INCLUSIVE EDUCATION: A CHANCE OF CHANGE

“We shall operate blindly and in confusion until we recognize this fact; until we thoroughly appreciate that
departure from the old solves no problems.” John Dewey, 1938

My article on the Global Observatory for Inclusion website:
http://www.globi-observatory.org/inclusive-education-a-chance-of-change/ 

The reasons our schools don’t need teaching assistants.

Never one to pass up on the opportunity to defend my position, here are my thoughts and my counter-argument to this post from the www.educationforeverybody.co.uk website and Twitter account.

Firstly, I can’t seem to find an ‘about’ page or similar, manifesto or mission statement, on the website but, based on the title, I’m pretty sure we are fighting on the same side of the same battle here. And I agree with so much of what is written in the article – there is a problem in the education system and something needs to be done about it. The solution, however, is not teaching assistants… and here’s why.

I too wonder if parents of children with additional needs stop and think about who is supporting their child in the classroom. I wonder if they think about why their child – the child that needs more in order to be successful – is placed increasingly with the least qualified members of staff. This approach, surely, is counter-intuitive. If those children for whom learning is most difficult, and those for whom effective classroom management is most crucial, do not require the input of those who are pedagogically trained, then I guess no child does.

From reading the article I’m left unsure as to whether it appertains specifically to either secondary or primary, mainstream or special, but actually, I don’t think it makes much difference. My own assertion that TA’s are not the answer comes, inevitably, from my own standpoint in a mainstream secondary school. The concept, however, carries to other areas within education. For my students – a diverse and complex comprehensive inner city intake – there are students who require the socio-emotional support of a mentor, and students with physical and sensory needs who may require practical assistance, but only pedagogically trained subject specialist teachers teach. I do realise that early years and special education settings have increased care and supervision requirements and employing people to these roles is crucial… but still, only qualified teachers should teach.

This is a gripe against received wisdoms, easy options and the current inclusion paradigm. It isn’t a personal vendetta against teaching assistants. The very nature of the role is likely to attract people who genuinely care and want to make a difference. What’s more, there are many teaching assistants whose skills and hard work genuinely add value to their students’ education. These TA’s are basically underpaid and, often, undervalued teachers. With limited opportunity and incentive to filter applicants by qualification or proven skill, finding these effective examples of TA’s is mainly down to pot luck. It’s not a chance I want to take with my most vulnerable learners.

I might protest the use of teaching assistants less vehemently if it wasn’t for the lack of evidence that the system churns out successful learning disabled adults. With only 6.6% of learning disabled adults in education, but a reported 65% desiring to be so, I find it hard not to look to the current common approach to learning disability support in mainstream schools – the risk of the use of TA’s to foster velcroing, learnt dependency and, ultimately, the buffering of the student’s access to qualified teachers – as at least one source of blame for this lack of success. Another guilty party could be the inflexible and closed-minded businesses and organisations that could be offering employment opportunities. Maybe because they’re run by people who were educated to believe that those with additional needs would be taken off and looked after elsewhere.

“The [TA’s] work as a crutch for a system that is crippling under… [several examples]”

I couldn’t agree more. But surely this isn’t an argument to keep this broken, propped up system? Surely this is an indication that we need to develop an education system that doesn’t need propping up? A system where there are enough teachers per school to fully meet the needs of the students, where those staff are trained to meet a diverse range of needs, and schools that are designed to keep of their student safe whilst encouraging increasing levels of independence? I’m not saying that achieving this would be easy, but who goes into teaching because they think it will be easy? Ultimately, achieving a high quality education system, that meets the needs of all students equally, is not optional; this is what we should be working towards. Surely ‘education for everybody’ means an equal quality – equally high quality – education for every child and, to that end, the least able/most vulnerable student should be with the most qualified/experienced  member of staff. In fact, all of our little learners deserve equal access to qualified, subject specialist staff.

Removing teaching assistants from schools is not like removing nurses from hospitals because unlike TA’s, who commonly ‘act up’ to the teacher role, nurses stick to the tasks for which they are trained; they don’t perform surgery when there’s a shortage of doctors.

A sad reality, though, is that many parents of children with additional needs cannot imagine their vulnerable little one learning and being safe without the support of their TA and, worse still, they’re probably right; how many schools would be able to achieve true equality for their additional educational needs and disabled students? It is time to start looking at alternative, more equitable, systems and thinking about how we can fix the aspects of the system that are failing our vulnerable learners. And I know that my school isn’t the only school that’s operating a different approach; I dare say there are a range of different options that are better than the one that’s currently prevailing. But teaching assistants are not the answer.

A good SENCo works their way out of a job: Annual Review

It has, this month, been one whole year since my first ever blog post and declaration that I wholeheartedly disapprove of the existence of my own job, and would be working to render my own role in the school unnecessary and, hopefully – eventually, non-existent. It seems like a good time to consider what progress has been made so far. So, to start with, a little recap; what, exactly, is my problem with the SENCo? Well, as an interim measure, nothing really. Within the current social and political context, confined by the opportunities and limitations of the education system as it stands, and working collaboratively to meet the expectations of children and the families of children with additional educational needs and disabilities, the SENCo role is a crucial one. Children with additional educational needs and disabilities have achieved the entitlement to receive a high quality and inclusive education and it is the SENCo – along with other stakeholders – who is at the forefront of actually building that entitlement into a reality. But, just as the presence of a builder still hanging around, beavering away, after the building has been completed would either be unnecessary or an indication that the structure is not stable, the SENCo should not need to be there once true inclusion has been achieved, and we need to work towards that goal. The presence of a SENCo represents the need for children with additional educational needs and disabilities to have an advocate in order to ensure that their needs are being met; a truly inclusive school would meet the needs of all of its students on the same basis. The modern education system evolved before the rights of people with physical and learning disabilities did and, as a result, evolved without the need to meet the needs of children with additional educational needs. That, alongside the impact of Ofsted and league tables, has meant that our enlightenment and realisation that all children should be entitled to a high quality and inclusive education has left us with a bit of a conundrum; inclusion is the umbrella term for all the ways we have come up with to get children to fit into a system that was not designed for them. For true inclusion – equality in education – to be achieved, we need a system that was designed with all in mind;  a school designed to meet the needs of the least able and most vulnerable would eliminate the need for inclusion, enable the students who are simply coping to thrive, and these – along with the students who were thriving anyway – to be the architects of a society that values diversity and does not accept side entrances, inferior and intermittent services, low expectations and so on as ‘enough’ for people with disabilities.  Not only does the current system foster… no, force… the internal-segregation-as-inclusion paradigm that we have come to accept, it actively celebrates it. Having a room in your school where the lowest ability and most vulnerable students are taught literacy and numeracy by non-specialist and/or unqualified members of staff, and where those students can come to hide from the perils of the school corridors and communal spaces, is not equality; it is denying those students access to their entitlement. Their entitlement to a high quality education. To be a valued part of their community. To feel like a contributor. The least able child should be with the most qualified member of staff. The whole school should be a safe space for vulnerable children because all children have the potential to be vulnerable, simply by virtue of being children.

Have we made any progress towards achieving this goal? Yes, of course! We are a school without a SEND department (or any alternative name such a department might be given)… we have no SEND area or corridor, no inclusion rooms, withdrawal interventions or teaching assistants… where the students on the SEND register match, and often exceed, the progress made by their peers. As, or even more, importantly; we have no safe spaces for vulnerable students and we do not have students who need to be escorted around the building by a member of staff. All of our students move around the building safely, as is their right. And, before you ask, yes; we have a diverse and wide ability range intake of students. Our SEND Support and EHCP/Statement numbers match national averages and our ‘fair banding’ admissions policy ensures a broad ability base. We have students who would have a TA if they went to another school, students with physical, sensory, and/or medical needs, students who had been excluded from primary school due to their challenging behaviour… they are all here like we knew they would be; we were thinking about them from the start.

All of our students’ learning needs are met within the academic departments. Literacy interventions are run by the English department and numeracy interventions by the maths department, either within timetabled maths lessons or before or after school; we don’t withdraw students from other areas of their timetable. Intervention and support, including when it is on a 1:1 basis, is delivered by subject specialist, qualified teachers. We use ‘double staffing’ of our lowest ability group in each year to facilitate this in English, maths, science, humanities and MFL.

All of our students’ non-academic needs – pastoral, health and wellbeing, safeguarding, physical and sensory needs, socio-emotional development, mental health, outside agency involvement, behaviour, and probably a load more stuff I have forgotten – are managed by one department and, because all of our students are climbing their own personal mountain in order to succeed at university or a real alternative, thrive in a top job and have a great life, we call it Mountain Rescue. Mountain Rescue consists of the Senior Vice Principal, the year heads, me, and a team of mentors and key workers and we… well, we do whatever it takes for as long as it takes, when they need it and because they need it, in order to support their journey up the mountain. Any student can go to Mountain Rescue for any reason and, because of our team approach, we can quickly share information and put provision in place to meet their unique needs, not because they are SEND or LAC or PP or any other sub-category of child that might be in use; just because they need it.

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As is good and expected practice for an Annual Review, I should probably set some SMART targets. By October half term I hope to have developed and completed a set of useful and easy to use documentation to support, quality assure, and facilitate feedback for the support provided by Mountain Rescue. By Christmas I want to have identified and documented all the different models of effective use of double staffing that are being used in the academic departments. And, longer term, I would like the Mountain Rescue team to include therapists and other professionals such as and Educational Psychologist, life coach, Speech and Language Therapist, and nurse. In the meantime though, I am happy for things to continue to develop as they are – a school without ‘inclusion’ – and just be happy that I still have a job to go to!