Inclusion at the core

As the number of learners with additional needs in mainstream schools continues to increase, both specialist and mainstream settings are conscious of the need to provide the best possible academic and holistic provision for all. But what’s the best way to achieve this? Nasen’s Anna Speke advises

As professionals, we are driven to do our best for all students in our setting, including those with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND). At times, however, with increasing pressures of budgets, staffing and resourcing, it can feel that we are stretched ever thinner.

So why does inclusion matter?

We work in education because we want to support, enable and champion young people.  All young people. There should be no outsiders, no-one who feels they don’t belong, no-one left behind. As adults in school, whatever our role, we have the vital job of creating an environment where everyone is included and achieves. As the number of learners with additional needs in mainstream schools continues to increase (along with the complexity of those needs), both specialist and mainstream settings are conscious of the need to provide the best possible academic and holistic provision for all.  
    
As well as that moral imperative, of course, it’s the law. The Children and Families Act (2014), the Equality Act (2010) the SEND Code of Practice (2015), Teachers’ Standards, Professional Standards for Teaching Assistants and Ofsted frameworks are all, quite rightly, clear that high quality provision must be in place for young people with SEND. And with the changes outlined in the SEND and Alternative Provision Improvement Plan beginning to take shape, the imperative for an inclusive focus in our practice is evident.

Leadership

Inclusion begins with an ethos, and it must come from the top. It can be hard to pin down exactly what this looks like, but it’s apparent when you walk through the door of a setting.  Quickly, you get a feel for how students and adults interact, how learning is facilitated and how problems are managed. More tangibly, there are questions we can ask ourselves as we reflect on practice in our setting. Are students with SEND represented in all areas of school life, and are there high, achievable expectations and aspirations for all? Is the SENCO on the Leadership Team? If not, do they have a close working relationship with SLT, and a seat at the table? Do department heads and subject leads have a good understanding of inclusive practice, and how to support staff, students and families? Is information easily accessible to parents/carers and students? Do all stakeholders work closely together? Inclusion and SEND are everybody’s responsibility, and a truly inclusive setting will have this at its heart.

Environments

Physical environments, of course, need to be accessible. We need to ensure that students can move around easily and safely. Are rooms and corridors crowded and overwhelming, or do we have a good balance of sensory stimulation? Sensory audits are a great idea, completed with students to gain an understanding of their lived experience. For some, the bucket of overwhelm is at the very top before they even walk through the gates, so it is important to collaborate with them to create calm, enabling spaces, indoors and outdoors.
    
Use of visual timetables and images, and clear routines, helps to build independence. We also need to make sure that we are representing a broad cross section of society, including those with SEND, in our resources: the books in our reading areas, the curriculum we design, images on our teaching materials, displays – everything that we expose students to becomes part of their reality, part of how they value the diversity of human experience.  Do they see themselves, and those different from themselves, reflected in all areas?

Relationships & communication

It is crucial not to limit our thinking to physical environments – we need to consider the social and emotional environment as well. Relationships are everything. We must know our learners, understand behaviour as communication and only use ‘labels’ of SEND to inform provision and meet need, not to limit. We must see the whole person.
    
The key to strong relationships is effective communication. Using visual images, clear spoken and body language, and perhaps some signing (Makaton, for example), we support all learners, particularly those with SEND. By providing multiple ways to engage with learning, we allow students to establish how they work and represent their progress best. In this way, we support them to build independence, resilience, autonomy, and meta-cognitive skills without the need for additional resource or time.
    
Language matters. How do we greet children who are late? With a curt “Where have you been?” or with a smile and a welcoming “I’m so glad you’re here, it’s lovely to see you?”  This simple communication, from the moment a student walks through the door, can set them up for a good day, or a terrible one. It can build their view of school as welcoming, safe and supportive, or hostile and unpleasant.  How we communicate as adults is also key. Are we open, honest and non-judgemental about each other, and about students? How we speak to children and their families, but also, how to we speak about them. What is the feeling in the staffroom? If there is eye-rolling and comments such as “Bobby’s kicked off again,” then we have work to do. We need to flip the narrative to have an unconditional positive regard for students, even (or especially) those who we find the most challenging to support: “Bobby found lunchtime tricky today. We need to figure out what’s happening so we can support him more effectively.”
    
Developing professional understanding, curiosity and empathy within our settings is transformative.
    
As educational professionals, and as humans, every single interaction we have throughout the course of a day has an impact. It’s up to us to make that impact as positive as we possibly can.

CPD/training

To develop that inclusive practice, it’s clear that upskilling all staff is vital.  
    
There is a wealth of training available around SEND, so it’s important to develop a strategic approach, identifying strengths, priorities and areas for development, and building our CPD plan from there. By focusing on the quality of our universal provision and developing high-quality practice, outcomes for learners with SEND improves. Staff learn to be more adaptive and more confident, helping to improve practice without the need for so much additional resource, staffing or time. Of course, some needs will require additional provision of some kind, but the better we can make our universal offering, the more manageable this becomes.   

The SENCO will, of course, be vital in helping to develop this CPD strategy, and they need to work alongside the rest of the staff team to ensure that inclusion is a key feature of all work done in school, not a standalone agenda item every now and again.

The way forward

Some staff may find various elements of working with learners with SEND challenging (“but I’ve always taught it this way/had my classroom laid out like this!”) and it’s important to be clear that inclusion is everyone’s responsibility. It’s an embedded, intrinsic part of everything we should be doing in our settings. It may sound idealistic to dream of a time when everyone’s needs are met with the universal offer in our school, but to build a truly inclusive society, isn’t that exactly what we should be aiming for, one step at a time?

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