As a trainee teacher in a mainstream school, I entered my new classroom: a bustling space with desks laid out in groups of four.
At the back of the room sat a boy who had, in his rucksack, 49 plastic figurines. The figures were brought out one by one and placed on his desk.
As I stood at the front, asking probing questions about the significance of animals in Macbeth and windows in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, I was only vaguely aware of this other, colourful, plastic world. Questions directed at him were met with silence and I soon fell into the trap of asking those students most likely to respond, allowing him and others to remain disengaged.
A glance at his records identified him as being on the autism spectrum, a wide-ranging term denoting unspecified differences. Having little understanding of the autism spectrum and even less understanding of how to respond to his unique ways of interacting, I left him with ineffective tools; timers and occasional prompts not to colonise the whole of the desk with his figurines.
I ticked the box on differentiation, having provided (ineffective) written scaffolding to help him answer questions.
The subject I taught, in other words, came above the students. I taught as if the children were, broadly, alike. Bridging the attainment gap, as a trainee, necessitated a commitment to educational uniformity.
SEND: The depth of difference
At this time, I understood differentiation to mean providing varied levels of support for various groups of students to get them to the same place, without an understanding of the depth of difference present in our classroom.
Everyone at mainstream sits exams, reinforcing the expectation that students will all approach and benefit from learning in a similar way. The purpose of school is often answered succinctly: for students to pass the exams that offer them the best chance of a good future.
After training, I went to work at a special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) school. It was here where I saw differentiation in a whole new light. When the exams are taken away, the very nature and purpose of school are brought into new focus. Without GCSEs, the orientation of the school day starts to shift: the day itself starts to matter.
While the subjects in SEND also matter, the students become the centre of all decisions. Planning in a SEND setting without any knowledge of individual students is like cooking without any knowledge of flavour. It will almost certainly not work.
Learning through our senses
We all experience the world through our senses, and yet it is only in SEND schools that sensory curricula are apparent. Unique ways of engaging are incorporated into the school day. Customised chairs, visual instructions, sand trays, movement breaks, music and textures are combined into personalised learning plans.
Whilst the entirety of a sensory curriculum would not be appropriate for mainstream students, elements of it would be. All knowledge enters us through one sense or another, and paying attention to our experiences at a sensorial level gives us more profound understanding. Literature can be supported through the presence of an onion, history through a suitcase, science through an eggshell.
Secondary trainees are currently expected to spend a day in primary and vice-versa. The thinking behind this is logical; education makes more sense when past, present and future are aligned. The absence of SEND settings from trainee programmes, however, reinforces the notion that educational development is always straightforward.
Even though most trainees will end up in mainstream, they are almost guaranteed to teach SEND learners.
A training programme that values differentiation on a structural – as well as an individual – level would give trainees insight into creative and diverse possibilities within schools. With more teachers experiencing SEND schools, fewer students would be left without the support they need.
If I were to encounter the boy and his figurines again, I would focus less on trying to get rid of his differences, and more on valuing them. The figures could have become characters, positioned to denote relationships or to develop his understanding of plot.
They could, quite simply, have offered him the comfort he needed to feel safe enough to learn. A bright plastic comfort blanket on his desk.
Clare Deal is an SEND teacher working in Newcastle