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To parents of children with additional needs: why is it so hard to find a good school?

To parents of students who need additional support in secondary school - I know that many you find it perplexing why there are so few schools who prioritise appropriate provision for your child.

The reasons can be expressed quite simply in 6 steps:

  1. Quite a long time ago (more than 10 years), the then Secretatary of State for Education, Michael Gove, looked at the PISA test results which compare reading, maths and science knowledge of 15 year-olds across many countries, and found that we did not do very well. So he set about reforming the curriculum and focused on academic subjects and knowledge.

  2. Around the same time the academisation of schools increased - removing them from local authority control - and Ofsted judgements began to be used as a way of deciding which schools needed intervention and therefore which should be "academised".

  3. A lot of good work has been done over the last 10 years to put teaching on a much more evidence-based footing and, unsurprisingly, it has been found that direct instruction ('chalk and talk') is the best way of teaching.

  4. Silent, focused classrooms are needed for direct instruction and therefore there has been a rise in "zero-tolerance" approaches to behaviour.

  5. Ofsted judgements on a school have become an extremely high stakes game so the Ofsted inspection handbooks have become the driving force in schools. They are detailed and prescriptive about what inspectors are looking for and a whole industry has grown up advising schools about what the inspectors are looking for in each bullet point. Failure to secure a positive judgement from Ofsted leads to school "takeover" with all the implications for staff and the community.

  6. The "league tables" based on a measure of progress called "Progress 8" have become very important as a good Progress 8 score is often a good step to securing a positive Ofsted judgement. Progress 8 is an average across all a school's students in Year 11 so each individual's academic progress becomes all-important.

None of these steps are necessarily wrong in and of themselves - we all want students to be well-taught and to behave well, for example. The effect of all of them put together is that schools are very often unsympathetic to those students who may not "fit", who may present additional challenges or who may not make the same academic progress as their peers. It is impossible to overstate the way in which concern about Ofsted drives decisions in secondary schools.

It is very interesting to note that, in the outcomes of the most recent PISA tests, our scores have definitely improved, but our students are considered to some of the least happy in the developed world.

So what has been the price of our PISA success? Is success in the PISA test a suitable foundation for an education system? And why is it so hard to find good schools for the most vulnerable students when they are the young people who need us most?

James Harris

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