Education is currently in a strange place; mind you, so are politics, the NHS, law. In fact, virtually every facet of what we have considered to be normal life has been thrown up in the air, partly by a rise in populist politics, where facts, truth and expertise apparently no longer matter, but also by a need to very stealthily cut back on spending. Where this is politically controlled, the cuts are called “efficiency savings”; while a household might need to indulge in serious budgeting.
That the situation is destabilising is evident daily on social media, where common ground often gives way to polarisation and argument rather than discussion.
We have seemingly opened the door to bullies and autocrats in many areas of life, but at the expense of social tolerance, which I have always understood to be a widely held British value. The lack of social tolerance in many areas of life, can mean that significantly vulnerable members are excluded, by default, or, in some cases, by design; you don’t fit our model…
That people are different is easily understood.
The differences can, at times, be exaggerated at the expense of similarities, to the point where accommodation is deemed impossible. This, in education terms, can amount to a form of exclusion; you don’t fit us, we can’t cope with difficulties like those.
However, finding the right educational setting for defined needs is key to success.
My career has shown me that capacity creates capacity, in that schools which find themselves able to accommodate individual needs find the capacity to adapt to the needs of all children, so making themselves desirable and valued by parents and children. Schools operating in challenging areas, taking every child who comes through the door, often because they simply have space, with a positive adult workforce, can transform children’s lives. For the first time, some have space to grow, even if, from time to time, they rail against the system. Children are little humans and have, at their age, perhaps less self-control than adults are supposed to have. They make errors of judgement.
For eight of the past ten years, until two years ago, I did substantial work with Inclusion Quality Mark. This came up in conversation this week, as a Twitter acquaintance proudly told me that her school had recently received confirmation of the award. As I had been instrumental in developing the audit in use from 2015, I was aware of the qualities that the school would have displayed, as there were significant common themes that ran through each, although there were contextual adaptations to evident need.
It made me have a look at bits that I wrote during that time, after visits to schools. The following is an extract from one summary, anonymised.
To move from Special Measures to Outstanding in three years suggests that something special happens in London Primary School. Whilst working with the same staff, the school has seen a rapid turn-around. The principle can be easily stated, as Personalisation in everything, holding to the Every Child Matters ethos, although the practical aspects are more complex to describe. London encounters virtually every identifiable barrier to learning, seeks to identify root causes and then to find solutions which allows each child to feel valued and to develop self-esteem, from which learning needs can be addressed, as children have the skills to cope when errors are made.
Passionate, articulate, hard-working, engaged, analytical, purposeful, creative, inspirational and visionary are all adjectives that can be attributed to the London staff. It was a pleasure to spend quality time in their company.
Equally, if I could nominate a school where Inclusion is lived and breathed, it would be London. It permeates every aspect of school life, perhaps, as the Head of School commented, “With so much need, we have no choice but to use inclusive approaches”. But inclusion at London is more than that statement; it is the raison d’etre, like a stick of rock, sliced anywhere, the word Inclusive would be seen, hearts, minds, bodies and souls are dedicated to the same aims. Although the end of term was in sight, there was still and energy and vibrancy to the school which belied its Victorian building, although even that had been imaginatively used to enhance all aspects of teaching and learning, from Nursery to eleven.
I came away from this visit to London Primary with two thoughts that summarise its outlook:-
The staff give above and beyond what one can reasonably expect of them.
Nobody is left out, child or adult. All are valued for their unique gifts and talents.
Two quotes from a parent and a teacher add to the summary:-
“Like a big family.”
“We offer a glimmer of hope in their lives. We are here to make a difference.”
While an external view was that:-
“The school makes excellent links with the community and other schools to deliver a high quality of service to families”.
The school aims for every child to have a happy and active primary education in an environment that is caring and supporting. It provides a stimulating and structured environment in which every child will be encouraged to reach their full potential.”
Teachers, at all levels of experience, take their responsibilities very seriously, working hard to improve themselves through personal reading and regular networking, where this is easily available. Some are prepared to spend part of a weekend at conferences. They want to offer the best of themselves, so that every child receives the best that they can offer. The best teaching context is collegiate, with expertise willingly shared.
External judgements on the system, schools or individual teachers often creates a negative image; for seemingly thirty years it has often been found wanting and “in need of improvement”, to use an Ofsted judgement, while children may be judged to “not be at national standard” at SATs. Some of these children may well be told this throughout their schooling. And yet, we are, as a profession, acutely aware that labels hurt children (people), this being one of the arguments for removing levels, but we’re in a cultural period where no-one quite knows exactly what to expect of children’s outcomes, as there isn’t, as yet, a common expectation that can be articulated and demonstrated. Teacher insecurity can lead to insecure advice and guidance. We are also at a point where long serving teachers are retiring, to be replaced by younger, less experienced staff. A recent post looked at different stages of teacher development, where less experiences professionals may be more likely to be concerned with getting structures right than the details of specific needs.
Collegiality, quality mentoring and high quality communication are key to safeguarding educational opportunities for each child.
Inclusion is a personal and school wide ethos. It cannot thrive in isolated pockets, without frustration creeping in. Poor communication and inaccessibility engender parent and teacher annoyance with each other. Frustration, on either side can lead to rapidly diminishing relationships, which then have to be tackled before the needs of the children can be addressed.
I’ve included again, the general outcomes from multiple visits to schools to look at Inclusion (above) and also a link to a post that looks at the underlying principles of inclusive practice.
It can be a salutary experience to really take a look at yourself first.