Since the first series of Channel 4’s “Educating…” strand aired in 2011 on Channel 4, I have been amazed at how often a topic that I have been reading about or discussed has featured in that week’s programme. The finale of the latest series was of particular interest following a local news story which seems to contrast greatly with the inclusive practice that was its central theme.
Inclusion has featured heavily in each of the three series and, in each case, the commitment to enabling a variety of featured students to achieve success regardless of their circumstances has elicited practically universally positive responses across the media and in public forums.
“This is how we want our schools to be” is typical of the public reaction in the afterglow of another successful series but do we actually practice what we preach when selecting our school preferences? And, does the accountability regime actually encourage it? Reports that I have read over the past few months cast serious doubt on both.
A fortnight ago, under the headline “Head’s comments about special needs provision upset mother”, the Brentwood Gazette reported concerns raised by a woman who had attended one of the Open Days of Becket Keys free school earlier this month. In the piece, she complains about the headteacher’s response to her question regarding the apparent lack of learning support assistants (LSAs) at the school.
A link to the piece is below, as I wasn’t there I cannot judge the veracity of the claim although I would have liked to see a public explanation if the mother has got the wrong end of the stick. It has caused much discussion between current, prospective and former parents on the Gazette’s Facebook page and everyone will have to take their own view on it.
As someone who is interested in state education as a whole, there is a specific phrase in the piece that is of most interest to me:
“He will have put off quite a few people, which was probably his aim”
Why would any representative of a state funded school seek to dissuade people from joining it?
It is a question central to a report published in April this year by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner. Entitled “It Might Be Best If You Looked Elsewhere”, it outlines evidence that, while not widespread, shows that some schools are deliberately dissuading parents with children with Special Education Needs (SEN) from applying to their school. The full report is here:
In her forward, the Children’s Commissioner , Dr Maggie Atkinson, summarises thus:
“These parents describe, often in upsetting terms, school staff acting dismissively towards them and their children. They describe schools failing to respond to phone calls, emails and personal approaches or telling parents they did not think the child would ‘fit in’ at the school.
“I can accept that some schools may genuinely believe they are ill-equipped to serve the needs of some children and feel obliged to tell this to parents. However, the law states that this is not their decision to make. Equally, I can accept that it may not be their intention to dissuade parents from applying. However, it is not their intention that matters but the effect that their words and actions have.”
So why is this happening?
Dr Atkinson provides a clue in the following passage in the same forward:
“This report compares Year 7 admissions into neighbouring secondary schools in the same council area. We found that in some localities, in spite of having identical admissions criteria and supposedly wholly comprehensive intakes, neighbouring schools had very different intakes. High achieving children in these areas were clustered in one or two schools, with others taking more low achievers. This is despite no overt academic selection in the area at all. None of the schools concerned overtly state prospectuses or other materials that selection is in operation. But given everything else about them is equal, it is clear that something is amiss.”
So why would this be occurring?
A superb recent blog by Trevor Burton, a headteacher from York, analyses the most recent Ofsted inspections of all secondary schools in England and comes up with some revealing conclusions. I strongly recommend that you fully read this piece as it has serious implications for the current accountability regime because it appears to show that a school’s intake in Year 7 heavily influences the likely outcome of an Ofsted inspection.
I hope that Mr Burton will not mind if I share the graphic and accompanying quote that demonstrates this so starkly:
“You can see that there is a far higher likelihood of a school with higher attaining pupils getting an Ofsted Outstanding than there is of a school with low attaining pupils from primary school… The schools with the higher attaining intake are nearly twice as likely to be Good or Outstanding.”
Of course, SEN pupils can be high attaining but, arguably, the support and effort required to fully realise their potential may be a cost that some schools feel is not worth paying. Mr Burton’s possible explanations for these Ofsted outcomes, outlined in the blog, are interesting and recommended reading, but the central point seems to me to be that manipulation of intake is actually being indirectly encouraged by the current accountability regime and inclusive practice is not being rewarded.
So let’s turn the question on its head. Given the current accountability regime, why would any school wish to be fully inclusive?
Two of the “Educating” headteachers provide wonderfully expressed answers in the Times Educational Supplement (TES) in reaction to this week’s final show:
Jenny Smith – headteacher of Frederick Bremer School:
“In the final episode, the public were introduced to one of the most extraordinary individuals I have ever had the privilege to work with: Christopher. That he is a fully accepted member of our school community is testimony to the fact that difference really does not matter in our community. For me, he epitomises the importance of a values-infused education system. Enabling Christopher to develop the resilience to take a bus and the confidence to buy a cake is not measured in any league table or GCSE certificate, but those are triumphs nevertheless, triumphs of perseverance and resilience, not to mention conquering doubt and fear. The tolerance, kindness, honesty and understanding that Christopher both models and inspires is a lesson to us all. He may never fully understand the impact he has had on our school, but he has taught me the most important and life affirming mantra: “If you think positive, you will be positive”.”
Vic Goddard, principal of Passmores Academy, Harlow
“The whole episode reminded me just how wonderfully life affirming being part of a truly inclusive school is. How could anyone not see how much Christopher, the undoubted hero of tonight, brought to the school? When he was positive Christopher, everyone he met felt better after the encounter; all you could see were smiles and warm glances.
“Inclusive schooling enables young people to develop an understanding of what challenges other people have to face and empathy is one of the most vital characteristics that we can help our young people develop. It is not simply about children with disabilities or learning difficulties. It goes much deeper than that. It is about a commitment to do what is needed to support any adult or young person that the school has contact with. Not hiding differences but learning, together, what needs to be done to ensure we all succeed. This is just as important for an high-achieving young person as it is for the…Christophers of the world.”
In short, ALL students benefit from inclusion. It seems to me that students that do not attend a “truly inclusive school” are missing out.
In these “competitive” times, particularly if you value Ofsted judgements above all else, it is easy to see how direct or indirect manipulation can come about. The current accountability regime does not dissuade it and, in the absence of any active ongoing scrutiny of admissions, action is only taken following direct complaint in the rare event that someone has the time or energy to raise one.
I see no reason why true inclusion will proliferate in such an atmosphere.
Unless we parents truly believe that “this is how we want our schools to be” and make our school choices accordingly.