Archive for March 2015

All students are special, but some students have special needs

I think the 21st Century will be characterised by a phenomenon that might be called “condition creep.” This is where a condition starts to be redefined to such an extent that the clearly understood condition becomes obfuscated and the search for a “new” condition begins.

This occurred to me when listening to several speakers on the radio who were talking about the Dyslexia Awareness Week. In the course of this I learned that 45,000 New Zealanders suffer from dyslexia. This seemed rather high to me. But then it became increasingly apparent that the condition was now not simply the impact on reading of some neurological process that sees people confusing letters. It now seemed to apply to a lack of co-ordination, a series of learning difficulties and being a little bit off track in terms of teacher expectation.

I was reminded of the trouble that a UK academic got into a few years ago when he argued that dyslexia was often no more than a description by middle class white that sought to explain why Sally or Charles were having trouble getting the hang of reading or perhaps even being a little slow to pick up maths.

Of course he was wrong and his comments were a disservice to the young and old people who really do have dyslexia – there is no doubt that it exists. But in my time as a teacher of English and all my time working in education, I have to say that the clearly and genuinely dyslexic (in terms of the original definition) seemed to me to be quite small in number.

There is also the puzzling feature that white middle class communities have higher levels of reporting of dyslexia than the poorer areas where there is a significantly increased number of people with literacy issues. One wonders about this!

Some years ago I felt that the same condition creep was occurring with “ADHD” and right now I have to wonder about the spread of “depression”. What is it that makes us want to blur definitions? It can’t be a simple attempt at inclusiveness. Rather it seems to me that it might be a symptom of a community that has a number of people who are asking for help and of people who are seeking explanations by way of labels. In short, what is described as a condition might well in fact be a symptom for something else.

Another strange fact is that high decile schools access special assistance for students with issues when it comes to external assessments more than low decile schools and by quite a margin. The radio report I was referring to earlier noted that 17% of candidates from high decile schools compared to 1.0% of low decile school candidates were recipients of NZQA funded support at assessment time. It takes my mind back to the days when “equity funding” was dished out to institutions on the basis of the total EFTS. How’s that for targeted resource?

No-one sets out to rort the system on the one hand nor to deny a student that to which they are rightfully entitled on the other – but it happens. The swirl around the whole business of “special needs” and the support of students suggests a situation where we might have got something somewhat wrong.

Perhaps we should seek guidance from countries where they get it right?