by Anita Devi
School’s out, so why are we still publishing this blog? At #TeamADL the Editorial Board took a decision to publish all three blogs in July and then have a break in August. So today, I wanted to address the issue of ‘opinion diversity’.
Our overriding theme for this month has been gratitude and appreciation. On July 1, we celebrated SEND Leaders’ Appreciation Day. Some might argue, why not call it “Inclusion Leaders’ Appreciation Day”? For me, there is exists a reality-gap of what is (a high focus on SEND, labels and diagnosis) to what could be (authentic inclusion). Currently, the former is enshrined in law and often operates to downplay the inclusion discourse. The latter is a vision that still needs defining and refining, collectively – hence our #ADL_Tadmin blog. Back to gratitude, earlier in the month, we had a leadership and SENCO wellbeing blog exploring the application of appreciation in different roles. Today, I want to explore the link between inclusion and gratitude.
As stated in last month’s blog, inclusion embraces being, becoming and belonging. The premise is founded on a plinth of acceptance, within boundaries. It is the ‘within boundaries’ that has fuelled the behaviour debate in education. Who defines the boundaries? What is acceptable? What is not? Violence and putting others at risk is clearly not. Being rude is clearly not. Yes, there are some conditions that make rudeness an involuntary act (e.g., Tourette’s), but that is the exception … and dare I say it, not the norm! Before you ask, “who defines the norm?” Please note I have used the word ‘boundaries’ not barriers! There is a difference in purpose and application. A boundary defines a safe space within which we have freedom to make choices, interact and operate. Boundaries are necessary for growth and safety. In contrast a barrier is an in or out scenario. So, here’s my question for us all (myself included), if you are pro-inclusion, how accepting of difference and diversity are you? How about opinion-diversity? Do you actively engage with individuals who have different opinions to yourself, or do you gravitate to people who are like you / share the same opinion? Is your network, an echo chamber?
In setting up #TeamADL, I intentionally chose individuals who were different and, in many ways, better than me. I wanted them to contribute freely, I wanted to learn from them, and I wanted them to challenge me. There are two fundamental ground rules or boundaries for our team: an active engagement in our own well-being (preservation of harm to self) and no negative cyclical engagement on social media. The team are encouraged to engage in public debate and share their opinion, but to ensure it is kept focused on the issues/ principles, not individuals or from a moaning culture or perspective. As a leader, I have sought to model this. In the main, I am intentional about this – reflecting both on and in my actions / professionalism. Occasionally, I slip up … but these moments do not go unanalysed for future growth and learning. Our values and mission guide our actions and decisions. Being involved in special educational needs, disability, and inclusion for as long as I have, and in a variety of roles, one thing I have noticed – opinion diversity is not the norm. There is a subtle behaviour of ‘othering’, especially if someone else asks questions, suggests a different view, or disagrees. Othering is a phenomenon in which some individuals or groups are defined and labelled as not fitting in within the norms of a social group. Let me exemplify through an example:
A few years back, colleagues in the special educational needs and disability area were leading on a centrally funded project. I heard about the project from school leaders, but there were a few threads that didn’t make sense. It was a time of significant national change and since it was publicly funded, I wanted to find out more. My role at the time involved me leading in local areas, so the project had a direct consequence on my work. I started by asked those leading on the project for more information. Bam! The barriers went up and they refused to speak to me. Non-engagement … Left to my own devices, I started to find out more to fill the gaps, whilst simultaneously continuing to try and arrange a conversation for open exchange and discussion of different opinions. Refusal, after refusal even when I offered to host. This went on for two years and finally my MP had to intervene for a meeting; by which time whilst I was still open to listening … and had even more questions, the individuals involved in leading (fellow practitioners) still refused to engage. The meeting was ultimately attended by a civil servant, who had no background in education and really couldn’t answer any of the questions. So not very constructive really.
All the way through this experience I kept thinking two things,
- I’m being othered. This was not the first time … but on this occasion it was for my opinion. My opinion was ‘perceived’ as a threat, as opposed to a fellow practitioner with good intent, but just a different view. Previously, (within the same arena) I had been ‘othered’ for my ethnicity and my face not fitting. For a world that claims to promote inclusion … maybe the SEND world is selective to including those who agree with us, without question?
- The second thought was surely, if we all want what’s best for children, young people, and their families ( shared intent) then coming together and exploring all options to discover the most effective solution forward is for the greater good. Not everyone, I discovered is focused on the greater good.
The incident I mention above was about 7 years ago. In truth, I had forgotten about it and moved on. I am clear on what I stand for, I’m open to listening / discussion, but if individuals promoting inclusion refuse to engage in healthy debate … not my problem. Recently the DfE asked me to meet a colleague (who was not involved at the time), and he brought it up in a meeting from a perspective of fear! The incident was being used to justify that we shouldn’t discuss difference of opinions … true story. It also highlights the problem with ‘othering’. People who ‘other’ individuals then go on to tell others, so it spreads and goes viral, until everyone thinks it is the norm. I have previously shared my thoughts on ‘Bugs, viruses and ransomware in the SEND system’.
Why is this subtle behaviour of ‘othering’ significant?
For me, there are some foundational elements of the Children and Families Act 2014. One of them is Section 19, the principles we all are required to adhere to. These place children, young people, and their families at the heart of the discourse of needs and provision. But this has been misunderstood and the meaning of these principles has shifted from ‘this should be at the heart of our collective decisions’ to this is how we decide whose voices carries more weight. What are these principles? There are three, and yes, I could articulate them here … or in true teacher style, I could encourage you to look them up on page 19 of the 0-25 years SEND Code of Practice 2015.
To be fair to the civil servant who was commissioned to meet me in the story above, he did listen to what I believe to be the 5 pinnacle aspects of the SEND Code Practice 2015; however, he struggled to embrace the conceptual framework of how/why these need to align for implementation. Section 19 is just one of the key 5 catalyst aspects for effective school-based practice.
How would this work in practice?
Imagine sitting in a multi-agency meeting to discuss the provision needed for a child. The room is filled with members of the local community (click this link to read why I do not use the term stakeholders). Let’s assume everyone is operating from the principles of Section 19 (Children & Families Act, 2014), yet everyone has a different opinion. How is that possible? Each person has a different lens and therefore holds a different piece of the jigsaw. How do we proceed?
- Option 1: One is piece is seen as right and another as wrong. This is where the rights agenda can turn into barriers and as O’Brien (2020) shares ‘Inclusion becomes a barrier for inclusion’. This could be seen as the doctrine of duality.
- Option 2: Everyone is right – pluralism or the doctrine of multiplicity. However, some are more right than others. This is different to right and wrong. It’s about the weighting given to different views. This is when the discussion turns into who can express their opinions the loudest. Shouting and repetition becomes the dominate communication style, as opposed to listening and evolving collaboratively.
- Option 3: Everyone has a view, and everyone disagrees because everyone has a different / partial lens. There is an expectation of difference! However, what is considered over the different views is patterns, connections, and solutions. The doctrine of unity. For years, I thought ‘lack of trust’ was the issue in the system and I extensively researched different models of trust and how to bring about cultural change. I was wrong! I’ve now come to realise ‘trust’ is a by-product of unity and not the other way round. Unity is an intentional act, and therefore Section 19 matters! I have written previously how this could pan out, especially when it comes to assessment and identification.
I am an advocate of ‘I am, therefore, I think’. Who I am precedes what I think (do), and my thinking doesn’t not determine my identity, it shapes my behaviour or lived-out perspective. Others may argue ‘I think, therefore I am’. I struggle with this because, for me my thinking isn’t constant; it fluctuates. Therefore, implying identity also fluctuates. I agree with many researchers, who argue ‘identity’ shifts over time, however, for me identity is rooted in character and at the heart of my character are my values, which hopefully bring some consistency to the discussion.
So back to gratitude and acceptance, both values in themselves. I strongly believe, if I am grateful for others, I will value and accept who they are, what they think and how they feel. Some might argue acceptance of others comes before gratitude. Either way, there is an interdependence. So here are my questions for reflection:
- When someone asks questions or has a different opinion – do we embrace the opportunity for a conversation to mutually learn, or do we avoid them?
- Is acceptance and gratitude, a core part of our modus operandi?
- What’s the link between inclusion and gratitude? I would be interested to know, especially if your view differs to mine.
Till next time … thank you for who you are and what you bring to the table. It is appreciated and valued. Have a good summer everyone!