I once heard someone describe the inclusion of children with additional needs into mainstream schools as like trying to fit irregular shapes into square holes. And, to an extent, I agree. Describing our current approach to education as like slotting children into square holes is, I think, fair; it is basically a one-size-fits-all system. We have a formula that leads to a particular outcome – the currently agreed benchmark for academic success – and we cater for difference and diversity through add-ons, extensions and exemptions.
Inclusion rooms, SEND departments, behaviour units, and gifted and talented programmes et cetera enable students who do not fit the mould to be in the building anyway, even if they are sitting outside of the systems that have, presumably, been put in place because they represent the best for children and young people. I do, though, have one major quibble with the analogy; I do not believe that any of the children really fit into the square holes. Children are complicated. All of them.
There are around 450 students currently on roll at the secondary school where I work. If you filter that list by removing vulnerable subgroups – SEND, pupil premium (a poverty indicator), gifted and able, safeguarding concerns, new to English, and so on – group by group, you are eventually left with about thirty students to whom no label applies.
A group of students who are not eligible for any additional funding, support, alternatives or additionality. Who does not have an area of the school or department dedicated to their wellbeing, a ring-fenced pot of money, or a full-time co-ordinator of their provision and experience? They sound pretty vulnerable to me and, furthermore, they are by far the minority.
But this is not the only flaw in our system of categorisation and trying to get children to fit the mould. Firstly, students rarely fall into just one of these categories. In fact, there are no two subgroups from the list that do not significantly overlap in terms of their cohort. Even within the subgroup we call ‘special educational needs’, there is great diversity and, of course, no two children are the same. Secondly, children change. They grow and mature, progress and develop, but also they experience things – in and out of school – that shape who they are.
Children would need to be able to move freely in and out of the categories schools use in order for their needs to be being met consistently. If a child does not have the required label, rigid application of the provision-by-subgroup approach can prevent their needs from being met and, if a child does have a label that places them in a certain subgroup, it can also result in them being subject to provisions and approaches that they do not need. Both of these examples of inconsistencies could be an obstruction to a student’s potential and impede their academic and socio-emotional development.
My point is this: it is education as a whole, not just inclusion, that is like trying to get irregular shapes into square holes. The closer the fit, no doubt, the better a child’s experience will be, but this does not mean that it’s okay. And the square holes ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach we currently have in place creates a system in which all students are losing out.
The vulnerable subgroups, at the far end of the spectrum of need, do not fit into the square holes at all and, as such, are subject to additional funding, add-on provisions and exceptionalities in order to make them fit.
But, they are often disapplied from the high expectations for learning and behaviour that we impose on other students, and their segregation from the wider school community is both accepted and celebrated as a success in its own right.
In the middle, there are the coping core; the hump of the bell curve. Sometimes referred to as ‘wallpaper children’, these children cope with the square holes, despite not being eligible for additionality or support. They may develop an additional need or show themselves to be talented in a particular area, but most likely will simply cope with a lack of being noticed throughout their entire school career.
I don’t cause teachers trouble, my grades have been okay.
I listen in my classes and I’m in school every day.
My parents’ think I’m average, my teachers think so too.
I wish I didn’t know that ‘cause there’s lots I’d like to do.
I’d like to build a space rocket; I’ve a book that shows you how.
Or start a stamp collection, well no use trying now.
‘Cause since I’ve found I’m average, I’m just not smart enough you see.
I know there’s nothing special that I should expect of me.
I’m part of that majority, that hump part of the bell,
Who’ll just spend all his life in an average kind of hell.
Buscemi (date unknown) in P. Reeve, ‘The average child’, unpublished dissertation,
De Montfort University, Bedford, 1992.
Finally, there is the thriving minority. Maybe these are the students who fit best into the square holes, or maybe they just have backgrounds, support networks or inherent abilities that enable them to overcome the one-size-fits-all approach. In reality, these students do get some additionality in the form of gifted and talented programmes and extension work, and it may just come more naturally to teachers to expect, and therefore facilitate, their success.
But, any student can become vulnerable and, at the end of the day, they are just children too and they deserve the same level of nurture, care and individualisation as their least able or most vulnerable peer.
If we are to meet the needs of all students equally, we must move away from the ‘square holes’ approach. This does not mean giving every student additional provision whether they need it or not, putting children with additional learning needs in for courses and assessments that are not fair or appropriate, or giving nurture provision to young people who already have a high level of independence. Off course not, but it does mean that all of the options should be available to all of the students.
Personalisation of a student’s education should be provided, not on the basis of pre-defined labels or categories, but on the basis of need only; each child being considered on an individual basis. In addition, all provision should be revised regularly, responsive, proven and, perhaps most importantly of all, they should form a holistic package; meeting the needs of the whole of every child.
If we are to meet the needs of all students equally, we must move away from the ‘square holes’ approach.
Personalisation of a student’s education should be provided, not on the basis of pre-defined labels or categories, but on the basis of need only; each child being considered on an individual basis.
At my school, we use a holistic approach to meet the needs of our students. The department I work in combines several departments that would be found in a traditional school structure – pastoral, behaviour, SEND, and safeguarding, as well as new to English, students who are in state care, and first aid/medical – in order to meet the needs of the whole of every student. The heads of year, designated safeguarding lead, and myself, the individual needs coordinator, are all based in the same office and use a ‘round table’ approach to ensure that all relevant information can be shared efficiently and that provision and intervention is both streamlined and timely.
Whilst our office is very much that – an office – we work closely and seamlessly with our student outpost.
Located in the heart of the school, the outpost is staffed by mentors, key workers and first aiders, and is open from 30-60 minutes before school until 30-60 minutes after. It provides a one-stop-shop for any student facing any barrier to their wellbeing. At the outpost, students will find everything from nail varnish remover to a fully equipped hygiene suite, and the staff there will step in and support a student with anything that they need help with, whether it be opening a locker when they have forgotten their key or taking the appropriate first steps when a child makes a serious disclosure of abuse. There is no segregation of service based on ability/disability, socio-economic background or any other pre-determined criteria. We are for every student equally. We do whatever it takes for as long as it takes, when they need it and because they need it.
We do whatever it takes for as long as it takes, when they need it and because they need it.
We take a similarly universal approach to meet the academic needs of our students, based on the following key principles:
- All students deserve the same high expectations and high-quality input that is often only afforded to the most able.
- All students need the level of responsiveness, individualisation and nurture we employ to meet the needs of our least able and most vulnerable children.
Our students are only ever taught by qualified teachers with relevant specialisms, in the appropriate academic departments, and within their timetabled lessons. There are no teaching assistants (or by any other name), no extra literacy or numeracy withdrawal intervention at the expense of a language or one of the arts (in fact, no withdrawal from timetabled lessons for intervention at all), and no SEND or inclusion department, corridor or area. Our students with additional needs make the same progress as their peers across all subjects and in all year groups.
By far the biggest barrier is our attitudes towards disability at the societal level.
Our current approach to achieving social inclusion for those perceived to have disabilities is through separate and highly visible/labelled annexed provision – ramps at the side of buildings, wheelchair parking spaces, disabled-friendly areas/days, et cetera – that is done in such a way that it both homogenises a diverse group of individuals and segregates them from the main. The ubiquitous wheelchair symbol, for example, does not represent all people with a disability and not all people using a wheelchair identify as disabled.
It is segregating – it represents segregation of space and service (and often the quality of service) – and it casts those who use the provisions it symbolises as ‘other’. Both in schools and in society as a whole, this highly visible and segregating attempt at inclusivity is celebrated as if simply getting certain people into the building is something we can congratulate ourselves on. Until we move away from this ‘us and them’ (or even, ‘us and poor them’) attitude towards disability, it will continue to be difficult to avoid perpetuating the approach in our education system.
The ubiquitous wheelchair symbol, for example, does not represent all people with a disability and not all people using a wheelchair identify as disabled.
Because there is no ‘us and them’; there is only us. Each of us is unique, with our own special combination of strengths and weaknesses (that will change over time!), and each of us in need of our own uniquely shaped place in our community in order for us to thrive. True inclusion cannot be achieved by finding ways to adapt the existing system to meet a wider range of needs.
True inclusion means equity; every individual getting what they need in order to be happy and successful, and this requires a system that was designed to include everyone from the outset. Achieving this, especially for already established schools, would not be easy. But justice for the most vulnerable students in our schools is not optional and, in the end, better personalisation and greater diversity would be beneficial to us all.
True inclusion means equity; every individual getting what they need in order to be happy and successful, and this requires a system that was designed to include everyone from the outset.
This is a re-blog post originally posted by Nicole Dempsey and published with kind permission. The article was originally published in 2016 and updated in 2020 by the UKEd Editorial team in accordance with website and policy updates.
The original post can be found here.