Mastery for all – from the bottom up

If you think I’m becoming obsessed with mastery – yes, I probably am. But I want to turn this concept on its head and look at mastery from the perspective of young people at the lower end of the ability spectrum, who struggle with learning, including those with Special Educational Needs and/or Disabilities (SEND).

Schools use the term (mastery) as the highest level of achievement: above ‘secure’. My previous blogs have focused on mastery as a deeper, richer form of learning; perhaps implying a level of achievement for those with higher than average innate intelligence. But is this how we should view mastery? Shouldn’t the concept include children with SEND?

Children with SEND often need to work harder than their peers in order to achieve. Their learning pathway is steep and rocky, with many barriers in the way – sometimes arising from personal difficulties, but too often arising from a lack of recognition and support from schools and society. Therefore, the barriers that children with SEND face, emanate from both inside and outside of themselves and their abilities. Such internal barriers may be cognitive, sensory (hearing/visual impairment), specific (eg. Dyslexia), social (eg. Autism), behavioural, or a complex combination of these.

When achievement is viewed from the bottom up, we are encouraged to look at how children have successfully mastered their own difficulties, having jumped the barriers placed in their way – and run the race at their own pace. Such children may not achieve above-average, or average, levels – but having mastered their own learning difficulties is achievement. How often do we celebrate this success as a form of mastery? Rarely. Consider some examples.

Jason attends a PRU and succeeds in turning his behaviour around. In so doing, he places himself back on the achievement track in mainstream. This is the positive side of PRU’s (blog 19.11). PRUs play a valuable role in offering children with severe levels of SEMH a second chance.

Michael has been diagnosed with Dyslexia at Year 9. His difficulties had been overlooked, partly because of how well, this particular pupil had hidden his problems behind high cognitive functioning. The strategies that schools normally put in place are not suitable for a Year 9 pupil so Michael is taking charge of his specific difficulties himself – mastering his spelling.

What about children with social and communication difficulties, such as Asperger’s Syndrome? Does mastering these difficulties require us all to work closely towards a joint understanding of alternate ways of seeing the world – and therefore find ways to integrate young people into routines that are acceptable and beneficial to all?

Hearing and visual impairments need only the sensory barriers to be removed. Similarly, physical difficulties require us all to support a person’s own ways of mastering disability.

How I admire people who have overcome significant disabilities to reach Para Olympic levels. Stephen Hawking is a superb example of mastery arising from his determination to triumph over a severe level of disability.

Overcoming difficulties takes a huge amount of personal courage as well as determination, dedication and discipline. Supporting mastery for children and young people with SEND means removing the particular barriers that prevent any individual from achieving. There are exceptions, for example, children with severe cognitive difficulties, but the majority of people with SEND CAN master their difficulties provided we set the right goals – as individual potential – not levels.

Mastery at the less-able end of the ability spectrum represents success. We can all help to make it happen. So let’s take a fresh look at mastery from the bottom up and enable all children to succeed.

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