Not Ready But Ready To Start

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

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

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

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

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

We aren’t ready.

But we are ready to start.

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

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

 

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Summer Inspiration Stories

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

Shame On You

Picture the scene. You and your colleagues are seated, waiting for your regular in-house CPD session to start. The whiteboard flickers to life. Great, you think, the sooner we can get started, the better.

On the board are displayed two lists of teachers names – including yours – grouped under a happy face and a sad face. You then read the slide title: ‘This term’s good/outstanding (or not) lesson observations’…

Continue reading: https://www.teachwire.net/news/some-classroom-behaviour-management-strategies-can-humiliate-children-with-long-term-consequences

Money Where The Mouth Is

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it isn’t the end.

It isn’t justice.

Continue reading here:

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

Unlearn Everything

New teachers!

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

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

No?

Well you’d better get cracking the…

Just kidding. I have some good news!

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

They
are
just
kids.

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

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

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

But what I am going to say is this:

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

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

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

Attitude is everything.

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

FROM YOU.

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

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

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

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

So, happy Teacher New Year!

Let’s make it a good one.

For everybody.

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.