Experts, Evidence and Ordinary People

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some points be satiated; but those who torment us for their own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to heaven yet at the same time likely to make a hell of earth. This very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be “cured” against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on the level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals. (C S Lewis)

A government expert in a problem is someone who is paid to address that problem. Because he is not paid by his clients, but by the government, he has no incentive to fix the problem. On the contrary, he has a strong incentive to increase it. The greater the problem, the higher his professional prestige. He builds an empire on the misery of others. And he does so with a perfectly clear conscience, even with a sense of moral superiority, as he patiently tries to enlighten the masses about all the things for which they need his expert help.

This logic clearly applies to the special needs industry. State schools receive more funding based on how many special needs pupils they have. Managers also have to tick boxes on ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’. So really, there had better be some special needs. Let’s go find ‘em.

The system is riddled with perverse incentives. But there’s another thing which keeps the army of special needs experts ever growing: the cult of evidence. By evidence, the experts mean large scale research projects, funded by the government, or sometimes by pharmaceutical companies with drugs to sell. These projects will be guided by . . . the experts. And these projects will find lots more problems that the experts need to fix.

Faced with this juggernaut, what is the ordinary person, the parent or classroom teacher, to do? Unless he is a multimillionaire, he can’t fund alternative research. So he must either submit to the experts, or stubbornly hold out, using his own reason and observation. If he does the latter, of course he will be accused of being unscientific, which is one of the mortal sins of the religion of the expert. Either that or he will be labelled uncaring, another mortal sin, this time anathema to the other side of our schizophrenic culture, the side which holds emotion to be decisive in all situations.

The stubborn ordinary person, accused on the one hand of coldness, on the other of unreason, has a battle on his hands which he can never really win. He can’t change national policy, but he can try to defend those in his care from its worst consequences. If he is a parent, he can refuse to allow his son to be hooked on addictive drugs to sort out his ‘hyperactivity’. If he is a teacher, he can do his best to frustrate the designs of the well meaning vultures who hang around every child not making ‘expected progress’, ready to inflict a thousand theories upon them and create permanent learned helplessness. As a son, he can keep his elderly parents out of the hands of the experts who want to solve their ‘quality of life’ issues by ‘helping’ them to die painlessly.

An expert advised my mother to abort me. Perhaps that’s why I keep fighting against the self-serving experts, in an attempt to keep the ordinary, messy, painful business of human life going, not crushed by their pills, needles and intervention strategies.

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10 thoughts on “Experts, Evidence and Ordinary People

  1. Blimey.

    The parent who refuses the drugs may simply be contributing to a miserable existence for the child, the teachers,friends and family of the child. Have you any idea what % of parents recommended the drugs accept/refuse.in a fee from ideal world maybe it the best solution currently.

    Your own situation is one I will give great thought to while not discussing here.

    Thought provoking post.

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  2. Interesting, thanks. I’ve got a comment and a follow-up question.

    My two kids are disabled. Most people would say they are severely disabled. As a consequence of their disability, they have special educational needs. Their SEN have to be met. I don’t want a cure for their disability – the nature of the disability makes that impossible in the present, and there are massive ethical issues that come into play if anyone tried. Their disability is part of them; hard-wired into their being, and their sense of identity and self-worth.

    What I do want for my kids, however, is a quality education. And as it happens, what they need in order to have their SEN met is the sort of education that appeals to me and, I suspect, very much appeals to you: highly traditional direct instruction, in conditions of near-absolute classroom order and quiet, led by a teacher with not just academic expertise, but also the refined pedagogical training needed to transmit powerful knowledge.

    This is the point, I think, where I part company with your analysis. The ‘special needs industry’ was not falling over itself to provide this education for my kids. In fact, the exact opposite was true.

    That’s not because this industry was ideologically opposed to traditional teaching. It was because the people making decisions about SEN provision were driven by one imperative, and one imperative only – to reduce spending. That’s what drove their decisions – unlawful decisions, as it happens, and I had to take them to Tribunal to prove it.

    There was no simplistic self-licking ice-cream in play here – no airy diagnosis by charlatans, inventing bogus special needs to excuse non-existent barriers to learning. The incentives worked in a diametrically opposite fashion to the way you suggest. And my experience is not isolated – you simply have to look at the statistical releases for the SENDIST First Tier Tribunal to corroborate that.

    The incentives at school level have changed too – dramatically so in the last three years. Since 2013, schools only get money to meet special needs in a very notional sense; they have to cough up the initial spending. There is simply no clear incentive any more for schools to over-diagnose SEN in order to get more funding. And since 2010, Ofsted have taken a dim view of schools that try this on.

    I have no doubt at all that some schools have used SEN to justify low expectations and inappropriate teaching. I don’t doubt that some still do so now. But the incentives that apply to SEN identification and provision at school and local authority level now work very differently.

    There is a ‘special needs industry’ out there. And I would gladly see it nuked from orbit. But I think it marches to a different tune to the one you’re humming here.

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    • “That’s not because this industry was ideologically opposed to traditional teaching. It was because the people making decisions about SEN provision were driven by one imperative, and one imperative only – to reduce spending.”
      I agree that money has something to do with it. But have you considered that, prior to the Plowden Report in the 1960s, many schools were offering an education very similar to what you describe? I strongly suspect that a number of children now labelled SEN were able to cope reasonably well with the pre-Plowden system, where they would have had their own separate desk facing the front, and a reasonably quiet environment, along with clear expectations and direct, explicit teaching. There are many, many educationalists and primary teachers these day who would describe that kind of education as tantamount to child abuse. People in the SEN industry have experienced the same level of progressive indoctrination and peer pressure; why should they not share those views?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. OK, here’s my follow-up question:

    You’ve indicated that, in at least some cases, SEN is diagnosed inappropriately or incorrectly by self-appointed experts whose primary rationale is resource or expertise-driven empire-building.

    Are there particular types of so-called SEN that you believe don’t exist at all? If not, are there particular types of SEN where you believe that recommended provision is inappropriate at best, or actively harmful at worst?

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      • You diagnose the same problem as Ken Robinson, but prescribe the opposite pedagogical solution. You also seem to give parents a pass in the same way he does, assuming they all want and do the best for their children. Is it any use continuing to offer educational philosophies as alternative medicine to a problem that doesn’t start or end at school, one that is cultural?

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      • There is no pedagogical solution. There is only a philosophical solution. This applies to parents as much as teachers. Without any roots in tradition, we are vulnerable to manipulation by the empire building experts. Ken Robinson is one of those empire builders. His drug is different, but it’s still an escape from reality.

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Thoughtful and reasonable discussion is always welcome.

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