Splitting Hairs (part 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Equality would give each of them half of the pie.

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

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

Justice. (noun) Just behaviour or treatment.

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

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

We are always, though, aiming to achieve justice.

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

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

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

EEvNB

But is it justice? Is it enough?

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

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

EEvR

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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.

TA, or not TA; part 2

So, there’s been some new research and it shows that TAs can add value, in terms of progress, for an individual or small group. But let’s not get carried away now, eh!?

To start with, this is not new information; didn’t we already know that a great TA can add value to the learning experience of some our most vulnerable students? There is, of course, such a thing as a great TA. One who has knowledge, expertise and experience, and supports in such a way that their student(s) develop independence, resilience and social skills. The problem is that this isn’t consistent, or even common, because TAs are not subject to the same baseline expectation or accountability as a teacher. The problem is that TAs are placed with our most vulnerable learners – the very children who will require their academic experience to be held to account to the highest degree if they are to be successful – and that this enables teachers who have not been given sufficient training or accountability for SEND at ITT/NQT to outsource responsibility, at least to an extent, for some of their students. The problem is that, if we attribute a value to pedagogical knowledge and training, then all learners should have equal and unbuffered access to it. The problem is at the societal and systemic level – our approach to meeting special educational needs in school reveals our attitude towards disability in society – not with individual TAs; the most effective are just undervalued and underpaid teachers, the least effective have not been given the training, expectation or pay to allow us to expect any different.

The reality is, however, that TA support is the way that students with additional needs are able to access a mainstream school right now, so any evidence that gives us strategies  to get the most out of that approach has got to be a good thing. For our lowest ability and most vulnerable children to be successful right now, it is crucial that the current system is used to its full potential… but that doesn’t mean that we accept this system as the best we can offer our students.

There’s some new research, but there are questions to be asked about it and how it fits into the bigger picture of SEND education and education as a whole, and whether it can enable us to move on from seeing these two things as separate entities.

Just how positive is this research?

Consider this quote from the article on the Education Endowment Foundation’s website:

The latest research, however, shows that when TAs are used in a focused way – to deliver structured, high-quality support to small groups or individual children – pupils make an additional two to four months progress.

Actually, across the two studies there were some students who made an additional six months progress… and that’s got to be a good thing (although it would be nice to see some equivalent data from a control group), but is it the best quality provision we can offer? Does it tell us what our vulnerable learners can achieve when they receive an equitable  – equal quality, and each child getting what they need – education alongside their more resilient peers? It might be a good way to maximise the impact of TAs, but that doesn’t mean that the use of TAs is the best option available.

How useful, reliable, and generalisable is this research?

The following information about the research is taken from the Guardian article written by Sally Weale and published on Friday 26th February 2016.

The first of the two studies looked at the impact of TAs teaching small groups of nursery and reception age children about topics such as time and what to wear, and isn’t very generalisable to my own mainstream secondary setting. The second study, however, is much more directly comparable:

In the second trial, a targeted reading support programme…,  TAs were used to improve the reading skills of struggling readers in year seven and eight in secondary schools, with one-to-one sessions focused on reading loud three times a week for 20 weeks [5 months].

Pupils made the equivalent of four months’ additional progress, but those who took part in a version with a greater focus on language comprehension made six months’ progress.

Again, any additional progress has got to be a good thing,but that doesn’t mean that it’s the best thing. At my own school, all students are required to carry a book at all times, which they can read in moments of potential downtime (i.e., waiting for their daily assembly, morning meeting, to start) as well as for pleasure at break times et cetera if they want. Additionally, students ‘drop everything and read’ for 30 minutes every day. This is done in groups of around 18 students, with their adviser (like a form tutor, and always a teacher), and also includes opportunities to read aloud, read 1:1 with the adviser, to be read to, do comprehension tasks, write reviews and other activities. It is non-segregatory – the least able student is subject to the same high expectations as the most able, and the most able have the same level of support and individualisation as the least able; what they need and when they need it – and what’s more, it isn’t a one off injection of support; a little boost to create a leap froward in what is likely to have been (and continue to be) a lifelong literacy need. Our approach instills an independence, autonomy and habit (and, hopefully, a love!) of reading that will have a long term and ongoing impact on their progress, even beyond school and into their adulthood. Our students make, on average, one month additional progress for each month they age, although there have been examples of students making 4+ years reading age progress in one school year.

Finally, it’s probably best to include this quote from the Guardian article as well:

The evaluation of the study expressed reservations about these findings, however, because the trial was smaller than expected and had to be phased because of delays recruiting schools. there were also concerns that almost 30% of pupils did not complete all of the tests at the end of the project.

Whilst TAs remain the go-to option for supporting children with additional needs in mainstream schools, and moving forward from that seems barely even visible on the horizon so, for the time being at least, it’s important that we get the best out of the approach that we can. I’m just not sure that this research is helpful in achieving educational equity for all children. All the time we continue to persuade ourselves that use of TAs is good enough for our most vulnerable learners we are also reassuring ourselves that a segregated approach is okay, that less progress is okay, that lower employment rates as adults are okay, and that children with additional needs are somehow different; they don’t need a teacher.

We already knew, didn’t we, that when a TA is used ‘in a focused way’, and when they’re ‘delivering structured, high-quality support’, they have more impact than TAs who are used in an unfocused and unstructured way to deliver low-quality support. The headline, ‘teaching assistants improve pupils’ results, studies show’, belies the small scale, questionable quality and fairly minimal impact of the studies but provides a further setback in achieving true equity in education for our most vulnerable students.

There is no such thing as SEND and non-SEND children, there are only children.

All children will be enabled to thrive and succeed when we stop seeing and providing for them by category and start meeting their needs as unique individuals who all deserve the same high expectations, high quality and rigorous accountability, and all deserve the same level of individualisation, nurture and support.

So, still ‘no TA’.

https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/news/teaching-assistants-improve-pupils-results-studies-show/

http://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/feb/26/teaching-assistants-improve-pupils-results-studies-show

 

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!)

The reasons our schools don’t need teaching assistants.

Never one to pass up on the opportunity to defend my position, here are my thoughts and my counter-argument to this post from the www.educationforeverybody.co.uk website and Twitter account.

Firstly, I can’t seem to find an ‘about’ page or similar, manifesto or mission statement, on the website but, based on the title, I’m pretty sure we are fighting on the same side of the same battle here. And I agree with so much of what is written in the article – there is a problem in the education system and something needs to be done about it. The solution, however, is not teaching assistants… and here’s why.

I too wonder if parents of children with additional needs stop and think about who is supporting their child in the classroom. I wonder if they think about why their child – the child that needs more in order to be successful – is placed increasingly with the least qualified members of staff. This approach, surely, is counter-intuitive. If those children for whom learning is most difficult, and those for whom effective classroom management is most crucial, do not require the input of those who are pedagogically trained, then I guess no child does.

From reading the article I’m left unsure as to whether it appertains specifically to either secondary or primary, mainstream or special, but actually, I don’t think it makes much difference. My own assertion that TA’s are not the answer comes, inevitably, from my own standpoint in a mainstream secondary school. The concept, however, carries to other areas within education. For my students – a diverse and complex comprehensive inner city intake – there are students who require the socio-emotional support of a mentor, and students with physical and sensory needs who may require practical assistance, but only pedagogically trained subject specialist teachers teach. I do realise that early years and special education settings have increased care and supervision requirements and employing people to these roles is crucial… but still, only qualified teachers should teach.

This is a gripe against received wisdoms, easy options and the current inclusion paradigm. It isn’t a personal vendetta against teaching assistants. The very nature of the role is likely to attract people who genuinely care and want to make a difference. What’s more, there are many teaching assistants whose skills and hard work genuinely add value to their students’ education. These TA’s are basically underpaid and, often, undervalued teachers. With limited opportunity and incentive to filter applicants by qualification or proven skill, finding these effective examples of TA’s is mainly down to pot luck. It’s not a chance I want to take with my most vulnerable learners.

I might protest the use of teaching assistants less vehemently if it wasn’t for the lack of evidence that the system churns out successful learning disabled adults. With only 6.6% of learning disabled adults in education, but a reported 65% desiring to be so, I find it hard not to look to the current common approach to learning disability support in mainstream schools – the risk of the use of TA’s to foster velcroing, learnt dependency and, ultimately, the buffering of the student’s access to qualified teachers – as at least one source of blame for this lack of success. Another guilty party could be the inflexible and closed-minded businesses and organisations that could be offering employment opportunities. Maybe because they’re run by people who were educated to believe that those with additional needs would be taken off and looked after elsewhere.

“The [TA’s] work as a crutch for a system that is crippling under… [several examples]”

I couldn’t agree more. But surely this isn’t an argument to keep this broken, propped up system? Surely this is an indication that we need to develop an education system that doesn’t need propping up? A system where there are enough teachers per school to fully meet the needs of the students, where those staff are trained to meet a diverse range of needs, and schools that are designed to keep of their student safe whilst encouraging increasing levels of independence? I’m not saying that achieving this would be easy, but who goes into teaching because they think it will be easy? Ultimately, achieving a high quality education system, that meets the needs of all students equally, is not optional; this is what we should be working towards. Surely ‘education for everybody’ means an equal quality – equally high quality – education for every child and, to that end, the least able/most vulnerable student should be with the most qualified/experienced  member of staff. In fact, all of our little learners deserve equal access to qualified, subject specialist staff.

Removing teaching assistants from schools is not like removing nurses from hospitals because unlike TA’s, who commonly ‘act up’ to the teacher role, nurses stick to the tasks for which they are trained; they don’t perform surgery when there’s a shortage of doctors.

A sad reality, though, is that many parents of children with additional needs cannot imagine their vulnerable little one learning and being safe without the support of their TA and, worse still, they’re probably right; how many schools would be able to achieve true equality for their additional educational needs and disabled students? It is time to start looking at alternative, more equitable, systems and thinking about how we can fix the aspects of the system that are failing our vulnerable learners. And I know that my school isn’t the only school that’s operating a different approach; I dare say there are a range of different options that are better than the one that’s currently prevailing. But teaching assistants are not the answer.

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.

IMG_0204

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!

We’re gonna need a lot more cannons…

Well, the blog has been somewhat neglected for a couple of months and I’m not even sure why. I’ve been busy doing… the usual, day-to-day stuff. I dunno; life takes over, no? The unplanned hiatus has, however, given me chance to step back and take stock. Within the four walls of my own school I feel like a lot has been achieved. But speaking to others from within and beyond education, and when I visit other schools, I am reminded that we have got things going a bit different at DTA; and now we even have data to back our claims up. Beyond those four walls I have received plenty of support, kind words, encouragement, and good constructive feedback too, but it does feel like just that; words not action. And y’know what they say about that… Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen a good few things that feel like a step in the right direction. When I say or think, “ooh! that’s like my way of doing things!”, I claim no causation or responsibility for it, but anything that I see as a step closer to equality and true inclusion feels like another soldier stepping up to the cause. And it’s pretty rare! I still mainly see the perpetuation – even innovation – of segregatory and discriminatory systems. The received wisdom, still, is to ‘include’ vulnerable groups by isolating them within their supposed community, labeling and segregating them, and educating them from behind a wall that, although built for their own protection, ultimately serves to block their access to a quality education whilst teaching them – and their non-segregated peers – that behind a barrier is where they belong. Destroying a child’s ambitions and opportunities with good intentions is still destroying their ambitions and opportunities. This, it turns out, only becomes more frustrating and infuriating as I watch from within as an alternative starts to fall neatly in to place around me. Seen as though I am not, apparently/sadly/thankfully (delete as appropriate), the DfE and able to instigate an overnight education overhaul, I will just have to continue to plug away at getting it how I want it in my own setting. And talking about it. Incessantly. No use throwing yourself at a brick wall, but we can – myself and all those other little foot soldiers of change – keep chipping away at the bottom of it. I’d like to blow it to smithereens! But we would need a lot more cannons…

I do most of my thinking (and loud, uninhibited singing) in the car on the way to and from school. And it was, whilst listening to Cannons by the Kaiser Chiefs and thinking about blowing up walls with medieval artillery, that I remembered that I have a blog and I should probably write some stuff on it. So, with that as the spur, it seems like a good time to ponder a couple of the recurring criticisms of my approach to inclusion that I have received. So…

Common criticism number one: yeah, it’s a good idea but it can’t be done. My Utopian vision of an inclusive education system – smalls schools, zero segregation, no stigma attached to special schools, no blind drive for inclusion as an under-one-roof provision – is woefully unattainable. Actually, I agree(ish) with this… it certainly doesn’t seem to be in immediate… or even intermediate… reach, and no individual one of us (to whom it matters) has that degree of control. But, we can each make a difference in our own sphere. I can’t perpetuate a system that isn’t fair and doesn’t work, so I’m trying something else… bloody hell; the outcomes for vulnerable groups, like SEN-D in mainstream, can’t get any worse, can they? I aren’t saying that I’ve found the answer, and I aren’t saying that all schools should be like my school, necessarily; I definitely advocate diversity and choice. But, come on now; what’s sticking us to the existing system? Is it easier? Definitely not for the SENCo! My approach is, hopefully (argh! not hopefully! I love my job!), going to result in there being no need for a SENCo. For teachers? Maybe, i suspect. Although, surely no-one goes into teaching because they’re looking for an easy life! Is it because we have consciously or sub-consciously written those kids off anyway? None of those reasons are good enough.

Critical criticism number two: my Utopian vision of a truly inclusive education system is actually intrinsically exclusionary. Well, that really depends on how you define ‘inclusion’ for the purposes of the educational discourse. If, for you, ‘inclusion’ means educating all of the children in the same building – the local comprehensive – then, yeah; no, that is not what I’m aiming for at all. I mean, it sounds great… but, in order to ensure every child had a peer group big enough to ensure avoidance of isolation within the community whilst still having as much choice as their wider peer group, the school would have to be HUGE! And I just aren’t down with that. Every child deserves to be educated in an environment where they’re known and valued. Where their contribution is known and valued… where a subtle change in their demeanor – which could indicate that they got out of bed the wrong side that morning or that their little world came crashing down around them that weekend – is noticed by the people they walk past on their way in to the building, possibly long before they’re sat in front of their teacher or their form tutor. For the lucky vast majority of children school is the only other place, aside from home, where they’re guaranteed to be; when things go wrong at home they need to be visible – really visible – at school. I was recently (fairly recently??? It feels like a yesterday I had ten years ago) lucky enough to attend @ERA_tweet ‘s inclusion unconference in London. It was so refreshing and inspiring to be in a room full of people on the same page but for all different reasons and I returned to Bradford bolstered and ablaze… I’d heard a lot of stuff that hit home, but I’d also heard one thing that I did not agree with. Mainstream schools, it was suggested, are designed for neat little box shaped children but children with additional needs are much more complex shapes and do not fit into the neat little box shaped holes. Actually, I kinda agree with it so far and, to be fair, this is where the actual metaphor ended. But, as usual, I can extend a metaphor far beyond it’s useful lifespan and into territory unnecessary and unasked for. They can, these complex shapes, be forced painfully into a box shaped hole anyway, or have a shape somewhat closer to theirs carved out for them somewhere within the school (but in their special hole they must stay), or they can be educated elsewhere; special school, PRU, home schooled, et cetera. I agree with this too. I don’t, however, believe that there are actually any neat little box shaped children. Every child is their own unique, complicated, usually bonkers, ever-changing shape. the real problem is that schools have been designed for boxes when actually they should be like a particularly crazy expanse of crazy paving, with perpetually wet concrete. the main differential between schools is their most recent Ofsted report and, apart from that, they’re pretty generic. Outstanding/Good/Requires Improvement/Inadequate and mainstream/special; half of those combinations imply that the school is not meeting the basic expectations of being a school, and a different half are unfairly stigmatised as uninclusive because they cater to a specific need-type a child might experience. So we are dealing with a system wherein a child with a complex speech, language and communication need attends their local comprehensive school where they experience segregation, potentially bullying, and little learning because that is deemed more inclusive… meanwhile, a parent is faced with the choice of sending their musically gifted year 6 child to a school with music specialist status, with all of the associated facilities, or a sports specialist school, with all the trappings that the association affords. The sports specialist school is Ofsted ‘outstanding’ and the music school is in ‘special measures’. Something’s gone wrong… but it isn’t an SEN-D issue; it’s an all children issue.

So I would suggest a system made up of schools designed to meet the needs of a wide range of unique, important, ever-changing children-shapes. A system made up of schools that are all doing what schools are supposed to be doing (Ofsted call it ‘outstanding’, but Ofsted isn’t the reason to do it that way!), and each offering something that sets them apart, so parents and students have real choice. If that isn’t inclusion… well, I’m okay with that. We’ll call it something else (education?). And, if it isn’t immediately, intermediately or (gasp!) ever attainable? To me, it’s non-optional; we’re gonna need a lot more cannons.

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