Tag Archives: Inclusion (education)

Conquering the Mountain

Today, I have very tired legs. I am convinced that this is a genetic flaw on my part, and not because I have been avoiding most forms of exercise for the winter, but my family remains unconvinced. They, unlike me, are tired, but able to tackle the stairs without wincing. And the reason we are tired? Earlier this week, we decided to walk up and down Snowdon.

I’ve written about this plan before. For some strange reason, it has subconsciously been one of those things that R and I felt was something our kids ought to do. I’m not sure why. I never did when I was a child. I never went anywhere near the place. And, when it’s all said and done, we aren’t really a heavily into walking kind of family.  Nothing like it, in fact. But, we had a week off and nothing on the calendar apart from ‘week off’ in it and, as going on an adventure of the far flung variety proved to be a little more expensive than we had anticipated, Snowdon it was.

I don’t know about you, but there is something tantalising about good ideas when they are far, far away.  Everything about them seems positive. Nothing troubling can possibly get in their way. Except, that is, until you are faced with the reality of your endeavour.  There we were, new boots and posh socks for the children bought, accommodation (very nice) booked, and there I was, wide awake in the darkest hours of the night, unable to sleep for worrying.

In a way, it’s a bit like giving birth. After the first time, you sort of forget what it was like. The experience is coloured, airbrushed by the aftermath, whatever form that took. The second baby seems like such a good idea, and it is only when you are stopped in your tracks by the strength of your first real contraction that you think, oh, yes, that was what it was like, and why am I doing this again? After that, it has a tendency not to fade, and, third time round you know exactly what you are doing and you develop a sort of grim-faced determination, gallows humour about coughing in public daytime, and will making in the silent privacy of the night.  Once I was faced with the reality of getting my three kids up and down a mountain, with online guide rating ‘hard’, the euphoria of success faded and the memories flooded back.

So we came up with a plan. R would walk the Little Two (not so little these days) up, Sam and I would meet them at the top, having been transported by train, and we would all walk down together. A plan which rapidly transformed itself into Sam and I would travel as far up as we could on the train (always check train timetables before booking)and then meet the others (at the bit where all the tracks join together, just before the summit), walk the rest of the way up and then back down together, hastily followed by we would all go up on the train and all walk up a bit and down a lot together (the operative word being together). The thought of me on my own with Sam, on a mountainside, and the pair of us getting an attack of the collywobbles was enough to settle the matter. (And that’s before Train Boy stuck his oar in.)

When you’re at the top, it can feel terribly lonely – and the way down terribly terrible.

The thing about plans, though, is that it is always a good idea to have a contingency one. Because, when you get up to the (nearly) top of the mountain, things change. The weather, so kind and gentle when you set out, is cold and chilling; the wind is fierce, and the clouds, so far away when you are sitting, comfortable, on the bus, transform the landscape from majesty to terror in an instant.

We didn’t do it. We didn’t make it to the top. We got to within spitting distance (if the gale that greeted us as we came onto the ridge hadn’t threatened to carry our spit over the cliff and us with it) of the summit and we changed our plan, and our minds.  We took in the frightened faces of our travelling companions, looked through the entrance to the Pyg track, obscured by wisps of cloud whipping past and turned right back round the way we had come. And, I think, for perhaps the first time, I feel no sense of disappointment, or of failure, that things did not go as we had thought.

The weather did not look like this.

You see, and this is something I have found myself thinking Justine Greening could probably do with reading as I have watched her on the news today, you don’t need to terrify everyone or force the issue and put yourselves, and your children, in danger in order to prove a point.  When I wrote my book (details on how to buy it here), at the end I put in a section on what to do if it all goes wrong. Because sometimes you find yourself at the mercy of circumstances which you cannot control, sometimes you find yourself in the wrong and you have to apologise – and there is no shame in that.

This week, we set ourselves a task, and we failed. But, and here’s the thing: we made it back down in one piece (and that in itself is a success). We went the long way round (and even that had its hair-raising moments), we chatted to the people we found ourselves journeying with and shared encouragement along the way. We might even have done a little bit of Down’s syndrome advocacy while we were at it.

We are still here, today, and the mountain, that great big grim-faced mountain we couldn’t even see, will still be there, waiting for us should we decide to play again, tomorrow.

‘I hate mountains.’


It’s been a long time since I read Orwell’s 1984.  My friend Allie, who used to have room 101 at college, had a quote from it photocopied and stuck to her door (I had a Jacky Fleming one and a the obligatory sheet of paper for my friends to leave the obligatory ‘I came to see you and you were out’ message on) and, at the time, I smiled, but I didn’t really know what she was talking about.  I had had Animal Farm read to me as a class story when I was in Year 6, but that was about as far as my knowledge of Orwell went at the time.  I was more of a Jane Austen kind of girl.

I did read it though, a while after I met her, accompanied by its feminist partner, The Handmaid’s Tale, one rainy summer when I had a job selling ice-creams (there wasn’t much to do), chuckling to myself at the snatched memory of my parents, in the real 1984, saying that they never thought they would ever reach the year, that now that they were 41 it didn’t seem so old.  When I read it (them), the dystopian image of a life controlled by Big Brother (which wasn’t a TV show), or by your membership of the female sex, it seemed to me to describe a fantastical world; an impossibility.  I was young.

Today, though, it is doublespeak, rather than Big Brother or Room 101, that I find most striking. The news is no longer the news (it is fake). The truth is no longer the truth (it’s not even relative). Social mobility doesn’t mean to be socially mobile (as personified by that much derided character, Hyacinth Bouquet/Bucket), but to be a certain kind of poor (the deserving). And, of most interest to me; inclusion doesn’t mean inclusion, quite the opposite in fact.

I can see why people want to use the term. It makes us feel nice, especially when we apply it to ourselves, or stick it up on a sign or a flyer, illustrated by smiling, cartoon children.  We are morally in the right, in a right on kind of way.  It is not quite the opposite of exclusive, which somehow means special and desirable, an honour bestowed upon the few (like advance notice of a discount or a new season, something that pops into your inbox, glistening with the temptation to part from your hard-earned cash and be the first from the starting blocks in the fashion stakes), a strange sort of justification of yourself as a shopper, or a parent. Instead, to be inclusive speaks to us of welcome.  There are no bouncers here, checking that you are on The List.

And, of course, inclusion is intertwined with notions of disability. To run an inclusive activity, or to be an inclusive school or church, it means that you welcome (or you say you do) disabled children and young people and their families, whether they are in a wheelchair or not; everyone, in fact.

Except, somehow, it doesn’t.  Somehow, an inclusive activity has come to mean one for disabled people (but only if you are the right kind).  An inclusive school is the one where all the disabled children go. An inclusion unit, a space within a mainstream school, has become the place where you send someone (those pesky disabled kids, the undeserving ones who have slippery labels they just won’t obey), not to keep them in, but to get them out.

We say all the right things, but somehow, it feels empty. It all feels a bit too much like doublespeak to me.


To Do List

If I were the new minister, I’d really appreciate a list of Things To Do (my mum would be proud, she’s forever telling me I need to make more lists).  So I had a think, and, if it were me, if I were (by some miracle of magic) the minister, and I was in charge of education, this would be my list*.

*I don’t claim that this list should be The List, but it is my list, and it reflects my priorities.

  1. Pause on the whole assessment thing.  We are sick to the back teeth, in KS2 (actually, you can make that the whole of primary) of the nonsense that has gone on with assessment for this age group.  The reading test was bonkers.  The assessment criteria for writing was unworkable.  The SPAG was at least doable, but, really, how high do the standards need to be for 11 year olds?  The Phonics Check in Year One is highly controversial amongst infant teachers – and really, you have to work really, really hard to put infant teacher’s backs up.  And while we’re at it, can we agree that the whole concept of a Below National Standard Child is something that should be consigned to the Fiery Pit of Hell and be done with it?  They are all different – they are all at different ages when they take the tests – and they don’t all progress in the same way or at the same time.
  2.  Academies.  Now, that one backfired on your predecessor, and although it seems to be making headway through the back door, we (and I think I’m right about this) would really appreciate it if we were listened to.  It would be great if there could be a great big fat pause on that one too and some proper consultation with, and I know this is controversial, not just school leaders but class teachers too.  Some of us like working for the local authority – and some of us get worried when we see news about dodgy financial dealings (and we know this isn’t everyone, but still) or children with SEND being bussed off to other campuses, so we’d like reassurances that some sort of checks and balances are in place other than investigative journalists.  Those of us with an interest in SEND would also like some reassurance about how the support services are suppose to work in a fully academised system (and crossing your fingers and hoping the market will take care of it really isn’t a good enough plan, sorry.)
  3. SEND.  We have had a whole raft of changes in the Code of Practice, and we need support and time to get them into place.  The financial pressure that LAs are being put under is being felt by very vulnerable children and families.  I mean, let’s face it, if we can spend a bit of money now on getting the foundations into place at the start then that’s going to save us money in the future, isn’t it?  Can we please stop pussyfooting around the issue and get on with it?
  4. And while I’m at it, I, for one, speaking as a parent here, and the parent of a 15 year old boy with Down’s syndrome, am hopeful that Further Education has been brought under your watchful eye. The Code of Practice says from 0-25.  Can it mean 25?  Can we give FE Colleges some support in getting ready for the cohort of included young people coming through the system and expecting to continue with an education that is going to help them get a job and make friends – all the things that people without learning difficulties can reasonably expect to be able to do?
  5. Terminal exams. Now I’m not advocating more change here, but, inclusion is a thing and there are young people who need a different study pathway than GCSEs, or need the GCSE to work for them.  It’s not failure, it’s life.  Different forms of qualification and certification are just as valuable, and it would be great if we could hear the message coming from the department – that ALL young people, when they leave school, can leave with something they can take to an employer to show what they can do (and not just twiddle their thumbs or cause trouble in their classrooms until they leave in order to do that).
  6. Accountability.  It’s run a bit mad.  Now I don’t think there is a single teacher in the land who says we shouldn’t’ be accountable for the public money that we spend on the nation’s behalf, but really.  The tying of the performance of children in tests to accountability for adults has done a great deal of damage; to the teaching relationship, to children, to teachers – to the quality of the day that we experience in school – and especially those children who don’t fit the age expected mould.
  7. Competition.  My school sports’ day is on Monday.  There is nothing like a bit of healthy, well managed competition to pep us all up.  However, I think the most important idea I would like you to understand is that education, at its heart, is a collaborative, collegiate exercise.  No one teacher is responsible for the educational outcomes of no one child.  The A*s of August come on the backs of all the teachers who went before, and the parents, the child and the circumstances within which they live.  It is a grand adventure, but the forces of the market place are alien here.  Instead, the concepts of togetherness, teamwork, community and belonging hold sway.  If you force market ideology on us, rather than a rise in standards, you will see a race to the bottom.  Instead of confidence, there is fear.  The child is not a customer or a client; they are a member of the school.


Schools are funny places.  They are idiosyncratic and quirky and they reflect the humanity of which they are a part.  I hope you enjoy being part of the team.

Moonbeams, or, What Inclusion Means to Me.

I took my children swimming the other day.  They have been desperate to go for a while, because, during half term, our new swimming pool finally opened.  Not our personal swimming pool, you understand, we aren’t the sort of family to devote a large part of our garden to a large child drowning device, but the one that belongs to our town.  It’s all shiny and sparkling and brand new, and it  was the first opportunity they have had to go for a dip.  We have been driving past it for weeks, wondering what it was like inside, so, when I had finally consumed my lunch (I’d been out, my lunch was late) and I suggested an outing, they jumped at the chance.

I particularly enjoy taking them swimming these days because, joy of joys, I don’t have to go in the water myself.  There is far too much holding in of the mid-section and dodging of other people’s slowly sinking plasters for my liking at the swimming baths.  They, thank heavens, have reached the age where they are allowed to take themselves into the pool and I am confident enough in them to let them.  And it was very nice.  Up until recently, taking them swimming had either involved a dip in the people soup myself, or a stay in a sort of cross between a sauna and an assault on the ears in the observation area.

At the new pool, there is none of that.  There is a pleasant seating area behind large glass doors, so it is nice and cool and nice and quiet.  Perhaps fortunately, there is no reception for my phone and no data signal, so I was able to read my current Very Interesting Book in relative peace.  As there was no way to the pool side from my very comfortable arm chair, I was forced (forced, yes, forced) to watch my children making their own way, without any help from me at all, other than the odd encouraging smile and thumbs up.

The only fly in the ointment was the locker key.  Usually, when I take them swimming, I sit and nod and smile, and they give me the locker keys, on their plastic wristy-ankley things, to look after, which usually involve me putting them in a pile and hoping they remember which is which.  Which is fine if there is only a couple of metal bars between you and your offspring, and not so much if you are on one side of a double-glazed, floor to ceiling locked glass door and your child, the one who can’t quite manage the buckle is on the other.

Only here’s the thing.  When the pool opened, all the staff at the old, falling down, holes in the roof one transferred to the brand spanking new leisure centre up the road.  All of my children have been swimming there, pretty much every week, during term time, with school, since they were four years old.  Sam, because his school has their own mini-maxi-buses (they are bigger than minibuses and not as big as coaches, they must have a special name) has already been to the new pool twice, without us.  When he couldn’t manage his key-buckle-thing, and he couldn’t get to me for help, the lifeguard stepped up.

Now, I know that lifeguards are supposed to do this sort of thing, but experience has shown me that not everyone, despite their position, are comfortable with Down’s syndrome, or disability or difference of any sort of kind.  Only last week, when we were eating out, everyone got a menu – except Sam.  We handed them round and when L rather pointedly asked, ‘where’s mine?’, the waiter hurried off to fetch another, embarrassed and unsure.

Sometimes I think that I deliberately ignore the stares and uncomfortable glances.  That I have become so used to a defensive mode of being that it has become a way of life.  Until there really are funny looks, and then I know that I wasn’t pretending after all.  Most times, especially at home, it’s fine.  It’s really fine.  Sam knows people, and people know Sam.  When Sam is in trouble, when he can’t manage his key, or he needs help with his locker, or coming to terms with the fact that public swimming has finished for the day, there are other people, other people who aren’t me or his dad, who can help.  He is included.

Inclusion is a funny thing.  It’s like a shadow.  You know it’s there, following you along, but, when you want to, you can’t seem to grasp it.  You can reach out, touch the things it touches, feel its effect, but it isn’t the sort of thing you can pick up in your hands and examine.  It doesn’t work like that.  Unlike shadows or rainbows, there isn’t a set recipe, or defined set of instructions and BOOM, there it is, sitting in your hand; instead it, like the shadow and the rainbow, slips further away with each attempt to capture it. You only really know it when you see it, when you feel it.

I used to think that for Sam to be included he needed to go to his local mainstream school.  I broke my heart for years, worrying about where he would go to secondary school. I worried about it until the moment I stepped through the doors of the special school and I realised that here was a place where Sam could belong, where he could be included.

You see, I didn’t understand about the process of ‘othering’.  I didn’t know that the practices that no one thought to question, not really, not enough to change, because they can’t be changed really, can they?  he can’t keep up, he isn’t the same, would make Sam feel as different as others felt about him.  I thought that putting Sam in the mainstream would be enough.  I didn’t realise that, in the million subtle ways that a person or a child can be excluded from the group they find themselves in, there are an equal number of bringing someone in.

I went to a very interesting talk the other day about bullying.  And one of the things we talked about was how, as educators, in the same way as many other issues that affect us and the children we teach, from mental health to poverty, the things we wish we could change, things that would make our students’ lives better, are beyond our reach.

As educators we can, if we know how, make our schools inclusive spaces, safe ones, oases of calm, or all the other sorts of definors we use when we explain our ethos; but we cannot do the same for the rest of the world.  Our sphere of influence, authority, control, whatever you want to call it, while strong, only reaches so far.

But here’s the thing.  I don’t exist, in an inclusive fashion, if you like, only in the world of the school.  As Sam’s mother, I see inclusion reaching far beyond the school gate.  I, and he, straddle two, three worlds, and as we move between them, my son and I, I see how they impact upon each other.  Inclusive education is important.  It’s a game changer for many, many children and for many, many adults. It does not sit purely in the world of the mainstream school.  It isn’t something that is fixed, in one place, or in one way, the same way for each child.  It’s a moonbeam.  It is no more fixed than the wave upon the sand.


#SEND Definitions for beginners

I was trying to remember, the other day, when I hadn’t been thinking, one way or another, about Special Educational Needs, and you know what?  Since I left the education system as a student myself, I can’t actually remember.  Once I became a teacher, once I became a mother, it never left my consciousness.  Now, personally, I’ve never really worried too much about definitions, after all, a label, is just that, but it occurred to me yesterday, after I perused my Twitter feed after having consumed my lunch, that the term SEND might need a little bit of a definition.  So, if you’ll pardon the shameless plugging, I am going to mention my book (which you can buy here, should you so wish).

So.  Special Educational Needs and Disabilities is a bit of a mouthful, but what it basically means is in relation to a school context.  Unhandily, for those who really do prefer for things to be cut and dried and can’t be doing with any of this shades of grey nonsense, it doesn’t mean a tickbox, checklist, bloodtest kind of thing.  Although, there are conditions, like Down’s syndrome, that you can detect with one of those very things, and is, indeed, what happened to Sam when he was about twelve hours old.  In a school context the term relates to those children for whom additional provision needs to be made if they are going to be able to learn.  It relates directly to a learning difficulty or disability.

So, that means that although, for instance, you may be making additional or different provision for children who don’t speak English as their first language (EAL in edu-speak), speaking a different language is not a difficulty/disability, you can’t claim it as an SEN.  The two things are not the same at all.

Disability, as defined in the Equalities Act means that there is an impairment that has a long term impact – of a year or more (so you can’t include children who have broken a toe) and it has a significant impact on their lives.  This includes long term health conditions such as asthma, diabetes, epilepsy and cancer.  These conditions do not relate directly to learning, but children with them may require different/additional provision in school and this is covered by SEN legislation.

So, within the English system, we have four categories of SEN (we like our categories, oh yes we do), which describe (roughly) the main areas of need a child is likely to be experiencing in school. (Please do comment below if you would like to add information on the system where you live – I am very interested in the international situation currently.)  They are:

  1. Communication and Interaction (C&I)

This means speech and language, communication and social interaction.

  1. Cognition and Learning

This means learning, thinking and understanding the world.  This could be developmental delay or something like dyslexia – something that makes it difficult to learn.

  1. Sensory and/or physical

This means things like visual/auditory impairment and physical disabilities.

  1. Social, Emotional and Mental Health (SEMH)

This is the one that causes all the fuss. Fuss, fuss, fuss.  Because this is the one that relates to behaviour – BUT, not that the behaviour in itself that stops a child from learning, but that the drivers for that behaviour, the reasons behind it, as it were, and how it relates to mental health are the issues that need addressing.

The thing that can catch people out is the idea that children fit into one category or another, which is unfortunate for those who like everything nice and tidy.   It is entirely possible (and probably likely, but I am no statistician) for a child to have needs that span ALL FOUR of the categories. This is called co-morbidity (lovely term, I know).  In fact, it is so common that I would strongly suggest you don’t assume that a child ever has a learning need that sits in only one category.

Let me elaborate.  You might have a child in your class who has dyslexia (for instance – it’s something I have just this minute pulled out of my head – to spare his privacy I am not going to use Sam and his particular learning needs as an example here, so I am making someone up).  They struggle with reading and spelling.  They wear glasses and have a bit of glue ear in the winter.  They don’t like the fact that they aren’t getting on well with their school work, so they mess about in class, and do anything, in fact, to cover up their problems.  They find, because they mess about, perhaps, that relations with their classmates are not as easy as they might be and as a consequence they are always getting into trouble in the playground ad this regularly spills over into lesson time.

OR you might have a child in your class who has experienced some kind of trauma.  Maybe one of their parents died, or there was a messy family breakup, domestic violence, something like that.  This child finds it difficult to settle in class, and struggles with feelings of abandonment and anxiety.  This means that their reptilian brain (the fight or flight bit) (the oldest bit of the brain, the amygdala) is in charge, and rational thought is impaired.  They are so busy worrying about what is going on in the class (that isn’t book learning), they fly off the handle at a moment’s notice, constantly falling out with friends, and they are rapidly falling behind.

OR you might want to think about a non-verbal child, someone more visibly disabled.  They might have some sort of sensory sensitivity and find a busy classroom a very difficult space to be.  They might bite another child, or throw themselves to the ground, because they can’t express or communicate what is wrong and they have no other way to tell you.

Special Educational Needs and Disabilities are woven together, tangled, if you like – and a child’s behaviour is often going to tell you something about the nature of their difficulties.  This is what we mean when we say that behaviour is communication.  Even when a child like Sam rocks up in class, one for whom there is a medical diagnosis, that label isn’t going to tell us a huge amount, even if we don’t allow our prejudices and fears to spring to the fore.  Pieces of paper and categories are just that.  Pieces of paper and categories.

What you need to do is to get to know that child as a person, so that you can both understand what they are saying to you, and that they can understand what you are saying to them.  And in order to do THAT, you need to have a relationship with them.  Don’t worry, I don’t mean some sort of lovey dovey/parent substitute thing, I mean a teaching relationship, something that is qualitatively different and distinct.

Yes, challenging behaviour in class is debilitating and draining for all concerned.  There are no magic wands or magic pills to make it better or make it go away.  Labelling them as ‘naughty’ doesn’t work either.  Concerted and unified effort does.

Did I mention my book?  It’s out now and you can buy it here. 😉