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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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.

 

Splitting Hairs (part 1)

I recently received the following comment (about my blogpost, God Damn It, You’ve Got To Be Kind) on Twitter:

NiceVKind

I never said ‘nice’; I said ‘kind’. They are not the same thing! I argued my case and was accused of splitting hairs… but it does matter; sometimes, it will be appropriate to be nice and, at other times, less so.

You must always be kind.

Nice (adjective): pleasing; agreeable; delightful; amiably pleasant; kind.

Kind (adjective): of a good or benevolent nature of disposition, as a person; having, showing, or proceeding from benevolence.

Sometimes, the nicest thing – the thing that will be most pleasing and agreeable to the other – is not the kindest thing. Sometimes, the kindest thing – the most benevolent and good thing – will not be very nice, pleasant or agreeable. For example, letting a student doodle in their book instead of getting on with their work might be nice, but it is not kind; it will not help them grow and learn. Telling them to stop is the right thing to do, even if it isn’t pleasing or agreeable for them in that moment. It can, of course, be done in a nicer or less nice way. You could shout something sarcastic across the classroom, humiliating them in front of their friends and peers; “Oi! You’re aiming for an A* in GCSE timewasting, are you!?’ Or, you could subtly gesture of give them a quiet 1:1 message; ‘Your last homework was fantastic, you’re really improving. Let’s keep that up, eh?’ Getting picked up on an unwanted behaviour is never, no matter how it is done, going to be a nice experience for the student even though it is the kindest thing to do in terms of their learning and development. And, of course, nice and kind often overlap. This doesn’t mean that they are the same.

I think this, fairly subtle, difference between the meanings of ‘nice’ and ‘kind’ is particularly crucial when thinking about our students who experience their education through the filter of inclusion.

Are our students who are identified as SEND more susceptible to being treated with niceness, rather than kindness, than our non-SEND students? Does this explain why they are very often given the easier option – easier for them and easier for us – instead of being subject to the same high expectations as their peers?

Education – both academic and to become a good citizen – is a child’s right. For them to achieve this, we have to be kind; the kindest thing to do is to facilitate them to obtain their right to education and successful adulthood. To achieve this, sometimes we will need to be firm, sometimes there will need to be consequences, sometimes we will need to nurture them and sometimes we will just need to tell them stuff. Sometimes we will need to be nice. But what if, without being conscious of it, we don’t see education as a right for some children? What if, for some children, we see their right as the right to be included and that’s enough?

An underlying problem with our current approach to inclusion is that we don’t see education as a right for children with additional needs; we see inclusion as their right. And this enables us to be nice and to take the easier option when, really, the kindest thing to do… and the thing that will achieve them their true entitlement; a great education… would be to subject all students to the same high expectations, rigour and standards (the standards we have agreed constitute a good education – the curriculum, QTS, school systems and structures) as each other.

This is, maybe, why our students identified as SEND can be taught primarily by people who don’t have the qualifications or quality assurances we have identified as a necessary aspect of ensuring a child’s right to a quality education. It is why, after designing schools and systems aimed at ensuring a child’s access to their right to an education, we place our children with additional needs just outside of these systems, in SEND or inclusion areas, outside of our expectations for behaviour and for progress, and sometimes even away from their entitlement to a diverse and full curriculum including enhancements such as trips.  And, because for them we are directing our efforts at ensuring they are included and not necessarily educated, we celebrate inclusion instead of education as a success. Instead of judging a school’s inclusiveness on how many of their SEND students make or exceed expected progress or go on to be happy, successful, contributing adults (This can, of course, take many forms! However, having a job that you enjoy, pays the bills, and enables you to contribute to society, is a good way to do it. Less than 1 in 5 learning disabled adults are in employment, and only half of disabled adults overall.) they are judged on how many TAs they’ve got or how big their SEND or inclusion area is. Having a SEND/inclusion area where TAs and the SENCo provide extra literacy and numeracy and vulnerable students can escape to might be nice but, based on statistical and anecdotal evidence of ‘included’ students as adults, it isn’t kindest. It isn’t enabling them to access their right to a great education and a fulfilling and contributing adulthood. Inclusion is the practical manifestation of bringing a more diverse range of abilities and needs into an education system that wasn’t designed with them in mind and, until we redesign education to work for every child, we will continue to let children down, no matter how nice we are being to them.

END OF PART 1.

We All Will Learn

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

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

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

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

SEND and Social Justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A good SENCo works their way out of a job: Annual Review

It has, this month, been one whole year since my first ever blog post and declaration that I wholeheartedly disapprove of the existence of my own job, and would be working to render my own role in the school unnecessary and, hopefully – eventually, non-existent. It seems like a good time to consider what progress has been made so far. So, to start with, a little recap; what, exactly, is my problem with the SENCo? Well, as an interim measure, nothing really. Within the current social and political context, confined by the opportunities and limitations of the education system as it stands, and working collaboratively to meet the expectations of children and the families of children with additional educational needs and disabilities, the SENCo role is a crucial one. Children with additional educational needs and disabilities have achieved the entitlement to receive a high quality and inclusive education and it is the SENCo – along with other stakeholders – who is at the forefront of actually building that entitlement into a reality. But, just as the presence of a builder still hanging around, beavering away, after the building has been completed would either be unnecessary or an indication that the structure is not stable, the SENCo should not need to be there once true inclusion has been achieved, and we need to work towards that goal. The presence of a SENCo represents the need for children with additional educational needs and disabilities to have an advocate in order to ensure that their needs are being met; a truly inclusive school would meet the needs of all of its students on the same basis. The modern education system evolved before the rights of people with physical and learning disabilities did and, as a result, evolved without the need to meet the needs of children with additional educational needs. That, alongside the impact of Ofsted and league tables, has meant that our enlightenment and realisation that all children should be entitled to a high quality and inclusive education has left us with a bit of a conundrum; inclusion is the umbrella term for all the ways we have come up with to get children to fit into a system that was not designed for them. For true inclusion – equality in education – to be achieved, we need a system that was designed with all in mind;  a school designed to meet the needs of the least able and most vulnerable would eliminate the need for inclusion, enable the students who are simply coping to thrive, and these – along with the students who were thriving anyway – to be the architects of a society that values diversity and does not accept side entrances, inferior and intermittent services, low expectations and so on as ‘enough’ for people with disabilities.  Not only does the current system foster… no, force… the internal-segregation-as-inclusion paradigm that we have come to accept, it actively celebrates it. Having a room in your school where the lowest ability and most vulnerable students are taught literacy and numeracy by non-specialist and/or unqualified members of staff, and where those students can come to hide from the perils of the school corridors and communal spaces, is not equality; it is denying those students access to their entitlement. Their entitlement to a high quality education. To be a valued part of their community. To feel like a contributor. The least able child should be with the most qualified member of staff. The whole school should be a safe space for vulnerable children because all children have the potential to be vulnerable, simply by virtue of being children.

Have we made any progress towards achieving this goal? Yes, of course! We are a school without a SEND department (or any alternative name such a department might be given)… we have no SEND area or corridor, no inclusion rooms, withdrawal interventions or teaching assistants… where the students on the SEND register match, and often exceed, the progress made by their peers. As, or even more, importantly; we have no safe spaces for vulnerable students and we do not have students who need to be escorted around the building by a member of staff. All of our students move around the building safely, as is their right. And, before you ask, yes; we have a diverse and wide ability range intake of students. Our SEND Support and EHCP/Statement numbers match national averages and our ‘fair banding’ admissions policy ensures a broad ability base. We have students who would have a TA if they went to another school, students with physical, sensory, and/or medical needs, students who had been excluded from primary school due to their challenging behaviour… they are all here like we knew they would be; we were thinking about them from the start.

All of our students’ learning needs are met within the academic departments. Literacy interventions are run by the English department and numeracy interventions by the maths department, either within timetabled maths lessons or before or after school; we don’t withdraw students from other areas of their timetable. Intervention and support, including when it is on a 1:1 basis, is delivered by subject specialist, qualified teachers. We use ‘double staffing’ of our lowest ability group in each year to facilitate this in English, maths, science, humanities and MFL.

All of our students’ non-academic needs – pastoral, health and wellbeing, safeguarding, physical and sensory needs, socio-emotional development, mental health, outside agency involvement, behaviour, and probably a load more stuff I have forgotten – are managed by one department and, because all of our students are climbing their own personal mountain in order to succeed at university or a real alternative, thrive in a top job and have a great life, we call it Mountain Rescue. Mountain Rescue consists of the Senior Vice Principal, the year heads, me, and a team of mentors and key workers and we… well, we do whatever it takes for as long as it takes, when they need it and because they need it, in order to support their journey up the mountain. Any student can go to Mountain Rescue for any reason and, because of our team approach, we can quickly share information and put provision in place to meet their unique needs, not because they are SEND or LAC or PP or any other sub-category of child that might be in use; just because they need it.

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As is good and expected practice for an Annual Review, I should probably set some SMART targets. By October half term I hope to have developed and completed a set of useful and easy to use documentation to support, quality assure, and facilitate feedback for the support provided by Mountain Rescue. By Christmas I want to have identified and documented all the different models of effective use of double staffing that are being used in the academic departments. And, longer term, I would like the Mountain Rescue team to include therapists and other professionals such as and Educational Psychologist, life coach, Speech and Language Therapist, and nurse. In the meantime though, I am happy for things to continue to develop as they are – a school without ‘inclusion’ – and just be happy that I still have a job to go to!