I once, as an experiment, removed each vulnerable subgroup of students, group by group, from a list of every student in the school. Special Educational Needs and Disability, New to English/English as an Additional Language, Looked After Children, Pupil Premium and Able, Gifted and Talented… and, in the end, I was left with a list of around 20 children – around 6% of our student population at the time – and I made three main observations from my findings:
- The umbrella term ‘vulnerable’ actually covers the vast, vast majority of students for one reason or another.
- With no ring-fenced money, designated co-ordinator, dedicated provision or column on the data spreadsheet, these 20 students were themselves pretty vulnerable.
- The 20 children did not form an obviously connected cohort. They represented a broad range of abilities, attendance figures, behaviours and personalities. In fact, it was a right motley little gang.
My point is this; all children, by their very nature, are vulnerable. Some, of course, are more resilient than others… but that doesn’t mean that they’re resilient. They are vulnerable simply because they are children. The reality of using subgroups to identify vulnerabilities is that it helps with planning and organising but, actually, no grouping represents a homogenous selection of children. What’s more, children rarely fitly neatly into just one of these categories; they are complicated as well as vulnerable. Add to this mix the fallouts, confidence crisis’s, hormones, home hiccups, snow days and windy days, exhausted final weeks of term and out of practice first weeks back… and ‘vulnerable’ suddenly doesn’t seem to cut it as a category at all. The students we teach are children in our care and children are vulnerable. Full stop.
The opposite of vulnerability – resilience – is also a quality that all students possess, albeit in different measure and form. If it were so simple as ‘not vulnerable = resilient’ I would have very few resilient children!!! If it were so simple as ‘higher attaining = more resilient’ I wouldn’t spend so much of my time supporting the socio-emotional needs of my most able students. Furthermore, both of these oversimplifications rob our most vulnerable learners of the recognition they truly deserve. School can be bloody hard for any kid; imagine the resilience, determination and grit you would need to tackle it with a disability, medical need, little grasp of the language, a problem in your home life… sometimes I think our most vulnerable learners are really our strongest. And anyone can go through a rough patch.
Managing the unique, finely balanced, and ever changing relationship between vulnerability and resilience that exists within each of our students is part of the skill of being a teacher, and the aspect of the role it impacts on most significantly is our role as managers of behaviour. High expectations, a strong behaviour management policy, and clarity and rigour of approach are, I think, fairly universal – at least in intention – across the education landscape. As is, I’m sure, the genuine desire to provide a truly inclusive education that is appropriate and fair for students with additional needs and/or vulnerabilities of any kind. But how is this achieved without either lowering our standards for some or having expectations that are out of reach for others? How do we achieve a behaviour management approach that demands the best from our students whilst being fair as well?
One of the issues, I think, is that some aspects of our approach increase with the ability of the students whilst other aspects decrease. Our expectation of their progress, their independence, and their aspirations, for example, tend to increase… but our personalisation, individualisation, and nurture all seem to decrease. But really, the high expectations challenge and academic rigour/quality we have for our most able and (perceived) resilient students should be the entitlement of all of our students. There are no students for whom a disability, additional need, or factor in their home life or background, should cause us to offer them a lesser quality or limited version of their entitlement to an education. There are no students for whom lower expectations are enough. And, furthermore, the level of nurture and care, support, individualisation/personalisation and consideration we offer our least able and (perceived) least resilient children – think of the level of personalisation (assess-plan-do-review, annual reviews, personalised packages and outside agency specialists) we give to our students with Statements or EHCPs – is the entitlement of all of our students. There are no children for whom being high ability, mature for their age or seemingly resilient means that they should have to cope with a less caring or more generic approach.
I don’t, of course, mean that we should be bombarding our children with additional learning needs or developmental delays with timetables and courses that don’t suit them, or that we should be bringing in additional support and outside agencies for kids that don’t need it. What I mean is that we need to stop seeing children in terms of generic dichotomous divides – resilient/vulnerable, abled/disabled, high attaining/low attaining – and, instead, give them each equal access to everything that they need to access the best that we have to offer. Recognise each one of them as the unique and complex individual that they are; we are all the same insofar as we are all different.
A more universally personalised – not ‘one size fits all’ but ‘one size fits one’ – approach doesn’t just benefit one of the traditionally recognised subgroups, but benefits every single student. For the lowest ability students in a school, so often relegated out of the main stream and into a SEN or inclusion corridor or classroom, with less qualified staff and less valued courses, it gives them the opportunities – academic and social – that we all recognise as a child’s entitlement but just don’t always seem to apply to our children with additional needs. And for our most able and highest attaining they’re given the nurture and individualisation that is the right of all children; just because a child can cope doesn’t mean they should have to. The bell curve, though, tells us that these two extremes account for only a small minority of our school population. All those children in the middle, including all those who fall into no subgroup at all, will also, of course, benefit from getting the best of what’s afforded to those at each extreme of the cohort. And this, of course, is all an oversimplification itself; many of the subgroups and budgets we have for our students can include children from anywhere on the ability spectrum and a child being high or low ability doesn’t mean that they are in the same spot on that bell curve for every subject or skill. The only answer, surely, is to have schools that provide the structure, nurture and personalisation that enables all children to meet the highest of expectations.