2021 Spring Term 2

The know zone

  • Effective transition
    The impact of the pandemic on lost learning for primary school pupils moving up to secondary school is a growing concern. Never has the focus on high-quality collaboration and early transition planning been so important, says ASCL Specialist Tiffnie Harris. More
  • Getting our priorities right
    ASCL Specialist Margaret Mulholland believes that Covid-19 has highlighted the stark reality of disadvantage and segregation in our education system. Now, she says, it's time to get our priorities right. More
  • Brave new world?
    As the government launches its consultation on changing the way our students apply to university, ASCL Specialist Kevin Gilmartin examines the key proposals. More
  • Defining your benefits
    ASCL Specialist Jacques Szemalikowski highlights the benefits of belonging in the Teachers' Pension Scheme. More
  • Remote teaching
    We've all had to change the way we work during this crisis, especially during lockdown. Here, ASCL members share their experience of remote teaching and working throughout the pandemic... More
  • Candid camera
    Principal Hannah Knowles says being a member of ASCL Council is a privilege and it has widened her vision of education. Here she shares her passion for Council, teaching and leading, and her dislike of... 101 Dalmatians. More
  • A time for peas
    Home schooling plus online meetings and lessons while minding three youngsters... not to mention the head injuries, disastrous baking and 'comfort breaks'. Alex Wallace opens up his lockdown diary from early last year. More
  • Remote audit
    The impact of Covid-19 has brought many challenges for academies over the last ten months, but one rarely mentioned is that faced by finance and management teams as they undertake the annual external audit remotely, says Andy Jones from Cooper Parry. More
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ASCL Specialist Margaret Mulholland believes that Covid-19 has highlighted the stark reality of disadvantage and segregation in our education system. Now, she says, it’s time to get our priorities right.

Getting our priorities right

During lockdown, you’ll have heard plenty of times this quote by Mahatma Gandhi, “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” Ironically, when you look through the special educational needs and disability (SEND) lens at what actually happens under current education policy, you can see segregation and further disadvantage to those who struggle. This has to change.

It’s good that the pandemic has opened up the debate about what it means to be vulnerable and who might ‘struggle to learn’. The nation has recognised that these children have a right to good education. How can we make sure pupils deemed vulnerable, including those with special needs, stay top of every school’s priority list as we return to the classroom? For the majority of us, these are the children we came into the profession to serve. These are the learners who challenge and excite us.

Big questions need answers

Why is special and alternative provision (AP) too often an afterthought? When the Prime Minister announced the third lockdown, we had a detailed explanation of places for the vulnerable in primary and secondary schools, yet there was no reference to special and AP schools where 100% of pupils are potentially vulnerable. The message this sends is worrying and uncomfortable. It implies that these schools don’t matter so much; that these pupils won’t get the grades that matter so much; and that we have a duty of ‘care’ but it’s not quite education as we value it.

When the government and others treat special schools and AP as an afterthought – the poor relations in education – it shows a systemic lack of understanding and value for the real purpose of education: learning for ‘all’.

It took some effort from ASCL and other unions to point out to ministers that special schools and AP juggled opening for more pupils with higher levels of need, fewer staff, small spaces, frightened families and no additional resource.

Additionally, how can we rethink an education system heavily invested in rewarding attainment, above all else? There is a consequent discriminatory effect. For example, take Progress 8. It is a process that actively discriminates against investment in lower attainers and actively disincentivises inclusion. Last year, the Education Select Committee called for a radical rethink of the system, including scrapping GCSEs. A YouGov poll (tinyurl.com/nwn3eypl) showed 73% of parents said there was “too much emphasis on examination grades” and 82% of parents believed pressure to perform well in exams was “detrimental to children’s health and wellbeing”. What if we challenge this narrow conception of education and look at what’s best for individuals when identifying our priorities, resourcing around those who find learning tricky or difficult?

There’s a theme in the book Why Should Anyone be Led by You?: What it takes to be an authentic leader (Jones and Goffee, 2019), about how leadership isn’t about the position; it’s what you do that matters. Leadership of specialist settings, especially over the last several months, has demonstrated highly complex problem-solving and decision-making to keep schools and colleges open and safe. I’d like ASCL leaders to assert, unequivocally, that being an AP and/or special school leader puts you in the A* classification not the ‘B team’.

We also need to give more thought to the labels we use. It’s too easy to marginalise pupils as a minority group. The reductive approach that silos and labels children such as SEND, looked-after children (LAC), adopted or summer born and views each group distinctly, implies they always need some form of alternative approach, not consideration at the centre of school development planning and improvement.

Stepping towards a more equitable system

So, what would this look like in practice? Imagine a classroom where quality teaching is judged on how effectively all pupils are engaged with an ambitious curriculum, particularly those who struggle. We should be incentivising schools and teachers with appropriate funding, professional development and pay awards that reflect the demands of teaching such a diverse community of pupils, and reflects their skills in supporting pupils to make progress from their start points, not manage to vault over a hurdle that is designed to shift upwards as you get closer.

If we choose to adjust our lens to prioritising attainment of everyone, but in particular those who struggle to learn, we can begin to align our resources, our moral compass and clarity of purpose for education. School improvement should prioritise those who struggle, not just target ‘catch-up’ funding or the Pupil Premium for those who find learning difficult. Redesigning the school engine to put vulnerable children into the ‘A team’ would be a step towards a more equitable system.

Margaret Mulholland
ASCL SEND and Inclusion Specialist