Climbing Mountains: aspiration, growth mind-set and SEN-D

This isn’t a post about how we should be encouraging our students with SEN-D to be ambitious. In my experience, they already are; I have as many aspiring doctors and lawyers in my lowest ability set as in my highest. No – this is a post about us, and how our words and actions can en-able or dis-able a student’s hopes and dreams; about how we might be saying all the right things, but our actions might be giving a different message entirely. My students with SEN-D are incredibly aspirational; their growth mind-set’s know no bounds… but society’s attitude towards (and accommodation of) disability, including learning disability, is very much fixed. To overcome the societal barriers to their success they’re going to need more than aspiration and growth mind-set; they’re going to need a bloody bulldozer. And what they learn in school – not in lessons but in what they learn about themselves and their place in the community – will be the difference between a young adult that meets an obstruction to their success and understands that that’s as far as they can go… and one that smashes right through it because they know that they have a right to go further. At my school, all students are climbing the mountain to university (or a real alternative) so that they can thrive in a top job and have a great life… but what are the prospects of that for our students with SEN-D? Nationally, only 50% of working age adults with a disability are in employment. That drops to just 6.6% when you look specifically at learning disability. That’s a pretty big untapped human resource base our economy is missing out on. And it’s a lot of people missing out on the many benefits of being in employment; not just financial, but social, emotional and developmental. Now, I do realise that some people may be unable to work for very real and genuine reasons… and that from all sections of society there are people that just don’t seem to want to work; fair enough. But I find it hard to believe that those factors cover half of all people with disabilities, and over 90% of those with learning disabilities. Of course, I have my own theories…

  • We live in a society that is not fit for purpose for all of its inhabitants. I have already written about this in lots of detail in a previous post (The revolution will NOT have disabled access) so I won’t get on my soapbox again here; not about the same thing, anyway. But, to summarise; the progress we have made in ensuring that society and infrastructure is not dis-abling of some people – lifts, ramps, blue badge parking, equal opportunities employment, et cetera – is actually just a piecemeal, and sometimes even tokenistic, papering over of the cracks in a broken society. True equality and inclusivity cannot be achieved as an annexe, it has to be intrinsic… and that is still rare. This raises a number of challenges for people with disabilities who are seeking employment. The employer is now required to be accessible (although it is likely that an employee with disabilities will experience some degree of segregation – separate parking, entrance/exit; toilet, et cetera – and that the segregation is also likely to be proudly labelled with bright  yellow pictures of wheelchairs) and there has been some attempt towards equal opportunities employment, although it would probably be better to just adopt an accommodating and open minded attitude and then proceed to employ people on the basis of their suitability for the role. But this still doesn’t really explain the incredibly low employment figures. People with disabilities are now protected (and encouraged) through policy and law to gain employment, even if the methods do encourage segregation and tokenism… so why are the numbers so low???
  • We subliminally (and accidentally) tell our students with disabilities that they are not fully part of society. And, in doing so, we are also telling our able students that those with disabilities are not fully part of society. This is a difficult pill to swallow, and it’s more of a reflection than an accusation; I doubt that anyone is consciously, let alone intentionally, giving their students this impression. Nevertheless, I am convinced that this is what is happening and, furthermore, it is the root cause of those statistics. This subliminal messaging is what ultimately prevents our lower ability students, and those with disabilities, from accessing employment; our words are saying equality, but our actions are saying something else entirely.


So, what are these subliminal messages then? Let’s start with a straightforward example from outside of education; the ‘wheelchair access at rear’ sign. Firstly, what does it mean? That’s straightforward – it means that the building is accessible to wheelchair users, and the accessible door is at the rear of the building. Simple. But what other messages does it give? We remembered you and added something after? We didn’t want your ramps and lifts getting in the way of our front door? Please use a side door so you’re out of the way? And don’t even get me started on the ubiquitous wheelchair silhouette logo. Again, I don’t think anyone is intentionally sending out these messages but, nevertheless, I think they’re there. Let’s look at some examples from within education now. What subliminal messages are we giving our low ability learners and students with disabilities through the not-inclusion-but-internal-segregation paradigm? What message does it give a child (and their parents, the other students, and the adults in the school?) if all of their access to qualified, subject specialist teachers is buffered by unqualified, non-specialist learning support assistants? What message does it give to be taught literacy and numeracy (extra/intervention or as their main core offer) in a separate room, away from the subject departments and staff? What does it tell them if everyone has to do MFL/art/technology/whatever … but they don’t? What do they understand of their place in the school community if some or all of the rules don’t apply to them (please refer to this post and this post for more detail), or even just that expectations of their behaviour, progress and attainment is lower??? I’m not saying that anyone’s doing it intentionally… but I am saying that, by perpetuating the existing systems (TA’s, withdrawal intervention, rules that don’t quite apply to everyone), we are subtly but constantly telling them that they sit just a little outside the system. In fact, probably, that they sit a little beneath it.

I do realise that a society and infrastructure where every single person can access every single space is unattainable. It isn’t even attainable (or really desirable!) if you take disability and learning disability out of the equation. Take me, for example; I have no learning or physical disabilities but there are plenty of spaces and jobs that are not accessible to me, either for physical, social or cognitive reasons. The men’s toilets, for example (social exclusion); the position of brain surgeon at my local hospital (cognitive)… this summer I attempted to climb up Ilkley Moore with a friend; she made it, I didn’t (physical). Everyone has strengths, weaknesses, preferences and stuff they’ve just got to deal with. All I’m saying is that some people have much more of the latter than is their fair share.


Climbing the Mountain

As I mentioned, all students at my school are climbing the mountain to university, or a real alternative, so that they can thrive in a top job and have a great life. There are no exceptions, but clearly the ‘real alternative’ and the definition of a ‘top job’ is going to be different for each individual depending on their skills, preferences and so on (e.g. bank manager might be considered to be a top job by some, but completely undesirable – even unacceptable – to others, whereas international aid worker might look like something you’d do in your gap year to one person, but be a dream job for someone else). The non-negotiable aspect of the metaphor, really, is that we want all of the students to be the absolute best they can be and this, we believe, will result in them having great lives. No exceptions.

We talk about climbing the mountain every day, in every lesson and every aspect of academy life. It’s part of the very fabric, culture and language of the school. And, at the beginning of each year, we take our new year 7’s to Ullswater, in the Lake District, to bring the metaphor to life; we go climb a real mountain. To us, the preparation, excitement, trepidation and anticipation, the team work, hard work, struggle and, eventually, the triumph of reaching your goal, is the perfect metaphor for education and we want our students to experience it… metaphorically and in real life. What message would we be giving to the children if we left some of them behind? If some of them didn’t attend the trip? Or, they did attend the trip, but didn’t climb the mountain with us? Getting our lowest ability learners, students with physical disabilities and those with behavioural, social and emotional needs, up that mountain was not easy. They faced a myriad more challenges, hardships and hurdles – not least the attitudes and expectations of the people around them – than their peers…

Exactly like their metaphorical climb to a top job and a great life is likely to be.

But they did it.

Our vulnerable students’ opportunity to climb the mountain seemed to be blocked at every turn. First by parents ringing school to tell us that their child had special needs and couldn’t go… they hadn’t been able to go on the year 6 trip and hadn’t really changed in the meantime, et cetera. It was clear that the centre where we stayed were not used to accommodating diversity. There was little in the way of access – even a few tokenistic add-on’s would’ve been welcomed! – and their suggestions for inclusive activities were, well, not inclusive (on one occasion, when I asked if the activity was suitable for all of the children, i received the response, ‘yeah, most of them’; the, apparently, simplest team game the instructor could think of resulted in one of the lower ability learners declaring that he no longer liked to play games). We climbed the mountain with a (not really suitable!) wheelchair we’d brought from school, a walking frame, and a LOT of medicine. We moved slower and we stopped often.

And we did it.


And still, so few adults with disabilities – especially learning disabilities – climb their personal mountain to university (or a real alternative), a top job and a great life. But the seeds of change are in our midst!  If we are teaching our students – all of them – that they can be great and have a great life, then super, but we need to give our students with SEN-D something else as well. They can be aspirational, successful, contributing members of society; of course they can. But their journey is going to be beset with challenges and fraught with doubters. They need a growth mind-set, a clear consistent message that they are part of the community with the same rights and accountability as everyone else, and they’re going to need a bit of fight, grit and determination to keep going against the odds. Society isn’t ready. But, if we get it right in schools, it soon might have to be! ¡viva la revolución!

Afterword; telling penguins to flap harder

About half way through writing this I came across another article (here) covering very similar ground. It is always useful to see things from multiple perspectives so I’d highly recommend it to any reader; my more extended thoughts on it are posted as comments at the bottom of it. The basic premise, though, is this; telling our vulnerable learners to have a growth mind-set (where growth mind-set is “success = hard work + perseverance”) is like telling penguins to flap harder if they want to fly. I couldn’t disagree with this more. Our vulnerable learners are not flightless penguins in a world of flying birds… they’re flying birds too! And there’s an immense variety of birds flying around out there! Some fly higher than others, some fly slower, some soar, some swoop, some glide… I’m getting carried away with the metaphor. There is, however, one thing that I’m absolutely certain of. We shouldn’t be telling ANY of our birds that they’re flightless.