The children are working their way around the four different language activities set up in their Year 1 classroom. The content is highly specific, the kind that you would usually only see in speech and language interventions. But every child is taking part and there is not a speech and language therapist in sight. The activities are being directed by the class teacher, who supports one group while the other three groups are supported by teaching assistants (two of whom are borrowed from other classes).
You go next door. Here, the Reception class are in the midst of PE and there appears to be a sensory circuit in place. Children are using suspension equipment, such as swings, to help to improve their eye tracking and/or regulate their vestibular systems, and on other stations they are working on activities to improve their shoulder strength and fine motor skills. It’s the type of thing you see in occupational therapy sessions, but like in the next-door classroom, no external professional is in the room and all children are taking part.
What you are witnessing is how we have managed to ensure longevity for our SEND interventions in a time of tight budgets, and what we believe true inclusion should look like. Support is too often sporadic and discrete for our most vulnerable learners; we set about making it continuous and inclusive.
We think we have managed it.
Like at many urban schools in areas of high socioeconomic deprivation, pupils at our school face many challenges. A very high proportion of pupils begin school with language and communication skills that are well below age-related expectations. Other circumstances, for example overcrowding in their homes and a lack of rich play opportunities, may lead to poorly developed physical skills.
Notably, both these areas of development are considered prime areas in the early years, owing to their direct impact on future attainment throughout a child’s schooling. And our challenge, as educators, is to see that the needs of all our pupils are met.
At our school, we know that the quality-first teaching our pupils receive is excellent and that inclusive learning strategies are at the heart of each lesson taught. However, for many of our pupils, this is not enough. For these children, most schools buy in time from external experts who are able to deliver small-group and individual interventions. Such experts may include specialist teachers, and speech and language and occupational therapists. This eases the pressure on your teaching teams and, when it is monitored well, guarantees an excellent, highly specialised service.
But it’s expensive and doesn’t solve the issues surrounding inclusive learning, nor does it prepare or upskill staff to meet the growing needs of neurodiverse learners. The children spend a large part of their school days out of class. Worst-case scenario? The rest of the class know they go off with an adult at a set time every day, they become known as “the intervention group” and their already low self-esteem dips even further.
There is absolutely no doubt that we need the services of external professionals or bespoke teaching, and we would not deny them to many of our pupils.
But what if we could harness some of the expertise we buy in to the advantage of more of our pupils and staff? What if we could help to prevent children having to be taught outside the classroom, separated from their peers?
This is exactly what we tried to do on our journey towards better inclusion at my school, Mayflower Primary in East London.
We wanted our speech and occupational therapists to be more than just external providers working with a few children: we wanted them to be part of our school team and a continuous part of our teaching and learning dialogue. We wanted the same for the other experts we use.
As such, we invited these professionals to spend time in our classrooms, and not just work with pupils out of class. They ran surgeries and staff training alongside me (as assistant headteacher) for teachers, and met with teachers regularly to discuss pupil progress (often the deputy and I would cover classes to enable this to happen). This time was crucial: we take it for granted that these professional conversations should be happening anyway, but schools are busy places, and unless you plan for them, they won’t.
A good example of the process in action is the following: we asked our speech and language therapist to run a language carousel in our Early Years Foundation Stage and key stage 1 classrooms, showing teachers and teaching assistants how to deliver language support to groups of pupils. The therapist would work with a group, the teacher with another, the teaching assistant with a third and I would take the fourth. We would rotate the children every 15 minutes for an hour. The cycle would be repeated weekly for four weeks in each class, developing the activities each time. By the end, as in the example that opened this article, we could deliver the sessions on our own.
Similarly, with occupational therapy, we were fortunate enough to attract funding to deliver sensory integration activities to whole classes. We invested our funding in the time of a highly specialised occupational therapist, but made sure she ran the sessions jointly with our class teachers and teaching assistants.
Many schools would be apprehensive about using their therapists’ time in this way – it’s a big investment and it’s true that these experts could have seen other individual children or groups in this time. But very quickly, we saw an impact.
For speech and language, it was evident that teachers now really did understand how to help individual children with learning targets and that they were applying new strategies in their teaching. They weren’t simply reading tips from a report provided by an external agency – the teachers and therapists were working together. And we found that teachers were applying skills they had learned to many other children who may have not been flagged for intervention. They were able to incorporate many of these skills in their everyday teaching.
In our occupational therapy work, two years on and with no funding, we are confidently still delivering sensory interventions on our own with an excellent set of adaptable lesson plans.
This is now the standard way we operate. We ensure any intervention we run is sustainable and that staff are upskilled as part of the process. We also want to ensure that what is normally available to only some children is available to all. And we want to put an end, where possible, to interventions happening away from the classroom – we have seen how interventions in the classroom can benefit all children and happen in normal lesson time. We’ll always need external experts to guide more specialised practice, but we should never stop developing our expertise, too, and intervening inclusively where possible.
Of course, working this way brings challenges. You have to be willing to invest time in upskilling staff, and they need to have the motivation to learn new things. You have to create a culture where every member of staff can learn to be an expert and where you can openly reflect on ideas that just didn’t work. You have to embrace the experts walking in though your doors as teachers for you and your staff, and use their time wisely and creatively. And most of all, you have to genuinely believe in inclusion as not just the right thing to do for a small group of children, but something that will benefit all children.
Heba Al-Jayoosi is assistant headteacher at Mayflower Primary School in East London