Beware of negative ‘IONs’

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The title appears to be about science teaching but, don’t be fooled, it isn’t. This article takes a look at the fashions and soundbites that underpin policy and practice in relation to learners experiencing barriers to their participation and achievement in education. In the context of evidence informed practice in education, it might be important to take a historical view of trends in education so that appropriate evidence can be sought and evaluated in the context of a profession that understands and advances its role in society.

diagram of positive and negative ionsOne of the key challenges in education is to support teachers to enable those experiencing difficulties in or barriers to their learning. Over time, guidance has come and gone with governments and fashion, and policies have developed and changed.  With finite resources, it can be difficult for teachers to add additional teaching strategies and approaches to their repertoire that will make the difference for learners. There is general agreement that this is an important part of the teacher’s role and European and national requirements do expect fully qualified teachers to do their best in teaching all the learners in their class. Good teachers are skilled and experienced professionals with a set of teaching skills that are based on a profound understanding of how children learn and how classrooms can work. They also think deeply about the way the ideas that they have to teach are organised and could be learnt.

It is a truism that all children are different (in my first draft I mistyped this as ‘difficult’, a Freudian slip?) yet they have many things in common, not least, because they share a classroom, school and perhaps neighbourhood for at least some of the time. If the job of a teacher is get into the minds of children so that difficult ideas become easier to understand, then a knowledge of what the children in your class know or don’t know is important, if not central, to the task.

Policies in relation to children experiencing difficulty and/or disability have developed over the last thirty years through a set of exhortations or what we might now call ‘sound bites’ that have arisen from a set of reports, policies and guides.  These exhortations tend to take the form of nouns ending in ‘ion’.  If you put them in a line you can perhaps see the how they each build on the previous one and they, perhaps, demonstrate to some eyes, the progress that has been made in this contested area of education.

About IONs

Each has a positive contribution to make in response to a previous policy, e.g.

Segregation – integration – differentiation – inclusion – personalisation

There may have been other IONs on the way but you will appreciate that an ‘ION’ is a new zeitgeist that rejects some aspects of a prior zeitgeist and creates new challenges for teaching. It may appear as being progress but, frequently, something is lost alongside what is gained amongst the general exhortations and sound bites.

IONs are often reactions and they are not always evidence-informed as much as a basket of approaches and policies. If we need an acronym, then they are ‘Indicators of Notions’ – broad brushes rather than targeted policy based on articulated principles and well established reviews of bespoke evidence.

The first ION I want to consider stems from the 1944 education act in Britain and its consequent legislation which meant that 2% of children with disabilities or difficulties in learning were frequently educated in one of a number of special schools where  ‘provision is made for pupils who suffer from any disability of mind or body by providing, either in special schools or otherwise, special educational treatment, that is to say, education by special methods appropriate for persons suffering from that disability’. This created schools for those with severe learning difficulties, moderate learning difficulties, blind, hearing impaired or deaf, physical disabilities and the maladjusted (emotional and/or behavioural difficulties) and those for the delicate.  Originally, the schools designated for what is now termed ‘severe learning difficulties’ were part of the health service rather than education and, as the children who attended them, were deemed ‘uneducable’. We have to thank psychology and the work of Jack Tizard in particular (1971) then Ron Gulliford and many others who showed that ‘no child was uneducable’ and, therefore, brought pressure for these institutions to become schools that were included as part of the education service.


With this range of special schools, placement was the domain of Doctors and a largely a medical matter.  In the beautiful Yorkshire valley of Wharfedale, there was a ‘School for the Delicate’.  My parents drove by it once when I was a child. Because of asthma and the damp Pennine Valley air, I had poor attendance at school which was noticed. It was suggested to my parents that I should go to that school. I remember noticing that the classrooms had walls that were let down to expose the children to the benefits of elements. My family’s GP advised my parents against sending me there as he said in his Scottish accent that ‘it would make him into an idiot’.  The term idiot was a relic from earlier eugenic based assessments of intellectual functioning along with ‘imbecile’ and ‘moron’ and they each denoted a specific IQ range. I am not certain if this particular Doctor was using the term in such a precise way at that time.

Allocation to special schools was a process of segregation and, as civil rights movements developed a voice and gained some power, systems that marginalised people and limited their opportunities came under scrutiny and criticism so that integration became a policy option encouraging the access to and participation in the common resources of society.

In England in 1978, the labelling and segregation of children experiencing difficulties in learning or barriers to learning due to disability or impairment was not wholly dispensed with by Mary Warnock’s report that largely created the term ‘special educational needs’. The term representing conceptual shift from a within child deficit view to an environmental and contextual view that accepted that  factors beyond the child could be relevant  There would still be special schools for some of the 2% whose needs required specialist teaching and resources described in a statement of special educational needs and where placement in a mainstream school was deemed to be incompatible with the criteria listed below. Others also requiring a statement could be educated in the mainstream (local authority primary and secondary schools) providing that;

  • it was regarded as an efficient use of resources,
  • the child’s needs would be met and
  • that the needs of other children would not be compromised.

There would be the ‘protection of statement’ which specified what was required to support a child whose multidisciplinary needs assessment warranted such. Integration was to be encouraged within the provisos already given because the Warnock report had found that up to 20% of children at some point in their career might have a difficulty in learning which called for additional provision to be made. This became part of the 1981 education act. Integration had opened the door for some children provided that they had the capacity to cope with what was on the other side of the door.


Integration was about access and the physical presence of the learner in a school with their peers. There was a dawning realisation that this had implications for all schools and all teachers as every teacher could have a child with special educational needs in their classroom. One of the unintended consequences of the Warnock report was the closing down of many specialised training courses for teachers of children experiencing barriers or difficulties in their education just at the time when the mainstream courses could have used the expertise of the lecturers on these courses.  In retrospect, one might query if Warnock’s heart was  really in this report?

One positive development was the OTIS (One Term In-service, 1983-89) courses for serving teachers who would create the Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator role in schools. This gave identified teachers a term away from the classroom. This may startle SENCos who have recently taken the statutory SENCO qualification where they have much less time to get to grips with the role.


Integration was based on the child being ‘able to cope’ with mainstream and some special schools would make decisions about transfer to mainstream (and still do) on this basis and, in some cases, would train the child with skills to ‘get by’. Proponents of inclusion turned readiness criteria on its head and proposed ‘inclusive schools’ that were welcoming to all children unconditionally (eg The Fish Report,1985). The role of the school was educational, so that, a school as a totality could learn to respond to the needs of all its children. Whilst integration was about getting through the door, inclusion was concerned with maximum participation and becoming part of the whole school community. Quite a challenge. Some schools embraced it wholeheartedly but others either did not have the will or the commitment to engage with inclusion.  Some would argue that lack of resources was and is a factor but advocates (eg Ainscow,1999) frequently stated that schools most often have the resources they need to include all the children from the local community. A Code of Practice on Special Educational Needs was introduced in 1994 and then revised in an attempt to ensure that mainstream schools addressed these issues at class and whole school level and at the time of writing a new code for schools is on its way..

We now consider more recent IONs:


Contemporaneous to inclusion another ‘ION’ was growing in influence. Differentiation arose from the introduction of the 1988 National Curriculum which stated that all learners had an entitlement to a curriculum that was broad, balanced and relevant. The first programmes of study, however, neglected the achievements of those experiencing significant difficulties in learning.  There were, for example,  no descriptions of learning prior to level one so that teachers had to use the term ‘working towards’ which was a fuzzy compromise at the very least.

Differentiation provided a tool to focus on the range of achievements in a classroom and provide appropriate teaching and learning activities as suggested in revised National Curriculum Guidance. The problem of differentiation was that the term was a victim of its own recursive definition. It came to mean many different things to many different people. Sometimes it was a three activity solution to the spread of achievement in a class: something each for higher, middle and lower attainers perhaps based on approximations, expectations and stereotypes rather than evidence gained of what children might achieve give the appropriate challenge and support. At its best, though, differentiation has enriched mixed ability teaching as it can be argued that all class teaching is mixed ability. It still has the potential to provide a variety of flexible pupil groupings and ways of learning that have meaning to the learner. P scales and the Early Years Foundation Stage are examples of these developments. Differentiation tended to have a focus at the level of the classroom and be the responsibility of the classroom teacher perhaps under-emphasising the active role of the learner. This ‘ION’ needed a makeover and the ‘New Labour’ government provided it by doing some shopping in the States.


Personalisation was a US import to such a degree that some of the UK books written about it used the Webster ‘z’ rather than the OED ‘s’. Personalisation built upon the notion of educational choice rather than entitlement. Analogies were made to a supermarket where the customer would be affronted if made to stand at the entrance and have their basket filled for them by a member of staff who decided what they could have rather than letting them choose from what’s on offer.  Personalisation was differentiated from the idea of individualisation, where a bespoke educational offer is made for every child. Individualisation was held to be impractical. Instead, education opportunities available from the school and wider community should form options to be chosen from an educational shopping list. Whilst this commoditised analogy might not sit comfortably with some and the original proponents failed to take the analogy to its logical conclusion, it is worth considering further if only to lead to the final ‘ION’. English social and educational policy has provided a range of personalisation opportunities by creating a variety of schools and community resources for informal education but to continue the supermarket analogy, we do not have one local supermarket where we all go to select what we need or want. We have several supermarkets or grocery shops in most areas and some are regarded as being better or worse than others. Our choice is dictated by our ability to travel and the money we can marshal.  For many that means no choice. Personalisation diverts attention away from entitlement and equity of opportunity because it has an emphasis on commoditisation and the appearance of choice.

A new ion – precaretisatION

Precaretisation is a negative ‘ion’ as it is conceived as a critique of current policies that diminish the quality of services and the working conditions of those providing them along with their professional status. Their impact on education can mean that the most vulnerable children are taught by the least qualified educational staff in the poorest conditions e.g. Teaching Assistants although there were also Higher Level Teaching Assistants with more specialised training. Many teachers support creativity in education which can be seen as a code for teacher agency. It is easier to be creative as a teacher if you have the status and resources available to create a wide range of learning opportunities. Precaretisation in education impoverishes the creativity of teachers.

Moving beyond the ‘ionosphere’

You may want to ask me “What are you in favour of if you do not accept the latest ‘ION’?” I think I am for teachers’ criticality and their use of evidence to challenge their practice and that of others in order to make changes.  This is not to be taken as an endorsement of Schon’s reflective practice where “I know best because that is what I know’”. We need to refresh our knowledge with evidence.  Evidence may come from our classroom , maybe the classroom next door or a school down the road or a school in Las Tunas, Cuba that we were lucky enough to visit or read about. Evidence about schools and classrooms is also present in research reports that are not often read because they are not published in ways or places that are easy to access. This is changing.  All this evidence can help teachers to consider what and why they do things and then look at the consequent implications for learning in the short and longer term. The latter can sometimes get lost in the business of day to day teaching and learning.

What can teachers do?

Make a checklist – what is important for you, your school and most importantly the children that you teach that enables the children who experience the most difficulties to make progress. Then check it out. Engage with the evidence and the debates about which evidence counts.

There is a gradual move from the exhortations embodied in ‘ION’ initiatives towards an approach that acknowledges the role of the teacher as an evidence informed practitioner. Good sources of evidence that are relevant to the places that teachers work in are important,  so is the creativity and resourcefulness of teachers when they critically consider the implications of that evidence for their work.

Teachers are less isolated than they ever were from the rest of the profession. There are now many ways for teachers to share their experience to solve the challenges they face. The codes of practice, 1st and 2nd Laming Reports and the Common Assessment Framework on special educational needs all focused on a pre-internet method of sharing information and problem solving that was highly dependent upon what the school that the teacher worked in had to offer. There was also, perhaps, some support from what was left of the local authority.  This is no longer the case as there are many avenues to advice and support – the difficulty is locating the credible ones that have something useful to say and that is a whole new topic.


Ainscow, M. (1999) Understanding the Development of Inclusive Schools London Routledge Falmer

DFE (2013) Indicative Draft: The (0-25) Special Educational Needs Code of Practice
London DFE

ILEA (1984) Inclusive Schools The Fish Report London Inner London Education Authority

National Curriculum Council (1989) A Curriculum for All: Special Educational Needs in the National Curriculum
York NCC

Tizzard, J. (1971) White Paper, Better Services for the Mentally Handicapped.
London HMSO

Warnock, M (1978) Special Educational Needs: The Warnock Report
London HMSO

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One Response to Beware of negative ‘IONs’

  1. Dan Port Tuesday, 8 October 2013 at 21:04 #

    I really enjoyed reading this article, particularly about the differentiatION. I played it safe for my first three or four years of teaching by having clear groups for English and maths and went from naming them as shapes to mythical creatures. I realised that this presents no challenge to the children and often the ones that need a challenge are working in the ‘same’ group. They almost became robotic. Now myself and the teacher who I share year 6 responsibilities with, try to mix it up differentiation as much as possible. The children always respond well and it takes away the stigma of being the ‘bottom group’. Flexible grouping is the way forward!