I’ve just read Nancy Gedge’s excellent, powerful blog ‘Battle Weary’ about her son’s experience of school and the challenges of parenting a child with Down’s Syndrome. It encapsulates a range of issues around inclusion and the extent to which schools truly embrace the concept. Since arriving at Highbury Grove, inclusion is something I’ve thought about a great deal, in different contexts. Here are some of the issues we’ve been wrestling with:
This is a daily challenge. We are trying to set very high standards as part of our drive to secure ‘impeccable behaviour’ across the school. I firmly believe that educating all children how to behave well is an inclusive agenda. However, our system has some strong sanctions and a built-in process that removes students from lessons and, if necessary, the mainstream school if their behaviour has an unacceptable effect on others. That’s non-negotiable, in my view; no child should be allowed to have a detrimental effect on another. Any notion of inclusion has to be built around that position although the definition of ‘unacceptable effect ‘ is clearly subjective; it’s something we need to work on continually so we have a working consensus. Our Learning Support team works closely with lots of students and teachers where students’ individual needs make meeting the Behaviour for Learning standards more difficult – but there’s no softening of the standards themselves beyond a few ‘time out’ cards; inclusion means that all students should be supported to meet the standards.
A few weeks into running the system, we are now at the point where we’re running out of options with a small handful of students. Most of them are in Year 9 but sadly one is in Year 7. Our Behaviour Support Centre does allow us to create a buffer zone where students are taken out of the system without permanently excluding them; here they can be more relaxed, can learn some skills and, with support, re-calibrate their responses to situations such that they can function in the social environment and authority structure of a classroom, living within the school rules. It’s challenging. Some have successfully re-integrated; others haven’t. For a few, our view is that they’re unlikely to ever thrive within the constraints of our provision. The BSC is not a permanent home; it’s not set up to provide the curriculum needed for that – so we are exploring all the off-site alternatives across the borough. Here, ‘inclusion’ has to involve a system-wide approach, not focus on one institution.
Is that right? Is that fair? On one hand I have no qualms about protecting the learning of the majority from a few students who find mainstream school life too challenging without disrupting learning and making teachers’ lives impossible. On the other hand, it’s not something we do lightly – even when they seem absolutely determined to disrespect the boundaries of everyday school life. I would need a fully staffed and resourced on-site unit dedicated to these young people to cater for them adequately but we just about have enough capacity for the ‘buffer zone’ model. That’s where we are. Are we writing these young people off by passing them on to someone else? I have to believe that we’re not. We’re relying on alternative provision being a positive experience and hoping that this is actually in their interests too. In truth – being really honest now – although I worry about these children, I worry much more about the effect they can have on others. It may not be their fault (the causes of persistent poor behaviour are a massive area for discussion)- but that’s not something the others should have to feel responsible for. I see it as a failure of inclusion when schools hold on to a disruptive student at the expense of the others; there has to be a point where the end of the road is reached. The challenge is knowing exactly where that point is and what happens next, working with parents all the way along.
Ability: Nurture Groups, Setting and Streaming.
This is another major issue. At my school we’ve just started unpicking an approach that played a key role in the school’s transformation where all students were placed in three bands – A Band, B Band and Nurture with further setting within each Band that even reached placing students in tutor groups. The banding determined the curriculum time allocation for core subjects and languages and the number of option choices at KS4. Although it served its purpose of creating a space for the top end to thrive, building confidence amongst a certain section of the community, it was quite divisive with strong labelling attached; importantly, things have moved on and it no longer serves the purpose it was designed for. Now, my approach is that there should not be any rigid banding; we’ve already created fully mixed tutor groups and we’re proposing a curriculum model that gives the same entitlement to all students without different streams. I think a nurture group that really works should not have to exist beyond the first year; after that it becomes more of a segregation model than anything inclusive and it’s harder for students to make the transition.
However, I do think that intelligent setting is completely necessary. Setting doesn’t do well in research trials but I always find there are problems with the methodology and the assumptions about solutions. It’s always reduced to Setting Good vs Setting Bad rather than evaluating models of setting and teaching approaches within sets. I think the idea that the optimum model is mixed ability teaching is a massive mistake; having worked at a school with 100% mixed ability teaching (Holland Park in the 90s) I have good reason. The major pitfall with setting is that students in lower sets tend to have lower expectations set by their teachers and fixed mindset thinking holds students back in all sets; we need to work really hard to fight against that. But full-range mixed ability teaching is something else entirely. It might work in some subjects but as soon as content diverges appreciably, it’s unsustainable. I’m interested in finding the optimum model. For example, whether five groups could be structured 2-2-1 (two top, two middle, one smaller support group) or 3-1-1 – instead of 1-1-1-1-1 which is what we have now. I’m convinced that the most inclusive model can be found by exploring the most effective structure of setting for a particular cohort and then teaching them all with a full-on growth mindset. It’s up for discussion.
I learned a lot about the principles of SEND inclusion from a boy at KEGS who was partially sighted. His parents had had to fight hard to get him into the school and then championed his needs with passion and determination thereafter. Everything we did wrong was ‘appalling’ in their eyes and that hurt. We made lots of mistakes and learned a lot but ultimately he did extremely well at GCSE and A level. Our main learning was to understand the concept of entitlement: we were not doing him a favour when we made special provision for him, we were just giving him what he was entitled to; we learned not to seek gratitude for doing routine tasks; we learned that his teachers needed to teach him directly, not through his Learning Support Assistants; we learned that helping him to access most work wasn’t good enough – it had to be everything, all of the time because anything less was unacceptable. The key here was getting the resources in place and working with the student and the family, really listening to what they said without being defensive – even though that was hard at times. We got there in the end but he suffered – there’s no doubt about that.
At HGS, we’ve got a wide range of students with different needs from physical disabilities to autism. I don’t know yet exactly how each student’s parents view our provision although I’ve had some positive feedback. We are co-located with Samuel Rhodes special school and we’re beginning to explore various connections. There are some students whose needs seem to overlap but we definitely operate as very separate institutions on one site – at the moment. One area of challenge is dealing with requests for places in Y7. Our view – in common with many secondary schools – is there is a limit to the number of students with special needs that we can support well with our resources. We get many more requests than we feel we can meet so we’re turning students away. Again, across the system, there should be an appropriate match of provision to needs but, without any central coordination, it’s down to us to push back when we feel we’re at maximum capacity. I can imagine that is feels pretty rough to be on the other side of that process.
This is another important area with lots of different manifestations. Highbury Grove is extremely diverse in terms of social backgrounds; I don’t think I’ve encountered anything like it; not since I worked at Holland Park in the 90s. We have some significantly affluent parents; N5 has the appearance of an affluent area and yet we have 70% + on free school meals and our students face the full gamut of social challenges. One area to consider is the issue of Cultural Capital. I’m determined that lessons and assemblies should be explicit in providing all students with the enriching, life-enhancing, door-opening cultural capital that they need; the kind that most middle class families take more or less for granted. I’m determined that we don’t ever dumb things down in the name of engagement. Our music programme, where students all play an orchestral instrument at KS3, is part of an explicit plan to challenge social exclusion. The symbolic value is almost as important as the actual experience of learning to play and to appreciate classical music. We recently launched our Year 7 British Museum Family Learning project for similar reasons.
There is another area of challenge around trips, visits and activities that cost money. We run an extensive enrichment programme using our pupil premium funding. All students go to Ypres; all students do a day-trip to France to practice French; all students go to Wales in Year 9 on an Outward Bound week. We’ve booked for all Y12s to engage in an Outward Bound weekend from next year. This is all paid for. However, we’re increasing our provision of opportunities that will not be available to everyone: a trip to Iceland, an annual ski trip and a proposed Sixth Form History tour of the US are being planned – but students will have to pay. What’s the choice? Either we don’t run these trips at all or we accept that some people won’t be able to afford it – even when we provide some financial support. I’m certain that the school would be a poorer place if nobody went – so we have to wear the exclusive element. That’s the compromise we’re making. My hope is that parents might seek to plan ahead to finance these trips over time which is better than their children never ever having the chance to go. Still, it’s a complex area that needs to be managed carefully.
In general, there is the overall issue of maintaining a school community ethos when the community itself doesn’t really exist as such beyond sharing common geography. I don’t know about you but I hardly know my neighbours beyond the people immediately either side of me. Across our catchment area, we have every type of housing, family profile and socio-economic context. Our school is a melting pot of aspirations, attitudes to school and philosophies on life. Our challenge is to establish a school ethos that captures the community spirit to the greatest extent possible, setting aspirations high whilst recognising that different children arrive to us from massively different contexts. The differences manifest themselves in so many ways: attitudes to homework, progress and achievement; support for school sanctions and the BfL strategy; participation in sport, music or Sex Ed; compliance with our attendance policy; modes of communication; support for community events and performances; responses to requests for information – pretty much every element of school life. Twice last term I had to terminate a parental meeting because I didn’t feel the parent’s attitudes were acceptable – all aggression and no engagement; much more often I’m trying to reassure parents that it’s helpful to voice their ‘pushy parent’ concerns so we can act on them.
Inclusion? It’s huge. Genuine inclusion is the ultimate challenge; it’s part and parcel of the job we do every day. It’s never easy but, with the right spirit, we do actually create a space that works most of the time. Arguably community schools are the most inclusive environments people ever experience. Essentially we have a few years to shape attitudes that can transfer into adult life to shape communities of the future. Perhaps this is the most important thing we do.