Could special schools be problematic for real inclusion? – Q: What is real inclusion, how do we get there?

I often ask myself what is the role of special schools in supporting an inclusive education system, when by definition attendance at a special school means a child or young person is being separated from other children.

In many ways we could say the creation of a ‘SEND system’ has further impacted a ‘separation’ of those children that can ‘cope’ in mainstream and those that can’t. Or is it conversely that the SEND system has been born out of an increasingly less inclusive education system- chicken or egg? What happens at the other end, how does this segregation impact our society? I think the issues with this are well alluded to by Nicole Dempsey “The students we are teaching now will shape the society of tomorrow. They are the next employers and employees, parents and carers. We can perpetuate the problems we have in society now or we can start to make it better.”

The hard truth is the way schools have evolved does make it harder for them to reach children who sit outside the parameters of the carefully planned ‘mainstream’ curriculum, timetable and resources of most schools. This is compounded by the meritocratic hurdles set for them by the DfE and Ofsted. The growing KS2-3 transition of children into our special school who have been happy and progressing in their small village primary school, where they were known and celebrated alongside peers within the community, correlates with primary transition to mainstream secondary schools becoming more problematic. For some children this change to a large factory style academy is catastrophic; the clock starts- 11 years and you’ll be churned out the other end batch complete, date stamped with a progress 8 score (for school evaluation) and qualifications to aid your categorisation- does cream always rise to the top? Ben Newmark alludes to this in his paper ‘Take down the SEND umbrella’ ‘The problem is not them – it’s us. Our problem is we find these children hard to teach within our established parameters and constraints.’ In ‘The Myth of Average’ Todd Rose talks about how school design is still based on the ill-conceived concept of ‘the average student,’ which means we can’t nurture individual potential, he argues this ‘hurts everyone and destroys talent.’ So, not only are we less inclusive, our systems are potentially stifling talent as a consequence.

Without caution the barriers between special and mainstream education are at risk of becoming more entrenched. At Birch Wood through our intensive approach to co-production with families and pupils, we know that for some the mainstream school experience has been like ‘the upside down’- a place where all the bad things have happened (apologies for the terrible ‘Stranger Things’ reference.) Consequently, they are prepared to fight for specialist settings weaponised with an EHCP.

Admittedly, special schools do have different parameters and constraints which may potentially make them appear like the panacea for meeting all needs which sit outside the range of average. I can tell you, I don’t think a special education is the silver bullet, the challenge is more complex than that. Specialist settings, need to work doubly hard to ensure that students are ready for life beyond their special school, thus avoiding the cliff edge scenario. At Birch Wood we increasingly prioritise a curriculum that is future focussed and outward looking. We see this as being crucial to help shape a better future for our pupils and also prepare them for adult life (we also know the importance of a curriculum rooted in the tangible joy of the present.) But possibly the more important question, is how are we ensuring that their peers in other settings are prepared for diversity and inclusion in society?

Leaders across all sectors can often be heard identifying mainstream schools as ‘unsuitable’ environments for children with special educational needs. The phrase ‘they need a special school’ is chimed across the sector, and yet we know that in most areas our special schools are completely oversubscribed and at risk of not being able to meet the needs of the very most complex as a result.

The new DfE SEND & AP Plan promises 33 new special schools, this is not especially comforting when we know that if we build them, we will fill them. In addition to building new special schools something more fundamental needs to change and not just in education, but in social care, health, industry … society needs to shift to a more inclusive approach. It seems the media is trail blazing in this area with celebrations of neuro-diversity and disability, as represented by James Martin becoming the first actor with Downs Syndrome to win an Oscar and poignantly on his birthday- a moment worthy of a film in its own right. Also in the news last week reports of 13 year old Lucy from Yorkshire who won the TV show The Piano. Lucy is blind and has a chromosome 16 duplication which causes autism traits, developmental delay and intellectual disability. Her mum said that music is how she communicates with the world. I believe these people being represented and celebrated helps us move towards a world which truly embraces human diversity and inclusion. Is it our education system’s shame that children from mainstream and special schools have little chance of knowing each other and having a lived experience of this diversity beyond the media?

People often ask me ‘when did you decide to go in to ‘special’?’ For a while I thought I ought to say something really worthy which explained why as keen historian, with 10 years’ experience teaching and leading in secondary mainstream I shifted direction. The truth is special education was never a big decision, like living in Leicestershire I sort of ended up there having followed my heart. The deep belief, that I could actually change lives through education was not exclusive to those that could access learning at a particular level- it was for all. So, when an opportunity came up that happened to be at a nearby county secondary special school I went to look round and something was ignited. That journey began in 2012 and I haven’t looked back- but I need to because I can see that it is so easy to become complicit in a problem, however unintentionally. As a side note- I loved my career in the city- I worked alongside some of the best teachers, I believe we did change lives for the better.

The move to become Head at an all though special school 6 years ago has been profoundly life changing. The range of age, diagnosis and ‘needs’ is vast; the high aspiration is for all- an education which enables our young people to achieve their personal best. Our work is complex and challenging at times and if we are not careful it would be easy to conclude our specialism separates us. In many ways special schools have been able to define themselves against how they are different to mainstream. It’s the little things, for example, at Birch Wood the students call us by our first names, which on many levels just makes sense- we ditched antiquated formalities and labels. It is also the big things, we take a very individual approach to progress, we believe all behaviour is a communication and can change, we celebrate differences and diversity, when distilled we celebrate humanity. We don’t want children to simply be able to ‘cope’ and ‘comply’ with school, we want them to thrive. We have ambition without limits for our students. I think many mainstream schools have this culture and ethos too. My challenge is we need to reimagine all schools to support those who have learning disabilities and differences to do the same. The challenge takes grit and depth of conviction, it certainly isn’t simply about being ‘kind’ and ‘caring’- although there is nothing wrong with that.

In all this I have considered the question of whether special schools should exist at all. Then I look at some of the commentary on twitter from so called behaviour experts and consider the lived experiences of students who have moved from mainstream to our school and the truth is the need is for special schools for a broad range of children, is at present, very real. Ensuring our children stay at the centre of our battle for inclusion, means paradoxically that we really do need special schools. We need better understanding, research and training for how to reach a broader range of children within the curriculum and school environment to make all schools more inclusive. We need to redefine what values educational leadership should embody, and in my humble view that is professionals who believe in an education for ALL and will use the best research, innovation and practice to achieve this. ‘Intentional culture building’ for inclusion will take ground shakers and movement makers.

There are contradictions at a policy level on how we achieve this, for example the new DfE SEND & AP Improvement Plan states ‘There will be new guides for professionals to help them provide the right support in line with the national standards but suited to each child’s unique experience, setting out for example how to make adjustments to classrooms to help a child remain in mainstream education.’ Identifying at this level the uniqueness of a child’s experience and need for adjustment is progress, and yet I also think this is going to be problematic in action for many reasons- particularly around some of the behaviour approaches supported by the DfE. Will the ‘adjustments’ move away from ‘sanctions’ which have no logical consequence to the behaviour issue and can breed shame, isolation and animosity between pupils and staff? I have no doubt some of these approaches get results- (compliance) and their beacon schools have brilliant progress 8 scores, but are they really inclusive? Could a broad spectrum of cognitive ability and neuro diversity be supported in a healthy way in these environments?

So here are few things I would ask all education leaders to consider to achieve better inclusion in education:

1. We need to do more learning for excellence as a move away from the ‘SEND system in broken.’
• I have had the privilege through personal acquaintance of the work of Emma and Adrian Plunkett’s ‘Learning from Excellence’ (LfE) initiative in the health care system. Their philosophy is that we may miss opportunities to learn from excellent practice through being overly focussed on learning from error. They stake that excellence in healthcare is highly prevalent, but there is no formal system to capture it. They state, ‘We tend to regard excellence as something to gratefully accept, rather than something to study and understand…We believe that studying excellence in healthcare can create new opportunities for learning and improving resilience and staff morale.’ I would like to pivot this idea for inclusive education to ensure that we take further steps from deficit perceptions and begin to truly celebrate the beauty possible in an education system that celebrates diversity and inclusion.
2. Genuinely consider the school culture and ethos you want to create and have inclusive education at the heart of it all. Understand and embrace inclusion as a human right and matter of social justice.
• The Ambition Institute’s vision is ‘An education system where every child can thrive, no matter what the background.’ Apply that vision to school design from the building to the curriculum and let it run through, as the most precious thread, and I think you can get closer to real inclusion.
3. Agency – You have the power to make the changes in your settings.
• Embrace research and training that allows all learners to thrive, build bridges between special and mainstream, take responsibility for every child.