A version of this article originally appeared in the 8 January edition of Headteacher Update
As the autumn term drew to a close, I was reflecting on what the new 0-25 special educational needs and disability (SEND) code of practice means for schools. In my role as senior researcher specialising in SEN at The Key, I’ve answered questions on the impact of personal budgets on special schools and what effective outcomes should look like in the new education, health and care plans. I’m particularly interested in how schools are putting young people and their families at the centre of the support offered – a defining feature of the new system. Here are five ways to create a personalised system of support in your setting, taken from some of the most innovative and impressive practitioners in the field.
Get to know your children early
Early identification and intervention is championed in the new code of practice. Not only might it prevent the need for more costly interventions at a later stage, but it’s also important for keeping a child’s self-esteem high. One way to achieve early identification is to undertake home visits before children start school. In Islington, for example, schools are encouraged to ask parents whether they have any concerns about their child’s development. Parents are also asked about their child’s interests. What does she like or dislike? What is her special toy at the moment? How do you think she will settle into school? These queries are far from trivial. The code says “Parents’ early observations of their child are crucial”. Home visits are a great way to build family engagement into your setting from the very beginning.
Getting to know your children early can have a real influence on classroom practice. Reflecting on teaching pupils with SEN, HMI inspector Gulshan Kayembe told me recently that tailoring your curriculum around children’s interests doesn’t mean you’re watering it down. “It’s about making the content engaging for all pupils irrespective of their needs.”
Hammond Academy, a teaching school in Hertfordshire, operates a similar system. I’ve met its two parent support workers, (warm, bubbly individuals with lots of personality) who visit the homes of all new pupils before they start school. They pick up on anything that might be useful for class teachers to know. If they spot speech and language needs during their visit, they can check if the speech and language service has spaces, and support parents to go to the drop-in sessions before the child starts at school. This can save a lot of time. “If we waited until the child started at school, they could be waiting half a term before being able to see someone”. Both workers are designated child protection officers and one co-ordinates SEN in the school. They continue to be the point of contact for parents after their children start school. “They’re not intimidating – and our parents love them”, the headteacher said. Surely a great example of putting children and families at the heart of the system?
Know each child’s starting point and teach backwards
In my search for outstanding examples of personalisation in schools, I came across Rob Carpenter at The Key’s event on improving the progress of children with special educational needs. Rob is the headteacher of Foxfield Primary School in Greenwich, where 72 % of pupils are eligible for free school meals and ethnic diversity is typically above 50 %. Four in ten pupils have English as an additional language. It isn’t so much SEN that is an issue at Foxfield but underachievement.
At Foxfield, the overarching principle when working with all children is “teaching backwards”. There are no schemes of work. Instead, teachers plan for quality outcomes and show children both what they look like and how to get there. Children are then taught the skills needed to get to their destination. This teaching backwards approach is personalised by finding out each child’s starting point, his likes and dislikes, and planning from there. All teachers assume that every child can reach the planned destination: it’s the starting points that are different, not the end result. This is what Rob refers to as ‘No limits learning’.
Build quality relationships and learn together
For Rob, personalisation also means finding out what it is that helps each child to have a really positive experience in school every day. This is especially important in a community where children are battling with difficult situations at home. Each vulnerable child has a named person, he told me, who is responsible for making sure that each school day is good. In one instance, this means that a girl has a mug of hot chocolate (her favourite drink) with her named person every morning before school starts. She comes in early and by the time her peers arrive, she is ready to face the day. The effects on this little girl’s learning have been remarkable. Every member of staff in the school can be a named person and the senior leadership team are encouraged to take on this role. Crucially, says Rob, children choose this adult themselves.
The aim is to establish trust between adults and children so that teachers can have a meaningful and quality dialogue with pupils about their work. When working relationships are excellent, adults can say, “This piece of work wasn’t good enough,” and move forward constructively. Children know that it’s okay to make mistakes. Teachers and pupils learn together. Teachers and teaching assistants see themselves as learners and model mistake-based learning. Adults can then honestly say, “I know that this will be difficult but you will be able to do this, because I did it too”. Relationships are personalised but the learning is shared.
Write pen portraits and personalised targets for every child
At Chadsgrove, an ‘outstanding’ special day school for children between the ages of 2 and 19 with physical disabilities, pupil-centred planning centres on pen portraits. Personalised portraits explain how the child communicates, what she likes and dislikes and outlines her medical/learning needs. Not only are all members of staff expected to familiarise themselves with each child’s portrait, they are also encouraged to conduct their own research into how they might best support the medical, social and emotional learning needs of the children they look after. The pen portraits are the starting point for identifying lines of research enquiry. There is no reason, the chair of governors told us, why this approach cannot be transferred to mainstream settings.
Allow children and young people to set their own goals
Staff at Avocet House incorporate a “no-limits” philosophy with personalisation. It relies on re-exciting children with the idea of learning, starting with the child’s strengths, talents and passions as the gateway to success. “Learning becomes something one does for oneself, rather than something someone else does to you.”
Avocet House is both a residential special school and a registered children’s home. Young people come to Avocet House because of their need for a 52-week integrated, therapeutic, residential placement with highly-specialised education. Often they come when all other placements have broken down. I talked to Robbie Kilgallon (a former student) and Michael Sturman (a care team worker) about how this philosophy works in practice.
One example that might be adapted to any setting is ‘the boys’ meeting’. Here, boys and the key people around them set individual targets and they can be as minor or ambitious as each pupil chooses. A baseline is set, a SMART target is defined and progress is monitored. For Robbie, tasks varied between “niggling his peers less often” to cycling 483 miles in six days.
These meetings are an illustration of a 24-hour learning philosophy – a fundamental way that staff seek to engage children who have not formerly been in fulltime education. “You can list numerous educational learnings for any activity and take part in them at any time of day,”Michael says. One of Robbie’s last goals was to drive his own car to his first day of further education college. It’s a great example of this philosophy in practice. He learned both how to drive and to repair a car. He also learned independence – absolutely crucial for his life after Avocet House.