them merely to fit into the system. Moreover, a child with special educational needs is a positive gift to a school, bringing a different sensibility and outlook that can both challenge and enrich the whole school community.

Jean Vanier, who founded the L’Arche communities and has done so much to transform the way that people with learning disabilities are understood and valued, says, in Becoming Human:

“Weakness, recognized, accepted, and offered, is at the heart of belonging, so it is at the heart of communion with another”.

The weakness of which he speaks is something that we all share, not just those of us with learning disabilities. But it is perhaps a distinctive ability of a child with special educational needs to offer this transforming gift of weakness to a school community with greater frankness. Such children are an opportunity, not a problem.

As well as recognising what they have to offer, it is also, of course, vital to provide for their particular needs. How we do this is part of a much larger picture of community health and disadvantage. For example, Traveller of Irish Heritage and Gypsy or Roma pupils are overrepresented among many categories of special educational needs, including moderate and severe learning difficulties, and behavioural, emotional and social difficulties. Good SEN provision is part of building communities where we are all welcome and provided for.

The White Paper’s suggestion that,

“a pupil’s mainstream school will retain accountability”,

for the educational outcomes of excluded children when they have not,

“subsequently enrolled at a different mainstream school”,

is a good example of the Government attempting to ensure that,

“the needs of vulnerable pupils are met”.

We must show that we consider children with special educational needs and disabilities to be integral to the community. Their success, whatever that may look like, is vital to the health of the whole school.

A particular example of how this is being done well is the Northumberland Church of England Academy. This school provides for those with moderate learning needs up to 19 years old and has a centre for those with more severe needs or profound, multiple learning difficulties. The centre offers each learner an individualised curriculum drawn from the national curriculum, and an essential curriculum that covers all aspects of personal and social education. There is recognition that all children deserve a high-quality education but that this looks different for each child.

Turning to the bigger picture, my concern is in part one of capacity. With the shrinking of the role of local authorities, some academies may lack outside monitoring and support. As we move further away from local authority oversight, schools must be confident that they will be supported in having effective provision for children with special educational needs and disabilities. They cannot be held accountable if they are not also given the capacity to do this. Capacity includes having effective training for staff so that they are confident in what they do and can identify areas for improvement—a point that has already been made.

Special educational needs and disabilities are often associated with shame, humiliation and a lack of self-worth. Good SEND provision must also include tackling the bullying and other diminishments that children with these needs can encounter. Again, central to success is to help pupils, staff and the whole school to recognise the distinctive and valuable contribution that SEND children can make to the life of the school and the development of their peers. As I said before, a SEND child is not a burden but a gift. While the White Paper signals a desire to support vulnerable pupils, noble Lords need to insist on clarity about what will be the impact of academisation and what will happen to funding for special needs pupils, especially those excluded from schools. This is key.

Church of England schools are keen to play their part in SEND provision, but the lack of clarity in this area creates a barrier to those planning to open a SEND free school. It must be addressed as quickly as possible to ensure that the best provision is available. Many diocesan boards of education own small school sites which might be highly suitable for special school provision and would be willing and enthusiastic to expand into SEND schools if the funding risk can be allayed. It is a matter of deep regret that one of the Church of England’s most outstanding special schools, St Francis School, in Hooke, west Dorset, was closed some years ago because of the high cost of different services to fit the curriculum and restrictions on local authority funding. So there are lessons to be learned from recent history about managing the funding risk appropriately.

Schools are not the only SEND providers facing uncertainty around their capacity to continue providing high-quality education and an environment of mutual flourishing. Hereward College is a college for young people with disabilities and additional needs based in Coventry. It offers inclusive provision and specialist facilities for day and residential learners with complex disabilities and learning difficulties. Its principal has said that the college wants its learners

“to make the most of their skills and abilities, have increased choices and make more of their own decisions about work, education, health and living”.

Again, there is a concern about funding here. Funding for high-needs provision has been cut significantly and many specialist colleges could go out of business. The choice for disabled students has been severely restricted and in some cases they do not have access to suitable provision. This needs to change if we want them to live full lives and be inspiring and contributing members of our community, and if we want the whole community to flourish by embracing the distinctive sensibilities of every member.

To conclude, improved school capacity to deal with commonly occurring special educational needs and disabilities is not a small part of our school system but a crucial signifier of our vision for education and what it means. Education is not just for those who perform well and easily in a system that suits them. It is for everyone, and those with special educational needs and disabilities have gifts to offer without which the entire community is poorer. Our SEND capacity is one indicator of how much we believe that and reveal it in the daily lives of our schools.

Lord Watson of Invergowrie (Lab) [extract]: Currently, SEND children do not have an absolute right to mainstream education. I think this is what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark meant when he talked of all children being integral to the community. Discrimination can, and does, continue under the guise of “parental choice” and “reasonable adjustments”. Sometimes SEND children are excluded from a school because of the presumed “negative effect” their inclusion would have on able-bodied children.

Baroness Evans of Bowes Park (Con) [extract]:  … This Government’s vision for pupils with SEND is the same as for all pupils: we want them to achieve their full potential and make a good transition to adulthood. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Watson, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark that we are committed to inclusive education of pupils with SEND and to the progressive removal of barriers to learning and participation in mainstream education, where appropriate. To achieve this, we are transforming the system, improving teacher training and empowering teachers through our school reforms.



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