Catch up: Match up: Every Child Matters!

Build Back Better (BBB) has become the new mantra, following lockdown. But will the rebuilding of society after Covid address the inequalities (in Britain and other countries) that have always existed – yet been ignored? Will catch-up strategies enable us to close those deep, structural inequality gaps? Can society ever reach real inclusivity? If so, how?
These are big questions, for which I do not have answers. My last blog called for philosophers to come out of hiding. We need them.

Let’s look at SEND issues first. The Covid data informs us that six out of ten people who have died due to the virus are those with complications arising from some form of Special Educational Need or Disability (SEND). Yet, people with SEND account for no more than around one fifth of the population. So why? This sad, unpalatable truth reminds us of the vulnerability of people with SEND: that gaps in quality of life between people with SEND and those without, has widened even further since the pandemic hit.

It is a fact that people with a severe learning difficulty or disability struggle with every aspect of life – partly because people without such disabilities (including myself) may fail to understand what it is like to live with a disability day after day. Those of us without (disability) therefore fail to remove the many barriers that would help to make life easier for those with. People with SEND are more likely than others to live in poverty – and eat less healthily. They struggle to access bus or train services as easily as the rest of us. Unemployment for people with SEND is unacceptably high in relation to their percentage of the population. Many children with SEND fail to achieve what they are fully capable of in school, partly because their needs are not properly understood by teachers and their assistants. Bullying and hate crime aimed at people with SEND are also prevalent.

Has this pandemic further opened up huge fissures in society that must be addressed? Do we now have to apply some creative thinking outside of traditional boundaries? Is the post-Covid ‘new normal’ not simply a case of getting back to what we had before – but more like having the courage to experiment, and venture into the unknown – building back better?

Does BBB start with the young? For decades schools have struggled to fully include children with significant levels of SEND and enable them to achieve their potential. Now studies, perhaps unsurprisingly, reveal serious gaps in the education children have received during lockdowns – thereby widening the inequality gaps further. Even early education has suffered, exacerbated by differences in quality and quantity of on-line teaching, as well as the educational levels, skills and time available from parents at home. The Education Endowment Foundation found that levels of reading and maths dropped significantly following the first school closures. There was a very concerning attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their more affluent peers – about seven months. The Institute for Fiscal Studies calculates (amazingly?) that loss of learning may also result in loss of earning – perhaps up to £40,000 or so – over the next few decades. Well-being is also a huge issue to be addressed.

So what can be done to bring ALL children to where they need to be? Firstly, any catch up strategies must also address SEND versus non-SEND inequality issues, as well as those related to social disadvantage. It is highly likely that children of average and above intelligence will be able to reach expected levels far more quickly than their peers with SEND.

So how? One suggestion is to mobilise school volunteers, in a similar way to how the NHS mobilised retired nurses last year. Ought the school day to be lengthened? What about Saturday mornings? Could the school year also be lengthened? A mixture of these strategies cannot fail to help most pupils to catch up. It is important for all those involved to discuss the options.

Yet, simply applying the same strategies to every pupil cannot effect the same positive outcomes for all – children with SEND have different types of need. Many learn more slowly than their peers – and even with additional time allocated, their pace of learning cannot be speeded up. Real learning, at the level of understanding, cannot ever be force-fed! So it is, that while the fall-back in learning for pupils with SEND has been more acutely felt – catch-up may take longer to achieve.

Furthermore if this is an opportunity to address long-standing problems with the SEND system at its roots, the issues must be addressed differently. As part of the system, pupils with SEND have been entitled to receive additional support, depending on type of difficulty and extent of need. This has not always been forthcoming, for many reasons. Maybe staff have not been trained adequately. Time and funding have also been in short supply. The parents of children with SEND may also need more help to support their child.

There can be no quick-fix. But here and now is the opportunity to put in place the right plan to make education work for EVERY pupil: all races and colours, with SEND or with social disadvantage. Such a plan needs long term, as well as short term goals: what is to be achieved by next term – the following year – the next five, or ten years? The British education system needs a huge overhaul. Now is the time for catch-up to become match-up. Every child really matters!

I am author of thirteen books for schools, plus five for parents. If your child has SEND, Book 1: Support Your Child with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities: a guide for parents, offers all you need to know about the SEND system. Books 2 to 5: Support Your Child At The Early Years Foundation Stage, At Key Stage One, At Key Stage Two and At Key Stage Three – offer a comprehensive outline of WHAT should be taught and HOW. Available from Lulu or Amazon.

Sylvia Edwards

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