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Protestante Digital


Learning disability or teaching disability?

Let’s work together to ensure that every child and young person is able to learn and develop in the way that works best for them.

Photo: [link]Aaron Burden[/link], Unsplash CC0.

Based on figures issued by UK Govt. in April 2023, approximately 1.5m people in England (and so by extrapolation 1.8m people in the UK) have a learning disability [1]

In 2019/20, 80,135 children in England with a statement of SEN or an Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan had a primary SEN associated with learning disability or difficulty [2]. Again, by extrapolating that figure across the UK we get to almost 100,000.

Oxford Languages/Google Dictionary describes learning disability as “a disability that affects the acquisition of knowledge and skills, in particular a neurodevelopmental condition affecting intellectual processes, educational attainment, and the acquisition of skills needed for independent living and social functioning.”

But, can we ask the question, where does that disability occur? Is it entirely within the person identified as having a learning disability, or can there be other ways in which people experience this kind of disability? 

Here’s what SCOPE, among many others, have to say about it:

The ’Medical Model’ of disability says people are disabled by their impairments or differences. The medical model looks at what is ‘wrong’ with the person, not what the person needs.

We believe it creates low expectations and leads to people losing independence, choice and control in their lives.

The ‘Social Model‘ of disability is a way of viewing the world developed by disabled people. The model says that people are disabled by barriers in society, not by their impairment or difference.

Barriers can be physical, like buildings not having accessible toilets. Or they can be caused by people’s attitudes to difference, like assuming disabled people can’t do certain things.

The social model helps us recognise barriers that make life harder for disabled people. Removing these barriers creates equality and offers disabled people more independence, choice and control.[3]

So, in the case of people identified as having a learning disability, if we apply the social model, is it possible that the cause of the disability is at least shared by, or even created by, the barriers that people experience?

In the context of children and young people, could it be that in some cases the “disability that affects the acquisition of knowledge and skills” is more a ‘teaching disability’ than a ‘learning disability’?

Mencap shared some helpful insight into the scale of some of the issues experienced by children and young people with Special Educational Needs (SEN) including those with a learning disability [4]:

  • According to a 2019 Department for Education survey (DfE, 2020), 22% of teachers did not feel they were able to meet the needs of SEN pupils.

  • Ofsted Parent View data showed that in 2019 nearly a third (29%) of parents of pupils with special educational needs and disabilities would not recommend their child’s secondary school to another parent. This was nearly double the rate for parents of pupils without SEN (15.2%; CSJ, 2021).

Looking at those statistics it is, however, easy to consider that these figures, stark though they are, will be under reported.

Teachers, many of whom do their very best in very challenging circumstances, will not always want to admit to being unable to meet the needs of their pupils, and some families may be fearful of rocking the boat and risking being seen as ‘troublemakers’.

Whether in a school, church, club, or other children’s and youth setting, if many of the 100,000 children and young people diagnosed with a learning disability aren’t getting the support they need, then the suggestion of this being, at least partly, a ‘teaching disability’ issue may be well founded.

So, what can we do about it? Well, a starting point would be better dialogue with families.

All too often, whether in the professional world of education, health, and care, or in the other places that children and young people are taught including church and clubs, the views of families, including the children and young people themselves, can be ignored or treated as less important than those of professionals.

This needs to change. Families are subject experts in their children, ‘professionals’ in how they are best supported to learn, have vast experience to draw on to help everyone understand how their child can be equipped to do well.

Secondly, we need to move towards a way of educating our children that is more tailored and individualised to the support and learning needs of each child, rather than expecting them to conform and be helped to ‘fit in’.

Removing barriers to learning rather than creating them. This goes beyond the often ‘cut and paste’ approach taken to EHCP’s (Education, Health, and Care Plans) by seeking much greater input from children and young people themselves and treating their input equally, or even above, the others involved.

The Disabled Children’s Partnership, of which I am a member, has provided this helpful guide: Education, Health and Care Plans: Examples of good practice.

Thirdly, we should seek the input of learning disabled adults who are ‘survivors’ of a challenging learning environment themselves. What can they tell us about their own difficult experiences of school, church, clubs, and other environments that can inform and challenge us all to bring about necessary changes for this and future generations of children and young people.

And of course, fourthly, this area needs proper funding. The increase to over £10bn in spending for 2023/24 is a move in the right direction and something to be welcomed in the recently published

Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) and Alternative Provision (AP) Plan, however there are still substantial spending gaps across the country that are radically impacting on the provision for children and young people:

Let’s work together to ensure that every child and young person is able to learn and develop in the way that works best for them. Let’s keep them at the centre of decision making and strategy building. Let their ‘voice’, the ones of their families, and the ones of learning disabled adults, be the ones given most credence.

Let’s fund this properly, and ensure that wherever we find ‘teaching disability’ we bring about constructive change. Let us all learn well together.

After all, every day is a school day…

Mark Arnold, Director of Additional Needs Ministry at Urban Saints. Arnold blogs at The Additional Needs Blogfather. This article was re-published with permission.



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