We’re gonna need a lot more cannons…by @NDempseyDTA

Can schools be designed to meet the needs of a wide range of unique, important, ever-changing children-shapes? Ever?

Image by Jeremy Carbaugh on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)


Within the four walls of my own school I feel like a lot has been achieved. But speaking to others from within and beyond education, and when I visit other schools, I am reminded that we have got things going a bit different at DTA; and now we even have data to back our claims up. Beyond those four walls I have received plenty of support, kind words, encouragement, and good constructive feedback too, but it does feel like just that; words not action. And y’know what they say about that… Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen a good few things that feel like a step in the right direction.

This is a re-blog post originally posted by Nicole Dempsey and published with kind permission.

The original post can be found here.

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When I say or think, “ooh! that’s like my way of doing things!”, I claim no causation or responsibility for it, but anything that I see as a step closer to equality and true inclusion feels like another soldier stepping up to the cause. And it’s pretty rare! I still mainly see the perpetuation – even innovation – of segregatory and discriminatory systems. The received wisdom, still, is to ‘include’ vulnerable groups by isolating them within their supposed community, labeling and segregating them, and educating them from behind a wall that, although built for their own protection, ultimately serves to block their access to a quality education whilst teaching them – and their non-segregated peers – that behind a barrier is where they belong.

Image by Jeremy Carbaugh on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Image by Jeremy Carbaugh on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Destroying a child’s ambitions and opportunities with good intentions is still destroying their ambitions and opportunities. This, it turns out, only becomes more frustrating and infuriating as I watch from within as an alternative starts to fall neatly in to place around me. Seen as though I am not, apparently/sadly/thankfully (delete as appropriate), the DfE and able to instigate an overnight education overhaul, I will just have to continue to plug away at getting it how I want it in my own setting. And talking about it. Incessantly. No use throwing yourself at a brick wall, but we can – myself and all those other little foot soldiers of change – keep chipping away at the bottom of it. I’d like to blow it to smithereens! But we would need a lot more cannons…

I do most of my thinking (and loud, uninhibited singing) in the car on the way to and from school. And it was, whilst listening to Cannons by the Kaiser Chiefs and thinking about blowing up walls with medieval artillery, that I remembered that I have a blog and I should probably write some stuff on it. So, with that as the spur, it seems like a good time to ponder a couple of the recurring criticisms of my approach to inclusion that I have received. So…

Common criticism number one: yeah, it’s a good idea but it can’t be done. My Utopian vision of an inclusive education system – smalls schools, zero segregation, no stigma attached to special schools, no blind drive for inclusion as an under-one-roof provision – is woefully unattainable. Actually, I agree(ish) with this… it certainly doesn’t seem to be in immediate… or even intermediate… reach, and no individual one of us (to whom it matters) has that degree of control.

But, we can each make a difference in our own sphere. I can’t perpetuate a system that isn’t fair and doesn’t work, so I’m trying something else… bloody hell; the outcomes for vulnerable groups, like SEN-D in mainstream, can’t get any worse, can they? I aren’t saying that I’ve found the answer, and I aren’t saying that all schools should be like my school, necessarily; I definitely advocate diversity and choice. But, come on now; what’s sticking us to the existing system? Is it easier? Definitely not for the SENCo! My approach is, hopefully (argh! not hopefully! I love my job!), going to result in there being no need for a SENCo. For teachers? Maybe, i suspect. Although, surely no-one goes into teaching because they’re looking for an easy life! Is it because we have consciously or sub-consciously written those kids off anyway? None of those reasons are good enough.

Critical criticism number two: my Utopian vision of a truly inclusive education system is actually intrinsically exclusionary. Well, that really depends on how you define ‘inclusion’ for the purposes of the educational discourse. If, for you, ‘inclusion’ means educating all of the children in the same building – the local comprehensive – then, yeah; no, that is not what I’m aiming for at all. I mean, it sounds great… but, in order to ensure every child had a peer group big enough to ensure avoidance of isolation within the community whilst still having as much choice as their wider peer group, the school would have to be HUGE! And I just aren’t down with that. Every child deserves to be educated in an environment where they’re known and valued.

Where their contribution is known and valued… where a subtle change in their demeanor – which could indicate that they got out of bed the wrong side that morning or that their little world came crashing down around them that weekend – is noticed by the people they walk past on their way in to the building, possibly long before they’re sat in front of their teacher or their form tutor. For the lucky vast majority of children school is the only other place, aside from home, where they’re guaranteed to be; when things go wrong at home they need to be visible – really visible – at school. I was recently (fairly recently??? It feels like a yesterday I had ten years ago) lucky enough to attend @ERA_tweet ‘s inclusion unconference in London. It was so refreshing and inspiring to be in a room full of people on the same page but for all different reasons and I returned to Bradford bolstered and ablaze… I’d heard a lot of stuff that hit home, but I’d also heard one thing that I did not agree with.

Mainstream schools, it was suggested, are designed for neat little box shaped children but children with additional needs are much more complex shapes and do not fit into the neat little box shaped holes. Actually, I kinda agree with it so far and, to be fair, this is where the actual metaphor ended. But, as usual, I can extend a metaphor far beyond it’s useful lifespan and into territory unnecessary and unasked for. They can, these complex shapes, be forced painfully into a box shaped hole anyway, or have a shape somewhat closer to theirs carved out for them somewhere within the school (but in their special hole they must stay), or they can be educated elsewhere; special school, PRU, home schooled, et cetera. I agree with this too. I don’t, however, believe that there are actually any neat little box shaped children. Every child is their own unique, complicated, usually bonkers, ever-changing shape. the real problem is that schools have been designed for boxes when actually they should be like a particularly crazy expanse of crazy paving, with perpetually wet concrete.

The main differential between schools is their most recent Ofsted report and, apart from that, they’re pretty generic. Outstanding/Good/Requires Improvement/Inadequate and mainstream/special; half of those combinations imply that the school is not meeting the basic expectations of being a school, and a different half are unfairly stigmatised as uninclusive because they cater to a specific need-type a child might experience. So we are dealing with a system wherein a child with a complex speech, language and communication need attends their local comprehensive school where they experience segregation, potentially bullying, and little learning because that is deemed more inclusive… meanwhile, a parent is faced with the choice of sending their musically gifted year 6 child to a school with music specialist status, with all of the associated facilities, or a sports specialist school, with all the trappings that the association affords. The sports specialist school is Ofsted ‘outstanding’ and the music school is in ‘special measures’. Something’s gone wrong… but it isn’t an SEN-D issue; it’s an all children issue.

So I would suggest a system made up of schools designed to meet the needs of a wide range of unique, important, ever-changing children-shapes. A system made up of schools that are all doing what schools are supposed to be doing (Ofsted call it ‘outstanding’, but Ofsted isn’t the reason to do it that way!), and each offering something that sets them apart, so parents and students have real choice. If that isn’t inclusion… well, I’m okay with that. We’ll call it something else (education?). And, if it isn’t immediately, intermediately or (gasp!) ever attainable? To me, it’s non-optional; we’re gonna need a lot more cannons.

Read more articles from Nicole by clicking here, and follow her on Twitter…

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