Making GCSEs Work *For All

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Whether you have special needs or not, you want to achieve! Achievement makes us feel good. It lifts our spirits, motivates us and gives us a glimpse of our potential. When that achievement is nationally recognised and has the ability to show that we are employable, it gains even more weight and significance to our lives. This is why GCSEs are so important. And this is why we should strive to ensure that GCSEs work for as many SEND learners as possible. So how we do this? Let me count the ways…

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We can make GCSEs work for SEND learners when we ensure that we have the highest possible expectations for our learners. 

There are SEND learners who are thought to be incapable of sitting a GCSE because they get anxious or they stim excessively or they have echolalic speech or because they are dyslexic…and the list goes on. Of course, it is easy to see the disability, the behaviours and the barriers that inhibits their learning. In fact, some educators equate these behaviours with academic ability. But, we must never underestimate the potential for students to improve and grow both academically and emotionally. Therefore, instead of being caught up in the labels and the behaviour, we must seek to look beyond them to consider the resources we can put in place to ensure that they’ll be able to sit GCSEs and show progress by the time they get to Year 11.

2

We can make GCSEs work for SEND learners when our schools begin to focus on progress NOT grades.

In order to make GCSEs work for SEND learners, our message to students should focus on progress rather than grades. It is possible that reporting marks from assessments in percentages, could be one of the quickest ways to shift the focus to progress. When a student sees their marks after each assessment, the focus will change from just the mark / grade received to the amount of points they have moved up or down. This will make it possible for students to celebrate when they see how many points they have moved up, even if they didn’t achieve a very high mark.

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We can make GCSEs work for SEND learners by using effective learning strategies like testing. 

When students are told that they have to sit a test, they are often filled with fear and anxiety. Anxiety is clearly a major barrier for many of our learners and this anxiety is multiplied when they are faced with tests. This is why it is so wonderful to know that retrieval practice can be so beneficial in improving the long term memory of learners. You see, regular tests helps students to get used to tests and exams and will possibly reduce some of the anxiety that students feel as a result. Concurrently, these tests have the added benefit of improving students’ memory, which is so often another key barrier for SEND learners. So to make GCSEs work for these learners, we must have regular testing.

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We can make GCSEs work for SEND learners when there is a clear way of signposting the progress points achieved by students alongside their final GCSE grades.

In the age of levels, the minimum expectation was that students would make 3 levels of progress between KS2 (end of primary) and KS4 (GCSE). In this case, 3 might be seen as the average level of progress that was expected. Although the system has changed, it would be useful if on a transcript or alongside the grades awarded at GCSEs, there would be a clear indication of the levels of progress made. Therefore, for students who received grades like a 3/4, they could explain that whilst they received a 3, they made 4 levels of progress throughout their time in Secondary School. The focus would be on making sure that future employers and schools would be able to see when a young person has exceeded expectations. It would speak of effort, of grit and that child’s drive to succeed. Publicising this information and making it clear would be vital, but it could make an enormous difference for SEND learners who are striving to move on in their education or work.

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We can make GCSEs work for SEND learners by making sure that schools and learners are not negatively penalised, if they are not entered for 8 subjects at GCSE.

Having a rigorous curriculum that models the high expectations that we want to see in our schools and society is extremely important. However, it is possible that a school’s obsession with the EBacc, Attainment 8 and Progress 8 scores could prove counter productive for SEND learners. For some SEND learners, having to complete at least 8 subjects might prove extremely challenging  and they might find it difficult to do well with 8. So it is possible that by reducing the number of subjects for some SEND learners and providing additional support to increase prowess in key subjects, they could gain higher grades. However, schools might be reluctant to reduce the number of subjects or provide subjects outside the approved list because this could negatively affect their progress 8 scores and their league table ratings. Therefore, allowing students to focus in on 5 key subjects would risk their place as a leading educational institution. And this is a risk, that few, if any, would be willing to take.

So yes, GCSEs are very important and it is necessary that we help our SEND learners to achieve the best possible results. However, unless we make changes, we will be blocking many able learners from showing what they are truly capable of. You know, over the last couple of days, since students gained their GCSE results, many schools have put up posts, boasting about the students who secured the top grades. I have yet to read inspirational stories about students who started secondary school with the expectation that they wouldn’t gain above Es and attained Cs. These are the stories that aren’t being told. And they aren’t being told because we are constantly caught up in the idea that it’s the grades that matter, not the progress. Now, I’m not saying that grades don’t have relevance. Of course they do! But, if we are truly committed to building resilience, to the development of a growth mindset, to progress, we must shift the narrative. If we want to help our SEND learners to feel a sense of pride in their achievements and to recognise their value to society, we must change the narrative. And this new narrative must not only work for a few, it must work for all! 

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Closing the Gap for SEND Learners

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Today, I was excited! The report entitled ‘Closing the Gap? Trends in Educational Attainment and Disadvantage’ (Andrews, Robinson & Hutchinson 2017) was published. I had hoped that the expanding of academies and the creation of free schools might have helped us to close the gap in education like never before. Instead, the picture proved dismal with the “most disadvantaged…over 2 full years of learning behind non-disadvantaged pupils by the end of secondary” and those Higher Attaining students with SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities), neglected.

The word neglect is of course, a very strong word. It suggests that our education system has failed to properly care for and look after the needs of those with SEND. There is an extent to which I agree. It is known that some teacher training programmes did not give enough focus to SEND and there were schools who were focused on C/D borderline students to the exclusion of other groups. However, in some ways, this is changing. The introduction of progress 8, means that the progress of all students matter. Teacher training programmes have also been revised so that teachers have a better understanding of the SEND of their learners. So, I do believe there is a shift in the way that we work with SEND learners. However, I also wanted to highlight some key approaches that could ensure that we are not neglecting those who are struggling to keep up with their peers.

Overlearning

Many students with SEND show that they find it difficult to retain the material they have studied. As a result, it is not a surprise that they “struggle to keep pace with their peers”. One of the key ways in which we can level the playing field for these learners, is to build curriculums which make overlearning possible. Performing a task or using information to the point where it becomes automatic, is said to improve retention. Within our schools and classrooms, we can aid the overlearning of key concepts or tasks by revisiting them throughout the term until students can use these concepts or tasks automatically.

Emotional Regulation

As individuals, we all experience some anxiety. However, for many learners with SEND, these anxieties can lead to challenging behaviour, tantrums and meltdowns. As we know these behaviours become a barrier to learning and progress of that child and the class that they are in. As a consequence, these students are often given detentions or asked to work away from the class. Of course, I am not saying that these consequences should not be applied as I understand that we must not allow the learning of the majority to be interrupted. However, I believe that we must also support these learners to constructively express and regulate their emotions. If students are able to manage their emotions, it is possible that they become better able to focus and contribute to their lessons. If they are focusing and have a good working memory, then their struggle to keep up with their peers could be reduced. Therefore, if we want to ensure that our SEND learners aren’t being neglected or endlessly struggling, we should seek to use aids such as 5 point scales, social stories and ABC (antecedent-behaviour-consequence) charts, amongst other tools to help them to manage their feelings.

Emotional regulation and overlearning are just two approaches that we can use to level the playing field with our SEND learners. If we can support them to be less anxious whilst finding it more automatic to engage with concepts and tasks, it is possible that they will struggle less to keep up with their peers. This will in turn help these learners to develop their confidence as successful learners. Additionally, by helping these students to regulate their emotions, they are able to recognise and use a range of strategies that help them to respond constructively in a range of situations whether in or outside of school. Of course, these approaches might mean shifts in our curriculum or investments in staff training on how to help students to regulate their emotions. However, if the end result is to have students who can manage their emotions and make good progress, it must be surely worth the cost. Right?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SENDT Reflections

b558ec7ba439a6ffd0ceb3c4660897f2_special-education-clip-art-special-education-clip-art_500-375This year will make 10 years since I trained as a teacher. It is no wonder then, that I have started to reflect on the journey and what I would have done differently. In one way or another, my students are still with me. Whether they appear on trains or in the drive thru, in a plane or just my memory, I have come to accept that their story will always cling to me. Their lives are continually shaping me.

So, now I wonder, what would I have done differently and below, I’ve taken the time to chart a few reflections:

For the little boy with the veiled anger and buried hurts who was nowhere near the old level 3, I wish I had the time to hear you read. I should have given you more spelling tests and tried to get you out on trips. I should have created word walls and vocabulary lists, set you targets to use new words and make opportunities for you to use them. For you see, recently, it has come home to me that in schools, we are often expecting students to create extended answers. However, if the students do not have the language to do so then getting these answers are near impossible. So before we begin to ask for paragraphs and extended responses, we must ensure that our students have the language to make this a reality.

For the other little boy, the one who should have a diagnosis of autism, I should have chased it for you. I should have gone beyond the rhetoric that your parents were not interested and called them myself. I also saw your loneliness, I saw the anxiety now that must have been chipping away at the dawn of teenage-hood that made you withdraw from your peers. I should have requested that the learning mentors buddied you up with someone. I should have made more time for you, perhaps prepped you with questions at the start of the lesson so that you were more confident answering them as we would go through the lesson. This could have made you more confident, it could have helped your peers to see the possibilities that I will always see in you. I know I placed you near the door, so if ever your fight/flight/freeze impulse flared you would have an easy way to escape. But I regret that now, I should have put you front and centre, directly in my line of sight so that I could forever get to you. I did growl for you though. The minute they hinted at marginalising you, I would snip them back in line but those who seconds in an eternity where I am absent. Your memory tears me up!

And to the students who were always off task, wiggling in your seat and ready to drift off at any moment to near oblivion who I strategically seated next to the quiet intelligent ones to maintain my sanity, you needed a checklist. I simply could have kept you a little more focused by giving you the feeling that you were achieving, that you were making steps. Perhaps, you also needed a sensory aid just to settle you, or a cushion to make you move in your place but I never knew they were out there then. I do now of course and although I would definitely use them, I would still want you to say random things and make me smile.

I remember the young, black boys too who thought they were some kind of ‘bad man’. At every turn, they are ready to swagger and light up the room with some new slang. When they started to lose the plot, have a few too many fights, they could have used a few comic strip conversations to view their thinking and the people they’re arguing with in an objective way. It would have helped them to really think about the world outside of themselves. And I should have found ways to get you mentors from the community, people who could help to show you that the see more in you than you do in yourself.

And for all of you who hated English and reading and writing, we should have spent more time just talking. We should have had more artists in, performed poetry and do presentations. We should have danced, done the olden days equivalent of the dab whilst making rhymes about the things we’ve learnt. I still remember when Freddie  Macha came in for some workshops. Where ever you are, my lovely class, I think you will too.  I know we had fun in the end and that you all tried so hard. You might not all have gotten Cs, but you went far beyond expectations. I’m still saluting you.

And for the little girl with the long black hair, who had started to perform beyond expectations and then suddenly stopped coming in, I should have gotten your parents in and tell them that you’re smart and could go on to do amazing things. It might not have made a difference but I feel now, that I should have tried.

Through it all though, meeting you all has been a blessing. I just wish now that my teacher training had helped me to recognise that meeting the needs of my SEN learners, went far beyond coloured paper, clear tasks and dyslexic friendly fonts. It’s so much more than where you seat them or by differentiating, giving them a simple text. It’s myriad strategies and ways in, realising that each child is unique and forever bringing their own things. And as teachers who are SENDT (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Teacher), we must identify what they bring and if it is a barrier, we must lead them past it, however gently.

 

Are Special Schools Fit for Purpose?

For some, this is a daft question. Of course, they are fit for purpose! Of course, we need them! This is the place for young people with severe and complex needs; this is where they are provided with specialist equipment and specialist teachers that you might never find in mainstream. In special schools, these young people feel they belong, they are included. If you take the time to watch them, chatting away to their peers, an adult or alone, you will see how happy they are. How safe!

But are they fit for purpose?

In a sense, yes. For those students with severe cognitive impairment, who will not progress beyond P Scales throughout the duration of their time in education, I would say, yes. If these same students with severe cognitive difficulty are also violent, non verbal, require specialist IT equipment to communicate, then once again, yes.

However, as with any organisation or group, special schools possess a rainbow of students. There are those who began their journey with little language, poor social skills and progress that did not go past P Scales but with great teaching or maturity or their own thirst to improve, they have broken through those barriers. There are those, who with time, perform as well or even better than their peers without SEND. There are those, who with time, have come to show that they are capable of accessing the same subjects and curricula as the latter students. So the question is clear:

For these learners, is it necessary for them to go to special schools?

The answer is simple, absolutely not. Special schools are only fit for purpose if they are able to provide the curriculum which allows their students to progress to their best self. If the students, who perform as well as their non SEND peers are in a system that is stuck on P Scales, it is possible that such school are not adequately meeting the need of their students.

Yet, even in this case, there are those who would argue that regardless of the academic possibilities of the child, the young person’s  ability to participate socially takes precedence. And it is in special schools that the social skills of SEND learners are often fostered and brought to the fore.  This is the place where they are given copious opportunities to interact and communicate with others without judgment or too much fear. And so, they would argue, that even though special schools might not challenge these learners academically, at least socially that child would be able to interact with the world.

Special schools, as with all schools, should be able to meet the needs of a learner both socially and academically. In both areas, it should allow the learner to progress and achieve to the best of their ability. If it not able to cater to these areas, then it is not functioning as it should. I admit that for some special schools, with a high number of both able and less able students, it is an extremely challenging situation.  How do they effectively provide a curriculum that caters to those on P Scales and those on national curriculum levels, especially if they are mixed across classes and key stages?

In a situation like this, I think schools should create two streams of pupils within the school, one for those who are able and one for those who are less able. Doing this would mean that subjects like Maths, English and Science at the very least, are taught at the appropriate level to challenge all learners. It would also mean that teachers would not have to struggle to teach students at P Scales and at Level / Stage 3 or above in the same lesson. This of course, might be an unrealistic suggestion as special schools often struggle to recruit staff and so may not have the manpower or monetary resources to make this type of streaming possible.

Could there be another way?

I suspect, there might be an even more difficult solution. In cases where special schools have come to realise that there are students who with time, are performing far above what their schools provide, parents should be contacted and alternative arrangements made. This could be by linking the student to a main stream school to pursue interests to a higher level or it could be by transitioning the learner to a mainstream school with a SEN Unit. The impact of funding on special schools if this is to be done could be vast, in some cases catastrophic if many students fit this category. However, isn’t it a part of any educational establishment’s duty of care to ensure that their students are able to be their best?

But luckily…

…the winds are changing in special education and the government’s changes now mean that more students with SEND are able to attend mainstream schools. In this way, those students who with time can perform as well as their non SEND peers, have the opportunity to experience a vaster range of subjects. They have greater opportunity to discover their innate talents and gifts, the areas for which they have a flair. It is possible that in these environments, these students can see that the sky is the limit but they just have to take their own time to get there. I believe that mainstream schools are also awakening to the reality that for these students, it is important to balance the social and the academic for these students. Therefore, more emphasis is being placed on both the social and the academic to ensure that these students are given the opportunity to develop independence and resilience.

So, are special schools fit for purpose?

Of course they are! But only if the curriculum is right.

 

 

 

 

A Hope and A Future

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My baby brother is 16. He is autistic and yes, there is a future for him. It took some time for my mum and I to see the signs but when he was diagnosed, it all became clear. Through it all, we have never once thought that this limits him. Instead, we believe that given time, he will be better than he was before.

Working in special education doesn’t mean that we are teaching students who are underachieving. It means that we are teaching students who might need more processing time. Therefore, as teachers and leaders within SEN, it is important that our expectations remain high, that classwork remains personalised and challenging.

I understand perfectly that some students with Aspergers or ASD might be non verbal. For these students, progress might mean being able to use PECs (Pupil Exchange Communication System) effectively to communicate their wants or needs. However, regardless of need, we must find a way to push them one step further in their journey.

At the heart of this journey is the knowledge of who these young people are. What are their likes / dislikes? What do they repeatedly talk about? At the sound of which word, do they begin stimming with excitement? These are the signifiers. They are a sign of their motivators and something that we should take to heart. Who would have thought that my little brother’s fascination with Thomas the Tank Engine or our repeated journeys on DLR trains would ever be more than that? For many years, it seemed a game, an amusement. To this day, his lists of presents are usually started with another request for a Hornby Train to add to his collection. When he was old enough and thoughtful enough to answer what he wanted to be, his answers would be simple and quick: train driver! So many of my students today have the same answer. Regardless of skill, many of them are so fascinated with the tracks and how they can make this a profession. Yet, so often teachers can dismiss the dream because they seem to come from some place of automaticity rather than careful thought.

When the time came for my brother to start to apply for sixth form, he didn’t quibble or dance about. He knew instinctively that he wanted to study BTEC Engineering because he would get to work on trains. My elation and pride was undeniable not only because he knew what he wanted but because in one way or another, he had been getting ready for this his whole life. When we went with him to tour a possible Sixth Form, he was naming the equipments he saw and telling my mum about their uses. He could easily reference old DT classes and his experience of the equipments. It was in this moment that the last two gifts he requested also made sense. He had wanted Snap Circuits so that he could experiment with creating light and sound in his room. No game, no experience seemed a coincidence and once again, I felt the magic in High Functioning Autism; that almost evolutionary quality of focus that can bring about extraordinary things.

Consequently, my belief once again that every Autistic student should be challenged was reinforced. Although there are many students who might not be able to complete the 5 or 8 GCSEs that are so prized, it is incumbent on how as educators to ensure that students are able to access as wide and as broad a curriculum that is possible. If they are passionate about ICT and Computing, give them the avenue to prepare for this. Even if they are not as strong in Maths and or English, these subjects must be priority as it prepares for a life beyond school and so the level at which this is taught must be appropriate and with sufficient challenge. Beyond this, having access to quality vocational teaching from KS3 must be a priority for all schools because if these students are given the opportunity to produce their Magnum Opus, their potential will be unleashed! They will fly!

I had a conversation with a colleague recently about our Autistic Learners. We agreed that if we said “they can’t, then they won’t”. Therefore, we must make sure that we identify how our learners need to improve and then provide the scaffolding and the steps to get them there. By doing this, we’ll be able to see our learners grow and find the hope and the future that is waiting for them.

Mastery is Key

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Recently, I have begun to ponder what a Mastery Curriculum means for SEND learners. On this, Mary Myatt is clear. A mastery curriculum is about “fewer things in greater depth”. When teaching SEND students, this idea is completing freeing. Firstly, because it means that students can have the extra processing time that is often needed for them to be able to fully grasp a concept.

No longer should schools be rushing through topics; instead, educators now have the opportunity to embed and deepen the knowledge and skills of our learners. There is also extended opportunity for those working at a higher level than their peers to begin to use and apply the learnt skill in new contexts. I have no doubt that this is empowering for all learners.

It is therefore crucial for SEND schools to shape their curriculum in a way which has Mastery at its core. In English, this might mean that students are taught topics in a chronological order alongside the explicit teaching of grammar and punctuation. By doing this, learners will have the opportunity to place texts in their contexts and also make links across time. If the learning of new ideas are always interweaved with former learning, the likelihood that these ideas will be remembered and used is inevitably increased.

It is often said that ‘repetition is the mother of learning’. Within a SEND context where students sometimes have difficulty in remembering ideas or concepts, this method would surely be a godsend as they now have multiple opportunities throughout a yearly scheme to utilise and build on former knowledge and skills.

Students with Aspergers often take language literally and of course, sometimes simple statements can be very confusing because of this. Recently, my class has been learning about rounding numbers. One particular student who has shown proficiency at this became stumped when I asked him to circle a number which rounds to 50. Previously, another student became confused when a question asked him to look above and the above section was on the previous page. Despite being a very bright student, they can be stumped by this.

By having a Mastery Curriculum, teachers will have a greater opportunity to expose students to a greater range of terms or statements that are used within the topic area. Exams or tests may consequently become less of a puzzle and these students will have a greater opportunity to demonstrate the skills that they possess.

The potential for improvement in teaching and learning can not be denied. Due to the fact that more time would be allocated to key topics, teachers will be able to present the material in multiple ways. Therefore, presenting topics in a concrete and a sensory rich way before moving on to pictorial and paper based representations is even more possible. This allows learners to have multiple entry points into a topic and provides greater opportunity for learning to be embedded. It’s clear to see that mastery works for students and for teachers.

I am therefore convinced that a Mastery Curriculum possesses innumerable benefits. I am hoping that the value of this is recognised and capitalised on so that all students are able to demonstrate their potential.