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.

Mental Health Matters

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

Thanks 🙂

 

1: Mental Health Action Plan / Provision map:

MH WTD P1

MH WTD P2MH WTD P3

 

2. Wellbeing Plan:

MH Wellbeing P1MH Wellbeing P2

 

3. Safety Plan:

MH Safety Plan P1MH Safety Plan P2

Money Where The Mouth Is

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it isn’t the end.

It isn’t justice.

Continue reading here:

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

Not special.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some thoughts on, ‘When the Adults Change, Everything Changes’ by @PivotalPaul

I have come to a frightening conclusion.  I am the decisive element in the classroom.”  (Ginott, H., 1972).

I am just lucky, it seems, to be teaching in a school that employs many of the very, very good strategies laid out in this book (I can say they’re very, very good because I have first-hand experience of them) as my school existed before the book and @PivotalPaul has never had anything to do with my school.  The uncanniness was such that I had to DM him on Twitter and check.  We call the strategies different things but the parallels are strong.  What are the chances?  Or is it, maybe, actually all just common sense?  It feels like it might be … I wonder if @PivotalPaul would agree?

It’s certainly true to say that part of my enjoyment of the book – and I did really enjoy it – was because I found the strategies very familiar and relatable, though not always the underlying reasons given for the strategies.  I agree, for example, that public humiliation is a terrible behaviour management strategy.  Terrible because it’s cruel, even maybe emotionally abusive, and not, as suggested in the book, because it simply fuels a child’s fame and reputation… like some children enjoy being publicly humiliated.  I would strongly argue that even if a child appears to be revelling in the infamy they may gain from a very public reprimand, it still wouldn’t be true to say we shouldn’t do it because they’re gaining from it.  I don’t think it’s very likely that they are genuinely enjoying that notoriety – they’ve got to find some way of dealing with the humiliation – and, even if they are, that shouldn’t be the reason we don’t do it.  Nor would I advocate the ‘names on the board’, ‘good list / bad list’, approach, whatever visuals are used to represent the binary or graduated system being employed (smiley / sad faces; a rainbow; a league table etc.), but are we really suggesting that use of white, grey and black clouds has any dubious racial connotations.  Surely not!  Last time I checked, most of us would be more pleased at the sight of a fluffy white cloud than a towering grey one and it certainly isn’t because we are racist!  Furthermore, in places, the book seems to assume a widespread cynicism and jadedness within the profession, which i found jarring and at odds with the overall message of the book – positive relationships, restorativeness, and compassion. Depending on your school, what’s going on for you outside of school, the world, the weather, whatever, I know there can be lessons, days, weeks, terms and years where teaching is really, really, really hard… but I’m yet to find a teacher that didn’t go into it, stay in it, or even leave it for reasons that are good and right.  My experience of the profession is that teachers are open minded and resilient in the face of turbulence and change, and persevere in spite of it.  Ultimately, teaching is a vocation and leaving it if it isn’t right for you (or isn’t right for you any more) is as good for the students as staying if it is right for you.

None of this – not the fact my school already uses lots of the strategies or my concerns about some of the rationale for the strategies – means that I didn’t have any takeaways from the book though.  I did!  In fact, loads!!!  The book is bursting at the seams with great ideas, well explained in no nonsense and no jargon language, with lots of supporting anecdotes.  I particularly valued the bullet point summaries at the end of each chapter.  These could easily be put together into a list that would make it easier to keep reminding yourself once you’re back inside that black box without having to re-read or try to find specific bits of the book.  I have made myself a list of things from the book that I’d like to try and to work on, as well as new perspectives on existing strategies, ready for this new academic year.  It was good to consider some familiar ideas from a different perspective as well as ways of developing and adding to the repertoire.

It never takes me long to turn any issue around to my favourite topic; inclusion.  It is barely explicitly mentioned in this book and that is a good thing, in my opinion.  Good behaviour management is only good behaviour management if it is good for everybody – there shouldn’t need to be an alternative to make it work for some children.  The strategies in the book are all strongly founded in relationships, being reliable and consistent, being kind, being human and recognising that the kids are only human too, so fallible, and subject to having to deal with life like we all are.  Every school has children that have been labelled, either explicitly or tacitly, as ‘difficult’… maybe they have additional needs or behaviour that’s challenging… and anyone who has experienced success when working them will know that it is all about relationships, being hyper aware of your body language, consistency and reliability, kindness and understanding.  But being kind and reliable and pleased to see the children that you have chosen to work with (you chose to be a teacher and they didn’t choose to be a student!) is not an SEN provision and it is not a behaviour management technique!  This is just how we should be striving to be.  Just because we get away with letting those things slip with more resilient students does not mean that it is okay to become complacent about it.  It doesn’t mean its okay to be distant, short tempered, inconsistent and unkind.  In short, if we can get it right for the least able, most vulnerable children (and this book would be a great place to start!) we are going to be getting it right for everyone else as well.

As the author himself acknowledges, the strategies in this book work best (or just work at all) if done at a whole school level and with 100% opt in from staff.  A tall order!  I imagine that being the only person in the school, or one of a few, that are implementing these strategies would be very frustrating, and probably pretty confusing for the students too.  In fact, as @PivotalPaul acknowledges very clearly, it can be just as frustrating if everyone is on the same page and just one or two are not subscribing to the principles set out in the book.  This book either really, really is, or really, really isn’t, (depends whether or not you think a person can change!) a book for teachers who strongly believe that children should leave any social, emotional or mental health issues they have at the door, be seen and not heard, do as I say because I say so, and be increasingly sanctioned until they comply if they don’t.  As I’m typing that last sentence I’m struggling to believe that any teacher would be reading and saying, yep; that’s me.  However, my personal experience is that this is what some teachers seem to be doing.

Overall, though, I found this book an enjoyable and impactful read and would recommend it to all teachers in all types of schools.  Read it.  Take everything you can from it.  Then give it to your leadership team.