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.



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’.




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:

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

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.


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.

Want to be part of it?

Want to work in a school where teachers can teach and all children learn?

Live in the West Yorkshire area or close by?

Well, you’re in luck! WE ARE RECRUITING!!!


Teaching and non-teaching roles available… come join Team Trinity!

Inclusion: the enterprise of putting all of the children into the same building?

or, what inclusion means to me (and why I don’t like saying it)

Finding a definitive, agreed meaning for the term ‘inclusion’, in the educational sense of the word, has proven impossible. So, from various things I have read, experienced, overheard and daydreamed about, this is my own definition (disclaimer; stolen and cannibalised from various sources):

Inclusion is the enterprise of ensuring equal quality of education and school experience for every child. It is not the enterprise of putting all of the children into the same building.

Pretty concise. But the issue of inclusion isn’t concise. This two sentence sound-bite exists for one reason and one reason only; I have learnt (the hard way) that the majority of people who make the mistake of saying ‘inclusion’ to me don’t want to hear my long version. Though, usually, they get to hear it anyway. To me, inclusion is an abstract concept and social construct brought about by the us/them, or able/disabled people, dichotomy that I don’t think exists. But, it is what is happening, and so it is the system I have to operate within and the language I have to use. To me, having an ‘inclusion’ department is like having a ‘not racist’ department; shouldn’t it go without saying that all children within the school are included? We have created a system in which we feel we have to declare that all of the children in the school are having their needs met and, in most cases, I don’t even think it’s true; what most schools call inclusion is actually a form of internal segregation. I don’t think the current paradigm constitutes or facilitates true inclusion, but I know what I think it will look like when we do achieve it. So, here it is (the medium version):

(NB – I’m a secondary school INCo (SENCo) and my posts, including this one, are specifically about inclusion, equality and other SEN-D issues in mainstream secondary schools; my thoughts on TA’s, intervention et cetera in special schools is entirely different; my knowledge of primary schools is somewhat limited)

  • The main purpose of education is… well, education:

Obviously, right? Children go to school to learn and gain the qualifications that will enable them to go on and be successful adults. In education, it is receiving an education that is paramount. So, for me, the be-all-and-end-all of educational equality is that all students receive the same quality – high quality – education as each other. That means fair access to qualified, subject specialist teachers, quality resources, specialist environments and relevant experiences. In order to gain an equal quality education as their peers, our lowest ability and vulnerable learners will need INCREASED access to these things –  not less – and many aspects of the currently prevailing system not only prevent this but actively counter it. Each child should be given maximum opportunity to learn, even if this means going above and beyond the standard offer.

  • Education is about more than just the academic:

Children go to school to learn maths, English, science and so on but, simultaneously, they are also learning something else. Something equally (some might say, more…) important. A second layer of learning, running parallel to and interweaving with their timetabled lessons, and that’s concerned with their developing independence and how they work in a team; how they need to conform but, also, when they should rebel and stand up for what they believe in; it’s about their sense of self, self-worth, value, purpose and place. In short, they’re learning how to be themselves and how they fit into the community. Whatever we do with our school children needs to prepare them for their life as an adult… is having theiraccess to activities facilitated by a 1:1 adult replicating how their life will be when they leave? Is that TA going to be there in the supermarket? The train station? The job interview??? No; they need to be able to do it themselves. More importantly, what does this buffering of access to lessons/teachers, withdrawal from the timetable and being educated by non-specialists and in non-specialist areas tell a child about their place in society? That they’re equally valid, fully fledged members of the community as their peers? That they should have high expectations of themselves and their future? We currently perpetuate a system where school life does not replicate or naturally lead into adult life for our low ability and vulnerable learners and it is this, in my opinion, that has resulted in only 50% of working age adults with disabilities, and 6.6% of working age adults with learning disabilities, being in employment. Segregating low ability and vulnerable learners from their peers is killing their opportunities, even if it is with kindness and good intentions. The internal-segregation-as-inclusion paradigm has enabled us to develop systems that work for the majority and require separate systems for students with additional needs, but this perpetuates a society where those with disabilities sit just outside of where the opportunities are. If your whole school systems don’t work for the least able, they don’t work; everyone means everyone, and anything else simply isn’t equality.

  • We are mixing the ingredients of tomorrow’s society:

            Schools are where the seeds of tomorrow’s society are sown. Our students’ educational outcomes (according to both of the criteria above) will affect the economy, politics, environment and issues of social justice of tomorrow. To paraphrase (the super amazing) Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, ‘creativity occurs at the borders’; progress and development is born out of diversity and difference (e.g., you’re only going to get a lot of different configurations of potato out of a basket of 10 potatoes; just imagine how much more you could create and innovate out of a basket containing 10 different items of food!). I’ve managed to get three analogies into this section alone so far, but my point is this; schools should be diverse communities. I would hate for my stance against inclusion as an ‘under-one-roof’ provision to be misunderstood; I firmly believe that the majority of children should be receiving their equal quality of education in their local or otherwise chosen ‘mainstream’ school, and that it is the responsibility of – and about time – schools changed their attitude towards accommodating a range of abilities and needs. If a school is designed – and I mean the physical structure/environment, the curriculum and staffing model, the superstructures (assessment, behaviour policy, teaching and learning… everything that keeps a school ticking over) – with all in mind… ALL in mind… then they should be able to cater for a diverse range of abilities and needs. However, ensuring equal quality of education (academic and experiential) always, always, always takes priority. And, on that basis, if a child would receive a greater quality education in another setting, for whatever reason, then they should go there.

  • More, smaller, ‘special’ schools:

Having mainstream and special schools isn’t really in keeping with my wider philosophy denouncing the existence of a dichotomous relationship between able and disabled people… so, in an equal and fair education system, that model would have to go. And I’m not keen on the term ‘special’ in relation to schools for students with more complex, profound or challenging needs. To me, it’s patronising and pejorative. Depending on my mood, either all of the children are special, or none of them are; it really depends on the kind of day I’ve had.

            Let me propose an alternative approach to education across an authority. I would like to see a system whereby each area has a number of smaller secondary schools, each with its own distinct identity and specialism; a USP, if you like. Some schools would look, naturally, more like a mainstream school and others more like a special school, of course… but that isn’t the point. The point is that parents, educators and other professionals need choice – real choice  – where none of the available options are schools that are failing, none have a stigma attached, and none are considered ‘uninclusive’ due to some aspect of their entity or identity. Inclusion  would look different in each of those settings – it is possible to be both niche and inclusive! – and equal quality of education and experience would be achieved across the range of settings. For example, what if the schools in your area looked like this:

little schools

No mainstream schools and special schools, just a diverse range of little, unique and – most importantly – really, really good schools, all ‘special’ in their own way. Where would you want to send a child with high functioning autism? A child that loves the outdoors? Moderate learning difficulties? Complex and multiple learning needs? A child that is a gifted dancer? No identified needs but who is really shy? No identified learning needs but a wheelchair user? Having more, smaller schools enables greater diversity and choice, but it also facilitates equality and inclusion in other ways. In my opinion, in a smaller school where ‘everyone knows everyone’ the children are safer (from a safeguarding perspective), have a greater sense of belonging and being noticed, feeling that they’re making a contribution and less likely to ‘slip through the net’ or for an issue to go unnoticed. The imaginary schools in the table add up to 2500 students; there are secondary schools of that size in existence. How would the experience of a student – any student – differ between being in one of the schools in the table and being in a single 2500 on roll school? Feeling safe, having a sense of belonging, making a contribution and having your needs met isn’t an SEN-D issue; it’s an all children issue.

  • Inclusive education is a team effort:

Now, imagine if all those schools were within walking distance of one another… or, even better, they formed a learning campus on a single site. What if your autistic or chronically shy child could attend a small provision with appropriate life skills courses but spend a couple of days a week learning classic civilisations and advanced maths, in a specialist setting, too? What if your academically gifted child attended a very academically focussed school but did PE/drama/art whatever in a class that was shared between that school and one with a more sensory focus? What if the pool, theatre, learning commons et cetera were centrally based for all to access? Competition between schools is a mechanism for driving up standards; we don’t really want to be ‘better’ than all the other local schools, do we? I want the students at my school to be amazing, and I want the students at the school around the corner to be amazing. I want each student to receive the academic education that is right for them; I want them to feel like a fully included member of their community; and I want them to meet a whole load of different people, all of whom they see as fully included members of the community too. Imagine what society could look like in the future if we achieve this!?

So, what does inclusion mean to me? It means three things – equal quality of education and experience; self discovery and preparedness for adulthood; and a feeling of belonging and being valued. Can this be achieved as an under-one-roof provision? I wouldn’t want it to be; every child deserves to be educated in a setting where their experience suits their personality, and the people they bump into on the corridors know who they are. Even greater tailoring of a students experience of education, greater diversity and, therefore, greater tolerance and acceptance, can be achieved through collaboration between settings and, ultimately, it is this that is going to enable each child to achieve those three key elements above. And, if every child is in the school that is right for them, having truly inclusive systems within each individual setting should be a breeze.

Oh, and for the long version, please refer to all of my previous blog posts.

Climbing Mountains: aspiration, growth mind-set and SEN-D

This isn’t a post about how we should be encouraging our students with SEN-D to be ambitious. In my experience, they already are; I have as many aspiring doctors and lawyers in my lowest ability set as in my highest. No – this is a post about us, and how our words and actions can en-able or dis-able a student’s hopes and dreams; about how we might be saying all the right things, but our actions might be giving a different message entirely. My students with SEN-D are incredibly aspirational; their growth mind-set’s know no bounds… but society’s attitude towards (and accommodation of) disability, including learning disability, is very much fixed. To overcome the societal barriers to their success they’re going to need more than aspiration and growth mind-set; they’re going to need a bloody bulldozer. And what they learn in school – not in lessons but in what they learn about themselves and their place in the community – will be the difference between a young adult that meets an obstruction to their success and understands that that’s as far as they can go… and one that smashes right through it because they know that they have a right to go further. At my school, all students are climbing the mountain to university (or a real alternative) so that they can thrive in a top job and have a great life… but what are the prospects of that for our students with SEN-D? Nationally, only 50% of working age adults with a disability are in employment. That drops to just 6.6% when you look specifically at learning disability. That’s a pretty big untapped human resource base our economy is missing out on. And it’s a lot of people missing out on the many benefits of being in employment; not just financial, but social, emotional and developmental. Now, I do realise that some people may be unable to work for very real and genuine reasons… and that from all sections of society there are people that just don’t seem to want to work; fair enough. But I find it hard to believe that those factors cover half of all people with disabilities, and over 90% of those with learning disabilities. Of course, I have my own theories…

  • We live in a society that is not fit for purpose for all of its inhabitants. I have already written about this in lots of detail in a previous post (The revolution will NOT have disabled access) so I won’t get on my soapbox again here; not about the same thing, anyway. But, to summarise; the progress we have made in ensuring that society and infrastructure is not dis-abling of some people – lifts, ramps, blue badge parking, equal opportunities employment, et cetera – is actually just a piecemeal, and sometimes even tokenistic, papering over of the cracks in a broken society. True equality and inclusivity cannot be achieved as an annexe, it has to be intrinsic… and that is still rare. This raises a number of challenges for people with disabilities who are seeking employment. The employer is now required to be accessible (although it is likely that an employee with disabilities will experience some degree of segregation – separate parking, entrance/exit; toilet, et cetera – and that the segregation is also likely to be proudly labelled with bright  yellow pictures of wheelchairs) and there has been some attempt towards equal opportunities employment, although it would probably be better to just adopt an accommodating and open minded attitude and then proceed to employ people on the basis of their suitability for the role. But this still doesn’t really explain the incredibly low employment figures. People with disabilities are now protected (and encouraged) through policy and law to gain employment, even if the methods do encourage segregation and tokenism… so why are the numbers so low???
  • We subliminally (and accidentally) tell our students with disabilities that they are not fully part of society. And, in doing so, we are also telling our able students that those with disabilities are not fully part of society. This is a difficult pill to swallow, and it’s more of a reflection than an accusation; I doubt that anyone is consciously, let alone intentionally, giving their students this impression. Nevertheless, I am convinced that this is what is happening and, furthermore, it is the root cause of those statistics. This subliminal messaging is what ultimately prevents our lower ability students, and those with disabilities, from accessing employment; our words are saying equality, but our actions are saying something else entirely.


So, what are these subliminal messages then? Let’s start with a straightforward example from outside of education; the ‘wheelchair access at rear’ sign. Firstly, what does it mean? That’s straightforward – it means that the building is accessible to wheelchair users, and the accessible door is at the rear of the building. Simple. But what other messages does it give? We remembered you and added something after? We didn’t want your ramps and lifts getting in the way of our front door? Please use a side door so you’re out of the way? And don’t even get me started on the ubiquitous wheelchair silhouette logo. Again, I don’t think anyone is intentionally sending out these messages but, nevertheless, I think they’re there. Let’s look at some examples from within education now. What subliminal messages are we giving our low ability learners and students with disabilities through the not-inclusion-but-internal-segregation paradigm? What message does it give a child (and their parents, the other students, and the adults in the school?) if all of their access to qualified, subject specialist teachers is buffered by unqualified, non-specialist learning support assistants? What message does it give to be taught literacy and numeracy (extra/intervention or as their main core offer) in a separate room, away from the subject departments and staff? What does it tell them if everyone has to do MFL/art/technology/whatever … but they don’t? What do they understand of their place in the school community if some or all of the rules don’t apply to them (please refer to this post and this post for more detail), or even just that expectations of their behaviour, progress and attainment is lower??? I’m not saying that anyone’s doing it intentionally… but I am saying that, by perpetuating the existing systems (TA’s, withdrawal intervention, rules that don’t quite apply to everyone), we are subtly but constantly telling them that they sit just a little outside the system. In fact, probably, that they sit a little beneath it.

I do realise that a society and infrastructure where every single person can access every single space is unattainable. It isn’t even attainable (or really desirable!) if you take disability and learning disability out of the equation. Take me, for example; I have no learning or physical disabilities but there are plenty of spaces and jobs that are not accessible to me, either for physical, social or cognitive reasons. The men’s toilets, for example (social exclusion); the position of brain surgeon at my local hospital (cognitive)… this summer I attempted to climb up Ilkley Moore with a friend; she made it, I didn’t (physical). Everyone has strengths, weaknesses, preferences and stuff they’ve just got to deal with. All I’m saying is that some people have much more of the latter than is their fair share.


Climbing the Mountain

As I mentioned, all students at my school are climbing the mountain to university, or a real alternative, so that they can thrive in a top job and have a great life. There are no exceptions, but clearly the ‘real alternative’ and the definition of a ‘top job’ is going to be different for each individual depending on their skills, preferences and so on (e.g. bank manager might be considered to be a top job by some, but completely undesirable – even unacceptable – to others, whereas international aid worker might look like something you’d do in your gap year to one person, but be a dream job for someone else). The non-negotiable aspect of the metaphor, really, is that we want all of the students to be the absolute best they can be and this, we believe, will result in them having great lives. No exceptions.

We talk about climbing the mountain every day, in every lesson and every aspect of academy life. It’s part of the very fabric, culture and language of the school. And, at the beginning of each year, we take our new year 7’s to Ullswater, in the Lake District, to bring the metaphor to life; we go climb a real mountain. To us, the preparation, excitement, trepidation and anticipation, the team work, hard work, struggle and, eventually, the triumph of reaching your goal, is the perfect metaphor for education and we want our students to experience it… metaphorically and in real life. What message would we be giving to the children if we left some of them behind? If some of them didn’t attend the trip? Or, they did attend the trip, but didn’t climb the mountain with us? Getting our lowest ability learners, students with physical disabilities and those with behavioural, social and emotional needs, up that mountain was not easy. They faced a myriad more challenges, hardships and hurdles – not least the attitudes and expectations of the people around them – than their peers…

Exactly like their metaphorical climb to a top job and a great life is likely to be.

But they did it.

Our vulnerable students’ opportunity to climb the mountain seemed to be blocked at every turn. First by parents ringing school to tell us that their child had special needs and couldn’t go… they hadn’t been able to go on the year 6 trip and hadn’t really changed in the meantime, et cetera. It was clear that the centre where we stayed were not used to accommodating diversity. There was little in the way of access – even a few tokenistic add-on’s would’ve been welcomed! – and their suggestions for inclusive activities were, well, not inclusive (on one occasion, when I asked if the activity was suitable for all of the children, i received the response, ‘yeah, most of them’; the, apparently, simplest team game the instructor could think of resulted in one of the lower ability learners declaring that he no longer liked to play games). We climbed the mountain with a (not really suitable!) wheelchair we’d brought from school, a walking frame, and a LOT of medicine. We moved slower and we stopped often.

And we did it.


And still, so few adults with disabilities – especially learning disabilities – climb their personal mountain to university (or a real alternative), a top job and a great life. But the seeds of change are in our midst!  If we are teaching our students – all of them – that they can be great and have a great life, then super, but we need to give our students with SEN-D something else as well. They can be aspirational, successful, contributing members of society; of course they can. But their journey is going to be beset with challenges and fraught with doubters. They need a growth mind-set, a clear consistent message that they are part of the community with the same rights and accountability as everyone else, and they’re going to need a bit of fight, grit and determination to keep going against the odds. Society isn’t ready. But, if we get it right in schools, it soon might have to be! ¡viva la revolución!

Afterword; telling penguins to flap harder

About half way through writing this I came across another article (here) covering very similar ground. It is always useful to see things from multiple perspectives so I’d highly recommend it to any reader; my more extended thoughts on it are posted as comments at the bottom of it. The basic premise, though, is this; telling our vulnerable learners to have a growth mind-set (where growth mind-set is “success = hard work + perseverance”) is like telling penguins to flap harder if they want to fly. I couldn’t disagree with this more. Our vulnerable learners are not flightless penguins in a world of flying birds… they’re flying birds too! And there’s an immense variety of birds flying around out there! Some fly higher than others, some fly slower, some soar, some swoop, some glide… I’m getting carried away with the metaphor. There is, however, one thing that I’m absolutely certain of. We shouldn’t be telling ANY of our birds that they’re flightless.