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On disability and disadvantage: the impact of Mr Gradgrind and Dame Austerity

baldrickShould we be worried about the disabled and the disadvantaged in education particularly, but not solely,  post secondary education? It is hard to know exactly what is going on. Colleagues in various educational settings suggest we should be however there are a number of competing paradigms; parental choice, inclusivity, institutional autonomy, Math and English provision to name just a few. It’s not straight forward.

It does seem that some institutions have a cunning plan  targeting disability and disadvantaged  provision for cost savings. Like many issues in education the rhetoric is emotive but the reality is more mundane.

The bottom line is that if you give some educational leaders an inch they will often re-focus funding away from the most needy towards institutional risk factors such as whatever it is that is concerning OFSTED at any given time. Not all but some educational leaders leave a lot to be desired; the Mr  Gradgrinds and the austerity  Dames of educational leadership.

The coalition has been clever; risibly so. The talk is of parental choice but funding that was ring fenced is now not; funding for the vulnerable is now vulnerable.

The unfolding catastrophe of policy changes and funding cuts is beginning to bite. Redundancies are  becoming the norm. Against this backdrop post secondary institutions are being asked to resolve the perceived poor performance of secondaries with regard to Maths and English. Funding for the disadvantaged is conflated with maths and English provision. Lines are blurred.

Funding for disability can be complex anyway. Divided between bodies such as the EFA, SFA and the LEA’s; it’s an acronym hell but also a funding one. Additional funding has to be claimed from LEAs via panels. It’s a time consuming business dealing with local authorities whose budgets are also under pressure. It’s also a  risk institutions already under pressure often cannot afford to take.

The temptation is to adopt the approach of the more noisy free schools  and attract those who “fit in”,  those that attract high funding and whose needs can be accommodated by cheaper support workers, and scare off the problems. It’s a plan of sorts. It is also a race to the bottom. Other providers are then put under pressure to follow suit.

The situation is exacerbated by OFSTED’s pronouncements on SEN. It sends out the wrong signals. Do OFSTED inspectors have the right expertise? There is a growing awareness that cuts to learner support provision are not impacting upon grades. Given the complexity of both the  provision and the funding as well as the short time OFSTED spends on site makes you wonder whether the watchdog has the wherewithal to challenge poor SEND practice.

Of course, I can”t say for certain what is happening to disability and disadvantage. OFSTED’s cut and paste inspection reports don’t reflect the realities of  pay cuts for teachers funding  austerity and changing provision and no one is keen to admit to makings cuts to the disabled and disadvantaged. Many think that data drives Ofsted  I’m less sure; what drives Ofsted is even less impressive it is the ability of a management team to appear plausible even if they are not.

One thing is clear politicians don’t have to say much; blurring the lines, changing emphasis and refocusing watchdogs is enough to send a sector scurrying off to do the politicians dirty work

That is why it is hard to tell the truth of things. At my FE college our concern, from the perspective of “outstanding” ALS provision, is that there is an Ofsted model that pays dividends; weak data,  low wages, and cuts to ALS provision can work by replacing frontline staff with centrally situated pig weighers whose job it is  to create the plausible story. The politics of the gradgrindians hardly helps.

Is Ofsted sophisticated enough to see through it? Has the watchdog got a wide enough remit as funding cuts and pay freezes begin to bite? I’m not encouraged by what I’ve seen so far.

What I can say for certain is that despite the white noise of disability and disadvantage politicking many of us, core curriculum and learner support alike, are happy to work with those who need a little extra help. They are largely no problem and with the support of experienced and highly trained  specialists simply get on with their learning.  We shouldn’t conflate the problems of the few with the many successes nor should we play politics with disability and disadvantage.

The message is a simple one: fund disability, disadvantage and frontline services.

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