Meet Ashleigh Ritchie, my heroine. Tracy in my play, Death of a Nightingale, inspired by her.

And Introducing you to her website: Ritch-Ability – COMES IN ALL SHAPES AND SIZES

It’s now nearly twenty years since I was chair of governors of Barbara Priestman School, a special school for children with a physical disability and learning difficulties.  I still can’t get SEN out of my system and my anger at those zealots who thought that what was right for them should be right for all children with special needs and they should have an equal human right to it.

These zealots were often concerned with just one special need, their own, but one of very many, or they were ideologues preferring dogma to the reality of the world of education populated by some not up to the challenge, not easy, or just plain cruel, bullies.

To them segregation in a special school was wrong, disadvantageous, a ghetto as I recall it being called, as they tried to stigmatise them.

They just never understood that size seven shoes are fine for size seven feet, uncomfortable for size nine and absolutely impossible for size five.

I remind you that in a meeting of parents called by Sunderland LEA to argue the closure of their school, every parent present voted against it. And when the LEA pressed on regardless they secured over 10,000 reasoned objections to closure signed by BPS’s friends and admirers. Not entirely surprising that Charles Clarke, the Minister of Education at the time, rejected the closure.

But better still, meet Ashleigh Ritchie today, age 38, living on her own in a housing association bungalow she helped to design. I finally caught up with her last week along with Graham who she plans to marry later in the year. He has designed a website for her – Ritch-Ability  COMES IN ALL SHAPES AND SIZES –  so you can meet her there yourself. You should. You would learn a lot about disability and triumphing over it, about giving as well as demanding, about not feeling sorry for yourself. Read her profile in Linkedin. Never mind the X Factor. This is the stuff of the WOW Factor.

Meeting her brought the memories flooding back, and not just for me, for Ros, my wife, who found the time every week for many years to go to BPS to help her reading. For me I recalled Ashleigh helping to front the parents’ successful campaign to keep the school open. Meanwhile over 100 special schools, some very good ones, were closed by those with a terrible combination of myopia and tunnel vision. In one word, blinkered. It is a recipe for mediocrity when diversity, the dignity of difference, ambition and the pursuit of excellence all give way to equality in educational matters when fair play for all should be the guiding spirit. Visit Ashleigh!

I take the Times Educational Supplement every week. Most weeks I see examples of this. Only last week “Closing the attainment gap. Efforts to close the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their wealthier peers appears to be having minimal impact” And, in the article, this “If you go into most English primary schools, you will see an adult standing around or sitting next to a child with special educational needs. What are they doing? Often, not very much. The cost of that adult is substantial.”

Visit my website and listen to my video. The Fly in the Ointment – If you can’t see it you can swat it.  I won’t spend time here explaining how this disaster happened and is still unacknowledged by the educational establishment.

At last a use for my early Latin! I came across a little discovery only a couple of weeks ago. I had occasion to use the Latin tag Errare humanum est – to err is human, in an email to someone who didn’t want to acknowledge it. I discovered that it came from the Roman statesman Seneca the Younger. It was just half of the tag. The second half perseverare autem diabolicum. The full tag to err is human, to persevere however is of the devil.”  It is, and not just with special educational needs as my writing sadly evidences. I prefer the literal translation “to persevere is diabolical.”

But let’s get back to Ashleigh. She is what she is today because of people like the late Fredwyn Haynes, head teacher of BPS who thought that children with SEN could do anything given the time that mainstream schools could not provide, Ros Mearns, the inspiring music teacher. Pod, who taught English. Marie Antcliffe – I remember her teaching how to bake tarts My friend to this day, Jane Fraser, who went on to head another good special school that survived the cull, Cedars School in Gateshead. Also, the physio’s and the school nurses.

I have a special memory of Presentation Days when everyone seemed to be achieving something. And there were little cameo scenes. I remember one playlet where Ashleigh, playing the part of a headmistress in the play, hit Fredwyn over the head quite savagely with a rolled-up newspaper. I remember when I saw her acting in the local Royalty theatre too. But it was no acting when she joined parents on a trip to London to lobby David Blunkett and the Department for Education.

Inclusionists demand parity of esteem. They breach the Tenth Commandment “Thou shalt not covet.” Self-esteem is what it is about. That was BPS’s gift to Ashleigh and the other pupils there.

But Ashleigh will always mean something even more to me. I was so annoyed at the time by the politics of Inclusion that I wrote the play Death of a Nightingale and staged it for a month in the New End Theatre in Hampstead in London. That’s another story. I tried to capture the mood, the soul, and the spirit of BPS in Brighouse School. Why the name Brighouse? My little joke. Sir Timothy Robert Peter Brighouse was a prime inclusionist. I suspect he never saw it.

Ashleigh was the role model for Tracy, who was beautifully portrayed in the play by Samantha Dorrance from a wheel chair. Max Lewis, by the way, with Down’s Syndrome, who had acted along with Kate Blanchett in Notes on a Scandal somehow encapsulated the cheery, and at times cheeky determination of many others I met along the way.

Understand the arm- twisting, the chicanery, the cover-up, the duplicity, visit the play. Understand also the special gifts a good special school can provide.

One thing though, Tracy’s last words in the play are not Ashleigh’s, they are mine. “Can I leave you with a really naughty thought to take home with you. There are some little creatures that build and defend their own nests, but they cannot move on and they cannot do anything else. That’s what they do. They build and defend their own nests. That’s all they do. That’s all they’ve ever done. That’s all they ever do. There’s a name for them. “Termites”, yes “Termites”. If there are any of them here tonight, let them go to their beds and sleep peacefully … if they can. Y’see I am not just going to blow away in the wind. Good night.”








Everyone must climb their own ladder – The State’s ladders go only half of the way up

New Year Resolution. Reward ambition, pursue excellence and abhor mediocrity It’s not enough just to be concerned for the disadvantaged. Other people matter too.

The Media Report the News, but do they miss the Big Story? 101 cyclists killed last year, 18,220 seriously injured. Don’t just blame drivers.

 ‘We’re careful, say drivers who speed and jump traffic lights.’

The headline for the news report in The Times on 19th November 2018 came above the results of a survey by the charity Cycling UK that found that ‘cyclists and motorcyclists were 63 times more likely to be killed or seriously injured than car drivers.  On 22 November we find this ‘Some 18,220 cyclists were injured on the road last year, with 101 being killed.’

The report on 19 November said “Nine out of ten drivers described themselves as “careful and competent”, although 58 per cent admitted to going through amber traffic lights as they turn red. More than half (52 per cent) admitted ignoring 20mph speed limits and 57 per cent said they do the same for 30mph roads.”

But does that mean that drivers are to blame?

Another headline that caught my eye was: – ‘Councils blow £100m in special needs battle.’ Councils have spent about £100million fighting parents seeking support for their disabled children in tribunals, yet the authorities lost nine in ten appeals. This was followed by: ‘The figure of £100million was calculated by the Special Needs Jungle website, using data from the Department for Education and Ministry of Justice for 2014 to this year. There were 4,725 appeals in 2016-17.’

The Times Leader headline was: ‘School Bullies – Local councils are erroneously withholding help from special needs children.’ The closing paragraph – ‘This decision is costly, both in terms of the legal fees councils are now paying, and the problems they are pushing into the future. More importantly, it is immoral. Children with special needs do not deserve punishment. Councils should rethink their priorities.’

Is this all due to austerity and cuts?

But let’s get back to ‘cyclists and motorcyclists were 63 times more likely to be killed or seriously injured than car drivers.’ Blood on the roads, and much work for a cash strapped NHS and its A & E units that they could well do without.

What does this tell us? Simply that urban cycling in the UK is highly dangerous. The mothers who don’t let their kids cycle to school are right. Sunderland is much wiser than Newcastle. As I drive past my old school on Humbledon Hill to my weekly Rotary meeting, there is no cycle lane where once I cycled. Gateshead is wiser too. Outside the Sage, the International home for music and music discovery enjoyed by thousands, there are no cycle stands. The access roads there are too narrow and hilly to accommodate cyclists, let alone a cycle lane.

OK, try and make cycling a bit safer if you can, but the unguarded moment – for anyone, cyclists as well – can be fatal. The millions of pounds spent on 20 mph signs to make roads safer for cyclists hasn’t even scratched the surface of the problem.

So, what of the response from the Department of Transport today? A two-year action plan to make cycling and walking the ‘natural choices’ for all short journeys by 2040, which encourages the reporting of anti-social driving but not anti-social cycling. They advocate penalties for drivers if they don’t keep their distance when overtaking cyclists, but what about cyclists overtaking motorists, and damaging wing mirrors?  And there is no mention of compulsory insurance for cyclists.

They are stuck with the Infrastructure Act 2015, with the government’s ‘Cycling and walking investment strategy’ for England. ‘This is the first of a series of shorter term, 5-year strategies to support the long-term ambition to make walking and cycling the natural choice for shorter journeys by 2040.’ 

The root cause is never addressed, letting cyclists think that they have an equal right with other road users to drive on a narrow, busy, congested urban UK roads and, for everyone else, a responsibility to ensure their safety; claiming at the same time, that it is healthy to breath in toxic fumes from slow moving traffic.

Promoting it on busy urban streets is totally misguided, trying to make it safe is a futile hope. For all those who have been killed or seriously injured their ‘human right’ has been a curse not a blessing.

That is why I tell the story of the proposed cycle lane for Gosforth High Street in Newcastle. This is where it started for me. A black line on a map!


The cycling lobby, Sustrans, hired by Newcastle City Council to bid for the money to pay for cycle lanes draws a straight black line to show where they will go. That was the easy bit. They totally ignored the road conditions, their narrowness, the bus lanes, bus stops, pedestrian crossings, roundabouts and road junctions, and congestion. So, we end up with non-continuous cycle lanes, like bits of spaghetti on the landscape, and the charade of pre-determined consultation.  Sustrans, as a cycle lobby is totally over the top, but as a road planner totally useless.  The coming autonomous, electric car is not even in their line of vision.

Likewise, giving the right of children with special needs to go to mainstream schools and closing 100 special schools was a curse and not a blessing. That the number of prescriptions of Ritalin for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) has increased from 700,000 to 1.5million in a decade is a sobering fact.

This story has been on my website for over ten years. The Times Educational Supplement reported the rehearsed reading of my play Death of a Nightingale at the New End Theatre in London but when they realised that it was all about the closure of special schools, became silent. Meanwhile the Stage Magazine chose a Trot to review it, using acid not ink.

This is the story the media has missed since the 1980’s and ’90’s.

It is the story of dashed hopes: the hope that a civilised State will provide for children with Special Educational Needs under the umbrella of individual mainstream schools. The hope that it will enable you to cycle safely wherever you want to go. The hope that by giving you the right to these things, they will all happen.

They never see the multiplicity of special educational needs – never see the multiplicity of road users and the variety of road conditions. They never see the impracticability of their dreams.

Meanwhile, they denigrate the dignity of difference, while hailing ‘diversity’ and the ‘pursuit of excellence’ – both at times totally incompatible with equality.

But the really big story is more than that.

For some people the word impracticability does not exist; for lawmakers it is supremely irrelevant. The word impracticability is not in their vocabulary. They borrow, print or steal the money. And the latest wheeze? Quantative easing – so nothing is impossible. They mean well, but create absolutely nothing, only hopes and rights.


Please share with your colleagues and friends.