More is less 

Poor kids get ReadWriteInc – they’re PP you see and as everything is costed, it is considered that scarce resources should be spent on something tangible to measure progress. The Reading for Pleasure initiative from the Book Trust is not easily measured. Teachers tell the senior team that it’s lovely, they are seeing real enthusiasm from the children and to be able to give good quality fiction away is a gift which keeps on giving. Well, how can we measure that on a spreadsheet? It’s not worth it. 

But says a teacher, the PP children are likely to benefit most aren’t they? They may not have books at home.  

The head shrugs, it’s not measurable and they need help with their reading so they get ReadWriteInc.
Elsewhere in the DFE, while libraries close in schools they think literacy hubs should be created. Children don’t need libraries, they need to decode.
As kids take art the ones who can’t decode do ReadWriteInc.
As kids have assemblies the ones who can’t read do ReadWriteInc.
The kids who can’t read often can’t do maths either so when the others are learning a rich curriculum, they’re learning phonics and memorising their times tables.
Their curriculum is narrowed and stripped to make sure they know their 7 times tables and how to split a digraph.  
If they’re PP they need this stuff – it frees up their working memory as it all goes into their long term memory. 

What if they can’t retrieve it? 

Well that’s where retrieval practice comes in. 

They memorise, they retrieve and repeat. 

But they have memory and retrieval difficulties.

Well, they just have to do it more. 


In art, in drama, in PE.
Oral language is ignored in this barren diet, social communication is invisible and peer to peer learning non existent, replaced instead with TA to child decoding, times tables, times tables, decoding.
We want our children to learn to read and do their times tables but when do they learn the other bits?


Natural Wastage 

Another Drive Youth Trust blog I thought you might be interested in. TAs and redundancies.
The cuts in schools are deep. Despite the government’s reassurance that funding is higher than ever, all headteachers in the state sector will tell you that there is a financial crisis with some schools warning they may have to make up to 20 staff redundant.

A small study on Twitter showed a higher percentage in both primary and secondary schools making Teaching Assistants (TAs) redundant. Interestingly, however, many schools said they were using ‘natural wastage’. This is when a member of staff leaves but no one hired to take over. In a previous school the headteacher warned staff in September that any member of staff leaving would not be replaced unless absolutely necessary.
Where does this leave our SEND learners? They may be negatively affected in a number of ways: larger class sizes, fewer TAs, a lack of interventions by experienced, specialist staff and less supervision around break times and lunchtimes. Such cuts may make negligible marks on a typically developing student but those with greater needs, in conjunction with more stressed and overworked staff may mean difficulties for a school who has not thought through their provision properly.
It may not all be bad news; Education Consultant Anita Devi says she has led TA redundancies as a SEN senior leader and through planning and sensitivity, cuts were strategic and the effects of SEND learners minimal. Are some schools cutting TAs as a first choice with little thought of its impact however? Is it a false economy or a wasted opportunity? Are we expecting an already overstretched teaching staff to take on more work? Is there capacity in an emergency? Schools require flexibility for intensive support of a student in the short term which would then be slowly reduced as things got better. Such slack in the system allows cover for illness and unforeseen circumstances.
Inclusion is not all about the money, much is linked to the culture of the school. Well thought through deployment of TAs, efficient systems and an inclusive provision is what works (see our free Drive for Literacy toolkit as an example); money does however fund provision which allows the required resources to be successful.
A systematic and thought out process in schools which won’t negatively affect our SEND learners is vital: do we value them as much as our other students? This small survey showed redundancies of TAs and natural wastage is happening in times of cuts. While this may not always be a bad thing as Anita Devi highlights, it should be part of a thorough decision- making process. SEND is suffering in mainstream schools, we know this through exclusion data, an increase in students with SEN being home educated and the appalling lack of progress students make in school. Learners with difficulties must not be affected disproportionately because they deserve better and good provision saves time, energy and cost in the long run.
Natural wastage seems an unsavoury phrase but a fitting one if the worst-case scenario emerges from it.

All schools are equal but some are more equal than others

I recently attended the Festival of Education at Wellington College and heard Amanda Spielman give a keynote.

I wrote this for The Driver Youth Trust.

Amanda Spielman, OFSTED’s new leader gave a rousing talk at the Festival of Education last week. She listed ways in which schools were gaming the system:  allowing students with EAL to take a GCSE in their first language rather than French, putting learners through the computer driving course to bump up league tables and teaching exam content five years before year 11 GCSEs. What she said made sense; let’s think of the students more and fixing the data less. Let’s give children a broad and balanced curriculum, rich in knowledge rather than one narrowly focussing on skills required to pass exams. Teachers across the country will be cheering her along every step of the way.

Amanda Spielman set out her stall and I was on the whole nodding in agreement.  Until she delved into the realm of SEND, that is. She said,

‘If you are putting more resources into providing exam scribes than in teaching your strugglers to read and write…you are probably doing your child a disservice’.

This was an attack on SEND teachers across the country showing a lack of knowledge in how schools run. Firstly, literacy teaching and scribes go hand in hand. A child who is struggling to read and write will have many interventions thrown at them through their school life but also, if they haven’t reached a standardised score of 85 by the time they are taking exams, then arrangements must be provided. This is stated in law under the Equality Act (2010).

By resources, I assume Spielman means training and TAs.  TAs are deployed to scribe for learners when they cannot show their knowledge to the best of their ability, not at the same time as teaching them to read and write but in tandem. By year 11, scribes are used for GCSEs and TAs are given a memory aid and brief training to ensure they are familiar with the rules.

Examples of students who require scribes (names have been changed):

Timothy has cerebral palsy. While he can read and spell in the above average range Timothy does not have the stamina or speed to write for lengthy periods. Timothy is doing A’Levels.  During his GCSEs he became frustrated with his scribes as they couldn’t write fast enough for him. The school provided and trained him in speech recognition software so he could scribe for himself. It was a perfect fit for Timothy and he got the grades required for university where he will continue to scribe using Dragon Naturally Speaking (if Timothy was doing his GCSEs he would now lose spelling marks for using a scribe despite the fact he can spell perfectly well).

Sandra is from a large family, all of whom have a range of special educational needs. Sandra says ‘I’m the lucky one, I just have dyslexia.’ It is severe however, and despite many interventions and specialist 1:1 instruction, Sandra’s literacy has improved but in no way reflects her attainment levels. Her spelling and decoding scores are within the lowest 10% of the population.  Sandra is predicted Cs and Bs in her GCSEs however and uses a reader and a scribe. She will lose spelling marks in her GCSEs for having a scribe.

Lee is a looked after child. His literacy scores are low enough to require both a reader and a scribe. He came to the school following a very troubled background and remembers more swings in back gardens than he does schools. Moved from local authority to local authority, care home to care home, the gaps in his schooling are huge. There is no diagnosis of dyslexia, lack of education is thought the cause. The school put in literacy 1:1 sessions for him but the lack of time from when he began this school to his GCSEs still mean that while he has made massive progress, he is eligible for a reader and a scribe. Lee will lose SPAG marks in his GCSEs.

To blame the school system for what is a legal requirement for learners with SEND is irritating. There are so many, more pressing injustices to highlight. Earlier in the day, I listened to Vic Goddard giving a talk on ‘The Inclusive School’. He told us the school down the road has an unofficial, ‘no SEND policy’ and encourages parents of children with SEND to go to Vic’s school instead where they ‘can better meet your child’s needs’. Let’s guess which school got the ‘outstanding’ grade shall we?

I heard NASEN’s CEO, Dr Adam Boddison, tell of a school who got an ‘outstanding’ judgement despite not having a SENCO (a legal requirement).  OFSTED knew this. He showed us damning figures on permanent exclusions of learners with SEND; home education for students with SEND is on the rise. The alarming picture shows that students with learning difficulties are not managing in the mainstream and schools such as Passmore’s get no acknowledgement for embracing these children.

The system is failing many learners with SEND in mainstream schools and there is no accountability. When Amanda Spielman spoke so eloquently of gaming in schools but ignored our SEND students, other than to take away their reasonable adjustments which are there by law, I can’t help feeling this neglected sector of society, those with the least resources available to them, are again hidden from policy maker’s eyes (highlighted in DYT’s  ‘Through the Looking Glass’ report). Something which gets in the way of ‘standards’ and platitudes. It is much easier for the narrative to be ‘teach the SEND out of them and cure them with literacy lessons’. SEND students are not going anywhere, we need to stop ignoring them and give them the tools to succeed. OFSTED must give schools incentives to value all learners and reward those who do inclusion well, not punish them or criticise them for giving children scribes.

If teachers feel embattled, as Hugh Dennis acknowledged when opening the Festival, then mainstream SEND ones are lying half dead in the bunkers. Told SEND doesn’t exist, expected to show impossible progress or accused of ‘dysteachia’ (the term coined by a few private tutors to explain why some students can’t read and write); it is always the teachers’ fault.

Let’s give ALL children a broad and balanced curriculum, rich in knowledge rather than one narrowly focussed on skills required to pass exams. But let’s not forget that OFSTED played a part in creating this culture. Like Benjamin in Animal Farm, I am sceptical. Will these shiny new promises amount to a significant shift in values for schools? Or will teachers just be beaten with a different stick? This new positive OFSTED would no longer be judging teachers on ‘how’ they teach, granted, but would they instead be inspecting ‘what’ they teach?

It seems at present that ‘Schools are all equal, but some are more equal than others’.

Teaching Assistants 

I’ve been reading a lot about deployment of TAs recently the Keyinsights article
set me off and I’ve followed the great links to the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF)

and others. 
So, I’ve done some reading. 
I have also discussed this on numerous occasions with Twitter colleagues.
So I’ve sought opinions and advice. 
I think most would agree the following: 
1. TAs should be used effectively 
But what is effective? The EEF have 7 pointers which are superb.
2. TAs should be trained.
This is something our school and area partnership have been working hard to improve.
We had a day looking at 1:1 literacy interventions, we’ve done some assistive technology training and in February we’re having a whole day with a series of workshops looking at language, reading, spelling, phonics and writing. 
3. TAs should not be taking role of teacher, especially for those with learning difficulties where the gap between them and their peers is widening. 
This can be problematic – if a teacher wants to teach whole class they may ask TA to take an individual (usually in secondary) or a small group (more primary?) out to consolidate and reinforce information. 
I have no problem with this as long as the teacher is leading the learning. We must be sure TAs have been suitably trained to do this type of intervention however, sometimes they have more experience than teachers around SEN and working closely with the teacher can be a sublime relationship pushing the student/s on to make progress. 
We can however get this hideously wrong – a TA who doesn’t know how to teach phonics can do more harm than good and often with the very children who need specialist teaching the most. 
I’m afraid this is the fault of the teacher – they have abandoned this child and given full responsibility to the TA for the pupil/s with least resources available to them. 
I’d hope all would agree this is bad practice. 
What of the 1:1 TA who is with a child who has complex communication needs? 
This relationship is complicated. – the TA should have knowledge of the child’s need and know how best to include him or her into the mainstream using inclusive strategies. 
A best practice situation might be: 
Weekly planning with teacher – tweaking how and when child can cope in class and how they are accessing curriculum. 
In secondary, this is harder; while the student may have a key worker, it is likely a number of TAs will be involved and numerous teachers – how do we keep continuity and plan effectively for the student?
And the one for me which causes most angst is the student who, for social and emotional reasons as well as learning difficulties is only coping in mainstream secondary with a TA by their side. 
How can we maximise this relationship so it is constructive rather than destructive? Can we plan for the student to learn independently yet keep their anxiety at a level where they don’t shut down completely? 
If a student requires a sensory diet but also benefits from break times with their peers, how can we fit this into a full timetable? How can the TAs and teachers plan for this? 
These are questions I have no answers to. 
Then there’s the child who requires a scribe and reader? Does this mean they sit back while the TA does the work for them? Are they engaged? For some, the TA copying off the board or making notes for the student means he or she can concentrate on the content without their literacy putting a barrier up for them. For others however, have they learned helplessness and while the TA is scribbling away they are busy distracting others, completely disengaged?
Another problem for both teacher and TA to solve. 
When school has a student whose attendance is poor due to refusal, illness or mental health how should the TA be used in these circumstances? Continue to attend classes and make notes? Prepare resources to enable the student to catch up on their return? Act as a class TA to help others or, often in our case, ask the TA to help other students in other classes as sickness affects TAs too. 

Then there are Higher Level Teaching Assistants (HLTAs) who performance manage other TAs, take on other responsibilities such as small group interventions and literacy support. This work is done outside a mainstream classroom. 

I don’t think we’re getting everything right but I know I see some incredible practice between TAs and teachers. I also know we can improve the system but how? 
Communication is key but we struggle in the rapid, fire fighting environment we work in. Things change too- what works one week can be disastrous the next. An argument with another student or teacher can mean a student with difficulties is affected for weeks. 
The only way to keep improving is to keep checking, keep changing, trying new things but I’m also aware this can have an exhausting affect on teachers and TAs. Thank goodness they’re so adaptable – for to include our students with needs we have to to be flexible and make adjustments – we may not get it right all the time but sometimes, with these students no research has been done yet – the situation is a new one (even to me after 15 years) and we have to work within the parameters of knowledge,  experience and the structure of school. We might also think the unthinkable, sometimes it’s like trying to be creative in a tiny box and it is the TAs who can liberate us – we must use them wisely and effectively but as part of the system not as an alternative.