EEF SEN in Mainstream Schools

Five recommendations on special education needs in mainstream schools

I can’t help but feel that this EEF guidance report on supporting SEN in mainstream has slipped under the radar a little, probably because it coincided with an unprecedented global pandemic, but maybe because it doesn’t really offer anything new or different.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t disagree with (most of) the main premise of the report, it is evidence based (although it is disappointing to find that there is no research into the impact of the graduated approach in England), and it may be that it brings those same messages to new audiences – a good thing, because I’m not sure many more people than SENCOs and other SEN practitioners engage with the Code of Practice or the Regs.  A broader range of educators are, I think, likely to engage with the EEF guidance, though.  The frustration, for me, is that this is not a new message, that SEND learners basically need the same things that all learners need, that all teachers are teachers of SEND etc., but, as always seems to be the case, it just doesn’t go far enough to actually make it happen.  I don’t think I can ever read a report like this from the perspective of a non-specialist, but I’m also not sure it even delivers a clear and consistent message within its own pages.  I am all for anything that promotes the key messages that SEND learners need the same high quality teaching and learning experience as their peers, but I’m also very cautious of anything that perpetuates things that are currently a barrier to that becoming a reality.

Certainly a main theme of this guidance is that SEND learners need, and are entitled to, high quality teaching and learning, and access to time with their class teacher(s), and yet one of the five recommendations is still focused on maximising the use of TAs, and states that the individual and small group interventions are ‘often’ delivered by them.  Surely, if we really want our SEND students to receive equitable high quality teaching, then those interventions should be delivered by qualified and accountable teachers (unless it is a non-academic intervention, in which case it should be delivered by an appropriately trained individual).  If there was a high attaining student with a gap in their knowledge, or they simply weren’t clicking with a new concept or skill, I’m pretty confident that the subject teacher would be the one to sit with them, either individually or in a group with others having the same issue, and provide that intervention, not a TA.  What is it that keeps stopping us from offering that same high quality teaching intervention to all students?  The guidance report itself states that students with SEND ‘have the greatest need for excellent teaching’ and yet still advocates for the most targeted teaching to be delivered by non-teachers.

Another core premise of the report is that the evidence based strategies that are proven to best support SEND in the classroom are actually really simple and, if not already in use in many classrooms, would be easy to introduce.  Again, this aligns with the message that all teachers are teachers of SEND and that what SEND students need is, mainly, within classrooms and lessons.  The report also, however, perpetuates the misconception that SEND is too complex, with too many requirements that have to be externally sourced, and that it is too broad to expect teachers to learn every possible permutation of SEND that might be present in their classroom.  I know there are elements of truth to this.  I know that some children are more likely to need the input of outside agency specialists, and that EHCPs form part of an LA, and national, system that remains – despite reform – pretty bureaucratic and statute bound.  But, perceiving this as complex and specialist is still a symptom of a segregatory, us and them understanding of disability; it isn’t the problem it is being made out to be.  We bring outside agency individuals in to support aspects of behaviour, social care, to deliver PSHE and to deliver music lessons, and it is not considered to be unmanageable or complicated.  We adhere to strict, externally accountable and high stakes requirements in order to be able to host GCSE examinations, usually for large groups with different combinations of subjects and papers, without considering it so complex that it can only be managed by specialists.  And teachers are not required to have an in depth knowledge of every possible additional need that they might one day teach any more than they are required to know every possible socio-economic or environmental factor that might have impacted on any learner who enters their classroom; you only need to get to know the children you actually have.  We can stop making this into a problem that we don’t need.

I have a couple of other little niggles with the report (I have already blogged about funding for SEND here – Money Where The Mouth Is – and I don’t think this blog is big enough to cover the ‘SEND student’ or ‘student with SEND’ conversation, or the report’s lean towards the biopsychosocial model of disability and my concerns about that) but, ultimately, if the message that students with SEND need the same things as all learners and that these things are, largely, already available in our schools, is being repeated and extended to new audiences, then that can only be a good thing.  Until, though, we can shake off the shackles of the prevailing and entrenched approach to inclusion that is in place in most schools, reports like this are not going to be the revolution our children actually need and deserve.

The ‘us and them’ Effect

One of the main motivations for striving to support students with additional needs without segregation of space (or anything else) was to try to foster greater equality-rich diversity within the school community.  Everyone learns, eats, socialises, transitions from A to B, celebrates, and is sanctioned together.  It seemed logical to me that this would be enhancing and enriching for everyone involved.  What new and exciting can come from sameness?  Creativity and learning occur at the boundaries between things that are different.  For children with additional needs, I hope that truly being part of the main will give them access to the best quality resources, empower them to feel entitled to that, and that they grow up and enter adult society demanding that it is made to work for them too.  For our students who do not have an additional need, well I have hopes for them too.  That, as a minimum and among other things, an opportunity to live and work alongside those who might seem different to you will feel as normal and routine and mundane as it should feel and that the enhancements and improvements to the structures and systems we make to be more truly inclusive will be beneficial to everyone in the school.  It makes sense to me that better knowledge, understanding and empathy must come from experience.

Having an ‘us and them’ approach, based on the notion that there are able and disabled people or students and SEND students, is what facilitates us to not use qualified teachers for some of our most vulnerable learners.  Beyond the school gate, it is what allows us to turn some people away from public spaces because adaptation to meet their needs was not deemed to be ‘reasonable’.  It is clear to me that both the immediate and long term interests of some students would be hindered, even halted, by this approach.  The risks of this way of working run deeper than just access to resources, though.  That same lack of access, to both education and to experiences, could deskill and distance people and make it harder for them to fight back.  In schools, I fear that our currently prevalent approach to inclusion literally teaches our children that some people sit outside of the systems that we are told time and time again are the best, are right, and are their entitlement.  It’s an old adage, but we might talk the talk of inclusion but it is our actions that speak loudest.  Having segregated systems, whatever we call them, sends a message – it confirms, consolidates and perpetuates an ‘us and them’ mentality.  Not spending time with people you perceive to be different to you generates misunderstanding and apathy, even mystery and fear.  At best, it’s a ‘not my problem’ problem but, at its worst, it’s the underlying cause of the harmful demonisation of people with disabilities as scroungers and a burden on society.  We all benefit from diversity, but if we aren’t living it then how would we know?

I wouldn’t exactly say that the findings are surprising, but if you haven’t seen Scopes 2018 ‘disability perception gap’  policy report, it’s certainly an interesting read, albeit somewhat jarring.  From the outset, the findings show that most people significantly underestimate the prevalence of disability in society and this then, of course, has a knock on effect on all the other results.  If the majority of people surveyed don’t, by their own admission, see disability in their day to day lives, how can they form an opinion that’s balanced and fair?  It does also raise the question, why are they underestimating in the first place? Why are people with disabilities missing from so many people’s lives?  One of the starker (darker?) findings in the report is that the perception that people with disabilities ‘get in the way’ either some or most of the time quintuples with distance from disabled people, i.e. people who  do not know anyone with a disability  are five times more likely to have this belief than those who do.

Sc In the Way

Another question asks about whether attempts to give equal rights to disabled people have gone too far or not far enough  and shows the same pattern, although there’s a lot more that surprises me about this data than just that, if I’m honest.  And it is their typo, not mine, by the way.

Sc Equal Rights

 

Scope Quote

I agree, of course… but what are we doing in education – whilst our students are so receptive to new information, learning how to function in a community, and preparing for successful and happy adulthoods – to help achieve this?  What do our students learn about themselves and others through, not our words, but our actions, systems and structures?  And, maybe more importantly, what opportunities to learn are we denying them?

https://www.scope.org.uk/campaigns/disability-perception-gap/ 

How far from the medical model have we actually moved?

How far from the medical model have we actually moved?

It has been playing on my mind for a while now, that what seemed so clear cut in the earlier stages of my time as a SENCo,  is not actually the reality of what I see happening on a day to day basis, both in education and beyond.  How far from the medical model approach to understanding disability in society, and specifically in education, have we actually moved?  A quick twitter poll – always an excellent way to grossly oversimplify a complex and emotive issue – did demonstrate that I am not alone in feeling this way.  Mainly, though, it demonstrated that most people are not willing to continue to simply accept the limiting rhetoric that exists around disability and inclusion.  That might be for a different post.  The reality, though, remains too far deviated from the ideal for us to get away with not thinking about it.  My twitter poll and subsequent conversations also highlighted a lack of clarity around definitions so, for arguments sake, this is what I am using for the purpose of this post:

Medical Model – The person is disabled by aspects of their own body.  They are, effectively, ‘broken’ and therefore should be fixed or simply they cannot access society, or at least not all aspects of it.  The ‘problem’ lies within the individual.

Social Model – The person is disabled by barriers and deficits in society.  Those barriers and deficits could be physical or social / attitudinal.  All people have the same right to access society so these barriers and deficits must be addressed.  The ‘problem’ lies in society and the physical environment.

I do think, at some level, we talk the talk of the social model.  The Equality Act is explicit in its assertions of equal rights and the leveling of the playing field and, in education, CaFA and the Code of Practice secure the rights of learners who require additional and different.  Just typing out the retrograde concepts in that definition of the medical model made my skin crawl.  I’m not so sure, though, that we walk the walk of it.  Not quite medical model, maybe, but not really social model either.

Take, for example, the use of teaching assistants (I know, I’m obsessed) when a student has an additional need that prevents them from accessing the lesson without that support.  Where does this provision place the ‘problem’?  What is it that needs to change in order to address it?  I’m not saying that it is a medical model approach – the child might not even be in the room if it was – but I am saying that it is not quite social model either.  The ‘problem’ is that the environment or something within it (teaching style, pitch, content) is not fit for purpose and so it is the environment that needs changing.  Putting a TA with the child facilities the environment to stay the same.  More like papering over a crack rather than properly fixing it.  Putting a stepladder next to the barrier instead of dismantling the barrier.

It isn’t just the TAs.  Most of the artifacts of inclusion – the SENCo, the SEN Register, provision maps and IEPs – place the change, the difference, the deviation from the norm, in the child.

Maybe we have halted here on our journey to properly achieving a social model approach and, with it (or maybe a few steps beyond it) true equality, equity and justice for all sections of society, because real structural and systemic change is hard.  Maybe it is because too many people, power holders at various levels, have accepted not enough as good enough for some people.  Maybe it is because the able majority like those visible signs of inclusivity because it makes us feel good about ourselves.  Whatever it is, we have a mammoth task ahead of us if we are going to change things.

No one thing is going to make that change, but each and everyone one of us can make a start.  Evolution, not revolution.  When things aren’t working for one of the children we teach, we should be asking ourselves, ‘where does the problem actually lie?’ and then doing something about that, not scaffolding the child into the existing, not good enough situation or space.  This may require big change, but it will also facilitate access and inclusion for more than just that child and for more than just that day.

This may require big change… but that is exactly what needs to happen.

Not Ready But Ready To Start

When I first started writing my blog, Twitter was an important but a rather negative place for me.  I can remember stopping my car, pulling over, because I’d hear my phone trill – the Twitter notification – and not being able to bear having the response sat there without my justification, explanation, clarification or retaliation to go with it.  With hindsight, it probably wasn’t as bad as it felt at the time.  Writing a blog about something that matters to you feels a bit like putting your heart outside your body for a battering and, if I’m honest, I still experience anxiety every time I put something new on my blog.  I feel very differently about Twitter though; in fact, I love Twitter and it plays a huge role in shaping and reshaping the provision in my school, how I describe and explain it, and how I understand its place in the wider conversation.  I no longer stop the car to look at Twitter notifications (but I do look at them straight away when I do stop!).  Over the years, the demographic of who I follow on Twitter has changed from being mainly SEND related organisations and other SENCOs / teachers, to increasingly being parents of children with SEND, support groups for parents of children with SEND, and adults with disabilities, and it is this, I think, that has influenced my actions the most.

The first thing that the Twitterverse has got me thinking about is the place of my opinions about inclusion and disability rights in the wider discourse.  I think my opinions have a place – as a SENCo, as a teacher, and as a person in society who feels strongly about how I want the society I live in to be – and I talk about the things I talk about because they genuinely matter to me, they impact on people who are important to me, and they impact on me personally; we all benefit from the diversity that a fair and just society affords us.  I know, also, that I’m shouting from the edges.  I am not a person with a disability, nor am I a parent of a child with SEND, but I am learning, I hope, to spend more time listening to the voices that are shouting from the middle and, perhaps even more importantly, to the silences that come from that same place.

That isn’t to say that I don’t believe there’s a role of us at the edges… far from it.  Every marginalised and oppressed group in history has attained their entitlement to equality through the strength of their combined voice from the middle with the support of their allies at the edges and, in the same ways, the drive for disability equality (including true educational inclusion) is no different.  But, in other ways, I think it is different.  I have long been asking myself why the inequality and oppression of those with disabilities – in education and in society – is so widely accepted and, in some cases, even openly celebrated (e.g. schools celebrating having loads of TAs or a building being proud of having disabled ramp access around the back) and I don’t know the answer… but I do have some thoughts.  There is always the presence of an unequal power dynamic between an oppressor and the oppressed but, perhaps, more so when the oppressed group is those with disabilities.  The things that have been put in place in the name of inclusion are a step in the right direction but rarely go far enough.  Not far enough to actually meet the needs of the full diverse range of people that make up our society (e.g. the limitations of a standard disabled toilet facility for those requiring an adult sized bed and overhead tracking / hoist systems).  So what do they go far enough to do?  To make an able majority feel that they’ve ticked a box? Made an effort? Get that feel good factor and sense of self-congratulation that we’ve done something nice for those we perceive as less fortunate?  The word ‘disability’ represents such a diverse and broad spectrum of people and such a significant proportion of society that any sweeping statement to describe those with disabilities is likely to be homogenising and alienating, even offensive, and that is not my intention.  By the very nature, though, of disability, it includes people for who mobility, communication, processing of the world around them, seeing or hearing is a challenge and, as a result of this, creating that unified voice to shout from the middle is going to be that bit harder than it has been for other oppressed groups.  The role of the allies at the edges is crucial.

A second thing that Twitter has got me thinking about is disabled identities and how my views and way of working relate to this and, again, I can only approach this from where I stand.  I have often said, when trying to make my stance clear, that there is no such thing as SEND children and children; only children… or that there’s no such thing as disabled people and people; only people.  I stand by these statements but only so far as to mean that there is no dichotomous, two types of human and there’s no way of dividing us that should negatively impact on the way in which people access society, or their human rights and entitlements.  This is not about erasing disabled identities, in fact, the very opposite; this is about celebrating the creativity, interest, progress and joy that living in a diverse and just society gives us.  We all benefit from living in a diverse and just society.  Of course, in my own school we have students with identified learning needs, diagnoses and physical, visual or hearing impairments, in the same way there are students with different abilities, skills, eye colours, religions, socio-economic backgrounds and shoe sizes – the point is that all of these things should be embraced as part of what makes that person unique.  None of these things should result in a young person being denied access to their full high quality education as part of the main of their school community.  ‘Inclusion’ operates on the basis that some people would not be included in what was happening if it wasn’t for this thing we call inclusion.  Have an inclusion department is like having a ‘not racist’ department; shouldn’t it go without saying?

My third thought for 2018/19 is about how we can synthesise two dissonant themes that run concurrently through the discourse around inclusion and SEND provision that I see, and dip in and out of, on my Twitter feed every day.  On the one hand, there is a sense of urgency – our young people have waited too long; there are children whose needs are not being meet right now; this is the time for change.  And, on the other hand, there’s the recognition that society and education is not ready – teacher training doesn’t prepare them, school funding doesn’t facilitate it, and societal attitudes, systems and structures don’t allow it.

We aren’t ready.

But we are ready to start.

It would be easy to become overwhelmed by the enormity of the task ahead and clearly nothing is going to happen overnight.  There are lots of structural and systemic changes that need to take place that aren’t even on the cards right now, but each of us is only responsible for our own attitudes, behaviours and choices.  And I really strongly believe that, if we all take control of what we can take control of  – our own selves, our families, how we interact with the community, our school, our department, our classroom – that change will start (or continue to start) to take place.  There’s no use throwing yourself at a brick wall, but you can chip away at the bottom of it and, eventually, that wall will fall.  Specifically thinking about inclusion in education, it can be difficult, particularly with the constraints of the LA, funding et cetera, for a lone voice to implement change even at the school, department or classroom level.  But we can all, regardless of our situation, make a difference to the one thing that constitutes the first step and the bottom line of inclusion and disability equality: attitudes.  The moment you stop seeing children and SEND children as two different types of student, and start truly celebrating and maximising on diversity, change can start to take place.  The high quality and high expectations we bestow upon the most able is the entitlement of all students.  The individualisation and care we afford our least able and most vulnerable student is the right of all children too.  If you wouldn’t deal with a gap in the understanding of your most able child by putting them with a TA, don’t do it to your least able.  If you wouldn’t exam factory and push your least able, most vulnerable students to the very limits of their mental health, then don’t do it to your most able student either.

We are each just a complex mishmash of abilities and needs trying to function in a best fit but evolving world – each of unique and that’s what makes us the same – and maybe there’ll never be a big revolution… but that doesn’t mean we can’t keep working on change for the better.

 

Summer Inspiration Stories

For longer than I haven’t, I have spent my summers working for a charity that provides play schemes and residential short breaks for children (5-18) with moderate to severe learning and / or physical disabilities.  No matter where I’ve been or what I’m doing, this is where you will find me in the summer holidays.  It is, first and foremost, a respite service for parents of disabled children and I know, of course, that there are many such organisations… but none, I truly believe, quite like ASAS.  Exceptionally good ratios (more staff than children!!!), our own accessible transport, incredibly low staff turnover (resulting in a team that knows one another and works well together), a high quality training and induction programme, and leadership that lives on the ground, leading by example whether its providing personal care or wearing a grass skirt and a shaving foam beard; we decide what we think our children will enjoy and then we make it happen no matter what.  We make the world work for us.  One of the reasons I became a teacher was to keep my summer holidays free for ASAS.  My first fights for fair access were to get ASAS children into cinemas and onto rollercoasters when the first answer was no.  The first step on my SENCo journey was a fifteen year old volunteer through the doors of this charity.  I don’t know where I’d be without it.  I don’t even know who I’d be without it.  All this time later, I need my summer work more than ever to contextualise, motivate and inspire me for the year ahead.  We haven’t let anything stand in the way of us sailing, caving, climbing and just generally having a great time… nothing is impossible with the right people and determination.

The summer scheme is, and has been for as long as I’ve worked for it, held at a special school where I used to work as a teaching assistant (yes, you read that correctly).  The school has, before, during and after my employment there, had its ups and downs, but it too – along with Mencap, who I worked for whilst I was at university – played a huge role in shaping my views and attitudes regarding inclusion and disability in society.  No matter what has happened and how much has changed since I worked there, my heart still lives at Green Meadows special school.  This summer, I have loved finding and reading the inspiring phrases that are now dotted around the school building and I’ll definitely be keeping these in mind as I go into the new academic year.

 

A key job for me this summer has been reviewing our approach to supporting students experiencing a decline in their mental health and wellbeing, including those who are showing us this through a deterioration in their behaviour.  The phrase ‘fight fire with water’ has really stuck in my mind throughout that review process.  In fact, the more I think about it, the phrase ‘fight fire with fire’ doesn’t make sense on any level.

There were hundreds of magic moments this summer, like every summer, that I’ll take with me into the upcoming academic year but I’m just going to talk about one wonderful place that we’ve been lucky enough to be going to for years.  I have, a longish time ago, spoke briefly about Nell Bank before.  If you want to know what inclusion – true inclusion – can look like, look no further; this is how you do it.

Nell Bank is a day and residential outdoor experience centre based in beautiful Ilkley, West Yorkshire.  It isn’t simply that Nell Bank is very inclusive, but the way that Nell Bank is inclusive that makes it special.  True inclusion is seamless and all-encompassing.  True inclusion is invisible.  At Nell Bank, there’s no separate entrance, alternative routes with ramps, or annexed areas that tick the ‘disabled friendly’ box; it all just… is… for everyone.  And I’m talking about climbing frames and assault courses here!  It is one of very, very few places where we can all go together and all have an equally good time – an adventure – together.  Whether its pond dipping (all raised ponds), splashing in the water play area, riding in the Nell Buggy (wheelchair accessible golf cart!), playing on the massive fort climbing frame (wheelchair friendly right to the very top!), or completing the superb assault course (see photos!!!), there is nothing here that we cannot all enjoy together.  Also, we just go for the day but I happen to know that their residential facilities include height adjustable tables, kitchen and beds, hoists, and a hygiene suite that has a bath with a lowering platform.

 

 

If I can make inclusion at my school as seamless and all-encompassing as it is at Nell Bank then I’ll be one happy INCo.  The holidays may be nearly over (for me, at least! My school reopens on 23rd August!), but I’m ready!  Thanks, ASAS, for another inspirational summer.

Mental Health Matters

As part of my summer holiday fun and relaxation, I have been working on developing a pathway for how we support our students’ mental health and well-being that goes beyond whole school strategies and environment but preempts the referral to outside agency stage.  Now, at T minus 2 weeks to (potential) implementation, I would really appreciate any feedback and advice anyone has about it!  Please note, much of this is already in place (but that doesn’t mean it can’t be improved!) and I’m fully open to any additional suggestions.  I have found that there are several very informative websites and guides and I’ve found them very useful… I’ve struggled, however, to find a specific and workable action plan to support the students; if anyone knows where I might find one, I’d love to see it!

Thanks 🙂

 

1: Mental Health Action Plan / Provision map:

MH WTD P1

MH WTD P2MH WTD P3

 

2. Wellbeing Plan:

MH Wellbeing P1MH Wellbeing P2

 

3. Safety Plan:

MH Safety Plan P1MH Safety Plan P2

Money Where The Mouth Is

I’m as worried about the financial crisis in SEND funding as the next SENCo.  I’m following my Twitter feed and the news and seeing the same things that we are all seeing – real terms funding for students with additional needs has dwindled to crisis point and it doesn’t look set to improve.  No doubt, increased funding is absolutely necessary in order to ensure the best education… no, the safety, wellbeing and any education… for our SEND children and this sits within the wider context of a reduction in funding and resources for those with disabilities in adulthood and the crisis in the NHS.  It is all very bleak.  I saw, as I’m sure many reading this did, some head teacher speaking on the news saying that the last thing he’d want is to be turning SEND students away because the school can’t afford them.  Afford them?  What are schools for, if not for the children of their catchment?  Are we now openly operating a two tier system?  Why is SEND the subgroup of student it is so acceptable to discriminate against?

I agree that there’s a funding crisis.  There’s a funding issue in education in general.  But lack of funds is no more an excuse to not meet the needs of SEND students as it would be an excuse to not meet the needs of any student.  You still have to do what a school’s supposed to do.  Money isn’t the whole reason our schools aren’t inclusive and, as such, money would not solve the issue of poor inclusion in our schools.  Money helps (when doesn’t it!?) but it isn’t the whole answer.

“Money is only a tool.  It will take you wherever you wish, but it will not replace you as the driver.”
Ayn Rand

The first step in meeting the needs of your SEND students is not money but to stop seeing them as something different to the rest of your students.  As long as we see students with SEND as something different to students, children with disabilities as something different to children, and a group with different needs and rights to the rest of those we are teaching, we are discriminating against them.  All children need the same things – safety, wellbeing, nurture, their best outcomes, adult success (whatever that my look like!).  And all children have the same educational rights – to be taught by qualified teachers and access to an appropriate, quality, accountable and valued curriculum.  The budget and resources of the school – however tight those things may be – need to be used to provide these things equitably to all of the students.  We can’t use a label of ‘SEND’ as an excuse to exempt a child from any of this.

Actually, the lack of money being funnelled into SEND and adult disability provision is also because of this same issue.  It’s systemic, societal and entrenched.  How we treat SEND students throughout their education results in a) those children becoming adults who haven’t been given the best tools to be assertive, rights asserting adults and b) their non-SEND peers go on to perceive disability as ‘other’, someone else’s problem, and something that we use as an emotional crutch for ourselves as opposed to assuring proper societal equality and justice.  Then they become the decision makers, funding deciders, employers and head teachers of the next generation and perpetuate the same approach.

There’s a cycle that needs to be broken here, but it won’t be broken by money alone… the lack of proper funding is just a symptom or product of the actual issue that needs to be fixed.  In order for the policy makers and budget holders to make decisions that work for SEND children we need them to have grown up with an intrinsic understanding that this is needed and right.  We need young people with SEND to grow up to hold power in their lives and be participants in that decision making process.  We need to stop seeing some people as separate to the rest of society.

So, yes; I’m as worried about the financial crisis in SEND funding as the next SENCo.  I wouldn’t be turning down additional funding to support SEND students, or any student for that matter!  Money alone, though, isn’t the magic wand that will ensure true inclusion for our SEND students… but ensuring true inclusion for our SEND students through our attitudes towards disability, school culture, and having equality, equity and justice at the heart of our decision making might, eventually, solve the funding crisis.

“If your ship doesn’t come in, swim out!” Jonathan Winters

SEN Inclusion in Schools – There Aren’t ‘Children’ and ‘Special Needs Children’; just Children

The revolution will NOT have disabled access, just access for all.

Inclusion departments, SEN corridors, alternative pathways, exemptions from expectations, ‘disabled access at rear’, and even the SENCo themselves – all of these are artefacts of inclusion, representing a point on a journey, a journey towards justice in education for those with additional needs and disabilities.

They are all also examples of the ways we get the education system to work for children with these additional needs.

This is necessary, of course, because our education system existed before these children were included. And, with integration, and then the push for inclusion, children were brought into schools that had been designed – physically and systemically – without having taken their needs into account. Without having needed to.

And so, we created roles and rules to include them, and to protect their right to be included – and this is both good and right.

But it isn’t the end.

It isn’t justice.

Continue reading here:

https://www.teachwire.net/news/sen-inclusion-in-schools

Not special.

The words we choose to describe something are important.  They set out the stall of meaning.  Often, they are the first impression we get of something.  The words we choose to describe something define, shape and share the concepts we are trying to communicate.  Subtle differences in the meaning of words, in implication, and in audience, can make a big difference to how what we say is understood (or not) and responded to (or not!!!).  Words allow us to give more meaning to and share the world around us… so it is important that we choose them wisely.  In this era of education where ITT barely touches upon disability, learning ability diversity, or inclusion, and where Ofsted / League Tables / budgets hold the carrot and the stick, it is crucial that the stall we set out for our most vulnerable learners, and the rhetoric of our intentions for them, is clear and fair and facing the future.

As SENCo (or by any other name) and / or SLT, how we talk about children with additional needs, and how we define our role, department and area, will demonstrate – even instruct – the people around us, people who (legitimately) have less knowledge and responsibility for the vulnerable young people we are talking about here, how they should perceive those children and behave towards them.

So, in the spirit of all of this… is it time to stop saying ‘special’?

Special Needs, Special Educational Needs, SEN, SEND, SENCo, SENDCo… is it time for all of this to go?

We move on in our choice of language all the time.  We no longer use terms like educationally subnormal, maladjusted, retarded or ineducable to describe any of the children we teach.  This is my manifesto for taking another step forward.  It’s time to consign the word ‘special’, in this context, to the uncomfortable and not quite shaken off language of the recent past.  Let’s cringe when we read it in a not-the-newest book, or when someone still uses it with misguided well-meaning but, please, let’s stop using it to define any of our young people’s experience of education.

The recently published government statistics, SEND in England 2017, indicates that the proportion of children and young people currently in education who are identified as SEND is stable at 14.4%.  That is fourteen or fifteen out of every hundred students – not a handful of children in each school, but a significant handful in each class.  A minority, yes; but a big minority!  Useful to know, but statistics like these make black and white a distinction that is not so clear cut.  These statistics, like any school’s SEN register, disguises the blurred boundary between these children and their non-SEND peers.  Actually, of course, cognitive / academic ability, attainment and progress is a spectrum and there can be very little difference between a student on the SEN Register and one that isn’t.  Furthermore, young people can be identified as SEND for lots of reasons other than cognitive ones and a student identified as having learning difficulties can have great talents in other areas… there is great diversity within SEND and often little difference between SEND and non-SEND.  To me, homogenising and labelling a group of young people in this way is illogical and unnecessarily segregating, no matter what you call it, and this is harmful.  The thing that sets this group aside is that the school system we have was designed and evolved without them (i.e. schools existed, pretty much as they are now, before integration and inclusion) and so they need something different to try and make it work for them.  The solution to this is to redesign the education system so it does work for them, not to identify them as having needs not met as part of the norm, put them in an inclusion room (cringe), and give them a ‘best fit’ education.  Any label on this approach is not going to fix that the approach is broken, however, this is the point on the journey we are at.  Until we have an education system that provides an equally high quality education for every child, some children will need additional and different and we are going to need language to describe that.  My argument here, though, is that ‘special’ – for a number of reasons – is not the right word for that and is actually unhelpful in moving forward with how they experience education.  Getting the language right isn’t the solution to the problem, but I think it is crucial to getting the best out of the current system and ensuring it moves forward in the direction that it needs to move in.

There are, to me, three main problems with our use of the word ‘special’ to describe the educational needs of 14.4% of our students:

It is unhelpful and inaccurate.
It is also very difficult to pin down to just one, succinct definition. I looked at a few different online dictionaries and the exact wording varies, but the following definitions are recurrent:

  • Greater, better than,
  • important, exceptional (eleven mentions across the five dictionaries)
  • Specific, distinct, particular, for one purpose, for one person/group (eight mentions across five dictionaries)
  • Different, not ordinary, not usual (eight mentions across five dictionaries)
  • Appertaining to education for a specified group of children (four mentions across five dictionaries)

uniqueBy a fairly small margin, the most prevalent theme in the definitions was that if something is special it is better, or greater in amount, than other similar example

s.  Joint second place, and arguably too similar in meaning to have separated in this way, is that special means specific or that special means different.  I struggled to decide which of these two categories to place the word ‘unique’ as it kind of applies to both but I think it is important that it goes somewhere.  I did a short Twitter Poll and – bearing in mind that most of my followers and followees are likely to use the word special in the education use of the word – the definition ‘unique’ was the clear winner.  Finally, the definition of the word ‘special’ in its use specifically to identify and describe the education of children and young people with additional needs was mentioned, in one way or another, in four out of five dictionaries.

So, clearly, there are some children for whom a greater level of provision – additional and different – is needed and their provision is altered from the norm, may even be unique, and designed for them.  The fact that we have to do this to accommodate some children within the education system, though, is not ideal and defining it in this way reinforces it and secures it as the norm.  The language we choose to use, like the actions we take, needs to reflect and move towards a better system, not a system based on segregation.

Furthermore, the arguably accurate descriptions of our approach to meeting need at present are balanced out by some other definitions that carry connotations that are inaccurate as well as unhelpful.  I know that we aren’t really implying that we think that children with additional needs are better than those without, but the subtle additional meaning of the word is there.  Not only is it unfair and unacceptable, but also it is so painfully far from true it is pretty ironic – our young people with additional needs don’t even get equality, let alone special treatment.  The use of the word special, in everyday language, to describe something unique and better (e.g. it was his birthday so I made him a special dinner) is what I blame for the condescension in attitudes towards those with additional needs in education and in society that is, if not commonplace, at least far from rare.  Being in the building but not part of the day to day norms of the school is not inclusion.  Being allowed to join in with trips if your mum comes along is not inclusion.  Being given additional and different but not enough to achieve a recognised qualification that everyone else in your school is doing is not inclusion.  Being allowed to get away with less than you’re capable of – socially, behaviourally, educationally – is not inclusion.  And it certainly isn’t special.  In addition to this, accurate or inaccurate, the use of the word ‘special’ to describe what we are describing here is reinforcing the idea that those young people are different, not normal, et cetera and this just isn’t true.  All children (and people!) are their own complex, unique…  special… combination of abilities, needs, preferences and choices.

It uses the supposedly defunct ‘medical model’ of viewing disability as a problem within the individual.
Describing a person as ‘special needs’, or any such related term, is denying them their fundamental entitlement to simply be who they are.  It is identifying the need for something additional and different to be because of a defect or difference in the individual and applying the label on the basis of their deficit.  The individual is an equally valid member of society and is not to blame for the fact the education system does not accommodate them without the need for additional and different!  The move from the medical / deficit model of understanding disability as a problem with the individual, to the social model that states that the deficits are in society and it is the environment that needs to be fixed in order to meet the needs of society (all of society), seems to have passed education by.  Those children and young people only need something ‘special’ because the design of the school and education system as a whole does not accommodate them… so what should change, the child or the system? Or do we simply continue to identify them as different and accommodate them through add-ons and annexed systems that differ from what we have decided is a child’s educational entitlement.

The word has come to be misappropriated.
Whether we agree with the official use of the word ‘special’ or not (it is the terminology used by the DfE), it cannot be denied that it has now come to be misused.  The reality that the word ‘special’, in the context of education, carries negative and uncomfortable connotations, some more harmful than others, that inevitably sully the well-intended original meaning of the word.  The word is used in this negative way outside of education too.  For example, the fairly common internet phrase ‘special snowflake’ is a derogatory term used to describe someone how thinks they’re unique and deserve special treatment for no apparent reason.  Worse than this, though, is the use of the word ‘special’ as a synonym for stupidity.  I have lost count of the number of times I have personally experienced this.  The number of times I’ve cringed when someone has jokingly referred to themselves as ‘special needs’ after doing or saying something silly, or the number of times I’ve fought the urge to start an altercation on social media because someone has posted a picture of their pet doing something dumb and put it down to the animal being ‘a bit special’.  I don’t assume that any of these people are doing so with any malice but, nevertheless, this is a misappropriation of the meaning of the word and so, so unhelpful and harmful for the people for whom it is currently the accepted terminology.  Do we really think its okay to compare a dog running into a fence with someone’s child who has a disability?  Whether the answer to that question is yes, that’s fine, or no, that’s not what I meant when I did that, I think we have a problem.  This isn’t the first example of terminology associated with disability to go this way.  It isn’t even the only terminology associated with disability that it is happening to now (think about if you’ve ever heard someone refer to themselves as OCD because they double checked the door was locked, or as autistic because they’ve got really into a hobby).  It happens because there is still a lack of understanding and underlying negativity associated with the concept and existence, regardless of what you call it, of disability and difference that has a long and complex history and is present at the societal, even global, level… and this will continue to happen as long as that is true.  Part of the solution, though, is fighting it.  And part of fighting it is setting out your stall of meaning, with the words you choose, to represent what you think should be happening, even if that isn’t happening right now.

Another important factor to consider in my bid to consign the word ‘special’ to the annals of history is how, specifically, it would apply to special schools.  I have blogged about this before (LINK) and that article is much clearer and more detailed in explaining how I feel about special schools and how they fit in to my overall ideas about inclusion and true inclusion so please give it a read.  In a nutshell, though, I think special schools play a crucial role in achieving true inclusion – equality, equity and justice – for children and young people with disabilities and I think the problems with the use of the word ‘special’ absolutely applies to them too.  Any school can have a specialism and that could be a specific subject, performing arts, technology, or it could be vocational routes, sensory and therapeutic learning, or a specific additional need (VI, HI, ASC etc.) – I don’t seen any difference between  these specialisms.  Our current education system offers a one-size-fits-all approach (except, of course, it doesn’t – hence the additional and different) and the school system is divided along fairly crude and unhelpful lines (Ofsted grade, comprehensive / grammar / private, mainstream / special).  Actually, parents / students don’t get much choice between most of these differentials and so we are left with a system where really there isn’t much choice at all.  Aside from these differences, schools are forced (through Ofsted and League Tables) to actually be, or strive to be, very similar to each other.  A system with real choice would have schools that had genuine USPs that set them apart and make them… well, special.  A person with ASC might thrive in a school that’s smaller and more routines based… and so might loads of other young people!  Some young people with LD might prefer a school that offers vocational routes… and so might loads of other young people.  Some schools would naturally look more like mainstream schools and some might look more like special schools, but my point is this: we don’t need this dichotomous education system.  All schools are just schools. They should all be outstanding, they should all be available to everyone, they should all have something special and unique about them, and there’s opportunity for a whole load of different types of schools between the binary ‘mainstream’ or ‘special’ options we have now.

So what, you may be asking, should we be saying instead?  There’s no easy answer to that.  I would prefer to be in a situation where we don’t need the label at all.  Any label that identifies the children and young people on the basis of their needs carries the risks associated with the deficit model.  Any way we identify by the additional and different that is being provided is in danger of facilitating segregation and perpetuating the ‘us and them’ approach to meeting need.  But, until we have achieved an education system that meets the needs of all children equally we will continue to need to call it something!  At my own school we have, I think, managed to achieve this to an extent.  As a start-up free school (we opened 5 years ago), we have been able to design a school from the ground up and have done so to meet a wider range of needs as the norm and so, as a result, we don’t have a lot of the things that are usually associated with meeting the needs of those that require additional and different in education.  We don’t, for example, have an SEN department (or by any other name), teaching assistants (or by any other name), or withdrawal from lessons for interventions such as additional literacy or numeracy.  Don’t panic!  We still have a (very) comprehensive intake and a wide range of ability and disability, including students with EHCPs.  And those children still get 1:1 when they need it, small group work when they need it, their assess-plan-do-review, and everything else they’re entitled to and need.  But the school is designed to provide these responses to need as part of its normal way of working and on the basis of a student – any student – needing it.  We still, of course, have to meet all of our statutory duties and, the way things are now, this is good and necessary.  However, the language we choose to use to identify and describe our students sets out our stall of meaning.  It instructs those around us on how they should perceive and behave around our learners.  It defines and describes and shares the concepts we are trying to communicate.  We call all of our students… students.  No provisos.  If they need something – support, stretch, intervention – we give them it and if they don’t need it we don’t do it.  No need for SEND / non-SEND, just provision for kids who need it.  Depending on how much coffee I’ve had, they’re either all special or none of them are.  But none of them are receiving a special education.  We have designed – as a school, as an education system and as a society – what we think a good education should look like and not really being able to access that fully is far from special.  There’s nothing special about not being able to access it.  So what should we be saying instead?  I don’t know… but I know this: we shouldn’t be calling it ‘special’.

Unlearn Everything

New teachers!

Have you thought about how you are going to ensure that your classroom is inclusive?  Have you found all those ‘E’s and ‘K’s on your registers?  Have you worked out what those letters mean for each child that has been assigned one?  Have you read the EHCPs, the IEPs, the passports and pen portraits?  Have you planned with your TAs?  Have you differentiated your lessons and individualised your resources?  Have you thought about how those ‘E’s and ‘K’s are going to eat into your time?  What about the rest of the class?  They need you too, right?

Remember! All teachers are teachers of SEND! (DfE SEND Code of Practice 0-25, 2015)

No?

Well you’d better get cracking the…

Just kidding. I have some good news!

Those ‘E’s and ‘K’s on your register.  Yep; the ones with all the paperwork…

They
are
just
kids.

Children, just like the rest of them.  Students, just like any student.

I’m not saying that you aren’t going to need to put in that little bit extra with those guys; you are!  But, trust me, the non-‘E and K’ kids are just as likely to throw you a curve ball as those kids are.

And I’m not saying that you shouldn’t read the EHCPs, IEPs etc, meet with your TAs and get some decent planning in place.  You really, really should.

But what I am going to say is this:

Unlearn everything (if anything!) you have been taught about inclusion.

There is no ‘us and them’.  There’s only us.

There is no SEND and non-SEND students.  They’re all just kids.  Complex, unique individuals, every single one of them.  Get all the information you can, get to know them personally, and appreciate them for who they are.  Not just the kids identified as ‘SEND’, but all of the kids.

Attitude is everything.

It is the first step and the bottom line of true inclusion.  If you see your class and then these other kids, then you can never be truly inclusive, no matter how many IEPs you read or worksheets you differentiate.  The class is made up equally of all the individuals in it.  Each student is just another kid who needs to get what they need to have.

FROM YOU.

The TAs, the SENCo, their teacher from last year, their parents (definitely speak with parents!), yes; they can help you.  But, ultimately, these kids are yours. There are many things that can make a great teacher, but getting it right for every child in your class is top of the list for feel good factor, surely!

I’m not saying it will be easy… but, if you’ve gone into teaching for the easy life then you have made a terrible, terrible error!

Those ‘E’s and ‘K’s probably do need additional and different, sure.  Maybe they do have a diagnosis, a bit of kit, or need a bit more time, or colour, or interactivity to get where they’re going, but they only need ‘inclusion’ if they weren’t included in the first place.

Children with ‘E’s and ‘K’s next to their name on the register represent a huge leap forward on the journey towards true inclusion, equality, equity and justice for those with disabilities.  But they also suffer because of being seen as other, ‘included’ and often marginalised.  We’ve come a long way, but we can do better… and change will not come if we wait for some other person and some other time.  We’re the people we have been waiting for.  We are the change that we seek.  That’s an Obama quote, that last bit; I take no credit for it, but the sentiment is relevant – we are responsible for making the changes that need to occur.

So, happy Teacher New Year!

Let’s make it a good one.

For everybody.