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 of 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!

Leadership, Wellbeing

Invictus Leadership

By Cole Andrew

Education Leaders:  Here’s thought-challenge for you – what 10 words or images would describe yourself, your emotions, and your leadership in this moment? 

The words of the Invictus poem by Willian Ernest Henely (1875) are said to have been recited by Nelson Mandella frequently throughout his 27 years in prison (1963 – 1990).  I cannot begin to claim I my life’s challenges are as impacting as living under apartheid, in a world where people are starving, homeless or still living under oppressive regimes.  Yet that for me is precisely the point, it shifts my mindset from my seemingly overwhelming circumstances to a healthier perspective.   In this blog, it is my intent to share my thoughts on mind-shifts in leadership.

Invictus

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeoning’s of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate,

I am the captain of my soul.

By William Ernest Henley

My life and work challenges remain staring me in the face. So, this weekend as I prepare for schools shifting their roles for the umpteenth in 12 months, I wonder if I am feeling bludgeoned, beaten into the shade, truly master of my fate, or perhaps somewhere in between.  How about you?

Take my weekend challenge: pause for a moment, go for walk, shut yourself in a room, ride a bike …. Do whatever it takes to buy yourself a moment to think, press the pause button and whilst doing so, answer these questions: 

  • Which parts of the poem describe my inner self right now and how is that affecting my leadership in school?  
  • I wonder what each member of your leadership team may be feeling and perhaps the other staff. 
  • How about your loved ones? 

The wellbeing and mental health of our nation is undoubtedly a concern in this season, and I am concerned that the very words wellbeing and work life balance are becoming words that are used but losing their intent.  Is it even a sign of weakness for leaders to be talking about their wellbeing and emotional state?  If an inspirational leader such as Nelson Mandella can identify the need to consider his mental health and find strategies to command captaincy of his soul, then perhaps we can allow ourselves permission to consider what might help us do the same.

Three things this poem helped me to take practical steps in leadership during the last 12 months:

[1] I identified true measures of success and means of measuring them.  The top measure of success I concluded was the health of my relationships; personal and professional.  We all know that building relationship is the key to motivating staff to follow your lead.   Most schools will be thinking about some form of ‘catch up’ curriculum for the pupils, starting no doubt with supporting pupils’ emotional wellbeing and building their confidence to re-engage with full and busier classroom environments.  What strategy are you putting in place to help yourself and your leaders to do the same?  Pause and discuss … listen to different views.

[2] I identified the things in this world that hijack my mind, therefore, my sense of control over my fate and inner self (soul).  Feeling overwhelmed invariably affects the way the people I lead respond, despite my best efforts to bury those things deep and carry on regardless.   In my Headship roles, I reflect on the foolishness of times I have made this mistake.   Ask your staff, if you dare, and they will tell you that they can always sense the atmosphere the Head teacher and leaders create.  Similarly, the children will always sense the tension a teacher creates if they are not captaining their souls.  This unspoken atmosphere affects the pressure children feel, even if the teacher is convinced, they are burying the pressure.  The things of this world (targets, OFSTED, lesson observations, deadlines….) they can hijack how we feel about ourselves and our sense of control.  How about taking each of those things and regaining our mind’s response to them. In my case, I learn:

  • better admin and time management strategies
  • to take each thought captive as I feel it rising up within me and reframe my response to it.  E.g., what if OFSTED ask me about quality PE curriculum during lockdown?   My reframed thought might be, we have kept children safe, checked in with them every week, built better connections with their parents online, sent them video clips to try physical activity at home and now we are planning to get them active outdoors 3 times a week to help them recover.  No need to panic, my conscience is clear that we did what was reasonably possible in a world where hundreds of people were dying on a daily basis.  I will be sure I evidence the impact of what we did achieve during ever-changing guidance from the DfE.
  • To review the workload I have facing me and my colleagues. I thought about the things I can STOP doing, KEEP doing (because they are fruitful and helpful), CHANGE streamline.  If it’s not a fruitful task for the students and staff, why are we still doing it? In my personal diary, I use the Eisenhower approach to helping achieve this priority setting each week.

[3] I had to get a grip on perspective. Like me, many will be mourning a sense of loss, either due to bereavement or simply a loss of ‘normal physical relationships.’  We are not in prison, starving or need be at a loss with our vision of the future. A leader’s most powerful tool in life is communicating and breathing hope into the world around us; even, as Mandella did, in a seemingly hopeless season of his life.  What is your vision for the short, medium, and long term for your staff and pupils?  Revisit it, recite it and find 1001 ways of communicating and breathing it into the relationships you reconnect from Monday onwards.   In your ‘moments’ of panic, remember and celebrate all you have achieved in the last 12 months, tough as it has been, you have navigated the most challenging season of school life the modern world has known since WW2.

I hope this has given you pause for thought and you make time of the weekend to invest in you.

About Cole Andrew

Cole is a leadership consultant that supports leaders in education and health to thrive, to bear fruit, to live in honour (vigeo). Having led two specialist provisions as headteacher in two different areas in the country, Cole now invests in Next Gen Leaders. He is an associate inspector and a great advocate for wellbeing. Cole has been part of #TeamADL since its inception.

#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

#Curriculum, #Teaching&Learning, Leadership, Learning, Preparing for Adulthood

Rebuilding Communities in Education – Part 2

By Anita Devi

I am grateful for the feedback, I had to Part 1 of this reflection piece. Leaders valued the list of questions and broader thinking.  Many could see how, for the benefit of our learners and within a culture of high accountability, we can still capitalise on greater autonomous leadership, at local level. Key actions and announcements by national leaders have also helped me realise, we have different perspectives on the construct ‘rebuild’.  In Part 2, I continue my thinking around the learners, the operational and the strategic.  However, I begin, by defining ‘rebuild’.

Rebuild is NOT about going back to what was, but defining the new; something better that meets the needs of where we are, not where we were.  I think we can all agree the experience of the pandemic (2020-21) crossing two academic years has changed us!  In September 2020, speaking on a radio programme about ‘Returning to School’, I talked about the ‘spectrum of experience’.  Lockdown and COVID19 may be part of the global vocabulary, but what they mean to each of us differs.  At one end of the experience spectrum is a positive experience – we have learnt new things, had quality time with family, perhaps and embarked on new online adventures of connecting, to name a few.  At the other end of the spectrum is bereavement, living in cramped conditions, no connection to people, no online access and so on.  We’ve all experienced grief and loss, as I shared in Part 1.  For most of us, our lockdown experience lies in the middle of the two extremes – we are weighing up multiple experiences and emotions, simultaneously. That’s taxing.  I recall Easter 2020 vividly. That weekend, usually a joyous festival for my family and community – I was informed of a few teaching colleagues who had passed due to COVID19 and the death of a friend’s sister-in-law.  Three months prior, this lady, a mother of two – she and I had been dancing at our friend’s 50th birthday party.  Equally on Easter weekend, I had a lot of online laughs and helped another friend surprise his wife on date night, as she is a medical key worker.  As Sunday night came to end, I was a bundle of emotions.  That was just one weekend of the many over the last year. It’s been a real mix.  I remember listening to a young man in America – during lockdown 1, he had lost 7 members of his family.  We cannot discount the personalised experience individuals have had.  The DfE guidance document on Mental Health and Behaviour in Schools (2018) would define the pandemic as an adverse childhood experience (ACE).  As such, our response to the rebuild, has to bear all of this in mind.

Learners

I have already considered aspects of mental health in Part 1.  In this section, I want us to focus on speaking and listening skills.  These are the root for learning – developmentally and socially. Learning does not happen in isolation.  In England, speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) has been a long-standing problem.

Source The Communication Trust

If you are interested in reading more on this, look up the reports A generation adrift (2013) and Talking about a generation (2017).  Even the most conversant families have shared that communication during lockdown has been challenged because there is little or nothing new to talk about at the dinner table.

As educators, I do believe we have a responsibility to restore and develop skills of oral communication.  This is a two-step process:

Step 1:  Consider different strategies to integrate institution-wide approaches to metacognition.  This is about giving learners a ‘language for learning’, so they can think and then talk about their learning.  The Education Endowment Foundation website clearly demonstrates that this is a low-cost intervention, with a potential 7-month gain.  The school year in England equates to 195 days.  That equates to 39 weeks and just under 8 months.  If metacognition recognises a 7-month gain, then surely an important part of the rebuild should include an intentional approach to metacognition.  Questions I raise in Part 1 of this blog are a starting point.

Step 2: Investing time in speaking and listening and not placing an over emphasis on writing.  Please do not mis-interpret what I am saying here.  Writing is an important skill.  However, individuals who think and speak with clarity often make the most effective writers. As a method of differentiation (high-quality teaching) the use of alternative method of recording has been considered a powerful tool for learners to demonstrate progress and achievement.

In 2010, The Communication Trust launched No Pens Day, now know as No Pens Wednesday.  No Pens Day Wednesday encourages learners to put down their pens and pick up their language skills by spending one day focusing on learning through speaking and listening.  You can find out more here and here. I’m certainly not advocating this as an everyday approach, but as a focus for returning to education in March 2021 or just after the Easter holidays, it would make for a way to get everyone talking and connecting. It’s a lot of fun too! Speaking gives a voice to the views, feelings and wishes of learners. Section 19 of the Children and Families Act 2014, makes this a statutory duty for us as educators.

Operational

It is the first day back – 8th March 2021:  How are you going to greet your learners?  Is it business as usual?  Or is there a need to listen?  I have been thinking about the power of stories and personal narratives.  Each one of us is part of the COVID19 story.  Each one of us played our part.  In the classroom, how can we utilise these historical lived-out narratives (possibly intertwined with the curriculum) to create a broader picture of the community experience, at large.

I have trained several new teachers and those new to leadership, throughout the pandemic, as well as those more experienced. Whilst it is a challenging time to be in education, it is also an exciting time to be part of the rebuild. As educators, how much of our own story will we share?

In 2014, I was asked to sum up the SEND Reforms in one word.  My word was: relationships.  Research has shown time and time again, the heart of good teaching, that has impact, is ‘relationships’.  The educator knowing not just their subject and effective pedagogy ,but knowing the learner too. It is the dynamic of these two that make the learning environment come to life.  Therefore, as you start planning face-to-face lessons consider using a one-page profile person-centred tool.  You can find out more here.  Also think about the different ways to differentiate and personalise.  Again, you can find out more here.

On a practical level, do look at the Public Health England (online course) on Psychological First Aid (PFA).  This is a straightforward way of delivering psychosocial care in the immediate aftermath of emergencies, including infectious disease outbreaks. 

Strategic

In my own mind, I am clear on the strategic leadership and embedding an institution-wide ‘new’ culture.  I led a roundtable with executive and senior leaders in education on this last week.  I do not claim to have all the answers, but certainly the framework of thinking I shared resonated with leaders in the field.   For this blog, however, I decided to revisit what the DfE has to say.  I was delighted to note … remarkably like my thinking.  In Mental Health and Behaviour in Schools (2018), it says (DfE, p9)

  1. Define the vision.  As leaders, what is your vision going forward?  What elements of pre-COVID19 will you keep?  What elements of the pandemic experience will you sustain?  How will these mesh together?  To give an example, I know some schools are considering an onsite blended learning curriculum from September 2021.  Recognition that online learning benefited some learners, due thought and consideration is being given to how this is fitted into the timetable.  Other schools have taken onboard how at the start of Lockdown 1, they did not know if the parents of their children were key workers.  These school leaders are looking into stronger home-school links.  This is such an opportunity for us to learn from the past and build anew.
  2. Emphasis on positive mental wellbeing for all (DfE p9).  Are there aspects of the organisation that lead to excessive stress for learners and staff?  What can be changed or undertaken differently?  How will high-quality teaching embrace a focus on positive mental wellbeing, not as an add-on, but a central theme for progress?
  3. Action 3 (DfE, p9) is a whole school approach to behaviour policy.  Yet in the current political thinking, this has been placed as a priority.  Can I be bold to say, what was before isn’t the same as is now!  I agree, we need a behaviour policy, but equally we need to recognise the experience we have had.  Behaviour (individual and collective) is born out of beliefs.  Have the beliefs of our community and world changed, because of the pandemic? What impact will this have on our behaviours?  I do advocate clarity on boundaries.  However, COVID19 has blurred the distinction on boundaries and barriers.  So collectively, we need to redefine (using a constructive theory of change) what we do and how.  Prior to COVID19, the focus on behaviour was (or certainly appeared to be) from a place of coercion and bringing institutions into line.  We are no longer in that space.

As learners return on 8th March 2021, reminding them and staff of the expected behaviours and boundaries is going to be vital.  The question is how it is done, to have impact, whilst still being sensitive of individuals coming through, what for many has been a traumatic experience.  Relationships of trust will need to be re-established. Plotting the academic calendar against the government’s four steps for coming out of lockdown is helpful for defining key time markers.

I started Part 1 with a quote from Nelson Mandela.  I’ve been thinking a lot about Nelson Mandela recently. Just over 30 years ago, he was released from a 27-year prison sentence, based on racial prejudice. On his release, in his first public speech, he cited a poem by Marianne Williamson called, “Our Deepest Fear”. This poem is from her book ‘Return to Love’ (Reflections & Principles of a Course in Miracles, 1976).

Born & brought up in London, I faced a fair amount of racial discrimination (overt & covert), during my childhood days. The ‘Our Deepest Fear’ poem had a significant impact on me, as a young adult at the time. It is something, I still revisit, as a reminder of what was, what is & what could be.  As we emerge out of the prison sentence of the pandemic, what will we share with world? What will be our Return to Love moment?

(For any readers who are not sure on what love has to do with leadership, I suggest you look up recent research (published in academic journals) on ‘Loving Leadership’ or even watch my presentation at the recent #GettingItRight Conference 2021).

It’s time for change!

#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.

#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.