“All staff need to have a ‘no limits’ philosophy when it comes to working with children and young people with special educational needs (SEN).”
This was the overarching message of The Key’s first ever conference on special educational needs (SEN). It is a philosophy that appears to lie at the heart of the new SEND Code of Practice, which champions the need for staff to have “high aspirations” for children with SEN and classroom teachers to take responsibility for the learning of all their pupils.
However, it was clear from speaking to school leaders during the day that encouraging teachers to take on this responsibility, and eliminating the segregation of pupils with SEN (through out-of-class interventions and Velcro-like TA support) will be a tall order for SENCOs and headteachers.
Sonia Blanford from Achievement for All acknowledged that ingrained attitudes may be a major barrier to the success of the reforms. She recounted how teachers had told her that her daughter “couldn’t learn” or simply needed to “try harder”. Such comments, which may be familiar to veteran SENCOs, betray a lack of understanding about differentiation and personalisation, which are recognised as core components of high quality (or “quality first”) teaching within the new code.
Although the needs of pupils with SEN may be different, they are not distinct from the needs of all pupils. As the third speaker of the day, Gulshan Kayembe, explained; effective differentiation is not about watering down the concepts themselves, but making them accessible, by using pupils’ strengths and capturing their imaginations.
Of course, having a “no limits” mentality is not only about acknowledging that every child can achieve, but also recognising that achievement is not limited to levels (or whatever measure comes next …) This was perfectly illustrated in one of the afternoon sessions, where staff from Wade Deacon High School explained that they found enrichment activities were just as important for pupils with SEN as extra English and maths sessions.
The school’s assistant vice principal explained that many of their pupils came from deprived backgrounds and found it difficult to read or write about things they had little experience of. For example, some had never had a meal at a restaurant or been to see a play. In light of this, the school organises regular extra-curricular excursions to provide pupils with new experiences that they can reflect upon in their class work.
The importance of celebrating extra-curricular achievements was also demonstrated by the final speakers from Avocet House, a small residential special school and children’s home. The day came to an emotional climax with Robbie Kilgallon, a former student, telling us about how the ‘no limits’ mentality of his key worker, Michael Sturman, inspired him to achieve his goals, against the odds.
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