A VERY special, "Special needs" policy.

David Barry's picture
A recent posting by Janet Downs entitled:

"Council estimates £4m loss on land grabbed by DfE for free school"

was about the way land had been appropriated from Oldham Council by the DfE for a Free School. This entails a consequential loss to the Council of 4 million pounds , and is of course, equally the transfer of 4 million pounds worth of public assets into private hands. It ended with the remark:

"Now Oldham Council is under pressure again to find land for another free school which has been given the go-ahead: the Phoenix Free School"

This provoked a comment (from Chris Manners) about the Phoenix SEN page, (the page on their web site in which they set out their SEN policy), the gist of which was that he did not think much of it. So I had a look myself. And I think it deserves a post, and perhaps discussion, all of its own.

So now here is the text copied from the Phoenix School web site. I would be interested in any comments people might have:-


"Special Educational Needs

In England, 20% of our pupils are labelled as ‘special needs’. This is far too high—in Europe, the rate is only 4%.

Many pupils have genuine special needs. At Phoenix they will get the best possible help.

Most special needs pupils have poor literacy skills. When they catch up in reading and writing, most of them will no longer have ‘special needs’.

There are a lot of differences between the English and our continental cousins, but we don’t think our pupils are really five times more likely to have ‘special needs’.

Unfortunately, when pupils fail to make progress, it’s far too easy for our schools to claim extra funds by putting them on the special needs register.

There are several problems with this:

Schools don’t have enough time and money for pupils who have genuine special needs.

When pupils are on the special needs register, there is an assumption that they can’t make normal academic progress.

Pupils often think of themselves as ‘disabled’ and they stop trying.

Teachers waste huge amounts of time ‘differentiating’ lessons for illiterate pupils.

Pupils become bored and demoralised when they are given worksheets to colour in. About half of them will become disruptive.

Once pupils leave the education system, they no longer have specialised support. A very high percentage go straight on to benefits.[1]

The Phoenix Free School will scrupulously observe all legal requirements for children who have been diagnosed as having special needs, and we will most certainly do everything we can for pupils who need specialised help. But we suspect there will be very few of them.

In a Centre for Policy Studies report[2], the late Dr John Marks cited a Daily Telegraph article by Minette Marin, who visited a Tower Hamlets primary school where all children could read. About 90% of their pupils were Bangladeshi, and 60% qualified for free school meals. Yet only 3% of their pupils were listed as SEN—this compared with 30% to 40% at other schools in the same area. As Ms Marin commented:

Something stands out a mile here; a negligible rate of SEN registration seems to go with a very high rate of reading success.

At Phoenix, our very first priority will be to ensure that every pupil can read and spell. You can be sure that there won’t be any pupils stigmatised as having ‘special needs’ simply because they haven’t mastered basic skills.

Recently, there has been a massive increase in the number of pupils diagnosed with ADHD (hyperactivity) and autistic spectrum disorders (ASD). Arguably ADHD isn’t a disorder at all. Francis Fukuyama suggests that

ADHD isn’t a disease at all but rather just the tail end of the bell curve describing the distribution of perfectly normal behaviour. Young human beings, and particularly young boys, were not designed by evolution to sit around at a desk for hours at a time paying attention to a teacher, but rather to run and play and do other physically active things. The fact that we increasingly demand they sit still in classrooms, or that parents and teachers have less time to spend with them on interesting tasks, is what creates the impression that there is a growing disease.[3]

At Phoenix, physical activity will be built into the day. In addition to the usual PE sessions, pupils will start the day with callisthenics, and have outdoor activities such as orienteering at least once a month. Team sports—with fixtures with neighbouring schools and sports clubs—will figure prominently. Martial Arts will instil self-discipline.

Pupils with ADHD and ASD make excellent progress in a structured classroom environment.[4] They simply don’t have the attention to direct their own learning, at least not until they have mastered a wide range of knowledge. At Phoenix, teaching and learning will have the focus that allows all pupils to make excellent progress. We believe this is much better than labelling children as ‘special needs’.

[1] The new SEN system is supposed to provide ‘support’ up to the age of 25—if anything, this will make matters worse.

[2] http://www.cps.org.uk/publications/reports/what-are-special-education-ne...

[3] http://www.theguardian.com/books/2002/may/13/health.highereducation

[4] Howlin, P., (1997) “Prognosis in autism: do specialist treatments affect long-term outcome?”, European child & adolescent psychiatry 6 (2): 55–72"

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Rosie Fergusson's picture
Sun, 02/03/2014 - 13:26

The proposal that tackling literacy issues will overcome some levels of SEN probably comes from Tom Burkards past history as a dyslexia intervention tutor .

Their statement "When pupils are on the special needs register, there is an assumption that they can’t make normal academic progress" is wrong. OFSTED now expect to see all SEN make acceptable progress ,only pupils with diagnosed cognitive needs will be exempt and the lack of progress has to be justified by the school.
This causes problems with younger children in primary schools as their needs may present as speech , communication etc occluding the underlying cognitive need.

Warning unsubstantiated Parent Anecdote :A friend with a child with late development issues battled for 4 years for a diagnosis to facilitate funding ; the often arch and patronising rpely from the professionals was " you shouldn't rush to label your child" her rpely was " if it means more funding and better support I want a *&^%$"£$ label!"

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Sun, 02/03/2014 - 13:36

The quote from the Centre for policy studies report "Something stands out a mile here; a negligible rate of SEN registration seems to go with a very high rate of reading success."

What absolute b*&^%$ and to think they're paid our tax money to report such drivel.
They fail to appreciate that the school will have the same LA SEN professionals supporting and diagnosing in the neighbouring schools with higher levels of SEN . The FSM figure is immaterial as the over-riding cohort feature is that 90% of pupils have Banglasdeshi heritage. The true conclusion is that
a) the Bangladeshi gene pool is a lot "healthier in terms of SEN inheritance" than the average British school cohort and
b) Banglasdeshi parents work hard to support and aspire for their children.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 02/03/2014 - 13:37

The figures quoted on the school's website from a Telegraph article make the classic mistake of not comparing like with like. Countries have different ways of registering special needs. For example, in Germany and France (cited by DT) only disability is counted (see Chapter 2 here):

The report I've cited urges caution in using its SEN data for comparison because of the differences in how countries define SEN and also because countries change the way they categorise SEN. In Estonia, for example, the proportion dropped from 19% to 9.2% in one year because the country changed the definition.

According to DfE stats for 2012/13, the proportion of special needs pupils in England is:

A 18.7% overall
B 9.5% are on School Action
C 5.7% are on School Action Plus
D 2.8% have SEN Statements.

School Performance Tables ignore the proportion on School Action - they only include pupils with Statements or those on School Action Plus (11% for state primary schools 2012/13).

So, anyone wanting to show the number of English children with Special Needs is high can choose the overall figure to "prove" they're over-identified; anyone wanting to show the proportion is low in order to say they're under-identified can just use the proportion for Statemented children.

That said, it's easy to get confused as I said here (mea culpa).

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 02/03/2014 - 14:24

Rosie - did you notice the CPR report was dated 2000 - so it's a little out-of-date. Tower Hamlets was given especial mention so I checked the data for 2013.

The national average SEN figure (statements + School Action Plus) = 11%
In Tower Hamlets it's 13%.
The school with the highest proportion is Stepney Greencoat CofE with 28% (slightly under the 30-40% figure claimed in the CPR 2000 report for schools in the vicinity of the praised school using 1997 data - again, a little out-of-date).

If Ms Marin's hypothesis is correct - that the more children diagnosed with SEN the less likely they are to be able to read - then Stephney Greencoat's reading figures should be the lowest in Tower Hamlets. It isn't. 84% achieved Level 4 in reading slightly below the LA average of 86%.

The school praised in the CPR 2000 report was Kobi Nazrul. But it wasn't listed in Tower Hamlet's 1997 results:

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 02/03/2014 - 14:56

The paper on autism is even older than the CPR paper - it's dated 1997. And it only seems to deal with autism not Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

That's not to say its findings about autism aren't correct (I think they are) but if the paper doesn't mention ADHD then its findings shouldn't be applied to ADHD (note: I couldn't access the entire paper).

ADHD diagnosis is controversial - is it just bad behaviour given a label? (Answer: I don't know). But the NHS recognises it as a condition and the DfE lists it under its definition of SEN.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 02/03/2014 - 19:20

You can read a lot more of Tom Burkard's educational views on this post.


They begin on 01/01/14

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Sun, 02/03/2014 - 19:39

I enjoyed this paper

if only for the enlightening concept in the USA that autism should be identified early and early year interventions should be delivered by specialist teachers in rations of 1 to 3 in collaboration with medical professionals.

A stark contrast to the UK system which involves placing all children in mainstream education, schools waiting a long time for assessments , the LA refusing to statement before year 1 , the LA requiring schools to jump through many hoops , the LAs now requiring schools to fund the first £6000 of support for any child out of their delegated SEN budget etc etc
Even once the money is in place it's not spent on any specialist cognitive interventions but on paying a junior teaching assistant to simply manage any behaviour that may disrupt the class.

Henry Stewart's picture
Sun, 02/03/2014 - 20:03

Interesting that Kobi Nazrul is the school referred to. I doubt we can extract 15 year old figures but the current Ofsted data dashboard puts the school in the top quintile for the level of SEN: http://dashboard.ofsted.gov.uk/dash.php?urn=100940

Henry Stewart's picture
Mon, 03/03/2014 - 09:20

Checking further, the 2003 Ofsted report for Kobi Nazrul is still online and states that 31 out of 210 pupils (15%) "are identified as having special educational needs", while 5 are statemented (2.4%).

2003 Ofsted: http://bit.ly/1pTf0N7

My guess is that the Daily Telegraph reporter confused the school's figure for statemented pupils (which is close to the national average of 2.8%) with figures for Tower Hamlets for all categories of special educational needs. (And probably exaggerated the Tower Hamlets figure. As Janet points out, its nowhere near 30-40% and probably never has been.)

So - surprise, surprise - the evidence is nonsense.

Chris Manners's picture
Mon, 03/03/2014 - 16:20

Great to see this followed up.

One small point, I am Chris Manners, not Chris Masters.

I also had a pop on the Phoenix School Facebook page, where I made the same point about Tower Hamlets and Minette Marrin. Well worth you doing the same, because people don't expect to see criticism on Facebook pages.

David Barry's picture
Mon, 03/03/2014 - 17:23

@Chris Manners I am really sorry about the naming error - the responsibility is mine. Your pithy comment was, indeed, what drew my attention to the Phoenix SEN page, and really when I read it...

Chris Manners's picture
Mon, 03/03/2014 - 16:28

Andy V's picture
Mon, 03/03/2014 - 18:10

This is TB's second knock back and despite the old adage 3rd time lucky, I don't see the school raising itself from its own ashes ...


Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 03/03/2014 - 18:15

Chris and Andy - it would be interesting to know just how much it has cost the taxpayer in supporting this application - marketing and the like. Not to mention the time wasted by the council in having to discuss what land to release for the school.

Andy V's picture
Mon, 03/03/2014 - 18:33

Janet, it would interesting to see how much taxpayer funding has been used in the free school process in total (and then see a split between free schools opened, unopened and failed/closed, and administrative support via the NSN).

For me TB's blueprint model was flawed from the outset: not the use of ex service personnel but rather that each teacher would be given the same level of freedom as an army corporal in charge of a platoon. But for the SoS's unique attitude, and notwithstanding the American experience, it should have been been clear to the DFE that this would never work. And I speak as an ex serviceman.

Chris Manners's picture
Mon, 03/03/2014 - 21:43

No prob on the name front, David.

Glad you and the team have taken it forward.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 04/03/2014 - 10:04

Andy - thanks for your perspective as an ex-serviceman. According to a NUT press-release £180,000 has been spent pursuing the Phoenix School Bid.

But what particularly concerned me is that when the DfE gave it the go-ahead in May 2013 it must have seen a detailed bid. Now it's saying the bid doesn't meet its rigorous criteria. Surely that should have been noticed before giving the school the all-clear to proceed?

Fiona Millar's picture
Tue, 04/03/2014 - 12:54

Very good post David. I have changed Chris's name.

Andy V's picture
Tue, 04/03/2014 - 22:24

Janet, It would appear that TB nailed the failure to meet DFE rigorous requirements himself when he is quoted as saying:

"One of the major problems we faced was that, despite intensive efforts to recruit a principal, we were unable to find anyone with suitable experience and qualifications who has also served in the Armed Forces.

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