Are schools rewarded for being inclusive? No.
At the Education Foundation’s Education Britain Summit last week, I asked the shadow education secretary Angela Rayner how Labour intended to support vulnerable students in contrast to the divisive social mobility narrative favoured by the Conservative’s now-defunct grammar school policy.
She surprised me by talking about why she made educational choices for her own child with special educational needs and disability (SEND), telling delegates how she turned down an “outstanding” school because a neighbouring one seemed more welcoming and sensitive to the needs of learners with SEND.
Which highlights a problem: there are schools that go out of their way to give the impression they don’t want to take on students with SEND. So, two questions: how and why?
A tour around the school might be part of this “soft” selection process: blank faces when a parent asks whether there is social communication provision or a flexible behaviour system which makes reasonable adjustments. Or as one parent once told me: a mouldy marquee tent, hidden away on an open evening, was the additional needs department. This made her change courses and college for her son.
This contrasts with many other schools, of course. When I used to take prospective parents around a school, I always made sure a student knew they were wanted and explained how we would manage any learning differences they might have. Parents would often express relief or even disbelief that a school would be accommodating.
Why should parents who have children with SEND feel grateful that a school will admit them, let alone celebrate them? And why should the school Rayner didn’t choose for her child because of its apparent approach to SEND get an “outstanding” from Ofsted?
The “soft” selection process is pervasive – but often subtle. When I worked for a local authority, I would attend panels for children where, because of the legal document now known as an Educational Health Care Plan, parents could name the school they wanted for their child, but when they were admitted, they weren’t getting their needs met. This was eye-opening.
Certain schools were repeat offenders – knowing looks would flicker across the table.
These were schools, often “outstanding”, often celebrated, that we knew were choosing not to meet the needs of certain learners. One subtle way of avoiding this, as Rayner discovered, is to suggest that there might be a better, more SEND-friendly school nearby. Another related strategy is to have an inflexible behaviour policy.
The call for ‘moral MATs’
As a result of this, exclusions go up and support is pulled. Suddenly, the local alternative provision reaches capacity and cannot cope with the extra learners knocking on their doors. The educational ecology shifts and the vulnerable suffer. As soon as one comprehensive becomes top-heavy with SEND or disadvantaged or middle-class high-attainers, the system creaks and becomes uneven.
It is worth remembering that, while this picture is bleak, there are many schools who do inclusion well. The question is: are they rewarded for this or do they do it because it’s the right thing to do?
It’s not dificult to work out what’s going on. We only need to track the rising exclusions in local authorities to see the schools or multi-academy trusts (MATs) doing it.
I was on a panel at the Education Britain Summit on “changing landscapes, same challenges” and I called for “moral MATs”: MATs that welcome students with SEND and have inclusion at their heart.
There may not always be an incentive through league tables or Ofsted, but it’s a morality issue. Every school has a responsibility for every child in their community, otherwise the comprehensive ideal falls apart. This is what we are now witnessing.
This culture has been created by the A-C pass rate, league tables and Ofsted ratings. Even now with Progress 8, it is far harder to show the impact for outliers than it is for a student with English is an additional language, for example: one group are likely to make rapid progress, whereas the other may make slow progress that is difficult to measure.
It’s because of this that we need to look at new ways to measure how schools are judged. For example, are we measuring how many families with SEND, like Rayner’s, or those from disadvantaged backgrounds, are not choosing to go to certain schools? Or not going to school at all?
Are we measuring the voluntary dropout rate of a school? Richard Selfridge, a Driver Youth Trust consultant and data expert, has proposed the excellent idea of measuring numbers of learners taking GCSEs in individual schools each year, which would help identify discrepancies. Another suggestion, from Emma Hardy MP, an ex-teacher and member of the Commons Education Select Committee, is that individual schools are no longer judged but educational outcomes in regions were. This would quickly improve the motivation of certain “outstanding” schools to collaborate.
Innovation in both how schools or local authorities are measured – which include more than the narrow, result-based indicators and the high-stakes nature of inspections – is required to change the undercurrents of soft selection.
As Diane Ravitch, an American campaigner, says: “If you make test scores the purpose of education, you don’t want the children with disabilities, you don’t want the children who don’t speak English, you don’t want the children with low scores. You want to keep those kids out of your school.”
This is not an acceptable philosophy on which to base an education system. We need collaboration, not competition.
Jules Daulby is literacy and language coordinator for Thomas Hardye School in Dorset. She tweets @julesdaulby