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.


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.


A more universally personalised – not ‘one size fits all’ but ‘one size fits one’ – approach doesn’t just benefit one of the traditionally recognised subgroups, but benefits every single student. For the lowest ability students in a school, so often relegated out of the main stream and into a SEN or inclusion corridor or classroom, with less qualified staff and less valued courses, it gives them the opportunities – academic and social – that we all recognise as a child’s entitlement but just don’t always seem to apply to our children with additional needs. And for our most able and highest attaining they’re given the nurture and individualisation that is the right of all children; just because a child can cope doesn’t mean they should have to. The bell curve, though, tells us that these two extremes account for only a small minority of our school population. All those children in the middle, including all those who fall into no subgroup at all, will also, of course, benefit from getting the best of what’s afforded to those at each extreme of the cohort. And this, of course, is all an oversimplification itself; many of the subgroups and budgets we have for our students can include children from anywhere on the ability spectrum and a child being high or low ability doesn’t mean that they are in the same spot on that bell curve for every subject or skill.  The only answer, surely, is to have schools that provide the structure, nurture and personalisation that enables all children to meet the highest of expectations.


Splitting Hairs (part 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Equality would give each of them half of the pie.

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

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

Justice. (noun) Just behaviour or treatment.

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

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

We are always, though, aiming to achieve justice.

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

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

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


But is it justice? Is it enough?

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

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


Splitting Hairs (part 1)

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


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.


Another Brick In The Wall?


I once heard someone describe the inclusion of children with additional needs into mainstream schools as like trying to fit irregular shapes into square holes. And, to an extent, I agree. Describing our current approach to education as like slotting children into square holes is, I think, fair; it is basically a one-size-fits-all system. We have a formula that leads to a particular outcome – the currently agreed benchmark for academic success – and we cater for difference and diversity through add-ons, extensions and exemptions. Inclusion rooms, SEND departments, behaviour units, and gifted and talented programmes et cetera enable students who do not fit the mould to be in the building anyway, even if they are sitting outside of the systems that have, presumably, been put in place because they represent the best for children and young people. I do, though, have one major quibble with the analogy; I do not believe that any of the children really fit into the square holes. Children are complicated. All of them.
Click to read the rest of the article: