As chair of parallel session A for the BCF Spotlight on SEND event in March 2022, I was delighted to welcome our speakers and share questions from our delegates.
The session began with a presentation by Amelie Thompson, the Interim Executive Headteacher (Head of Inclusion) at Gipsy Hill Federation. This session focused on the graduated approach to support for pupils with SEND needs as highlighted by the SEN Code of Practice (2015). This ‘assess, plan, do, review’ cyclical approach has proven to be essential not just to planning within her school but to leadership as well. The term ‘noticing’ was discussed as being more than just observing pupil engagement and needs and is key to gathering information about a child so that provision can be adjusted accordingly. Amelie highlighted that, for those pupils who may have more complex needs, we must consider the involvement of all professionals – not just the tight circle of teachers and support staff but wider agencies such as occupational therapists, educational psychologists and all support staff. However, Amelie also stressed the need to carefully consider who is responsible or accountable for those who have the oversight and ownership for pupils’ lived experiences so that agency stays with the pupil and that interventions don’t become synonymous with exclusion.
Our second guest speaker, Colin Millar, brought insights from Northern Ireland and gave the audience an opportunity to explore the idea of teacher talk suggesting that more focus is needed on how teachers can develop their communication skills with pupils. During his presentation he used his ‘Language Bus’ metaphor to highlight some key communication points such as considering the immediacy of the learning environment prior to speaking. These considerations included ensuring that all pupils can see the teacher during any communication interaction and that there are no learner distractions. Colin discussed, for example, the need for clear intonation when giving instructions and the importance of slowing down teacher talk to give more time for information processing.
Luke Beardon, from the Autism Centre at Sheffield Hallam University, talked about the need to emphasise the quality of life for autistic learners above and beyond the narrow focus on attainment within schools. Luke highlighted that the fewer options there are for different forms of learning, resourcing, and so on, the higher the risk of exclusion from education. In order to increase inclusivity, he argued that we need a plethora of options for teaching, including a focus on the quality of the learning environment.
Our final speaker, Kirsten Darling-McQuistan, gave the audience a fascinating insight from the University of Aberdeen into the work of the Scottish Universities Inclusion Group, who support education practitioners in Scotland. Kirsten began by giving an overview of Scottish education legislation and associated frameworks and how these link to the Scottish ‘Curriculum for Excellence’. She highlighted the ‘National Framework for Inclusion’ which draws upon inclusive pedagogy, social justice and a focus on a values-based approach to education. This framework is used for teachers and practitioners and is used as a tool to support practice rather than provide just a list of ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’.
In the question-and-answer session that followed these presentations, questions from the audience included ‘How does the Ofsted focus on a broader curriculum hinder SEND pupils’ access to a wider range of subjects?’ Amelie Thompson answered by explaining that some SEND pupils are at risk of only being privy to a narrow curriculum rather than having wider opportunities for a broad and balanced curriculum. She highlighted the need for constant reflection of practice to continually drive learning and teaching forward to improve practice. Colin Millar considered how this is apparent within the curriculum in Northern Ireland and voiced his concerns that many teachers are restricted when delivering more creative approaches and wider subjects due to the agenda around exams and standards. Luke Beardon considered how judging autistic pupils by non-autistic norms can impact upon exclusion of pupils and ‘othering’.
In answer to the question ‘How can initial teacher education support raise quality of teaching and learning for SEND pupils?’ Kirsten Darling-McQuistan emphasised the need for inclusion to be a key element of initial teacher education (ITE) rather than just an add on. Colin Millar recognised the complexities that ITE providers face in relation to this area of the ITE curriculum, acknowledging the need for quality ITE provision so that teachers can enter the classroom with the confidence and knowledge to support all pupils and offer a quality education.
The final discussion raised was regarding the rephrasing of ‘special’ needs to ‘additional’ needs, and to what extent there is a broad consensus on this. Luke Beardon offered the example that if someone tells you they are autistic it doesn’t actually tell you anything about them because the support that they may or may not need can be very different from one person to another. In her response to this question, Amelie Thompson said that teachers need also to be learners. If we are taught something and it isn’t working for our learners, then we need therefore to question and change our practice.
To summarise, the key points from the discussion considered:
- the importance of providing a wider curriculum for all and not narrowing the curriculum for learners with additional needs
- the need for high-quality SEND education as continuous professional development (CPD), and initial teacher education courses to support trainees, teachers and wider agencies
- the need to reflect on the use of language to describe the needs and support assigned for SEND pupils and how this can affect their access to learning.