In part, starting with the County Officer could have gone either way in setting the tone for the day. There was much talk of inclusion and finance and numbers of children on the SEN registers and EHCP applications, to the point where the whole almost got bogged down in sheer wordiness that hid, for me, a great simplicity; from being a Pathfinder County in 2013, the system is still not streamlined sufficiently to enable rapid resolution of issues at the sharpest end of SEN need. It was acknowledged that EHCP turn-around is nearer 40 weeks than the 20 it should be, which means a whole school year, with time before building to the application.
The D bit of SEND was covered to some extent by the representative from the Parent Carer Network, largely by acknowledging that, as a parent of a recognised, severely disabled child, she got almost immediate support for every need. She had set up the Network to support those parents who faced significantly greater need to help them through the many weeks of frustration that can accompany an EHCP application, and the time before that when it can be a fight to have needs acknowledged so that they are fully investigated to form a case study to submit.
Coffee arrived at a very suitable time. Perhaps I should have taken something more calming, rather than a stimulant!
The next 75 minutes passed very much quicker than the first 60. Dean spoke without notes, without Powerpoint and without any other visual resources. It was a tour de force presentation, which had pathos and humour skilfully interwoven, taking us through his school experiences, which can be described as considerably less than positive, especially at Primary School. His exit from that school was dramatically described, with added ambulance and an Eastenders twist. The problems that he described were largely associated with high anxiety, which led to inappropriate behaviours and speech, which elicited inappropriate responses from teachers unwilling to understand the needs of this “naughty” child. Dean showed how his lack of emotional response through his face often led to teachers believing that he was calm, when in fact he was in turmoil. He pointed out that some “social group” situations, set up by schools, with the best of intentions, to enable socialisation, actually heightened his social phobias, rather than addressing underlying issues. The reason was simple. Teachers talked about him, not with him, so based decisions n assumptions. It was when a TA became his advocate, coaching, guiding and prompting behaviours, within a framework of trust, that he began to make more sense of social norms and the system within which he found himself.
It was a pity that there was not time for further discussion afterwards.
Shay McConnon, special education teacher, psychologist, author, speaker and magician, shared his insights into what makes a good team and team member. He was challenging and amusing, with a dollop of magic to emphasise his points. There was a significant focus on the needs of an individual within the team, which, for me, began to work against the premise of a school being a collective endeavour, with a wide variety of staff roles that support the system and external forces which come into play in different ways, with parents, community, Governors and external authorities all impacting in different ways.
One to one relationships can have a significantly different purpose from the same people in roles allocated by their institution, with differential status or responsibilities complicating the relationship beyond simple friendships. Working as a team exposes some members to situations that they find uncomfortable as they feel challenged by (the needs of) others, in order to accomplish tasks set by the institution.
While different members of the teams were described as bue, red or green, according to their essential temperament, as a former Head, I kept thiking that, in order to run an effective collegiate team, I had to understand, the mindset of each team member, if I was to get the best out of them; knowing the people is a key.
Understanding mindsets was the key to the day; the individuals who make up teams, the children who make up out classes and schools, the parents who put their trust in the school, the oficers who make decisions about children’s lives.
The weakness, if there was one, was in the use of the word INCLUSION. This term was used from around 1997, to acknowledge (encourage) deeper integration of children with SEN into mainstream schools. It could, cynically, be seen as a political ploy, to change perceptions.
Where schools had significant populations of children with SEN or other individual needs, the professional capital built up within institutions and individual teachers was great and the “Every Child Matters” agenda was enabled to be successful. Working with Inclusion Quality Mark and Leading Parent Partnership Awards, I was able to see and interrogate this in action in a wide spectrum of schools.
Where it meant that one or two children were to be somehow accommodated within a school, the lack of professional capital often put tremendous strain on a single teacher, and sometimes on a broader spectrum of people. They didn’t have the capacity to deal with identifiable issues.
Over my ten years with IQM, it became clear that inclusion worked where the definition covered all groups of children and struggled where there were few. The latter occasionally enabled teachers to claim that a child didn’t fit. This had to be interogated to find out whether the child had exhausted the school skill-set, or whether they had somehow “got under someone’s skin”.
Inclusion is a holistic philosophy, supported by significant organisation that is responsive to evident needs, through investigation, clarity of description, analysis, planning and follow through, including evaluation.
Inclusion in reality, is described within the teacher standards; essentially it’s just doing your job really well, for all children.
However, it is getting harder for schools, especially within Government frameworks which describe children at specific points as being “at national standard”. A large number of children with SEN will NEVER be “at national standard”, so will be permanently vulnerable within their education.
The system, at a national level, far from safeguarding these educationally vulnerable children, may actually have created a system that makes them even more vulnerable, by classing all without an EHCP as effectively within some “normal” band; an ever decreasing circle of anxiety and feeling of failure, that is not understood.
The system is clearly not yet sufficiently robust to identify and support the individualised needs of those with the most challenging need. Nor yet to ensure that those who “fall behind” in one year, have sufficient additional help to make up the difference. Mantras don’t make a difference; bridging gaps and diminishing difference trip off the tongue, but don’t actually unpick o address the needs.
There are times when teachers just have to teach the individual child in front of them. That’s the fulfilment of inclusion, when every child’s individual needs can be met within the school that they attend, but with system safety nets that provide adequate external expertise to support the teachers. It may occasionally mean transfer to a school with specific expertise, but that’s a sign of an inclusive system.
We can’t yet describe the system as holistic and inclusive and we may never get there in a fragmenting system, where mainstream schools are fighting for survival based on their educational outcomes “at national level”. It seems like a self-defeating philosophy.