What makes a good school leader?
February 11, 2016
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We Need A Special Understanding Of The Need To Learn

Special education (also known as special needs education) is the practice of educating students with special educational needs in a way that addresses their individual differences and needs.

Beyond this general definition, however, special education is much harder to define. Common sense tells us that is because, while human learning exists on a developmental continuum made of physical, cognitive and social milestones (like learning to walk, talk, share), many of us also experience how untypical the development of our own abilities take place. For instance, we might have skipped an academic year of school. Or we might still be holding onto the resentment of being called ‘stupid’ by our teachers. Stories abound, for instance, about how famous Nobel-prize-winning writers and scientists –  Einstein, for example – were regarding as having ‘learning problems’ as children!

What these stories highlight is that trying to define human ability(and, therefore, disability) can be caught on the ‘horns of a dilemma’ that leads us to question what’s involved in determining the exact nature of ‘special education’.  Yes, we have forensic, medical and other quantifiable diagnostic tests that give educators and health workers an indication of specific conditions, for instance, of hearing loss, eyesight, muscle tone and other physiological indicators. However, we also call on and apply qualitative measures such as IQ tests and other psychological diagnoses which are often disputed and accused of being inaccurate and culturally biased.

Schools generally use a combination of quantitative medical diagnoses and qualitative psychological assessments of students to address more pragmatic criteria.  You can see this approach, for instance, on TEACH.COM, one of the USA’s top websites for teachers.  Special education is defined by that organisation as education for “students who are mentally, physically, socially and/or emotionally delayed“. The concept of “delay” refers to an aspect of the child’s overall development that places the child behind his or her peers.  The condition is severe enough to prevent the child from being admitted into a traditional classroom environment.

Insight Africa UK's Chart Of The Four Categories Of Special Education Focused On In UK Mainstream & Special Schools

Defining the cognitive (mental), physical, social and emotional conditions that children present to educators, doctors and psychologists is complex. Nonetheless, as teachers and school leaders, it is imperative for us to be aware of the developmental needs of ALL our students. With that in mind, the UK’s SEN Support: Guidance for early years providers, mainstream schools and colleges (2015) should be read and valued not only because it alerts us to categories of ‘special education’ but also because it deepens our understanding of the developmental continuum for educating all students. We have created a handy chart for you to copy, summarising the four main categories in which special education services are offered in the UK. This national document is placed alongside other valuable resources found on UK Local Councils and Borough websites. For instance, we have also used documents found on the Hampshire County Council website listed here to complete chart.

Special education needs (SEN) publications 

Guidance and forms for schools, colleges and early years providers

Ral is Executive Director of Insight Africa UK a company registered in England and Wales to provide Educational Services. She holds a Masters degree from University of Leeds UK and University of Nigeria Nsukka. She also works part time with a City Council in the UK Our Aim: Every Child in Learning, Every School Outstanding Every Teacher Achieving


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