Vulnerability vs Resilience

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.

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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.

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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.

 

Splitting Hairs (part 2)

Thinking about the difference between ‘nice’ and ‘kind’ got me thinking about another hair splitting nuance that I believe is crucial to ensuring the right to education for students with additional needs; are we trying to achieve equality, equity, or… something else.

When I first started writing this blog I used the word ‘equality’, but later changed my mind and started using ‘equity’ instead. I might have changed my mind again now, but let’s just focus on these two for the time being.

Equality. (noun) The state or quality of being equal.

Equal. (adjective) As great as; the same as. Correspondence in quantity, degree, value, rank, or ability.

There are, I think, still some things to which I would apply the word ‘equality’. There should, or example, be an equal right to a high quality education for every child. But, if equality basically means that everyone gets the same (or is the same), then equality alone isn’t going to achieve that right for all of our children because some children will need more.

Equity. (noun) The quality of being fair or impartial; fairness; impartiality. Something that is fair and just.

At some point I switched from using ‘equality’ and started using ‘equity’; not everyone getting the same, but everyone getting what is fair and just… everyone getting what they need.

Say, for example, there are two people and they have one pie. One of those people has just eaten and the other is starving (you could interpret this as one is regularly well fed and one is not, or simply that one has had their most recent meal and the other is yet to have it; it makes a difference only to the extremeness of the example and not to the meaning).

Equality would give each of them half of the pie.

Equity would give each of them the amount of the pie that they need.

Of course, distribution of a resource is rarely this simple and the resource remains limited – if both were starving they’d get half each and both still be hungry. If there were ten hungry individuals they would get a tenth each and all still be hungry. The example, though, serves its purpose; is it equality or equity that gets those two people into a situation where both of them have achieved their entitlement to be fed? Which is kindest? Which is the most fair and just? I’m not saying there’s a clear cut answer to these questions but, for me, it is important to think about it anyway. Equality might be nicer, and it might also be easier – less decision making – but it doesn’t, I don’t think, represent justice for both of those people involved.

Justice. (noun) Just behaviour or treatment.

Just. (adjective) Based on or behaving according to what is morally right and fair.

Sometimes – usually, I think, when we are talking about rights and entitlements – we are trying to achieve equality; everyone gets the same. And sometimes – particularly when dealing with resources and actions – we are aiming for equity; everyone gets what they need.

We are always, though, aiming to achieve justice.

Our duty to achieve the entitlement to education for those identified as having special educational needs and/or disabilities is also our duty to achieve justice for a group who have been marginalised, disadvantaged and discriminated against and continue to be so.

Imagine, now, that there are three classes of thirty students in each – high, middle and low ability – and three equally experienced and successful teachers. It is okay, and necessary for the example to work, to make some assumptions about these three classes; where are the children likely to be most independent? Require the most support? What assumptions would you make about the behaviour in these three classes? Where would you expect to find students with EHCPs? With TAs? With additional literacy and numeracy added in as alternatives to the standard timetable? Each one of these three classes being taught by one of the three available teachers is equality but, realistically, does it provide every student with what they need in order to achieve their entitlement to a high quality education? You could put a TA into the lowest ability class to support an individual, subgroup within the class, or to help out with the class as a whole. One, or more, of the students – for either learning or behavioural reasons – could be withdrawn for extra literacy, numeracy or other intervention with TAs, HLTAs, or maybe a SENCo, in a SEND or inclusion department/area somewhere else in the school. But, if we are all agreed that ‘education’ looks a certain way – qualified teachers, certain subjects (i.e. EBacc) and schools divided into specialist areas – then removing a student from this (either physically or by buffering their access to it in situ) isn’t even maintaining their equality, never mind equity and certainly not justice.

How could these three classes, with the same budget (allowing for three teachers), be taught in a more equitable way? You could, for example, teach the higher and middle ability groups together with one teacher, and give both of the other teachers to the lower ability group. This would facilitate either 1:1 or small group intervention, or having two smaller groups, without compromising those students’ access to the agreed components of a high quality education. Another option would be to teach all three groups as one big group, lecture style, and have the two remaining teachers providing 1:1 and small group intervention and support to any student who needs it. No one being taught by non-specialists or non-teachers and no one being removed from the knowledge hub; this, I believe, is equity.

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But is it justice? Is it enough?

For now, I think it will have to be. Curriculum and assessment, Ofsted and league tables mean that the barriers are there whether we like it or not – equal or equitable distribution of resources is the option that we have. That, however, doesn’t mean that we accept the current situation as the best we can do… it just means that we make the most of the current situation whilst on our journey to true justice for those who currently continue to be disadvantaged.

The second version of the ‘equality versus equity’ image I have included (below) as food for thought only!

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We All Will Learn

The use of double staffing to ensure a high-quality learning experience for all students

Double Staffing: the timetabling of two qualified, subject specialist teachers to a single class, giving them joint and equal responsibility for the students’ outcomes.

My article on meeting the needs of ALL students, including those with additional needs and disabilities, in a school with no teaching assistants or withdrawal interventions:
http://blogs.dixonsta.com/

(plus many more great articles about our unique Dixons Trinity Academy approach!)

SEND and Social Justice

I was recently asked by @SENcollusion to share my thoughts on the following questions/themes for a chapter she’s writing for an upcoming book;  the Handbook of Disabled Children’s Childhood Studies, edited by Katherine Runswick-Cole et al. Of course I was happy to oblige! I’m always happy to share my thoughts and concerns about the state of inclusion. The questions/themes posed, and my responses, are reproduced below. Thanks for thinking of me, @SENcollusion; I hope it was of some use 🙂

  • Why do SEND issues so rarely enter the mainstream education debate when so many pupils have identified SEND?
  • Commentary around SEND is usually narrative and rarely consists of political analysis of how these issues fit with the wider government agenda.
  • Disability rarely gets a mention in broader education policy, whereas race and gender tend to be included. Education secretaries and their shadows don’t seem to engage on the issue; why is disability sidelined and not mainstreamed?

For me, many of the barriers faced by those with disabilities – both in education and in society as a whole – stem from the same, chronically overlooked problem; the current educational inclusion paradigm is actually a form of internal segregation and does not represent social justice. I believe that the common artefacts of inclusion as we know it – TAs, withdrawal intervention, SENCo’s and SEN/inclusion departments, corridors, rooms etc. – all result in a segregation of space, service, expectation and experience. Ultimately, schools are designed to get the best out of and for their students; what does it mean for a child to sit even slightly outside of that design? How all of this came about seems obvious to me. The education system as we know it evolved without the need to consider the wide spectrum of abilities and disabilities we now have the opportunity to embrace. High infant mortality of babies born with additional needs, education being optional and elitist, and then the concept of the uneducable child… educational inclusion as we know it is a recent phenomenon; 1980’s+. Integration, as it was, and now ‘inclusion’, is actually a series of strategies, add-ons, annexes and afterthoughts that are in place to try and get SEND students into schools that were not designed for them. It is a step on the journey towards social justice for those with disabilities, that’s all. We seem to have hit a brick wall on our journey to achieve the real end result, though! It is this stagnation and failure to complete the journey that elicits many of the problems faced by children and adults with disabilities, and could begin to answer the questions you have raised. I will try to outline the main points, and links to your research, here:

  • Those with additional needs and/or disabilities are denied a high quality education. I recently read a statistic that only 6.6% of learning disabled adults are in employment, but 69% want to be. Anyone who thinks that only 6.6% of learning disabled adults are capable of working need to get out and meet a greater range of people. So what does this statistic mean? I’m sure that, if asked, more than 6.6% of schools would claim that their SEND provision is effective and successful, but clearly it is not preparing those young people to become successful adults. And how could it? If we value QTS why would it be acceptable for some students – our highest need students – to be taught by those without it? And TAs… unless the TAs going to be with them in the job interview, or on the station platform when the train’s cancelled, that can only ever be short term solution.
  • What does the current ‘internal-segregation-as-inclusion’ paradigm tell SEND students about themselves? What does it teach a child about their place in society if they always sit slightly outside of the systems? Especially if ‘their space’ is inferior in quality, such as learning spaces away from the knowledge hubs and unqualified, non-specialist staff. And especially if that segregation instils an ‘us and them’ or even culture of fear between the SEND and non-SEND students, such as inclusion areas (oh, the irony) and ‘safe spaces’ for vulnerable students.
  • By segregating students with additional needs and/or disabilities, what are we teaching our non-SEND students? What are we telling them is the right way to support diversity and vulnerability in our communities? That it is someone else’s problem? And, surely, we are denying them the opportunity to value and learn about diversity and what it can bring to the community. These students will go on to be the potential employers of ability diversity.

In combination, these unintentional by-products of our current approach to inclusion perpetuate the unequal society paradigm that exists way beyond childhood and education. We inadvertently teach our SEND students that they are ‘other’ and should expect less. What’s more, we deny them the tools to fight that situation. We teach our non-SEND students that disability is someone else’s problem, we deny them the opportunity to experience the joy of diversity (disability inequality is an injustice for all of us) and we make it look like this approach is a benevolence; a kindness… something that should make them feel good about themselves. Let me explain that last point a little more thoroughly…

I believe that a big contribution to our reluctance to move on from this step on the journey towards justice is that we have somehow persuaded ourselves that this approach is a good thing. Like having an inclusion department with a load of TAs, withdrawal interventions and escape from the mainstream is a benevolence. Like we are doing those with disabilities a favour by putting a ramp up to a side entrance so they can get in to our able spaces. It’s patronising. The school with the biggest SEND departments is the least inclusive, not most. The building with the most big yellow wheelchair silhouettes slapped all over everything should not be celebrated for all their high profile segregation. The most socially just space is the one with no inclusion or access strategies in place, but where people with all levels of physical and/or learning ability can access it anyway.

I should probably get back to the questions you actually asked.

Why does SEND have such a low profile in educational discourse, political debate and in the more general drive for a fairer, more just society? In my opinion, it is because we teach each upcoming generation – inadvertently – that segregation of SEND is not just acceptable but a cause for celebration and self-congratulation, and we deny our children the information and experiences that would equip them to fight this approach. Each generation become adults thinking about SEND issues as someone else’s problem, or (as a person with a disability), believing that they should be grateful for the add-ons and afterthoughts they get… and without the quality education that would facilitate change anyway.

Women and non-white ethnic groups have also been denied access to a proper education, have had their adversaries miseducated to their detriment, and have had their voices stifled, even criminalised, in their fight for justice, this is true. It cannot, though, be denied that a bigger proportion of the group that are our focus here have additional cognitive and communication challenges that further disadvantage them. In order for those with disabilities to move forward on their journey towards justice we will rely more heavily on changing the hearts and minds of the ‘able’ community; to be able to make a distinction between benevolent segregation with the label of inclusion and real equity and justice for everyone in society. The power to achieve this lies within education.

And I firmly believe that it can be done! I work in a mainstream secondary school in a challenging and diverse inner city area. We have no TAs, never withdraw from lessons, and have no SEND/inclusion department or area. Our SEND register and disadvantaged students match the progress of their peers in all subjects and in all year groups (we have y7-10 – start up free school – but have all assessments externally moderated). In addition, SEND and vulnerable students are proportionally represented in attendance, behaviour and rewards data. I’m not saying it’s easy, it is not! The challenges are myriad, not least the issue of SEND’s low profile at ITT. But also, it is not optional. Justice for vulnerable people in society is a right and responsibility for all of us.

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/ 

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!

Inclusion: the enterprise of putting all of the children into the same building?

or, what inclusion means to me (and why I don’t like saying it)

Finding a definitive, agreed meaning for the term ‘inclusion’, in the educational sense of the word, has proven impossible. So, from various things I have read, experienced, overheard and daydreamed about, this is my own definition (disclaimer; stolen and cannibalised from various sources):

Inclusion is the enterprise of ensuring equal quality of education and school experience for every child. It is not the enterprise of putting all of the children into the same building.

Pretty concise. But the issue of inclusion isn’t concise. This two sentence sound-bite exists for one reason and one reason only; I have learnt (the hard way) that the majority of people who make the mistake of saying ‘inclusion’ to me don’t want to hear my long version. Though, usually, they get to hear it anyway. To me, inclusion is an abstract concept and social construct brought about by the us/them, or able/disabled people, dichotomy that I don’t think exists. But, it is what is happening, and so it is the system I have to operate within and the language I have to use. To me, having an ‘inclusion’ department is like having a ‘not racist’ department; shouldn’t it go without saying that all children within the school are included? We have created a system in which we feel we have to declare that all of the children in the school are having their needs met and, in most cases, I don’t even think it’s true; what most schools call inclusion is actually a form of internal segregation. I don’t think the current paradigm constitutes or facilitates true inclusion, but I know what I think it will look like when we do achieve it. So, here it is (the medium version):

(NB – I’m a secondary school INCo (SENCo) and my posts, including this one, are specifically about inclusion, equality and other SEN-D issues in mainstream secondary schools; my thoughts on TA’s, intervention et cetera in special schools is entirely different; my knowledge of primary schools is somewhat limited)

  • The main purpose of education is… well, education:

Obviously, right? Children go to school to learn and gain the qualifications that will enable them to go on and be successful adults. In education, it is receiving an education that is paramount. So, for me, the be-all-and-end-all of educational equality is that all students receive the same quality – high quality – education as each other. That means fair access to qualified, subject specialist teachers, quality resources, specialist environments and relevant experiences. In order to gain an equal quality education as their peers, our lowest ability and vulnerable learners will need INCREASED access to these things –  not less – and many aspects of the currently prevailing system not only prevent this but actively counter it. Each child should be given maximum opportunity to learn, even if this means going above and beyond the standard offer.

  • Education is about more than just the academic:

Children go to school to learn maths, English, science and so on but, simultaneously, they are also learning something else. Something equally (some might say, more…) important. A second layer of learning, running parallel to and interweaving with their timetabled lessons, and that’s concerned with their developing independence and how they work in a team; how they need to conform but, also, when they should rebel and stand up for what they believe in; it’s about their sense of self, self-worth, value, purpose and place. In short, they’re learning how to be themselves and how they fit into the community. Whatever we do with our school children needs to prepare them for their life as an adult… is having theiraccess to activities facilitated by a 1:1 adult replicating how their life will be when they leave? Is that TA going to be there in the supermarket? The train station? The job interview??? No; they need to be able to do it themselves. More importantly, what does this buffering of access to lessons/teachers, withdrawal from the timetable and being educated by non-specialists and in non-specialist areas tell a child about their place in society? That they’re equally valid, fully fledged members of the community as their peers? That they should have high expectations of themselves and their future? We currently perpetuate a system where school life does not replicate or naturally lead into adult life for our low ability and vulnerable learners and it is this, in my opinion, that has resulted in only 50% of working age adults with disabilities, and 6.6% of working age adults with learning disabilities, being in employment. Segregating low ability and vulnerable learners from their peers is killing their opportunities, even if it is with kindness and good intentions. The internal-segregation-as-inclusion paradigm has enabled us to develop systems that work for the majority and require separate systems for students with additional needs, but this perpetuates a society where those with disabilities sit just outside of where the opportunities are. If your whole school systems don’t work for the least able, they don’t work; everyone means everyone, and anything else simply isn’t equality.

  • We are mixing the ingredients of tomorrow’s society:

            Schools are where the seeds of tomorrow’s society are sown. Our students’ educational outcomes (according to both of the criteria above) will affect the economy, politics, environment and issues of social justice of tomorrow. To paraphrase (the super amazing) Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, ‘creativity occurs at the borders’; progress and development is born out of diversity and difference (e.g., you’re only going to get a lot of different configurations of potato out of a basket of 10 potatoes; just imagine how much more you could create and innovate out of a basket containing 10 different items of food!). I’ve managed to get three analogies into this section alone so far, but my point is this; schools should be diverse communities. I would hate for my stance against inclusion as an ‘under-one-roof’ provision to be misunderstood; I firmly believe that the majority of children should be receiving their equal quality of education in their local or otherwise chosen ‘mainstream’ school, and that it is the responsibility of – and about time – schools changed their attitude towards accommodating a range of abilities and needs. If a school is designed – and I mean the physical structure/environment, the curriculum and staffing model, the superstructures (assessment, behaviour policy, teaching and learning… everything that keeps a school ticking over) – with all in mind… ALL in mind… then they should be able to cater for a diverse range of abilities and needs. However, ensuring equal quality of education (academic and experiential) always, always, always takes priority. And, on that basis, if a child would receive a greater quality education in another setting, for whatever reason, then they should go there.

  • More, smaller, ‘special’ schools:

Having mainstream and special schools isn’t really in keeping with my wider philosophy denouncing the existence of a dichotomous relationship between able and disabled people… so, in an equal and fair education system, that model would have to go. And I’m not keen on the term ‘special’ in relation to schools for students with more complex, profound or challenging needs. To me, it’s patronising and pejorative. Depending on my mood, either all of the children are special, or none of them are; it really depends on the kind of day I’ve had.

            Let me propose an alternative approach to education across an authority. I would like to see a system whereby each area has a number of smaller secondary schools, each with its own distinct identity and specialism; a USP, if you like. Some schools would look, naturally, more like a mainstream school and others more like a special school, of course… but that isn’t the point. The point is that parents, educators and other professionals need choice – real choice  – where none of the available options are schools that are failing, none have a stigma attached, and none are considered ‘uninclusive’ due to some aspect of their entity or identity. Inclusion  would look different in each of those settings – it is possible to be both niche and inclusive! – and equal quality of education and experience would be achieved across the range of settings. For example, what if the schools in your area looked like this:

little schools

No mainstream schools and special schools, just a diverse range of little, unique and – most importantly – really, really good schools, all ‘special’ in their own way. Where would you want to send a child with high functioning autism? A child that loves the outdoors? Moderate learning difficulties? Complex and multiple learning needs? A child that is a gifted dancer? No identified needs but who is really shy? No identified learning needs but a wheelchair user? Having more, smaller schools enables greater diversity and choice, but it also facilitates equality and inclusion in other ways. In my opinion, in a smaller school where ‘everyone knows everyone’ the children are safer (from a safeguarding perspective), have a greater sense of belonging and being noticed, feeling that they’re making a contribution and less likely to ‘slip through the net’ or for an issue to go unnoticed. The imaginary schools in the table add up to 2500 students; there are secondary schools of that size in existence. How would the experience of a student – any student – differ between being in one of the schools in the table and being in a single 2500 on roll school? Feeling safe, having a sense of belonging, making a contribution and having your needs met isn’t an SEN-D issue; it’s an all children issue.

  • Inclusive education is a team effort:

Now, imagine if all those schools were within walking distance of one another… or, even better, they formed a learning campus on a single site. What if your autistic or chronically shy child could attend a small provision with appropriate life skills courses but spend a couple of days a week learning classic civilisations and advanced maths, in a specialist setting, too? What if your academically gifted child attended a very academically focussed school but did PE/drama/art whatever in a class that was shared between that school and one with a more sensory focus? What if the pool, theatre, learning commons et cetera were centrally based for all to access? Competition between schools is a mechanism for driving up standards; we don’t really want to be ‘better’ than all the other local schools, do we? I want the students at my school to be amazing, and I want the students at the school around the corner to be amazing. I want each student to receive the academic education that is right for them; I want them to feel like a fully included member of their community; and I want them to meet a whole load of different people, all of whom they see as fully included members of the community too. Imagine what society could look like in the future if we achieve this!?

So, what does inclusion mean to me? It means three things – equal quality of education and experience; self discovery and preparedness for adulthood; and a feeling of belonging and being valued. Can this be achieved as an under-one-roof provision? I wouldn’t want it to be; every child deserves to be educated in a setting where their experience suits their personality, and the people they bump into on the corridors know who they are. Even greater tailoring of a students experience of education, greater diversity and, therefore, greater tolerance and acceptance, can be achieved through collaboration between settings and, ultimately, it is this that is going to enable each child to achieve those three key elements above. And, if every child is in the school that is right for them, having truly inclusive systems within each individual setting should be a breeze.

Oh, and for the long version, please refer to all of my previous blog posts.