Adam Boddison, chief executive of the special needs charity Nasen, must have had one of the most varied careers of anyone working in education – and he’s not yet 40.
The 36-year-old has already racked up time working as a teacher in primary and secondary, heading a teacher-training department and leading organisations working with gifted children and those with special educational needs and disabilities.
And he has done all this while obtaining a master’s degree and a doctorate, and writing resources and carrying out consultancy work.
“One of my early ambitions was to be secretary of state for education,” Boddison says. “I wanted to be someone who could come into the role with some understanding of the various sectors within education, so I wanted to have first-hand experience of as broad a range of sectors as I could.”
That personal determination has helped him to break through the traditional silos of education, even though he now has mixed feelings about his original ambition. “Over time, I’ve started to wonder actually whether getting that job would be the pinnacle of my career or the end of my career,” he laughs.
But Boddison has thrived on his ability to build relationships with a wide variety of people; something he puts down to his upbringing. He was born in Birkenhead, Merseyside, the oldest of three children. His mother, Sue, worked part-time at a playgroup and his dad, Dave, had a gardening business.
‘I didn’t take things for granted’
When he was aged about 8, his parents made a decision that would have a profound impact on his life – they decided to become foster carers. “It shaped who I am today,” says Boddison. “It helped get things into perspective.”
He thinks that being a mixed-race couple – his mother’s father is from Nigeria – made his parents particularly valuable as foster parents, and over the years they took in more than 30 children, mostly sibling groups.
“They said that if anything ever happened to them, they’d like to think that somebody out there would do the right thing and look after us,” he explains. “And if everyone said it wasn’t their problem, then there would be nobody to look after any children, so they wanted to do their bit.
“If you are growing up without those significant difficulties that some youngsters have, why would you even know about that world? This gave a safe exposure to that world. It made sure I didn’t take things for granted.”
Boddison went to the local primary, and then at 11 won a partly funded place at the independent Birkenhead School. It was, he says, an odd time. “The people I was in primary school with thought I’d become posh because I was at an independent school,” he explains. “But the people at the independent school, who had come up from the prep school, thought I was some scally off the estate. So I didn’t really know who I was – it was a bit of an identity crisis.
“Over time, what I’ve come to realise is that [that experience] is a real strength that has helped me get where I am today.
“I feel comfortable with a broad range of people. I get contexts. If someone has grown up in an area of socioeconomic difficulty or someone has a wealthy background, I get it and I feel comfortable with either.”
And it was at Birkenhead School that he discovered his love of maths.
Boddison took five A levels, and went to the University of Warwick to study maths, taking on various part-time jobs while studying.
During his time working as an assistant at a summer school at Warwick, one of the lecturers suggested he consider teaching.
“I hadn’t planned particularly to go into teaching,” he says. “But the people who ran the maths PGCE were involved in the summer school and they were short of mathematicians. They said, ‘Adam, have you thought of being a maths teacher? Why don’t you come and do an interview?’ I said, ‘When?’ They said, ‘What about now?’
“So I was there in my shorts and T-shirt, in summer school mode and two hours later, I was told, ‘Congratulations, you have a place on the course.’”
His decision to become a teacher may have been made on the spot, but he was soon fascinated by the whole system – thanks to a group of six-year-olds.
Boddison’s first job was as a secondary maths teacher at Finham Park School, Coventry – working part-time, as he had also embarked on a master’s in educational research methods. He then moved to Finham Primary to teach in Year 1. “What was really interesting about that was I found I was teaching some of same things that I had been teaching in Year 9 in secondary school,” he says. “In Year 1, I was teaching properties of a two-dimensional shape, how many sides a pentagon has.
“In Year 1, we were doing it with a feely bag and kids taking shapes out and having a look, while in Year 9 it was presented quite differently, but the maths was the same.
“I thought, ‘How can it be that after eight years, we are teaching them the same thing? Something is going seriously wrong. Not for all children, but for some children.’ This was when I got interested in the wider education system, because there are some children for whom the education system does not work.”
Boddison also embraced the holistic ethos of the primary sector and ran a High School Musical singing club.
Getting to know you
And asked today to pinpoint the one thing that would help to improve the education system, both for learners with SEND and in general, he does not hesitate: “Teachers having enough time to get to know the young people they are working with,” he says.
“This requires funding, but I would advocate a system where teachers only taught 50 per cent of time in school and spent the other 50 per cent in proper professional development, to develop their expertise and really get to know the young people they are working with and their families.”
Boddison remained living on the University of Warwick campus – 750 acres of leafy grounds on the outskirts of Coventry – as a warden, overseeing the pastoral care of students until 2011. He married fellow Warwick student, and later a project officer at the university, Annunziata Videtta, and the couple now have three children.
As his career progressed, he moved back to Warwick to work, this time as an area coordinator with the Further Mathematics Support Programme and he set up a consultancy business – helping to develop online maths resources and carrying out school improvement. Then, during the next six years, Boddison took a series of management jobs at the university and in schools. They included becoming academic principal of the networking service the International Gateway for Gifted Youth (IGGY) and finished with him overseeing the university’s initial teacher-training courses.
The latter move came just as School Direct was being introduced, and Boddison focused on the need for partnerships with schools. The work earned Ofsted “outstanding” ratings for the university’s primary and secondary teacher training courses.
Change has been a constant theme throughout Boddison’s career. So it was perhaps no surprise that his next job would be something entirely different – chief executive of Nasen (the National Association for Special Educational Needs). Here, Boddison says his previous experience at IGGY helped, stressing that children with SEND can also be academically gifted. He underlined this fact by persuading Professor Stephen Hawking, perhaps the most famous intellectual with disabilities in the world, to become a patron of the charity.
Boddison’s growing influence in the field was recognised in late 2017 when he was made chair of the networking group Whole School SEND, which aims to share best practice.
But he has arrived at a time of great turmoil. The SEND system was reformed in 2014, to ensure that children’s education, health and social care needs were coordinated; to give families and young people more of a say in the support offered through a new code of practice; and to extend provision to age 25.
Four years on and there are now growing criticisms over long delays in issuing the Education, Health and Care Plans that set out what children with SEND are entitled to and the quality of some of the plans.
Is the system broken? For Boddison, whose organisation is representing those teaching children with SEND, it is important to look at supporting the people within the system and helping the system to support them.
“There is too much variability [in provision] between youngsters who have similar needs in different parts of the country,” he says. “But for a lot of young people it is working. I think the system could be improved – but the principles of the code of practice were right.”
Boddison says lack of time is the biggest barrier to meeting the needs of pupils. And he would also like to see children’s needs being met earlier, with funding reformed to ensure that per-pupil investment is highest in early years – rather than the current system by which money increases as pupils get older.
Is there anything that has set this job apart from the others he has done in his quest to experience as broad a range of education as possible? Yes, he says,the people.
“I have learned a heck of a lot in two years. There are so many people in this sector who are so passionate about what they do,” he says. “It’s very rewarding. At the end of day, you do feel you have made a difference – genuinely made a difference.”