Leadership, SEND, Support staff

Voices from the field: Support staff #RDDR – recruitment, deployment, direction and retention+

By Anita Devi with Lindsey Kelly

It is that time of year, where we start thinking about staffing for next year. Over the last few weeks, conversations with colleagues have focused heavily on support staff. Broadly speaking, the conversations fall into four categories primarily: recruitment, deployment, direction and retention+. In this blog, Lindsey and I share a few thoughts on the subject.

Recruitment

Recruiting staff is not easy. It’s about a two-way match. It requires a lot of time input and sometimes the yield is not fruitful. Recruitment experts tell me time and time again, investing time in a clear Job Description (JD) and Person Specification (PS) saves hours of shortlisting and re-advertising when the pool isn’t wide.

Top tip 1:

I use to always ask someone external to the organisation to read my adverts.

  • Does the advert, JD and PS make sense to a stranger?
  • Does the advert evoke the right interest or is it too broad?

We know our organisations too well and sometimes in communicating who we are and what we do, we miss the obvious.

Top tip 2:

With the pressure of fulfilling statutory duties of support under Education Health Care Plans (EHCPs) the temptation is to appoint because we need someone in place. However, many experienced Special Educational Needs Coordinators (SENCOs) will share, it is better to wait and recruit the most suitable person, than just fill the role. The latter can be costly in the long-run.

The same is true of appointing SENCOs (and their equivalent job titles, including multi-academy trust wide SEND Leads). Sometimes, practitioners are great in the classroom – this doesn’t necessarily equate to being effective in leading on special educational needs and disability (SEND). At the interview stage for SENCOs, it is important to consider legislation, SEND knowledge and broader questions around leadership.

Top tip 3:

The Provision Review methodology developed by TeamADL provides governors and school/ college leaders with absolute clarity on bespoke high quality teaching, in their setting. The two page outcome document is powerful to include in any recruitment pack, as it stipulates minimum expectations succinctly. When recruiting support staff, further information is included on what success in supporting a learner looks like in the organisation.

Deployment and direction

Lindsey Kelly and I have been discussing recently the correlation between intentional deployment of support staff by leaders and effective directions by class/subject teachers in the classroom. Lindsey is currently undertaking a Masters degree at UCL, London examining how learners, identified as SEN Support also receive the support they need. As an Inner London Primary SENCO, this is Lindsey’s story of leading in the field: SEN Support – rethinking teaching assistant (TA) deployment:

SENCOs are highly knowledgeable about the children in their settings who have an Education Health and Care plan (EHCP), due to their invested involvement in both the pupils and the paperwork. Not to mention their sighs of relief and whoops of joy when a child’s EHCP is finally secured. Yet, in my experience, SENCOs, parents and teachers alike are often fixated on Section F of an EHCP and the number of 1:1 Teaching Assistant (TA) hours they are entitled to. This is completely understandable; parents want their children to have the best possible education and school experience, as do their teachers, and yet there is a misguided notion that 1:1 TA support enhances their attainment. Although understandable, this view may be questionable since the most qualified person in the room is often not working with these children directly. Additionally, and of equal importance, children with EHCPs are not the only children with SEN in our classrooms. What is happening for the children identified as requiring “SEN Support”? I am particularly interested in re-thinking school provision for these children, since they don’t have a dedicated TA to manage their timetable, tell them what work they need to do today, schedule their interventions and organise their lunchtimes for them.

We know through extensive research from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) on the effective deployment of support staff, that pupils receiving high levels of TA support make less progress than their peers. In fact, there is evidence of a negative impact on progress for pupils with more significant SEN, who usually receive the most TA support. In my experience, 1:1 involvement can often bring about learned helplessness. In a world where financing a TA is a luxury, schools and SENCOs need to re-think the allocation of resources in order to best support the needs of all their children with SEN. This is by no means easy, and a good working relationship with your headteacher is essential. With the National Statistics Office reporting 265,167 full-time equivalent teaching assistants in 2019-2020, an increase of over 1,000 on 2018, and the annual spend on these staff being in the region of £4.3 million, an average net spend of over £5,000 per pupil, now more than ever we need to show creativity and initiative when it comes to TA deployment.

In my two-form entry primary school setting, we did just that. Faced with an increasing number of pupils with EHCPs, as well as those identified as requiring SEN support, we realised that an ongoing increase in staff employment was not sustainable. Instead, when the next academic year was approaching, we asked our support staff who was interested in remaining as a regular class TA and who would like to be an SEN/Inclusion TA. This was insightful as we learnt that those who volunteered for this new SEN/Inclusion TA role felt that they had some agency and co-production alongside the class teachers, and were far more committed to the role. This led to a beneficial outcome for teachers, support staff and the students. As individuals we often thrive when we feel that our voice is heard or that our job has a positive impact, and in my opinion, the benefits of a considered approach to staff redeployment feeds into its success.

So what was this new role? The SEN/Inclusion TAs were class-based in the morning, when English and Maths lessons were usually taught, enabling an “all hands-on deck” approach. They were either allocated to a year group (across two classes), or to a specific class depending on the needs of the children in that phase. Instead of working 1:1 with the children with EHCPs, the Inclusion TA was able to move around the room and support any child with concerns around SEN. A lot of focus was placed on building up students independent learning skills. This included strategies when they became stuck, such as asking for help, asking their peers and moving on to the next question etc. On some mornings, the Inclusion TAs were fortunate enough to also work alongside a class TA as well as the teacher, but the expectation was that the Inclusion TAs would not be used for “regular” TA jobs, such as photocopying or checking reading books. Their primary function was to support the needs of children with SEN. The teacher allocated the Inclusion TA’s time accordingly, and as the SENCO, I was able to recommend short and effective interventions that could be done by the Inclusion TA in small groups. An additional advantage for myself and the students, was being able to share individual outcomes or targets for certain pupils which could be worked on with consideration by both the teacher and Inclusion TA. These were usually professional recommendations or taken from children’s SEN support plans, which reinforced better learning outcomes. In the afternoons the Inclusion TAs ran specific interventions across a phase group, such as Speech and Language or Zones of Regulation, or alternatively provided additional class support in lessons where needed.

Although this model may require further review and reflection, and its success depends on staff’s positive, aspirational attitudes towards pupils with SEN and good working relationships between teachers and support staff, it highlights one example of creative TA deployment. I urge other SENCOs and Headteachers to consider alternative ways of engaging TAs. After all, it is all staff’s responsibility to build a culture of best inclusive practice in the classroom.

Activity:

As a school / college complete the following statements:

  • As leaders, our rationale for support staff deployment is …
  • Our expectation of classroom direction by teachers is …

As I have shared earlier, I’ve spent a lot of time recently talking through compliant models of EHCP support with schools, meeting the needs of SEN Support and also effective TA timetable monitoring. Simple tweaks have yielded significant returns. Even in a large secondary, with a two week timetable, there are simple ways of doing this to reduce workload and adapt for any absences. I’m a great believer in planning … so now it the time to start! Do get in touch, if we can help.

SEND Leader Planning Tools

One final thought … retention. It’s important to keep good staff, helping them to grow professionally and deepening their sense of contribution/belonging. How does the culture, ethos and vision of your school/college enable retention, at all levels? We have found, if there is clarity during recruitment, transparency in deployment and effectiveness in classroom direction, retention takes care of itself. Support staff not only stay, but extend their discretionary efforts; ultimately for the benefit of learners and the wider school/college community. That is why we call it Retention+

About the authors:

Lindsey Kelly graduated with a BSc in Psychology at the University of Leeds. She then went on to become a teacher in both mainstream primary and independent specialist sectors before establishing herself as a Primary SENCO in inner London. Lindsey was involved in obtaining IQM Centre of Excellence status for her setting and is currently undertaking her Master’s degree at UCL Institute of Education. Lindsey is passionate about reshaping policy and practice and believes that every child has the right to the highest standard of educational opportunities.

Anita Devi has held a wide range of SEND roles including SENCO, Senior Leader, School Improvement Advisor, local authority SEND Advisory Teacher and Healthwatch Trustee, Anita carries a wealth of experience in developing Leaders of Learning.  Her own teaching career spans early years to post grad in the UK and overseas and Anita lives her why through her belief in the joy of learning and the power of purpose.  In 2017, Anita was awarded the prestigious international Influential Educational Leaders Award for her SEND Leadership Pipeline strategy developing professionals from initial teacher training to advanced and experienced SENCOs.  Currently a PT PhD student, Changemaker Education Consultant & Founding CEO of #TeamADL (a not-for-profit) In 2019, the team were selected as finalists for The Disability Awards alongside some top multinational companies. More recently, working with NASBTT, Anita has written the first SEND book for Early Career Teachers.  #TeamADL have also launched in 2020 SEND Leaders Connect Advanced and SEND Leaders’ Appreciation Day.

#TeamADL You know, we know SEND Leadership – subscribe to our blog and follow us on social media to keep up to date www.teamadl.uk

Governance, Leadership, SEND

Bugs, viruses and ransomware in the SEND system

By Anita Devi

SEND = special educational needs and disability

It all started back in 2014.  For three long years prior, we had dreamed, shared, debated and imagined a better way of supporting SEND learners into adulthood.  The Bill finally became an Act in Parliament, then the summer recess was looming, and the SEND Code of Practice 2014 was rushed through both Houses.  We knew there were bugs in the Code.  Some of us even highlighted it, the moment the final Code was published.  Too late!  If only they had checked for meaning, accuracy and shared understanding.  With the Code full of bugs … people and organisations already started saying it needed ‘fixing’.  Some, including myself were focused on enabling – change was happening fast.  Multiple cycles, on multiple timelines.  The truth is the system needed debugging.  The 2015 revision did not address any of the bugs; just added a few extensions.  Maybe I should have been more vociferous about the bugs back then.  The thing with bugs is all it takes is a character, a word or a letter out of place, and we are in the bug zone!  So many parts of the SEND Code would change if a word, letter or character was omitted, or even added.

Then came the viruses!  Implementing the SEND Code requires tacit knowledge, lived out experience, and an approach that does not solely rely on school-to-school support.  Without these and the addition of social media, poor understanding of implementation and bad information has gone viral. I started to notice this first in 2014.  The same errors of interpretation appearing in schools geographically apart and not connected.  The errors were extremely specific.  I followed the trail and tracked down the source.  As a teacher, I’m skilled at looking out for common errors.  Be that via copying or generic misconceptions.  It took the best part of two years.  A group of well-meaning professionals (with no background in SEND) all sharing the same incorrect information.  We tackled some of this by sharing knowledge and different ways of working.  In a system predicted on choice, we were offering ‘choice’.  Not everyone liked this.  Centrally funded projects were given precedence, though there was no robust quality assurance in place.  The myth of being ‘free’ was the marketing strategy.  It was not free – there was a cost.  Resources distracted from the front line and pollution.  These projects, in some cases accelerated the viruses.  Overtime, the viruses mutated and in 2021, we are seeing a new kind of virus emerge in settings and feeding those new to the profession.  Too much of our energy is spent on undoing the issues, rather than building new and different for generational impact.

Ransomware is when ‘access is denied’ unless a price is paid.  This became the norm, on so many levels. Local government, law firms and practitioners.  It was the learners who missed out. They missed out on the opportunities, the possibilities, and innovative solutions for supporting increasing independence.  Not all, but most. Ransomware is not just about funding; it also feeds off control and insecurities. It’s a subtle beast, so what ‘appears’ helpful may actually be doing harm and what appears odd, may be what’s needed.  The beast has no conscience and as such can attack individuals and organisations alike, with little thought to the consequences of actions.  Therefore, tacit knowledge and lived-out experience of SEND is necessary. Parents and carers bring their tacit knowledge and lived-out experience to the table, but it saddens me to say, not all practitioners or colleagues do.  Of the few that do, few discern consequential behaviours.  It is easier to play ‘here’s the problem’ on repeat, than find solutions of a win: win for all.  Having led a few local authorities change projects – some well, some not so well … I know how hard this is. However, when parents/ careers bring their subjective tacit knowledge to the table and practitioners bring their objective tacit knowledge, that is when there is really innovative thinking.  Each voice valued.  Each voice adding to our understanding.  No single perspective can determine or support special educational needs and disability.  We know that.

Review after review, we are stuck in a reboot time loop.  Things keep changing, so by the time a SEND review is complete … the system has morphed into the next hybrid, fueled by the bugs and mutated viruses, and transported to another dimension by ransomware. The complexity of stakeholder involvement, funding and the system has made it into a beast. And it all started with a few bugs.

Everyone talks about the SEND system, as if it is out there … here is the reality:  everyone of us is part of the system.  That is why blame and shame do not work. Each one of us is part of the problem and the solution. When we point fingers, we’re including ourselves and this debilitates our creative thinking for new solutions and the wider good.

There is hope …

Whilst it may seem overwhelming, there is a way forward, but it requires 5 things:

  1. A humble acceptance that each one of us is part of the system.
  2. A circuit breaker to unlock the SEND Review time loop. We need to try something different and fast.
  3. Leadership that is born out of experience, not position or power.
  4. A move away from fixating on the literal meaning of implementation to going deeper and finding new flexible solutions that support a wide range of needs and embrace the diversity of stakeholders.
  5. Trust.

The last one is the hardest, and the most important. It was the driver for the SEND Reforms in the first place.  However, if you examine The Lamb Enquiry 2009 it does imply, once learners and families received the support, they needed (not necessarily wanted), they were highly satisfied.  So, there are some seeds of trust in the system, which we need to build on and germinate.

In October 2020, my main PC system crashed. There was a lot going on and we were supporting (new and experienced) SENCOs and SEND Leaders deal with COVID19 arrangements of returning to a routine. There was no time to focus on what was not working, just doing what needed doing.  I started working off my laptop. This was fine, at first.  However, the smaller single screen and flat keyboard eventually led to other challenges.  Many IT specialists spent hours trying to reboot and recover my PC through remote access.  Nada!  Just before Easter, (6 months on from the initial crash), I decided to approach the problem from a different angle.  I isolated my laptop system and elements of my PC and then rebuilt different parts piece by piece.  It took 10 hours and required me to dig deep and use my O’ Level knowledge on coding – but it worked.  I broke the reboot loop and then rebuilt a new system.

We can do the same in SEND.  We need to isolate elements, focus on these to rebuild a new system.  We cannot rebuild the whole thing in one go.

I am no coding or computer expert.  But I do know SEND.  I have spent some time recently thinking about what we can isolate, rebuild, and add to shift the system much quicker than any review would.  For many the word ‘isolate’ will kick against their passion for inclusion.  I am not talking about isolating learners but isolating the bugs and viruses and shutting down access to ransomware viruses. It will require us to work together and differently. 

Are you up for the challenge of reboot, rebuild and reconnect, so this generation and the next have access to the support they need and deserve?  It is a choice we all have to make.

#TeamADL You know, we know SEND Leadership – subscribe to our blog and follow us on social media to keep up to date www.teamadl.uk

About Anita Devi

As a former SENCO, Senior Leader, School Improvement Advisor, local authority SEND Advisory Teacher and Healthwatch Trustee, Anita Devi carries a wealth of experience in developing Leaders of Learning.  Her own teaching career spans early years to post grad in the UK and overseas and Anita lives her why through her belief in the joy of learning and the power of purpose.  In 2017, Anita was awarded the prestigious international Influential Educational Leaders Award for her SEND Leadership Pipeline strategy developing professionals from initial teacher training to advanced and experienced SENCOs.  Currently a PT PhD student, ChangeMaker Education Consultant & Founding CEO of #TeamADL (a not-for-profit) In 2019, the team were selected as finalists for The Disability Awards alongside some top multinational companies. More recently, working with NASBTT, Anita has written the first SEND book for Early Career Teachers.  #TeamADL have also launched in 2020 SEND Leaders Connect Advanced and SEND Leaders’ Appreciation Day. Here is the link to SEND Leaders Appreciation Day 2021 #SLAD2021 – start nominating!

#Curriculum, Leadership, Learning, Preparing for Adulthood, Purpose, SEND

Rebuilding Communities in Education (Part 1)

By Anita Devi

At the start of half-term (February 2021), I woke up to a vivid dream, I had had in my sleep:  I was at an educational institution, I use to work at.  This was positioned in the future.  The place was buzzing! There was a real coming together of different generations all learning different things (academic, the arts, and vocational studies).  This institution was back to being the learning hub of the community.  Some of you might say educational institutions have remained the learning hub throughout COVID19 and lockdown.  To some extent, this is true.  However, equally we have lost much that we need to regain as well as define and rebuild a new world going forward. in this blog two-part blog, I hope to share some thoughts on rebuilding communities in education.  I do not claim to be an expert, but I have given this some thought and held roundtable table discussions with other thought-leaders.  In each part, I will focus on the learner, the operational and the strategic.  Both parts have a different emphasis, but I believe, it is this twin track of thought, that will enable us to rebuild together.

Nelson Mandela is often quoted as saying, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”  COVID19 was a global war and this blog is all about how we find or re-establish peacetime.  SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes Covid-19 has recently been reviewed in Forbes (August 2020) as to whether it makes for a good bioweapon.  Biological warfare and bioterrorism are not new.  Historically, the United States, Iraq, former Soviet Union, United Kingdom, Japan, and Canada all used to have biological weapons programs.  As a young adult working in London, I distinctly recall being involved in peace politics’ services to commemorate the 44th Hiroshima Day (6th August 1945).  Over a decade ago, training teachers in Vietnam, I visited The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Min City, where I saw how Orange Agent had led to an increase in disability amongst children and unborn babies. The impact of global events like this last and that is why it is important I feel, for us to start focusing on the rebuild.

The Learner

Over the episodes of lockdowns and reintegration, emphasis has been placed on mental health, particularly of learners. The World Health Organisation (WHO) states in its constitution that “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”  Globally, therefore we have been challenged by the pandemic itself, as well as the hidden consequential health symptoms.  As the vaccination programme is rolled out and we begin to regroup, it is this holistic dimension of health, we need to consider.  One bright young man in my neighbourhood is an avid cricket player.  Being denied the ability to play, meet with his team-mates and enjoy this past time has made him question the point of getting up each morning.  Equally, younger aged children from one of my networks are now determined to work in the medical field to find cures to diseases known and unknow to mankind.  The point I am making; this has affected us all differently.  Lockdown & COVID19 may be global terms, but what it means to each of us experientially will differ.  The differential is due to seen and unseen factors.  What I can say with certainty is, at some level we have ALL experienced grief and loss.  This is not just about losing loved one.  Though, that carries a deeper level of pain and grief.  However, not being able to do, say or relate in normal ways has been a challenge.

Recognising this loss and grief as a universal event, and yet a personal experience hopefully will make those of us who teach think about conversations and relationships in the classroom.  From an individual and community rebuilding perspective, we need to keep asking each other about our experience and what that meant.  This will not only help to unpeel layers, but it will aid the healing process too. Teaching in London, after 9-11, I made an independent decision to put the formal curriculum on hold and focus all learning on ‘I belong to a community, where I am loved and respected’.  The school was located in economically deprived area and my year group came from a mix of ethnic backgrounds, which included two Muslim boys.  We talked a lot during that time, we defined our dreams for the future, as well as gave voice to our fears.  It took three days of a variety of learning PSHE / Citizenship activities before the prejudice towards the two Muslim boys manifested.  The children wanted to blame someone, in order to make sense of their world being turned upside down.  As a community, we were hurting.  I am a Christian, by faith and we believe strongly that when one person is hurt, we (as a body) are all affected.  We addressed the misdirected views in a wholesome way and established a healthy learning community in the school, one again.  Imagine, if I had just done a tokenistic ‘how do you feel?’ mental health check-in activity and then moved onto the curriculum.  The prejudice and fear would have still existed and continued to grow undercover.  By brining it out into the open, we were able to challenge false beliefs and reunite.

Consider:

  • What beliefs (true or false) have the learners we care about developed regarding COVID19 and humanity, as a whole?
  • How will this experience affect their dreams for the future?
  • What questions do our learners have?

I am not saying we need to have all the answers, but we do need to make space for conversations.

Social emotional mental health does not happen in isolation.  The three dimensions are connected.  Too often, we just focus on mental health.  Yet, making time for the social and emotional will feed into better mental health.  Spend time exploring each and the interconnectivity between the three.  You can find a few ideas here

Before I move onto operational thoughts, I want to raise the point that there is a fine line between anxiety and fear, though they can both manifest similar symptoms.  The continuum of time (past, present and future) can trigger different stress responses.  I am no expert in this area, though I do have a basic knowledge.  What I can say, though in the days ahead we are going to need to be observant of our learners, noting any patterns, sudden changes and spirals of decline or unusual hysteria.  Critical to our observation antennas being acutely sharpened, it is important we establish good relationships with our learners.  They need to know there is someone they can talk to; someone who will listen, respect them and help (including signposting or referrals to specialists). As practitioners, we need to do this, whilst being mindful of our own mental health and wellbeing needs.

Operational

Two core elements of developing resilience are self-efficacy and social problem solving. Curiosity can be the result of interest and/or the lack of information, knowledge, and skills in an area.  As we connect back in our classrooms over the academic year, think about how the curriculum can be delivered through an increase in problem solving activities.  This will help our learners begin to re-establish a sense of agency and autonomy.  A few young people have shared with me their sense of helplessness during this pandemic.  For many they are filled with questions about identity and purpose.  Engaging young people in social problem solving, through the curriculum enables young people to make choices and think things through.

We need to identify gaps in learning and embed pathways for progress, but fundamental to this will be the learner’s own aspirations.  Aspirations connect the future, with core activity in the now.  Using classroom activities to demonstrate to learners they can make a difference and they can have an impact; we are establishing a foundation for dreaming and achieving.  A deeper skill involved in problem solving is the ability to choose and recognise the consequences of choice.  This involves a broader range of critical thinking skills, which in time will feed in academic attainment and achievement, as well as socialisation skills.  Choice is something, we can and should offer our learners with complex needs too.  Fixed choice questions (A or B?) is still a choice and it puts the learner in control.

Strategic

In Part 2 of this article, I will invest time in unpacking on how we collectively can define the new normal.  For now, I ask you to take a piece of paper, reflect and note down:  what lessons have you personally and professionally learnt from COVID19?

I recently read an anonymous quote, “education is the passage to progress”.  What a beautiful image and something real and tangible as we emerge out of this life experience.  Therefore, using the thirteen types of knowledge, I leave you with thirteen questions to reflect on individually and as a team.  To be clear, knowledge in my mind relates also to awareness and familiarity gained through experience of a fact or situation.  There are no right answers to any of these questions … it is just about your view and experience. Both of these will shape your attitude, beliefs and behaviours in the rebuilding of communities in education.

1) Posteriori knowledge:  What have you learnt from COVID19 and lockdown?  What are your three key takeaways?

2) Priori knowledge:  What elements of your worldview are you retaining from a time before COVID19?

3) Dispersed knowledge:  How would you describe your lockdown experience?

4) Domain knowledge:  What specific areas of learning have you developed and enhanced during the pandemic?

5) Empirical knowledge:  What are your observations about the impact of COVID19 on your community and circle of influence?

6) Encoded knowledge:  Looking back, what signs or symbols will remind you of the pandemic?

7) Explicit knowledge: What artefacts of expression do you have of the COVID19 experience?

8) Known unknowns: List three questions you have about COVID19 and another three questions about the future, as we begin to rebuild?

9) Metaknowledge:  Can you think of any metaphors to describe the pandemic experience for you?

10) Procedural knowledge:  In responding to COVID19, are there any procedures you have adopted that you would keep, or are there things you use do, which you will now drop or improve?

11) Propositional knowledge:  What fact-based information can you recall about the COVID19 experience?

12) Situated knowledge:  How has your community grown or developed through the pandemic?  What has been the greatest loss and the greatest gain?  How do you know?

13) Tacit knowledge:  What have you gained mastery over during this season and what impact has this had on your emotional well-being?

I constructed these questions to help us all reflect to rebuild.  You may have better ones.  Do please share these in the comments. This will help us grow together.  Some leaders may choose to use these questions to structure a staff meeting or even stimulate conversations with our learners.  Part 2 of this blog will be published on 3rd March 2021.  Till then, stay safe.

Postscript:  As I started writing this piece, I received instructions from the NHS, that I am required to shield until 31st March 2021.  I had my first vaccination on 25th January 2021.  I have not been asked to shield prior to this and receiving the communication did make me reflect on how much I value choice and my freedom.

#TeamADL You know, we know SEND Leadership – subscribe to our blog and follow us on social media to keep up to date www.teamadl.uk

About Anita Devi

As a former SENCO, Senior Leader, School Improvement Advisor, local authority SEND Advisory Teacher and Healthwatch Trustee, Anita Devi carries a wealth of experience in developing Leaders of Learning.  Her own teaching career spans early years to post grad in the UK and overseas and Anita lives her why through her belief in the joy of learning and the power of purpose.  In 2017, Anita was awarded the prestigious international Influential Educational Leaders Award for her SEND Leadership Pipeline strategy developing professionals from initial teacher training to advanced and experienced SENCOs.  Currently a PT PhD student, Changemaker Education Consultant & Founding CEO of #TeamADL (a not-for-profit) In 2019, the team were selected as finalists for The Disability Awards alongside some top multinational companies. More recently, working with NASBTT, Anita has written the first SEND book for Early Career Teachers.  #TeamADL have also launched in 2020 SEND Leaders Connect Advanced and SEND Leaders’ Appreciation Day.

#Teaching&Learning, Early Career Framework, Preparing for Adulthood, Purpose, SEND

I am a teacher. I teach.

By Anita Devi

“I know all those words, but that sentence makes no sense to me.”
 Matt Groening

It is no secret that I am not a fan of the clichés “every teacher is a teacher of SEND” or “every leader is a leader of SEND”.  In this blog, I will share my thoughts on why and how these phrases do not align with my values or vision.  To clarify, SEND here represents children and young people with special educational needs and/ or a disability.  The alternative title, I pondered upon for this piece was ‘It’s an injustice!’ As a fourth year PhD student in Education and Social Justice, I have spent a fair amount of time unpacking the different facets of social justice.  I do not claim to be an expert in this area, but what I have learnt is social justice is complex.  It embraces the view that everyone deserves equal economic, political, and social rights and opportunities.  How this pans out in reality is another story and one that needs clarity on defining a state of social justice and the means to achieve it.

An ageless dialogue has been the debate between “I am, therefore, I think” and “I think, therefore I am”.  My own leaning based on my background in psychology, my experience and my beliefs is in the former:  I am, therefore, I think.  If we assume, thinking is the basis for being … then what happens when individuals have learning or cognitive difficulties?  Do they cease to exist?  Not at all.  So, what has this got to do with teaching?  Looking across sectors, the most successful people are those who are clear on their identity – who they are.  From a place who they are, emerges what and how they act.

In defining a culture for change, language matters …

Every teacher is a teacher of SEND

This is an assertion about the current state of play, positioned in the present tense.  So, it is not entirely accurate.  The reality is, not every teacher is.  The statement itself does qualify the quality of provision provided by teachers.  Does it meet needs?  Is provision fit-for-purpose?  More importantly, it implies students with SEND are a homogenous group.  They are not.  They are individuals, each with distinctive characteristics, unique journeys, and futures full of potential.   Does the phrase also imply that teachers are fully knowledgeable about SEND?

I have been involved in SEND and inclusion a long time and in a variety of roles.  I do not say ‘I’m a teacher of SEND’ … as there is always more to learn and know.  As practitioners, we should not be afraid to say, ‘I don’t know, but I will find out’.  Saying ‘I am a teacher of SEND’ implies I know it all.  I do not.  What I do say is ‘I am a teacher.  I teach.’ That’s the foundation and implied within those two sentences is an invitation to ask, ‘Who do you teach?’  Professionally, I then have a moral purpose to reflect on whether I truly teach all children and young people in my care or am I selective?  By singling out ‘SEND’ as the focus of my teaching, I would be ‘pretending’ to be inclusive by being ‘exclusive’. A perverse injustice, surely?  Equally, I am aware there are specialist SEND teachers out there, who have extensively trained and researched a specific area or need.  That is different.  In my professional journey, I was at one point a local authority Specialist SEND Advisory Teacher for Cognition and Learning. It was a specialist role.

Some would argue the statement is aspirational – a desired state.  Does it truly reflect inclusivity and how do we know when we get there? The statement does not make it clear what actions and behaviours I would see and maybe for some, it creates an illusion of ‘I am there’.  The amount of inaccurate information around SEND on the internet has grown immensely over the years.  Individuals read a book / report and position themselves with a view. Suddenly they are leaders in the field!

Maybe a better way of expressing it would be “our aspirational vision is for all teachers to be responsive and inclusive of diverse needs”.  Not as sexy as ‘every teacher is a teacher of SEND’, but certainly much more wholesome and rooted in the reality of what is and what could be.

Focussing on being responsive brings in a quality element that can be evaluated.  Those who lead on SEND (at school / college level) can evaluate how responsive teachers are to diverse needs.  This is not about evaluating teacher performance, but about contribution to organisational goals on increasing inclusion and reducing exclusion.  The two are separate and interrelated dynamics.  However, reducing exclusion does not necessarily lead to an increase in inclusion and vice versa. At #TeamADL we have developed some structures, systems and solutions around this.  Maybe that’s a blog for another day?

Every Leader is a Leader of SEND

This is often cited as a motivational phrase.  However, just saying it does not mean things change.  As a consultant, I am generally called in when things are not working.  This is not about blame and shame.  The leaders have a maturity of perspective to recognise they need external input to align systems and structures to ensure all children and young people receive the educational experience, they are entitled to.  I have lost count of the number of times, I’ve walked into a school and a leader has said to me, “Every teacher is a teacher of SEND” and “Every leader is a leader of SEND”.  When I ask them what that means or looks like … they have no answer!  The children and young people we teach and the families we serve, deserve better than a few well-rehearsed catch phrases.

Effective leaders build diverse teams and come from a place of modelling good practice in their specialist field.  It is therefore helpful for those who lead on SEND to have experience on delivering effective SEND practice.  Otherwise, a lot of what is delivered is just theoretical knowledge.  SENCOs are required to undergo a specialist qualification, as part of their induction.  The content of this training is debatable and certainly my own research shows the courses lack pragmatism. Regulation 50 in the SEND Regulations 2014 defines the role of a SENCO.  I have written more about it here in relation to workload and assessment.  By repeating the mantra ‘every leader is a …”  we are undermining the role and value SENCOs play and we are not giving full credence to Regulation 50.   Like the cliché about teachers of SEND, stating every leader is a leader of SEND is inaccurate and does nothing to move us towards an aspiration of effective SEND leadership.

Ultimately, our goal is to deliver an effective educational experience for all children that prepares them for their future and adulthood. Using these cliches – it is an injustice! … and I would politely ask those using these phrases to stop or refine them!

Postscript (February 2021)

I’m grateful for the feedback I have received from colleagues who have read this post. A significant number of those who contacted me, agreed. There were a few, who felt we should remain aspirational and use the cliches to advance a bigger agenda. If that were possible, the world would move forward through memes, perhaps?

Another type of justification for using these phrases was shared with me; namely legislation. The comment was made citing mainly points from Chapter 6 of the SEND Code of Practice 2015 and in particular 6.4 which relates to assessment and identification. I have written about assessment and differential diagnosis previously. Hearing the arguments put across in relation to my comments above, I gave it considered thought and I still stand by my comments above. Here are my three reasons why:

  1. There is a difference between a leader of SEND and a leader for SEND. Reading a few books, articles and journals on SEND, doesn’t make someone a leader. It comes through the attitude and experience of an individual to articulate a vision, based on a core set of values and then be positioned to drive diverse teams through a change process for improvement. A leader for SEND is an advocate, not an specialist or expert. We need to recognise and honour the difference.
  2. If non-specialist leaders are going to be FOR something that positions them in the equality and equity dialogue, then it needs rooted in the broader context of inclusion, embracing not only SEND, but also ethnic diversity, gender quality, etc.
  3. The principles in Section 19 of the Children and Families Act 2014 provide us a framework to evaluate whether a leader is FOR inclusion. So we do have a legislative basis to challenge wider leaders, not because they need to be experts. More importantly they need to be advocates operating from a core set of values.

To re-iterate the final paragraph of my original post:

Ultimately, our goal is to deliver an effective educational experience for all children that prepares them for their future and adulthood. Using these cliches – it is an injustice! … and I would politely ask those using these phrases to stop or refine them!

#TeamADL You know, we know SEND Leadership – subscribe to our blog and follow us on social media to keep up to date www.teamadl.uk

About Anita Devi

As a former SENCO, Senior Leader, School Improvement Advisor, local authority SEND Advisory Teacher and Healthwatch Trustee, Anita Devi carries a wealth of experience in developing Leaders of Learning.  Her own teaching career spans early years to post grad in the UK and overseas and Anita lives her why through her belief in the joy of learning and the power of purpose.  In 2017, Anita was awarded the prestigious international Influential Educational Leaders Award for her SEND Leadership Pipeline strategy developing professionals from initial teacher training to advanced and experienced SENCOs.  Currently a PT PhD student, Changemaker Education Consultant & Founding CEO of #TeamADL (a not-for-profit) In 2019, the team were selected as finalists for The Disability Awards alongside some top multinational companies. More recently, working with NASBTT, Anita has written the first SEND book for Early Career Teachers.  #TeamADL have also launched in 2020 SEND Leaders Connect Advanced and SEND Leaders’ Appreciation Day.

Leadership, SEND

Successful SEND Leadership – Is it enough to just copy good practice?

By Steve Pendleton

Peer-to-peer professional support and school improvement are two different processes.  Naturally, there is some overlap, in terms of change management and transformation. However, in the current educational climate, we are seeing an increasing confusion between the two.  Peer-to-peer support is a process of cooperation between professionals who have interests in common and experiences to share. Specialist school improvement is where developments are planned, carried out and evaluated with external advice, and where there is clear accountability for outcomes.

In this blog, I unpack some of the myths around using good practice to establish high quality provision.  I do so, from a school development perspective and I will use the case study of social emotional and mental health (SEMH) provision to highlight the key points.

One of the things I have learned from working with school leaders over the past 17 years is that good practice in one place doesn’t inevitably lead to good practice somewhere else. Context is more important than is often given credit. Underneath the surface schools vary considerably.  Schools may have similar systems, classrooms, and curriculums, but function differently because each has a unique community culture which is strongly influenced by the organisation’s beliefs and values and the geographical location of the school.

A useful metaphor to explain this can be found in gardening.  Like transplanting a thriving plant from one garden to another, there are differences, invisible to the naked eye, that can cause it to struggle. The plant might need additional help to survive in its new setting because the soil may have a different level of moisture, acidity or minerals. To ensure a successful transplant, the soil may require additives. It is possible that the transplant may never be successful because the essential conditions cannot be recreated.

Differences between schools which appear physically very similar are hard to spot when you are a successful leader in one school and have developed systems which work well in that context. The benefit of engaging with external support and school improvement trained professionals, is that you can have your assumptions challenged. This is important when you need to see the interplay between the effective approach and the context in which it is working. An external view can help you establish whether you can provide the essential conditions for a new approach to be successful.

Case study:

Jane, the head of a highly successful Warwickshire primary school opened a SEND specialist resource provision for key stage one children with social emotional and mental health (SEMH) needs in October 2020.  Jane sought my input as school improvement specialist to help her discern between good practice (the seed or plant, to extend the gardening metaphor) and the culture (the soil and other variants, unseen to the eye).  As part of the preparation we jointly visited an award-winning independent special school across the border in Leicestershire. Places in this school are in high demand because of the successful outcomes and added value for children with SEMH needs This has helped transform the lives of the children and their families.  

Our intent was to distil the elements of good practice that could be applied to the new school in Warwickshire.  So that the children could experience high outcomes too. Clearly, the two organisations are vastly different and serve different communities. One is a mainstream primary in Warwick and the other is an independent primary special school in Leicestershire.

Five things we discovered through this process:

  1. Even though the age range for provision deferred, many of the children felt like failures at their previous school or setting. Many of the children had unmet needs, causing further distress and in some cases, leading to trauma.  This was common (to varying degrees) across both school communities.
  2. The Leicestershire school clearly has effective systems and processes that enable these vulnerable children to flourish.  However, these cannot simply be replicated, as they have evolved over time.  We had to flesh out the principles underpinning the systems and processes and ask key questions to understand the interplay of the whole system.
  3. When the Leicestershire school employs staff, it looks for people with the values and beliefs that will enable them to cope emotionally with distressed children. Jane will adopt the same approach for her provision. Staff can be trained on how to help children learn. It is harder to give them moral purpose.
  4. Leaders in the Leicestershire school prioritise their own emotional well-being by making sure they have access to external support. Jane and her colleagues will need to do the same. When the going gets tough, the leader is the last line of defence and needs to be available to help and protect staff.
  5. The Leicestershire school has found that traditional rewards and sanctions are not effective at helping children with SEMH needs to cope. This led Jane to wonder whether her school’s behaviour policy was effective. Replacing it with something radically different was a bold step and took courage. Jane needed reassurance that it was the right thing to do and the support of other leaders in the school to make it work.

We will continue to update you on the development of the school in Warwickshire.  In the meantime, a few thoughts for reflection:

  • What do you see as the main differences between peer-to-peer support and specialist school improvement support?
  • What are the strengths and challenges of each?
  • At this point in time, would your setting benefit from peer-to-peer support or specialist school improvement?  Further reflect on why.  We would love to hear your thoughts, so do feel free to comment below.

About Steve Pendleton

Steve Pendleton is a school improvement specialist for #TeamADL with expertise in the education of vulnerable and disadvantaged children. After a successful career as a teacher and leader in secondary schools, Steve became a school inspector, improvement adviser, virtual head, SEND Commissioner and senior leader for a local authority in the West Midlands. His specialisms include leadership development, and strategic approaches to impact delivery of provision for behavior SEMH, attachment and trauma needs.

#TeamADL is committed to ensuring everyone thrives in education, employment, and life. We stand up for people who are different because we are different. To find out more visit www.teamadl.uk