Over recent years, where schools have been built, rebuilt or refurbished, attention has been paid to the need to accommodate to the requirements of a wider variety of potential users of the site than might have previously been the case. I have visited a range of schools across the southern half of the UK and seen considerable innovation in the use of space and adaptations to particular needs, both in new and refurbished buildings. In the latter case, the refurbishment is often an ongoing project, with the school continuing to function while part of the school is effectively a building site.
It is certainly a truism in education that you have to work with what you have, as a basic resource. The spaces and the resources within the building have to work well to effect good inclusive practice. This blog assumes that while walking around the school site, attention is paid to the ease of access, and how the site could be remodelled to best possible use, probably with the least possible cost in the current climate.
Checking that the learning environment is well planned to support learning and teaching.
There is an obvious need for classroom spaces, of sufficient quantity and quality to house the number of classes of children. Quality is often determined by the amount of space, with a notional 55sq m for a classroom as what used to be the norm. This can vary from one style of school to another and can depend on the date of building. Some schools have large rectangular classrooms with areas for messy activity, as well as carpet areas. When I was a HT, my school was an open plan Scola building, with 35sq m “base areas” and the other 18sq m as “working corridors”.
Adaptations, in-house (me, as jobbing carpenter), to work spaces, such as creating art tables from 240cm by 120cm blockboard on top of linked paper trollies, enabled working space to be created, but still keeping corridor movement free. Sometimes it takes a bit of imagination. If you can think it, someone can design it.
The number of tables in a room can sometimes exceed the needs of the number of learners. It is well worth looking at the impact on space of too much furniture, as this can limit space for other valuable activities.
Classroom arrangements, including support staff deployment and use, support good learning. There is order and organisation of resources for accessibility and ease of movement. Differential resources for individual, including specialised, needs; eg more able learners and/or learners requiring additional support.
Spaces are now often created outside the classroom spaces, for withdrawal groups. This puts pressure on the broader availability of space. It is well worth while debating the merits, or otherwise, of such an approach. In an inclusive school, what does a child lose by being taken out of a classroom? Is 1:1 provision potentially very challenging to a child who knows that they are struggling to learn, as they are permanently in the spotlight?
How are additional adults deployed to support learning? These additional staff might have a specific remit, with an individual child, and may well have had some specialist training to the needs of that child, but the majority will be generalist support. It is well worth remembering that they are not always specialists, yet, in many cases, where they are deployed to support the lower achieving group, the needs may be greater than the skill or knowledge of the adult to support. There should be an interplay of responsibilities, with the classteacher spending an equal amount of time with this group, providing high quality teaching to needs, while the additional adult acts as “spotter” for broader needs. Activities can be planned to achieve this arrangement.
Resources, the library and accessible ICT are arranged to support learning. Resources are purchased to identifiable need. Where resources are well ordered and easily accessible, children can become more independent in retrieval and return, a relatively low level activity, but which, in practice, can free up adult time. Learning to find information has always been a part of learning. Most schools retain a library, as well as now having good ICT equipment available to children. Children, well trained in information finding can become independent in this area, again freeing the teacher.
Freeing up adult time is important, as “freed time” can be deployed to support those in greater need. Whole class approaches can often embed practices that centre on the teacher as the provider, diminishing aspects of independence.
Where specialist kit is needed for an individual child, it is essential for all adults to be aware of it’s use and application, as any one of the adults could be called upon to resolve an issue. Examples might be: use of ICT to enhance learning across abilities; adaptive ICT for individual needs; additional resources and adaptations for disabled (differently abled) students.
Communication, oral and written, is effective in supporting teaching and learning, including parent needs for translation and interpretation.
Inclusive schools communicate effectively. I can say that after visiting a hundred schools unpicking their approaches, with a wide range of partners, children, parents and guardians and external professionals. Good communication is highly valued. The simplicity of a morning system, where a parent communicates a concern to the school, that is received by one member of staff, acknowledging the concern, passed to a relevant responsible member of staff to investigate or respond early, reduces parent anxiety substantially. The school is seen as caring and concerned and supportive of parents.
In many ways, communication has become much easier over the past forty years. From my early classroom days, where the home-school diary was the highlight of shared communication, today, it is possible to email, phone (fixed and mobile), text or put information on the school website, as well as the traditional hard copy methods.
Where other heritage languages are a part of the school community, some schools translate their written communications to specific parent needs, while some have a form of “parent buddy”, whose role is to interpret to peers who may not be able to read their own language or English. These buddies can accompany the peer parent into meetings to translate as needed.
There are systems such as the “Young Interpreters” scheme, developed by Hampshire county Council Ethnic Minorities support team, which trains children to support their language compatriots as they arrive in the school. This can enable the newcomer to feel a sense of belonging, as well as provide someone looking out for them.
Positive outcomes of participation in inclusive activities, leading to high quality learning, such as displays and photographs are evident.
With digital photographs easily effected these days, it is possible to keep a visual record of all sorts of activities. These images can be used to create written records, as they act as a storyboard, which can enhance recall and vocabulary and language used to describe the activity. Where a child has a problem transcribing, a scribe can secure the ideas and write these up, recording the child involvement, so that pleasure is derived from a piece of work on display.
The impact of having a piece of work on display cannot be underestimated. Pride is a positive motivator; having achieved this once, the child may strive to do so again. Work quality can be significantly enhanced. The display of work also tells the child that they are valued by the class teacher.
Celebrations of achievements at different levels and a variety of means.
Children like to feel good about their efforts. Knowing that the teacher notices that they have made effort, and that, as a result of this effort, their work is showing improvement, provides the basis for further effort and potential improvement.
Celebration can be simply reading a good phrase or sentence aloud for others to appreciate. It might be sharing the process used to solve a maths equation. It can be noted in terms of house points, raising a child on a star chart, or be certificated in some form, in class or within a celebration assembly.
A phone call or a postcard home broadens the positive web, making the child feel good within a broader group.
No system is “perfect”. The underlying organisation of the school enables the smooth running of the day job, of educating the range of children who inhabit the space. It is, always has been and always will be, a case of “best efforts”, identifying and accommodating to needs within the restrictions of the available spaces and resources.
Occasionally walk your school like a parent, or a new set of eyes. I have worked with schools on a mini project similar to the “secret shopper” scheme, to get an external view of arrival and being shown around the school. That can be an eye opener. Equally, some schools undertake small scale polls to ascertain the quality of communication at different points of the school.
Analyse need, plan to cater for anticipated need, communicate widely and effectively and regularly check in practice.
Everyone needs to feel a sense of belonging.
Could this be said about your school?
The school building, which meets the basic and extended needs of learners and staff, is carefully maintained. The main teaching spaces are large, light and airy, with a large number of very interesting displays and relevant ICT equipment. There is adequate space for teaching and learning, including spaces for small-group work and very well-equipped libraries, developed recently to a high standard. Classrooms use wall space to demonstrate learning points to pupils.
Very high quality displays present the work of pupils across the curriculum and encourage passers to stop and spend time to browse and admire. Some classrooms and some displays presented as a little cluttered, which could cause a slight sensory overload for some learners.
Outdoors, there is an excellent range fixed play equipment and a wide variety of small games are encouraged by the very motivated group of Play leaders (midday supervisors). There is a good-sized grass area used as often as the weather allows. Early Years and KS1 pupils have access to separate outdoor spaces, well equipped to support a broad range of experiential and physical play. The older children are also able to enjoy excellent facilities, developing imaginative play, as well as more usual physical play such as football. The very high quality outdoor provision from Early Years to Year 6 ensures that the learning continues outside class time. An interesting mix of physical challenge, experience, construction, musical instruments, small group games equipment and space for specific activity, such as dance, offer a broad range of opportunities for children to engage with friends in constructive activity.
The school has a large hall which lends itself well to whole-school events and productions. The year four children were preparing a concert during the first day. The excited voices were easy to hear, the quality of singing and the obvious enjoyment being communicated could be felt behind a closed door.
Wheelchair access within the school is very good, as seen through the easy movement of several children during the visit.