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’.

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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.

EEvNB

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!

EEvR

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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Climbing the Mountain

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

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

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

But they did it.

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

And we did it.

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

Afterword; telling penguins to flap harder

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

The revolution will NOT have disabled access.

Okay, hold your fire. Hear me out.

I am not disputing that the DDA (1995; 2005) and Equality Act (2010) have brought us a long way in terms of improved access for people with disabilities. Lifts and ramps, dropped kerbs, spacious toilet cubicles, autism friendly screenings and all sorts of other things have made a lot of people’s lives a hell of a lot easier. Great. But is it an ideological revolution? Or, is it just papering over the cracks in a broken society and infrastructure? If we consider schools to be a microcosm of society (which I don’t, for the record) we could say that these ‘reasonable adjustments’ are the societal level equivalent of education’s integration/internal segregation paradigm. Can true equality really be achieved as an afterthought? A side entrance? A picture of a wheelchair painted on the floor?

Maybe now would be a good time to demonstrate that I do realise how far we’ve progressed with this. The historical deficit (or, medical) model of understanding disability focused on what a person had wrong with them, could it be fixed and, if not, where could they be stored. A people/broken people dichotomy. Since the 1970’s, though, we have increasingly understood disability according to a social ideology. Not ‘disabled people’ but people who are dis-abled by certain situations. The deficits, in this model, lie within society and not individual people. The legislation for ensuring that these deficits are rectified to facilitate access for people with disabilities has resulted in a giant leap forward towards a society that is fit for purpose for its entire people. Welcome to the evolution. But is it enough?

When it comes to implementation of the social ideology, I have observed a number of approaches:

1. The Seemingly Oblivious, aka ‘the opt out’
Didn’t get the memo… or didn’t feel that the reasonable adjustments were necessary (or that the necessary adjustments were reasonable?)

I was once at a theme park with a group of children and teens with more complex individual needs. We politely enquired as to the whereabouts of the disabled access for their super big rollercoaster; it had a lot of steps up to it. We were informed that disabled riders could access the ride via the exit but, alas, this was also a flight of stairs. We enquired again and were authoritatively informed that ‘wheelchair people didn’t want to ride the rollercoaster’. Damn those mysterious ‘wheelchair people’!!! ​

2. The Law Abiding Citizen, aka ‘the facepalm’
Just blindly meeting their statutory duties.

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3. The Well Intentioned, aka ‘the cringe’
Their heart’s in the right place… I think?

I like to frequent a certain large, northern arena for the purpose of enjoying live music. And said establishment is rather tall and, very sensibly, has a lift. You can only imagine my dismay when I rounded the corner and saw the words ‘disabled lift’ emblazoned across the front of it. Why would they disable the lift?! Now not everyone will be able to get to the… oh, hang on. I see. It isn’t the lift that’s disabled. I suppose this is more practical but, really, no less ambiguous. Is this a lift for all people with disabilities? Do people with cognitive and learning disabilities have to go in the lift? I’m being pedantic, but joking aside, is being old a disability? What about having small children with you? Just to be clear, I’m not objecting to the lift… or ramps, accessible toilets, alternative format leaflets… I’m objecting to our habit of writing the word ‘disabled’ on things or, more commonly, putting a picture silhouette of a person in a wheelchair on it. Consider this:
• Not all people with a disability use a wheelchair.
• Not all people with a disability require those facilities.
• Not all people who would benefit from those facilities are perceived to be disabled. They may just be being dis-abled by that specific situation. For example, the elderly; someone who has broken their leg; someone pushing a pram.
• Not all people who do have a disability and do require that facility need for it to be labelled. I can’t imagine that removing the picture of the wheelchair would result in thousands of step/ramp combos at the entrance of shops being blocked by multiple people in wheelchairs confused as to which option is for them.​

4. The Over Achiever, aka ‘the segregator’
Don’t you just hate it when you’re so good at something that you become terrible at it?

I like to frequent a certain medium sized, northern venue for the purpose of enjoying live music and was recently there with a friend of mine who uses a wheelchair. Having given up on trying to explain to the door staff that I was not ‘the carer’, we were escorted in a lift to the disabled viewing platform, high on a balcony and – for reasons unknown – behind a Perspex screen. We even had our own show-sec security guy. It was quite the party atmosphere.

5. No sarcastic name for this one, I’d just like to talk about Nell Bank; a children’s outdoor activity centre in Ilkley, West Yorkshire. Before I begin, it is crucial that you know in advance that I was facilitating (aka, pushing) a child who uses a wheelchair throughout this story…

We arrived, bright and early, and made our way up to the centre. We did some pond dipping and a nature trail. We had lunch and used the toilets. We had a water fight and we played on an adventure playground. And it was then, atop a big climbing frame fort thingy, that I realised… no side entrances, wheelchair ramps or wheelchair friendly routes. No ‘access’ or special provision at all, really. A facility fit for purpose for children. All children. And yes, we were at the top of a climbing frame.

Is this model achievable society-wide? A society and infrastructure fit for purpose for all of its inhabitants? Let’s consider how it would apply to the ubiquitous disabled parking space; an archetypal example of the ‘over achiever’. Instead of the current format – a separate section of car park, highly labelled, limited to just a small number of people with disabilities (blue badge holders) and unavailable to a whole range of other people who have a disability or are otherwise dis-abled by the vast, hazardous supermarket car park – how about we just show a bit of consideration and common sense? No labelled parking spaces, park as close to the door as you need to. Don’t park at the dropped kerb if you can go up the step. Don’t judge people parked by the door because they don’t fit into your personal conception of what ‘needing to park by the door’ looks like; you don’t know what they’re dealing with. This would rely on a society that lives by the common values of trust and fairness, and this is why this post is here on a blog that is supposed to be about educational inclusivity; the revolution will start in schools. Not because they’re a microcosm of society – like I said, I don’t think they are – but because this is where the ingredients of tomorrow’s society are mixed. If we can create a truly inclusive education system, a truly egalitarian society should follow. If we can create schools that are fit for purpose for all students (and staff, and visitors!), what will society look like tomorrow? The systems and structures should be for everyone. Anyone can have an individual need at some time or another, either short or long term, and those needs should be met as an intrinsic part of those structures and systems; not an afterthought, add-on, annexe, token gesture or, as can so often be the case, not at all. A society fit for purpose for all of its people.

So, I will say it again; the revolution will not have disabled access.
It won’t need it.

¡viva la revolución!