“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” Eleanor Roosevelt
I am in a unique position. As the head of a large mainstream (600+) and a 28 place special school, all on one site (intermingled not separated), I am able to see how the two provisions work as individual and joined up entities. It presents many challenges but, as I am quickly realising, it also offers up far more opportunities to make our schools amazing communities that are truly inclusive.
Firstly, let me look at the problems that mainstream schools face in effectively educating more complex SEND children. I am finding, more and more, that mainstream schools do not want out-reach to support and develop better provision for these issues within their schools. They want us to take the issue away. To solve the problems quickly or say, “This is not working so here is the fix” The fix needs to be quick! This makes me really sad. It is clear that we have set up, and continue to develop, a national system within mainstream schools that puts complex SEND issues at odds with this system. This is not mainstream schools fault. This is a fault within the system. It is a data fault. It is the fear that if things are not ‘perfect’ Ofsted will punish you. It is the drive for better and better schools (It makes me feel a little sick writing this). It is the ideal that my school fits the picture of behaviour, learning and leadership that fits the jigsaw of a national ‘one fit’ good (or better) school.
How wrong could this be?
Providing for complex SEND issues will never be perfect. In the same way as there is NO such thing as NORMAL. Providing for complex SEND children is about developing best practice. It is about not accepting that doing something as we have ‘always done it’ will work. It won’t. Therefore, mainstream schools who embrace their issues are likely to be growing and developing practice that will make them a much better school.
I wish it was as easy as this…
The impact (Especially with complex social, emotional and behavioural difficulties) that one child can have in a mainstream school is massive. I see this within my own mainstream provision. I see brilliant and experienced teachers struggle with their enormous class responsibilities and the demands that one child can present. It cannot be ignored. Mainstream schools have become too much about targets, accountability and a curriculum that means there is no time to stop and take stock. Mainstream is set up to fail because the system has become cold and detached and there are far too many (Always at a distance and not doing the role day to day) in it who have lost their compassion and humanity.
This cannot be right?
I spent a morning yesterday doing a School Improvement review in a primary special school (I learnt more than I gave). Special schools are set up to offer things that are so alternative to mainstream provision. I watched a lesson where every child was held and stroked to music. They were calmed and attuned to their environment in ways that would be impossible in mainstream (The biggest challenge in mainstream is the line, “But it seems like I am rewarding bad behaviour?” The fear that children will suddenly all copy or parents will (and do) send in a petition. In special schools we are able to have the time and space to deal with the root causes of behaviours rather than focus on the displayed behaviour and its fallout).
In our Specialist Provision we have an experienced and committed staff (at ALL levels) who are highly trained and able to work across a spectrum of needs including eye gaze technology, supporting children with complex social and learning difficulties, physical impairment needs, across the very wide autistic spectrum and with many complex sensory needs. Most importantly because they have been spat at, kicked, punched, dealt with highly emotional situations (almost daily) the staff in specialist have unconditional regard (and love) for the children they work with. They have the time, space and systems to do this in. The specialist environment and ethos invites this; mainstream is in total conflict with it and therefore how can ALL SEND children thrive alongside their peers?
Of course schools do get this right. They are the schools that accept that perfect is a lie. They are schools that do not care about their status but what they do each and every day. They are brave schools with a moral compass set firmly in the future. They see what can be learned from children and families who climb Mount Everest almost daily and they are inspired by them. I am strongly thinking that I need to get rid of the label Specialist Provision at my school. I am unsure if it is helpful. I prefer, ‘We are an inclusive school’. I want ALL schools to feel that they too can be truly inclusive (I was so impressed yesterday with the number of staff in the Special School who had come through the Special School system themselves – it was truly inspirational and gave the school not only warmth but a sense of clarity, empathy and joy that you rarely see in mainstream settings)
I feel that rather than look to Special Schools to take away our SEND challenges we should be looking to learn from them. Learning how to create our own special schools where inclusion is thick in the air we breathe, where bravery is something that happens without a moment’s thought.
Where every child is celebrated, unconditionally.
I am not saying that this does not happen in mainstream schools. I know it does but I want every school to be a truly inclusive school and not worry that somewhere in the shadows and out of sight they will suffer for it. That cannot be a system to build on. I know I am asking for far too much… But I can but dream.