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FORBES: "What is Wrong With Our Schools"; "neurodivergent" kids ignored

Sept 3, 2023, Forbes: DIVERSITY, EQUITY & INCLUSION What Is Wrong With Our Schools?

We’re seeing some shocking statistics about persistent absence from schools across the United Kingdom, since the pandemic. The Guardian reported that persistent absence (defined as missing 10% of lessons) has doubled from 8% at primary and 13.7% of secondary school children to 17% and 28% respectively in the most recent year. The National Union of Head Teachers have found that this is more to likely to affect children eligible for school meals, with special educational needs and those from racially/ethnically minoritized backgrounds. Times Educational Supplement magazine reported that neurodivergent and disabled children are missing twice as much school as those who are neurotypical and abled. Yet only 53.5% of secondary and a scant 26.6% of primary schools have access to mental health support. We keep asking what is wrong with our kids, but no one seems to be asking what is wrong with our schools.

How Did We Get Here?

Mainstream education was invented in the industrial revolution, to prepare workers for the modern age. We needed a population that was literate, numerate, able to sit still and concentrate for hours at a time, performing fine motor control in loud, busy environments.

Those who couldn’t cope with these newly vaunted skills were labelled dyslexic, dyscalculic, ADHD, dyspraxic and/or autistic respectively. School has always been a stretch for some children, and we’ve experimented with segregating them in special school, scaffolding them into mainstream and everything in between. The current landscape, however, is one with insufficient provision of specialist schools AND insufficient scaffolding in mainstream. The kids are not okay, because the schools are not okay. We’re directing our ire at parents, judging them against standards that relate to “in our day”, when the actual experience of schooling is vastly different to the 80s, 90s, 2000s and before.

Twenty-First Century Schools

Today’s education has become heavily policed. Schools are graded and funded on attendance targets that represent broad brush statistical correlations between time spent and learning achieved. These policy decisions made on numerical population averages in well-meaning attempts to ensure “No Child Left Behind”, but they allow no nuances for those who cannot attend full time (or at all) for valid reasons of ill health, disability and mental distress.

Standardized learning is not fun. It is rote, exam heavy and coursework light, reducing flexibility for creative learning styles – the very opposite of what the World Economic Forum deem important skills for the future of work.

Behavioural control protocols do not account for the exponential rise in online bullying, which means that there is no respite from playground politics in the evening or at weekends, it’s all on Snapchat and TikTok throughout the night. No wonder the kids are distressed. The overarching message is to suppress your anxieties, face up, front up and perform compliance, no matter the emotional cost. This continues until a child breaks down, and then the parents are left swimming in a sea of despair, with no choice but to rebel, to save their children.

Marsha Martin, CEO of support group Black SEN Mamas, provides insight into the compounded adverse impact of this situation on Black and other families marginalized by race and ethnicity.

“Lack of insight on neurodivergence and cultural nuances, means that teachers will consistently fail to understand that what they are seeing as a "fully capable" child, just being "lazy", not applying themselves, being disruptive, not engaging, is really just a front row seat, to a show of how well Black children are able to engage in masking, for the purpose of fitting in at school. This is because masking as a tool of safety, for the purpose assimilation in largely non-Black environments, is a large part of the socialisation process for Black children.

It's very much subconscious at school age and so subconsciously adding one more layer of masking, when presenting as obviously neurodivergent becomes too much of a challenge (at school, but also in the Black household), comes relatively easy, for Black children. Teachers that think our neurodivergent children are "just fine", are actually just relaying how well our children mask, at school.

The child is given labels and punitive measures are taken. That classroom has now become a hostile environment, to an already anxious child, who struggles due to lack of support. Consequently, schools aren't truly conducive to learning and so for all intents purposes, are a pointless place to be, as well as mentally and emotionally taxing- especially in the eyes of the child.”…

The Impact To The Workforce

The social, health and economic cost of modern education failure is grave. Parents, more often than not mothers, are lost from the workforce as they are forced to stay home, isolated and fearful, with their isolated and fearful children. Children are growing up without friends or the ability to play. The very future workforce we need are ostracised and will arrive into adulthood with trauma and insufficient career agency for the portfolio job patterns required. In her outstanding chapter in the book “Mental Health and Attendance at School”, Emma Dalrymple explains the realities of educational gaslighting. Faced with professionals who bought into the idea that all children are best served in fulltime school, she reports needing to frequently pose two questions….

There are few institutions in modern society where the consequence of non-compliance is restriction of freedom and isolation units: schools have more in common with prisons. You can get fired from a job for not performing, but it is not legal to detain you. Even the high pressure, high stakes industries of finance and construction understand the long term benefits of investing in the health of their staff for performance rather than punishment. What we're seeing in schools could represent neglect on a generational scale. And we’re not going to solve the problem by asking the wrong questions. Alexander Den Heijer said: “When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.” It's time for some bolder thinking about the world in which our children will enter as adults, and how schools can best prepare them. And we shouldn’t be surprised that our children are not currently blooming; their schools are literally falling down. Nancy Doyle I am the Founder of Genius Within, a company specializing in neurodiversity and disability inclusion at work. We deliver coaching, training, assessment and universal design audits as well as systemic inclusion for whole company inclusion programs


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