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Children and young people’s right to access an inclusive education is incontestable. Our systems in education, however, can present barriers to achieving this. I am the head of inclusion for a group of mainstream primaries, and we have engaged in cross-sector action research, working with Merton Special Training Association and funded by the Laurel Trust. This is focused on curriculum design and planning to support us on our journey towards inclusivity, especially for our pupils who find learning the most challenging.

The Education Endowment Foundation report, Special educational needs in mainstream schools, highlights that ‘the evidence tells us that teachers should … prioritise familiar but powerful strategies, like scaffolding and explicit instruction, to support their pupils with SEND’ (Francis, 2020). For many pupils identified with special educational needs, this is a helpful starting point: from an academic perspective, as teachers, we use our skills to identify the barriers to learning and our toolkit to break them down. We also use our knowledge of curriculum progression to understand how we need to construct the curriculum so that our learners make progress. However, we must not forget those learners who need a more individualised, specialist approach, nor must we forget the importance of personal and social inclusion and the role this plays in our learners’ educational outcomes.

An observation from an early years classroom highlights the above. There are three children at a table, including Paula who has a physical disability and has additional adult support in place.

‘Two of the children are interacting quite a bit … Paula addresses the adult … but, during this half an hour, not once do the two children interact with Paula; not once does Paula address them.’ (Stobbs, 2016)

There are many children like Paula in our mainstream classrooms whose lived experience of the curriculum is not inclusive, where targeted support is synonymous with withdrawal or even exclusion. As mainstream teachers, there is a tendency to adapt our lessons so that we can support our learners to move through the curriculum alongside their peers or ‘close the gap’. But what about our pupils for whom this is not appropriate? Is it acceptable to set up a separate curriculum that is delivered ‘elsewhere’ or by ‘someone else’ without due regard for our broader responsibilities to meaningful inclusion?

The Special Educational Needs and Disability Code of Practice (DfE, 2015) outlines the requirement for English schools to use an assess-plan-do-review cycle (the graduated approach) when putting in place provision for pupils with special educational needs. The assess-plan-do-review cycle is at the core of teaching and school practice; teachers and leaders engage in this cycle at a micro and macro level every day. It is therefore a helpful common thread that can strategically tie together our universal approaches and targeted and specialist provision. It is also a useful framework to design appropriate curricula.

‘Establishing cross-sector working has enabled reflection, curiosity, problem-solving and creativity and therefore the meaningful application of the graduated approach.’

To meet the needs of all our learners in this way requires adaptive expertise (Mulholland, 2019). Our action research examines how cross-sector ‘collaborative professionalism’ (Hargreaves & O’Connor, 2018) underpinned by practitioner inquiry supports the development of this expertise.

Establishing cross-sector working has enabled reflection, curiosity, problem-solving and creativity and therefore the meaningful application of the graduated approach. Teachers have built expertise in assessing pupils’ key functional targets and setting overarching longer-term objectives. These inform meaningful learning opportunities within whole-class teaching and are built upon in independent work. These can then, in turn, be meaningfully reviewed to inform an iterative cycle that supports the progress and inclusion of our learners who require a ‘different’ pathway to the ‘mainstream’.

This cross-pollination of expertise has been described as ‘liberating’ – as we focus not on doing ‘more’ but on problem-solving and rethinking our provision to create enabling environments, improve access and bring about genuine inclusivity for all learners. Working alongside specialist colleagues with a focus on curriculum design has created opportunities for teachers to develop crucial observational and planning skills, and to challenge their assumptions on what works. Collaboration is a crucial requisite to the journey towards inclusivity in mainstream schools.


Department for Education [DfE]. (2015). Special educational needs and disability code of practice: 0 to 25 years.

Francis, B. (2020). Foreword. In: Education Endowment Foundation [EEF]. Special educational needs in mainstream schools: Guidance report.

Hargreaves, A., & O’Connor, M. (2018). Collaborative professionalism when teaching together means learning for all. Corwin.

Mulholland, M. (2019, December 13). Like soldiers in battle, teachers must be adaptable. [Feature].

Stobbs, P. (2016, July 29). Closely observed interactions. [News].