Keeping inclusion in a classroom without TAs

One school ripped up the usual practice and has come up with an alternative system that is much more inclusive. Nicole Dempsey explains how it was done – and why it works
4th May 2018, 12:00am
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Nicole Dempsey


Keeping inclusion in a classroom without TAs

At my school, there is no SEND or inclusion department. There are no teaching assistants and we do not withdraw students from the timetable for extra literacy or numeracy tuition. In fact, I would like to think that you would struggle to find anything that looks like traditional inclusion at all.

Just to be clear, we do have students with SEND: about a fifth of our students are on the SEND register. Inspired by others, we just do things differently. It's not about revolution, and we don't believe there is a silver bullet; it is about embedding ideas with rigour and simplicity.

Our students with SEND are in their timetabled lessons, being taught by qualified subject-specialist teachers, and moving around the school independently alongside their peers. True inclusion means a school that works for all of its students, designed with a wide range of abilities and needs in mind.

Is true inclusion no inclusion, then? If you can get it right for the least able and most vulnerable students, and make it the norm, would you reduce, maybe even eradicate, the need for segregated provision? What is more, would it work better for everyone?

Every student deserves the kind of nurturing, consistent and personalised provision we give to our students with additional educational needs - just as every student should be entitled to the high expectations, expertise and accountability we afford our most-able students.

So how does it work? No single strategy, plan or provision enables us to meet the needs of our students with SEND in this way, but involving the entire school culture and community does.

The first step, and the bottom line of being truly inclusive, is that there is no such thing as "students" and "SEND students". There are only students. If every decision is made on this basis, then everyone's needs can be met as part of the main offer.

Peak practice

To put this into action, we have "Mountain Rescue" (named to echo the metaphor underpinning our mission: climbing the mountain to university, or a real alternative). This is a holistic pastoral department that incorporates a number of non-academic departments, personnel, and spaces that would traditionally be found in a secondary school. Key pastoral staff (vice-principal for culture; heads of year; safeguarding lead; Sendco; looked-after-children coordinator) share an office and are facilitated to work in a timely and collaborative way to best meet the needs of every student.

Mountain Rescue endeavours to work as a team to meet the needs of all of our students as individuals. Any student can access Mountain Rescue for any reason, and their voice will be heard and support will be offered. Each and every student is a unique and a complex mix of skills, abilities, needs and weaknesses; furthermore, a student very rarely fits any single, predefined label.

What does the support look like? Perhaps one of our most distinctive features is the use of double staffing to support our most vulnerable learners. Double staffing is the timetabling of two qualified subject-specialist teachers to a single class, giving them joint and equal responsibility for the students' outcomes. We don't have any extra funding to deliver this; we don't use TAs for this and we have larger-group lessons to allow flexibility throughout the timetable.

We recognise six models for the best use of double staffing, each with pros and cons, that are selected based on the needs of students, strengths of teachers, and whether or not the teachers have had time to co-plan. A class may be semi-permanently split into two smaller groups, either 50-50 or into a larger and smaller group; or the teacher could have a specific role within a lesson, for example, 1:1 feedback tutorials or breakout interventions based on in-lesson "live" data. For lessons in which students are working independently or developing a new skill, simply having two responsive subject specialist-qualified teachers means that more children get timely, high-quality feedback and support.

The Mountain Rescue team also includes three mentors (who are also first-aiders), a (part-time) child psychotherapist and a home-school liaison worker. Team members have accessed different additional training, or built relationships with outside agency experts, in order to specialise in different areas: young careers, autism, bereavement, to name a few.

Each mentor has a caseload of students and the ways in which they support them are tailored and unique to each individual. It could be a 1:1 session. It could be meeting each morning to support with organisation or popping into specific lessons. Sometimes it's regular contact with parents and careful monitoring of attendance, attainment and behavioural data, reaching out to their teachers with advice and information, as and when they are needed - and the student barely even knows they have a mentor.

Uninterrupted learning

There are opportunities built into the timetable for staff - academic departments and Mountain Rescue alike - to work with individuals or groups for specific interventions without interrupting the curriculum. We run these session during times when students are having whole-year-group lecture-style "stretch" teaching or during guided independent study time in the older age groups. This gives opportunities to work on education, health and care plan targets; professional advice, such as educational psychology or speech and language therapy; specific skills, such as handwriting issues; or socio-emotional skills through activities such as Lego therapy or nurture-style groups.

Crucially, in a school in which all students with SEND are in lessons alongside their peers, Mountain Rescue provides regular CPD, as well as ongoing information and support for teachers and departments. Mountain Rescue does not provide any literacy or numeracy intervention. All academic intervention and support is provided by the hubs of expertise: the academic departments.

Our approach towards inclusion has to work within the wider context of statutory duties, transition to and from other schools, and the rights and expectations of the young people and their parents or carers. Reassuring students, parents and carers that our way of working has the needs and rights of young people at its heart is crucial, and we work closely with primary schools and families, from before students are even allocated a place, to ensure that they are familiar with our environment and way of working.

As a minimum, our standard transition programme for all students coming into Year 7 includes visits to the primary school, open evenings, a home visit, two transition days and a full week of induction for every student. Maintaining strong relationships with all of our families is key to our students' success.

Our pupils on the SEND register are proportionally represented in attendance data and both behaviour-sanction and positive-behaviour-recognition data.

Traditional provision, the deployment of TAs and withdrawal interventions, give the most vulnerable learners in a school an inferior-quality input and an experience of segregation, both of which can affect their academic and socio-emotional development, as well as their opportunity for future success. Segregating SEND provision teaches the students to whom it applies that they are a subgroup of the school community who sit slightly outside of the systems, and it teaches the rest of the children the same thing: that those with disabilities are "other".

We believe in doing things differently.

Nicole Dempsey is a SEND coordinator and blogger

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