Lillian was the senior education officer in charge of the county's special needs department. One of the purposes of the educational psychology service was to advise her on the needs of individual children and what, if any, additional resources we believed would be required to meet them. The relationship worked well, not least because Lillian didn't complain when she got inconvenient or expensive advice, and we didn't go in the huff on the rare occasions she rejected it. Resources are not after all infinite.
Occasionally, where our advice was rejected, we could tighten it up to a point where it might change Lillian's mind. Otherwise in these circumstances, we and the schools and any other support services involved worked as best we could with whatever we had or could get.
On Fridays, we often met with Lillian in the local pub and had lunch together. She was good company, chatty and witty, and thrillingly indiscrete about the goings-on in the upper echelons of County Hall. Thus, for example, we found out which of the education department's senior managers had so much confidence in their endeavours that they sent their own children to private schools. But on this sunny spring Friday, as we sat around the long table in the pub's garden, Lillian was downcast and glum. Our boss, Roland, asked her what was up. 'I've been told not to tell you,' she said gloomily. 'It's a secret.' As one, we all craned forward to hear what it was.
The new director of education, Anthony, or Tone
, as he invited everyone to call him, had decided that too much money was being consumed by special needs. He believed, Lillian said by way of example, that educational psychology services were an expensive decoration of the kind that only rich societies could afford. They were like ballet dancers, the froth floating on the surface of the river of production, and their overnight disappearance would make little practical difference to anyone except themselves. They did nothing that could not be done by competent teachers for considerably smaller pay.
There was much bristling around the table. However, Lillian went on, that was not Tone's immediate priority. Instead, he was first going to target the non-teaching assistants, or NTAs, who had been appointed by Lillian, on our advice, to support individual children. He had calculated, or more likely just decided, that six of them would have to go.
Initially, it had been Tone's intention to instruct us to identify the six posts to be cut. Lillian advised him not to do that on the grounds that we had advised the posts in good faith and after much assessment. To instruct us now to unadvise them would be to require us to be dishonest. She added that such an instruction would in any case be declined. She was certainly right about that. It was a tense exchange, Lillian reported, involving tightened lips and words squeezed through clenched teeth. But Lillian prevailed and Tone decided he would visit each of the schools concerned and determine for himself which six NTA posts would be deleted.
Unusually, Roland, our boss, remained silent throughout Lillian's description of events. When she had gone, we anxiously pressed him for a view. He shrugged, 'We'll see,' he said, and advised us not to alert our schools to Tone's impending visits, or otherwise to coach them. It was, he added gnomically, a matter in which we would be wise to bear in mind something he called 'the doctrine of clean hands'.
In the event, there was never any need to alert the schools, for it took only the first of Tone's visits for the phones to be ringing in every school in the county. Consequently, at the next school he visited, and every school thereafter, he was confronted with teachers tooled-up with facts and figures, emotionally charged arguments and requests that he see for himself by spending some time in the classrooms where the children were taught and assisted by their NTAs. Some of the schools had even invited the parents of the children concerned to come in and meet Tone. No pressure went unapplied, and no screw was left unturned. The meaning of Roland's 'doctrine of clean hands' soon became clear.
Before moving into education officer-dom, Tone had spent five years as
a history teacher. He probably had the same amount of knowledge and understanding of special needs as any of us had of history teaching, that being pretty much none. Consequently, he had little insight into just how determined and skilled special needs teachers could be in their pursuit of their pupils' interests. Nor did he have much idea of the extensive nature of the needs of some of the children with whom they worked. According to the teachers we spoke to afterwards, he appeared shaken by some of the children he saw. Tone was easy meat for the teachers. And in the event, he cut none of the NTA posts, instead creating three additional ones.
But there was much more that Tone didn't know. All of the children to whom he'd appointed the new NTAs were already known to us and to the wide range of the county's other education support services. All had formal Statements of Need, the efficacy of their existing support consequently being formally monitored and reviewed and updated on a regular basis. In each case, NTA support had already been assessed as not only unnecessary but also as likely to create more difficulties and needs than it might have been intended to address. The teachers knew this too, and it was not long before the new NTAs had been redeployed to general duties around their schools. They were more likely to be found photocopying handouts than ministering to the needs of the children to whom they had nominally been appointed.
Tone was inclined to avoid special education after that. Instead, he focussed on other areas of education only to emerge from each sortie, according to Lillian, with similarly burnt fingers. He was gone altogether three years later, his burnished CV and its depiction of his reforming zeal no doubt contributing to his success in getting a government job in education. Other than to Tone himself, his departure made little difference to anyone.