We need to stop telling kids they have something wrong with them if they don’t fit in to the school system.
It’s a predictable tale, the child who refuses to go, the child who was bullied, the child who can’t keep up. And then the call is for more inclusion, better funding, learning support assistants and specialist schools. Often it’s for more and earlier diagnosis. But what is rarely asked is whether a school system in which 15% of children – 1.3 million – are deemed to have ‘special educational needs’ (meaning, effectively, that they need something different to the standard school experience) could be the problem, rather than the children.
No one exists in a vacuum. Conventional schools require children to comply, to conform socially and to give up many of the choices which adults take for granted. Choices such as when to go to the toilet and what colour coat you can wear. Choices such as when you can talk, and even what you do after school is over for the day. In school, children have no real power over their environment. Their choice is stark. Comply, or not.
Resistance to control isn’t a sign of pathology or disorder, it’s a sign of being human.
In the early 20th century, canaries were sent down mines to test whether the air was safe. Because they were small and sensitive, they would die when exposed to toxic gases such as carbon monoxide. This gave the miners time to get out, saving their lives.
Sensitive children are our canaries, telling us that there is something terribly wrong with the system. What if, instead of diagnosing ever more children with SEN, we asked how we could rethink education, to make it flexible, individualised and child-centred – for all children?
To do this, we need to ask real questions about education. Questions like, why do we take children who want to be moving and make them sit still instead? Why do we stop children playing when that’s what they are desperate to do? Why do we assume that we must force children to learn?
Democratic schools have asked these questions, and when you visit one, you can see the answers. Children, many of whom have been diagnosed with SEN or excluded from other schools, are making meaningful choices and using their power responsibly. Children are learning to read and write without lessons, and retaining their excitement in learning about the world. Children who were school refusers at previous schools skip through the door and look forward to each day.
School doesn’t have to be a place where meaningful choices are left in the cloakroom with the (regulation) coats. It is possible for children to take responsibility for their education and their community.
But for this, we all need to be prepared to radically change our outlook on education.
We could start by listening to the canaries.