Friday, 11 September 2020

The Challenges and Opprtunities of Education for Developmental Needs

Having designed many systems to measure the impact of youth projects, particularly those involving disabled children, across a wide range of communities and backgrounds, I feel that it is in education, more than anywhere else, is where society  needs to rethink the objectives of our education system and consider the impact on those with disabilities and Special Educational Needs.

As someone who has been diagnosed with severe autism and ADHD only three years ago, at 55, but grew up in the sixties and seventies, a time when neither condition was recognised,  I have some understanding of how difficult, often terrifying school can be. A chaotic, noisy environment with complex social rules, it was a distressing time which I cannot look back on with much happiness.  I have not worked with many children who did not want to learn, those that do are often rebelling against the regimented systems of learning, more than rejecting and appetite for wisdom. 

If we truly believe, as we do, that disabled people particularly those with developmental and learning difficulties have real talent and ability then we need an education system flexible enough to support them. We must create enabling environments, working both in and alongside mainstream schools, where all children can thrive, creating a generation of adults able to contribute and be valued in our society. I accept that for many disabled children, inclusion is a positive and enriching experience which, by removing ignorance about disability helps eradicate discrimination for future generations. There are however many occasions when it fails to deliver the equal opportunities and positive social interaction it was intended to.

My experience is that, at the heart of this problem, lies the way education is delivered and measured in our schools. We have developed an obsession with testing and measuring, as someone who designs impact tools and processes, this may seem like a hypocritical statement, but I have always maintained that we should measure what really matters, not that which is easiest to measure. We must always ask if we should measure and consider our objective in assessing a very diverse range of young people against a set academic standard. Moreover, since the introduction of a compulsory national curriculum teachers have enjoyed less and less autonomy, with successive governments making sweeping curricular decisions often with little or no consultation with front-line staff.  This approach, which holds that worthwhile knowledge is only to be found in packages produced by small groups of experts and controlled from the top-down, is akin to a manufacturing process not a learning environment, responsible for the growth and well-being of our future generation.

This system is too inflexible to allow teachers the freedom to engage children of all abilities, to acknowledge those with real creative or vocational talents. To push and encourage those with developmental needs to fulfil their potential and find their place in our social hierarchy. Too many students are cast out because their learning style differs from standardised methods. I was lucky and resourceful, teaching myself and seeking out opportunities to learn in museums, libraries and by engaging with friends of my parents, many do not have this opportunity or such a supportive environment.

Children need a system that empowers teachers, allow them to deliver an individualised curriculum focused on promoting effective learning, the ability to learn in new ways and independently. Teachers need the freedom and trust to teach those children in their care, in the most appropriate way. Using appropriate assessment tools and the national curriculum as guidance, while prioritising the individual needs and talents of children to experience as rounded an education as possible.

We can begin by ensuring teachers are given the freedom to make curriculum decisions based on their own talents and interests, freeing creative energy could re-vitalise existing teachers, make the profession more attractive to graduates and forge new relationships and trust between school and parents.

In short, we have a duty to encourage our teachers to be individuals and facilitators because, only then do we allow them to unleash their full potential and that can only be to the mutual advantage of all our children and wider society.

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