The thorny rose – the SEN/EAL issue

I’ve been looking for quite some time for a metaphor for what I am about to raise and write about. On a gloomy, dark, autumnal day like today, Ursula K Le Guin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” comes to mind: in the story, a perfect, blissful, utopian world is presented – perfect society made up by mature, intelligent people, living in impressive buildings and relaxing in beautiful parks, having rejected slavery, monarchy, stock exchange and advertising. Not simple folk, but happy nonetheless. All of this, however, at a cost that everyone is well aware of: in a basement somewhere there, there is a room, locked, with no windows. In that room, there is a child, locked up there for years, feeble, hungry, dirty, scared, begging to be let out. The people in the utopian world know its there and know that the happiness of their world depends on this child being imprisoned. In other words, the good hiding the bad.

On a better day, I just think of a thorny rose. Gentle, silky petals hiding the fact that one can get hurt. 

Why do I write about this? It’s the SEN issue. It’s the issue of schools placing newly arrived EAL learners in SEN provision, and at times hiding the thorny aspect of such actions by calling them “a nurture group”. I am not necessarily saying that this is a result of ill-will. Not at all: roses do not necessarily know that their thorns can cause harm.

There is no better example of this in practice than what was presented in Episode 1 of the Channel 4 series Educating Greater Manchester. This episode is available online here. 

The series attempts to portray the inner working of schools, in this case in Manchester. In this episode, the main focus is on Rani, a newly arrived boy from Syria and how the school tries to meet his needs. How does this school attempt to do so? I quote (9 min 34 sec): “To help develop Rani’s English language skills, he’s being placed temporarily into a special educational needs class, called Cogs.”

EXCUSE ME?

Watching this on a television programme, not in an individual school – on a nationwide television channel – was something out of this world. It is one thing for there to be misinformed non-specialist staff in some schools out there, it is a completely different to produce an hour-long television programme that attempts to portray this as a beneficial practice. A rose trying to pretend its thorns are good.

First, some facts. The image below is taken directly from the SEN Code of Practice (available at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/398815/SEND_Code_of_Practice_January_2015.pdf)

There is no scope for interpretation here. This last sentence in the paragraph does not a probability word such as may/might/could. No, it specifically states that EAL is not SEN. Therefore, either the programme’s writers did not know about the provision above or they chose to ignore it (I am not certain which is worse.)

What is really problematic about this particular programme is not simply that this error has been made, but that it is portrayed in the programme to be a good thing! This is a programme that would’ve been watched by hundreds or thousands of people, who might not be teachers or educators. Many will believe that this is what is supposed to happen and that this school’s course of action is the correct one. The programme is clearly out to show the hard work of teachers in a very positive light (I cannot fault them on wanting that.). In this case, this means, however, it’s doing more harm than good.

In my 10 years’ work in Britain (England and Scotland), I have seen on numerous occasions schools attempting (stopping in my presence!) to place EAL learners in bottom sets or placing them into SEN provision. Much like in the Channel4 programme, no evidence-based, research-based justification has ever been given to me for placing EAL learners in SEN provision. Well, there isn’t any evidence for benefits of doing so. Every single time I have dealt with this issue, what I met with was assumptions and “common sense” statements. This is folk pedagogy. I don’t do folk pedagogies – I go by research and evidence. There is ample evidence, indeed, that you shouldn’t do so. 

Let me make the following, firm, statements:

  • Having a language that is different from the language of the school / schooling does not equate having a special need; if you are a native English speaker, and so is your child, if you needed to move to Spain for work, would your child suddenly “develop” a special need by crossing the threshold of the Spanish school? I think not!
  • Most SENCOs and SEN teachers are not EAL specialists, and there was nothing to suggest that the SEN class teacher in the Channel4 programme was. Why is an assumption made, then, that the needs of child, who is new to English, and the one whose first language is English can be served in the same way? How does it serve this child’s actual needs? Does she understand the distinct EAL pedagogy? Does she understand the difference between teaching English literacy and English language? Does she know how to explicitly teach the English language and curricular content?
  • This leads me to remark on another issue: many SEN classes group students, whose first language is indeed English, who are also struggling readers. EAL learners are immediately put into the same boat: that is, they are considered to be “struggling readers” only through the prism of their second language skills. What about their literacy in the first language? Despite the fact that there is ample evidence out there (Cummins and Thomas and Collier to begin with, supported by neuroscience bilingualism research from Bialystok) that the maintenance of the first language supports the development of the second. 
  • Such “struggling readers” SEN groups are not exactly top sets, and it’s top sets exactly that associations such as NALDIC will say is the most beneficial for EAL learners as they will be surrounded by peers speaking more advanced, more sophisticated English language than is the case in lower sets. Clearly, English children who struggle with reading will not be able to do so.
  • Placing children with EAL into SEN groups also means entering a very shaky – very wrong – ground. This relates to the first bullet point above: many students with SEN will experience cognitive difficulties; by automatically placing children with SEN in the same groups, the school assumes – or at least appears as assuming – that their cognitive abilities are impaired because they speak another language!
    • Have they heard of the UNICEF Convention on the Rights of a Child? Its Article 30 states: “The right to practice one’s own culture, language and religion applies to everyone; the Convention here highlights this right in instances where the practices are not shared by the majority of people in the country.”
  • Schools trying to justify these decisions by statements such as “they will not be able to access Maths” or “they are not ready for…” or “they need to learn the English language to participate…” reveals the following:
    • Very low expectations of EAL learners. EAL learners, from day one, are doomed to fail here. Their prior knowledge (which, when EAL learners are new to English, will be largely mediated through their first language) is untapped into. Their language is “wrong” and makes them “unable to access the curriculum”. In other words, it’s their fault (us vs them). For all you know, they could’ve been amazing at Maths or Geography in their countries of origin, but they are not asked, not allowed to enter the higher sets and show off their knowledge; instead, the school has allowed for their circumstances to define them, i.e. since their English language skills are low, their knowledge and learning skills are considered to be low, too.
    • EAL learners’ responsibility to learn the English language is placed entirely on their shoulders (or with their EAL teacher, if they are lucky to have one at their school; Rani didn’t have one). It’s no longer the responsibility of the teacher to help them access their curriculum by differentiating for their English language barrier; no, it’s “their” fault that they do not possess the language required. Sometimes you hear of schools advising parents of children new to English to speak only English at home – firstly, such advice seems to be entirely emotionally removed from the child and the family (would they do this with their own children in Spain, speaking Spanish at home whilst being English?), reducing them to only having an English language need and denying them identity. Secondly, yet again, this places the responsibility for the development of the English language away from the teacher and the school.

These are very serious issues to consider, and yet they take place in many schools in Britain on a daily basis. They lead to damaging children’s cultural and linguistic identities, lower their self-esteem and can create a “second-citizen” class within schools’ student populations. They can, and often do, lead to children rejecting and being ashamed of their culture and their home languages (as described in this recent article from Language on the Move). They also at best touch on institutional racism, but can easily be about institutional racism built up by not necessarily overt but hidden messages sent to the children in school and their families and communities. Being “nurtured” in an SEN group of children with behavioural problems, dyslexia or Asperger Syndrome is equating their barrier to what is often a medically/psychologically recognised issue (SLDs are under the DSM-V umbrella). The English Language is not the only normal language in the world, which is what such moves, knowingly or unknowingly, position it as. It shouldn’t be normalised as something superior, and other languages shouldn’t be alienated. Neither is it ethical nor is it in accordance with our existing policies. It also certainly groups children in our schools into haves and have nots. 

Challenge it whenever you see it. Do not let anyone forget the rose’s thorns.

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