Schools Can Be Different
A Short Reflection on Bravery
If all schools were judged by the provision they make for their most vulnerable learners (which feels not to be an unreasonable measure) it could be that there would be more “inadequate” judgements than there are currently. For some learners attendance at school requires reserves of courage.
Bravery is not a word that we would want to define any child or young person’s daily experience of school. After all, school is meant to be a place of safety, fulfilment, and positive relationships, yet for thousands of differently abled children and young people, navigating their normal school day is challenging, complex, damaging even, and bravery is a daily necessity of survival. In his recent book ‘The Inclusion Illusion’, Dr Rob Webster highlights the everyday experience of students with SEND in mainstream school as being characterised by separation and segregation.
School is meant to be a place of safety, fulfilment, and positive relationships, yet for thousands of differently abled children and young people, navigating their normal school day is challenging, complex, damaging even.
‘There are structures and processes ingrained within these settings that serve to exclude and marginalise them (children and young people). The arrangements that led to this might be defendable if they were necessary for creating an effective pedagogical experience. Yet the evidence… suggests that, if anything, they result in a less effective pedagogical experience.’
The Policy Context
Over 1.4 million children in Britain are reported to have some sort of special educational need and we all know that the unassessed number is probably much larger. Three-quarters of these (about 1.1 million) are on SEND support and 365,000 have an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP). The current SEND Green Paper talks about ‘a clear vision for a more inclusive system’ but gives no real sense of how it will be achieved. To put this inclusive thinking into context, following a consultation on behaviour management policies and exclusion, the Department for Education appointed a “behaviour tsar” to create “behaviour hubs”. Guidance also referred to the use of “removal rooms” in schools as a punishment and to the use of managed moves as an early intervention measure for pupils at risk of exclusion. To be clear, the children and young people most impacted by these measures are the most vulnerable in society. Mostly they are those with SEND.
The Government (and constant merry-go-round of Education Ministers) continues to wrestle with inclusion and SEND system reform, with no clear approach to system transformation in sight. For this article, we set aside the complexities of system change and instead take a grassroots-level deep dive into exactly why life in mainstream education is so tough for differently abled students.
Gesher’s Ashleigh Wolinsky, Speech and Language Therapist, and Ingrid Mitchell, Educational Psychologist, have extensive experience working with SEND learners. We asked them to share some insights drawn from that professional experience. It will not be a shock to readers to learn that SEND identification, poor resources, and assessment and diagnosis delays are some of the consistent features.
However, with that as background we have extracted from the interviews three further clusters of issues:
End Note: This article is not a criticism of mainstream schools, nor of secondary schools in particular. Nor is it a eulogy for special school provision. Let’s be clear: we believe that both mainstream schools and special schools can do a great job for neurodiverse SEND youngsters — hence the insights and advice.
What we are also clear about, though, is that hundreds of young people across the country have a potentially damaging and unhappy experience of school and that there is knowledge about how things could be better. This piece is a small contribution to that, drawn from those with expertise.
Professional Prompt Questions
What most challenges your school’s SEND practices in this article?
Are there things in the ‘practical wisdoms’ section that your school might like to adopt?
Might it be of value to your school to create a Learners’ Lens of insights from your neurodiverse children?
The ever-changing political landscape has seen far-reaching implications for education and health services; spending cuts have been severe and there is currently a real disparity across the country in the amount and type of therapeutic provision available to children with SEND. It is interesting to reflect on the journey of how therapies emerged in schools, and to observe the inherent successes, but also the frustrations; frustrations largely due to ‘not enough’ rather than the quality of provision.
It is abundantly clear, from both research and anecdotal evidence, that the best possible model for effecting quality provision for each child is to do this within a team. In this case, the team would be school, parents and therapies.
Within School, Not Withdrawn
Historically children were taken out of school to attend therapy sessions in local community clinics and hospitals. This obviously disrupted children’s education and meant there was limited opportunity for liaison with school staff, and also that skills acquired in therapy had little chance of being generalised into everyday school life. With the advent of Statements of Special Educational Needs (Statements) — now Education, Health Care Plans (EHCPs) — the NHS began to place Therapists in both mainstream and SEND schools. Subsequently, Local Authorities (LAs), through joint funding with the NHS, began financially and operationally to support this model and Therapists began to work regularly in schools to see children — both with and without EHCPs.
Therapists as Members of Staff
Schools and parents could really see the benefit of children receiving therapies in their school environment. However, they also became increasingly frustrated by the amount of input they were being offered, with both the NHS and LAs rationing services due to a never-ending series of spending cuts. Schools began to recruit their own Therapists, giving them more control over the frequency of input, and allowing Therapists and school staff the opportunity truly to work collaboratively as part of a team around the children and young people in education.
Cut to today and this model is seen in both SEND and mainstream schools across the UK. Some settings have multi-disciplinary therapy teams on site full-time, while others have Therapists either employed directly by them or contracted via independent Therapists and practices. Therapists may visit weekly, half-termly or termly depending on the needs and budgets of individual schools.
Arrangements in one SEND School
At Gesher, therapy is not seen as an ‘add-on’, instead, it is part of the overall curriculum and is designed and delivered in tandem with the educational and social curriculum. Therapy targets are woven into all aspects of day-to-day school life, and therapies can be delivered in a variety of ever more creative ways. Staff upskill each other and are able to plan jointly and run interventions.
As in most settings, therapy staff work to a three-tiered approach: Universal (for all), Targeted (for small groups) and Specialist (for individuals). It is at the Universal level that the work can really make an impact: devising, teaching, modelling and reviewing whole-school approaches such as communication and sensory-friendly classrooms, signs and visually supported speech, Zones of Regulation, Movement breaks, facilitating lunchtime chats, playground games and Fun with Food.
Some Lessons For Any School
This model can differ from setting to setting, particularly in mainstream schools. So, what can a regular school do to maximise the impact of therapeutic support where provision can be limited in frequency?
Preparation is Key
Identify the key person who will liaise and plan with the Therapist. This is usually the Special Educational Needs and/or Disabilities Coordinator (SENDco). The SENDco can then ask school staff and senior leaders to come up with a list of priorities and areas for development with regard to the particular Therapist that is working with your school; this could include:
Plan For Each Visit
The SENDco and Therapist can make a joint plan prior to the visit, by email, which ensures:
Taking children out for one-to-one work may be necessary if outlined in a child’s EHCP. In these circumstances, a Teaching Assistant should be able to accompany the child to observe and participate in the session and effect meaningful carry-over. If you are unavailable to catch up at the end of the visit, ask the Therapist to send you a summary of who was seen, meetings that took place, interventions/training carried out, etc.
It may be cost-effective to link up with other local schools to ‘buy in’ Therapists and many independent Therapists and practices have a choice of bespoke packages to suit a range of needs and budgets.
For further guidelines and information on commissioning Therapies in schools, see the links below:
Independent Speech & Language Therapists
Therapists share the frustration and challenges of our colleagues in education regarding provision. However, as suggested above, there are ways to maximise outcomes and utilise the therapy provision a school does have.
In essence, those universal approaches will have a significant impact and are achievable and sustainable. Investing in staff training and setting up whole-school approaches benefits all students, leaving the precious remaining Therapy time directed where it is needed the most.
The Three Houses model is a tool which provides a visual way for people to express their views about a topic or experience. The tool was originally developed in 2003 in New Zealand for use in the field of child protection, but since then has been adapted for use with other groups. The version here is based on that created by Cunningham (2020) who used the tool as a way of eliciting the views of autistic children about what made their school autism-friendly.
How Does It Work?
The Three Houses model is a very flexible tool, which can be adapted to suit the needs or preferences of the young people you work with. Below are two options for how the tool could be used.
Option 1: The adult and young person draw three houses together. Once the houses are drawn the adult explains the name of each house: house of good things; house of less good things; house of dreams. The adult then asks the young person some questions and the young person’s responses are recorded in each house. For example, the adult could ask questions about what
is going well at school. After the young person has given their responses, the adult would add these to the relevant house, in this case, the house of good things. This would be repeated until all three houses are filled.
Option 2: The adult shows a young person a picture of three houses and then asks the young person to draw their own version on a separate piece of paper. The adult would then explain the name of each house: house of good things; house of less good things; and house of dreams. Next, the young person would be asked to write or draw pictures of all the ‘good things’ about something, for example, school. As the young person draws or writes, the adult can ask the young person for more information about what they have drawn or written. This process would be repeated with all three houses.
The below three houses are from Gesher’s conversation with students for the Changing Schools, Changing Lives article.
We would like to thank High Tech High for their generosity in allowing us to share in The Bridge project cards and the occasional article from their Unboxed journal.
High Tech High in San Diego, now some 16 small schools serving over 6,000 young people K-12 across four campuses, is one of the most feted and influential school designs in the world. It is known for its commitment to a project-based curriculum, to relationships, to deep learning and to the development of students through the development of staff. More relevantly for The Bridge, HTH is also committed to sharing practices and learning in multiple ways. They have a graduate school supporting Masters degrees for their own staff and others; they host literally thousands of visitors to their campus each year; they facilitate a MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) available internationally and, for the last 14 years they have published their own adult learning journal, making it available both in hard copy form and via the Unboxed website, which is a rich treasure trove of resources.
by Angela Guerrero
On a cold October morning, my colleague Breawna and I carpooled to school together as we often do. I piled my bags into the back seat, hopped in the passenger side, handed over a cup of coffee, and settled in for a drive full of teacher talk. The topic of discussion, as it so often is, was how to make projects meaningful and still hit the content needed in the history standards. This is an odd question for us to ponder, since we teach at a school that alleviates some of that “standards” stress by asking teachers to teach what they are passionate about through projects. But there we were, without the pressure of a frustrated principal or a zealous department chair, agonising over our fear of not giving the kids enough content. This may be because we both started our teaching careers at traditional high schools, attended traditional universities, and attended traditional high schools where school looked very much the same; teachers lectured, students feverishly took notes, a test was given, an essay written and a grade awarded that measured proficiency on some standard. Breawna and I are both struggling to define what education is all about, and building the curriculum around projects requires a break from the past that is often difficult. But on that morning when Bre asked me, “Where do good projects come from?” I felt I finally had something to say.
Eleanor Antin, “The Tourists” from Helen’s Odyssey. Copyright Eleanor Antin. Courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York, www.feldmangallery.com
This question, and the struggle to meet standards, plagued my first year teaching at High Tech High Chula Vista. So much of my work in the first year was simply writing and reading a pretty standard English class by most accounts. As I entered my final grades and completed my first year of teaching, I made a promise to myself to create engaging projects that would also comfort me by hitting standards. But what were the projects going to look like? Where would I get the ideas? Where did projects like that come from? Thirty journal entries, ten morning walks, hours of reviewing the state standards and countless conversations with friends left me no better off with my query as the summer days slipped by. I decided to simply enjoy summer for a while and return to the burning question in August. But then something happened that answered my questions. And it happened while I was enjoying myself, no less.
My sister invited me to a local museum to see an exhibition called “Historical Takes”, by Eleanor Antin. I sauntered into the swanky evening exhibition expecting to be impressed by the art. Indeed I was, but it turned out to be a lesson planning adventure like no other. Antin had created a collection of photographic portraits depicting historical tales from ancient Greece and Rome with feminist spins on the events. Helen of Troy was a devious vixen slinging a rifle on her hip. Ancient Grecians strolled casually by the dying veterans of the Trojan War with shopping totes and sunglasses. Wealthy Romans dined in elaborate clothing while servants died in the wings unbeknownst to their masters. And next to each scene was an explanation of the artist’s “take” on it. I was fascinated and found myself wondering how the artist came up with her interpretations. Then I wondered how I would create scenes from different time periods from different perspectives, say, a nihilist’s perspective, or a child’s perspective on the French Revolution. As I gazed at more images, and wondered more about how to create my own, I felt my legs tremble with delight. I had reached a new understanding. “This is perfect!” I exclaimed, to the surprise of the museum docent. History, photography, costume design, set and scene design, research, literature — all these things were present in the work. And they could all be studied in a project modelled after this exhibition. It almost felt like cheating since the idea came to me, not when I was agonising over the state standards or feverishly writing up drafts at my desk, but rather while I was out looking at art and doing something I enjoyed. From this outing, my 35mm Revolution project was conceived. In this project, students choose a revolution to research and write about and then choose one scene to re-enact in a photographic portrait. We plan to unveil the students’ artwork at High Tech High Chula Vista’s 2009 Festival Del Sol.
After the “art aha moment” as I now refer to it, I started thinking about projects while doing all sorts of things I love to do. Checking out music at local venues, I thought about starting a local artist Rolling Stone magazine to teach writing, photojournalism, editing and advertising. Running through the city, I thought about “walking a mile” in the shoes of someone who was homeless. Hiking up in the Sierras, I thought about nature reflections, the history of natural parks and the preservation efforts in California. It seemed that every time I was doing something I truly enjoyed, a new idea for a potential project sprang into my head. Some of the project ideas had been done before, but somehow, this new revelation made them feel fresh, pristine.
Do what you love and let the project drive the curriculum. These are the mantras of my wise teaching partner, Rod Buenviaje. Rod would listen patiently as I voiced my concerns about my inability to come up with what felt like meaningful projects. At the end of each conversation, he would repeat these mantras. I would nod in agreement and stare blankly out the window. I could never fully comprehend what he meant. After viewing Antin’s exhibition, however, the mantras made sense. I was doing something I loved. I was passionate about it. I wanted the kids to see it. I wanted to teach it. It turned into a project that would guide the curriculum.
So, where do projects come from? My answer is this: they are born in the places we love to visit, the things we love to see, the tasks we love to lose ourselves in. They are the things we find exciting. They are the things we deem worthy of writing essays and graphing charts about. They come from teachers who fall in love with something and decide to share that something with their students.
To read this article online, and to see High Tech High’s full collection of project cards, visit:
World Cafe is a protocol to discuss a ‘Question that Matters’.
This is what it says it is – a key question that matters to participants.
The Basic Format or Protocol
Key Protocol Rules
Feedback At The End – From The Table Hosts
Avoid ‘This is what was said on this table’. Better is ‘The four key things that I would synthesise from this table…’ or ‘The most original two ideas that emerged on this table were…’
This group feedback can be publicly recorded, in writing or graphically.