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Earlier this week @miss_mcinerney published an article in The Guardian stating that 35% of Special Schools are rated as Outstanding yet no one celebrates or even mentions this fact. Laura, the author claimed not to be disputing this, rather she was just aiming to stimulate a debate. Here is the tweet announcing the article

Laura McInerney
Did 35% of special schools get an Outstanding last term because they’re fantastic, or because inspectors go easy?

At the time I declined to comment. I had no intention of joining a discussion about the provision we provide. I would rather concentrate on teaching the children to the best of my ability than engage in discussions about it. There then followed a prolonged debate concerning the status of special schools. During the course of this debate one or two comments were passed on as facts that are actually fairly well removed from the truth so I now feel compelled to speak out. You can read Laura’s article by following this link.

The fact that possibly disturbed me the most was this one, again from Laura

“Could it be for instance, that the *lack* of data focus makes it ‘easier’ to get an outstanding?”

Laura asserted that progress in special schools can’t be judged easily. With this statement she is correct, it isn’t easy to prove progress, but it is certainly done. Inspection in special schools begins with data in exactly the same way that it does in mainstream schools. Each and every child has to make the required 2 or three levels of progress over a key stage just like their mainstream peers. The levels may be National Curriculum levels or they may P Levels but they must make progress. I think the confusion arises because some children cannot make this progress. For example, if a child is 15 years old and is at P6 for Maths is it realistic to expect him to reach P8 in the two years of key stage 4? Of course it isn’t. That does not mean the Lead Inspector dismisses this and moves on. This has to be explained. What has occurred, what interventions have you put in place, will the child reach their target next time? We still have to show the required progress in all core subjects for each child, no matter how poorly they are, even the terminally ill ones. As Assessment Leader I was grilled by the Ofsted inspector for more than an hour, and ours is a tiny school. Does that sound like there is no data focus? It doesn’t to me.

The sentence I was most disappointed to read from Laura was this one

‘Are special needs schools an untrumpeted triumph of our schools sector, or is their success an example of endemic low expectations?’

Again, I am sure that Laura intended to stimulate debate, but as a special school teacher I don’t want anyone to run away with the idea that we have low expectations for our children. This is certainly untrue and desperately unfair. If anything the opposite is true. We have the highest expectations of all our children. None are allowed to coast along and we expect their best work even when they are placed in a standing frame or led on an acheeva to soothe aching limbs. In my school we have written a swimming curriculum to run alongside the main curriculum taught to our students. This means that time spent in hydrotherapy is also utilised as teaching time. There are no wasted minutes in the day and there are no low expectations.

During the discussion I also saw a suggestion that Inspectors have no training for special schools and therefore just hand out Outstanding as a matter of course. A quick look on Google dispels that one. Here is a brief extract from Torbay Special schools Inspection Guidance regarding data in special schools. Trained inspectors were advised to do the following during inspection:

Judging attainment
It should not be assumed that standards in a special school are below those expected of pupils of a similar age nationally. For some this may well be the case but for others it may not.

Inspectors should:
not hold preconceived notions about pupils’ abilities.

Judging the quality of pupils’ learning and their progress
Inspectors should:
not make judgements by category of need
use pupils’ ages and starting points (baseline) alongside the time pupils have been receiving specialist support/been at the school to analyse progress
maintain high expectations of learning for all pupils in lesson observations

That doesn’t sound like an untrained Inspector to me. My school was inspected in April last year and the Inspector was most certainly trained in special needs. He left no stone unturned and he did not award us an Outstanding without justification.

As the conversation continued on Twitter @JarlathOBrien said that the success of special schools is not discussed as very few people, including teachers have visited special schools and therefore very few people understand what we do. It is not celebrated because it is not understood. I think Jarlath has a point.

For me personally I think the success of special schools is not celebrated because we do not shout it from the roof tops ourselves. We quietly continue with the day job, teaching the children as best we can. We preserve our energy for the important things like training and designing new resources.

I discussed this point with my Headteacher yesterday and she suggested that special schools are a tiny proportion of the actual number of schools. If for example, special schools account for only 5% of the total number of schools the conversation will only amount to 5% at the most. I have tried to find the actual statistics to back this one up but have failed, so if anyone can find this information I would be grateful.

A further school of thought is that as 35% of special schools are Outstanding what are we doing that makes us so successful? Is this the reason why it isn’t discussed, because mainstream schools aren’t able to be that successful. They can’t personalise the curriculum in the same way that we do. Mainstream schools can’t spend the same amount of time developing attributes and values such as perseverance, independence, well being, all the characteristics that mainstream schools are now being asked to teach. These are the things we have been doing for years. These are the things that make special schools stand out. Data is king, even in my school but all the other values are equally important.

My Headteacher always says that we ‘keep the children at the heart of everything we do.’ I hear more and more HTs saying this lately. I think the difference is that in special schools we actually have the time to do this. Our numbers are smaller, we have more staff, we are able to personalise and differentiate and we are able to think about the needs of the individual child. We don’t involve ourselves in fads such as triple marking, daily lesson planning or anything else that takes precious time and produces very little educational worth. Mainstream teachers do not have this luxury. Success is weighted in our favour.

I wonder, is the success of special schools not discussed for a reason. If we can get education right for the most vulnerable children in our society, why can’t we get it right for everyone. Just a thought!

Of course I can’t end the post without mentioning our own Outstanding Ofsted. Here is a quote from the Inspector

“It is a joy to just stand in the school and feel the goodness coming out of it”
and another

“Leaders, managers and Governors have created a stunning school”

You can read the full Ofsted report here.