A post card from a virtual meeting

This autumn’s meeting of the European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education was significantly focused on European Agency projects on teacher training, professional development and school leadership. These are projects we reviewed at an earlier meeting, while they were under development. As with most of Agency projects, they draw on the policy frameworks, the practices and experiences of member countries. Now that they are written up, published and available on the Agency website, what do they tell us, as we look into the mirror with other European nations?

First, as you’d expect from the European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education, all the work is threaded through with a strong focus on inclusion. The school leadership work re-states the right to inclusive education set out in the UN Convention on the rights of Persons with Disabilities:   

A principle that values the well-being of all students, respects their inherent dignity and autonomy, acknowledges individual requirements and ability to effectively be included in and contribute to society.

And, in the European work, the first of three core functions of inclusive school leadership is about setting direction:

Inclusive school leaders have the vision that all learners of any age should receive meaningful, high-quality education in their local community, alongside their friends and peers. 

Leadership is described as giving strategic direction, with a focus on the values that underpin inclusive practice, enabling participation, raising achievement, supporting well-being and creating a sense of belonging for all learners, including those most vulnerable to exclusion. An echo from Edward Timpson’s review of exclusions?

Schools must be places that are welcoming and respectful, where every child has the opportunity to succeed.

At the teacher level, there are some clear synergies between our teacher standards and the profile of inclusive teachers in the European work. They share strong strands on the effectiveness of lessons and approaches to teaching, but particularly on teachers as reflective practitioners.

This chimes with research based on a meta-analysis of the most effective teaching in inclusive classrooms. A couple of key features that stood out in my reading of this research were: that teachers with a broad and detailed knowledge of the curriculum framework within which they were teaching were better able to understand where children were in their learning, and so were better able to plan next steps for all the children in their class; secondly, that those who were most effective also kept their understanding of the curriculum framework constantly under review with a ‘pedagogic community’, revising their understanding in the light of what they observed about children’s progress. All of this enhanced their ability to be teachers of all learners.

This reads straight in to the messages in the Agency publications that:

effective teachers are teachers of all learners

Our own teacher standards emphasise the importance of high quality teaching as being the most important factor in improving outcomes – this from our Initial Teacher Training Core Content Framework:

The ITT Core Content Framework has been designed in the knowledge that the quality of teaching is the most important factor in improving outcomes for pupils – particularly pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and those with additional needs. As such, the ITT Core Content Framework is designed to help trainee teachers take their first steps towards becoming expert teachers of the future who can transform the lives all pupils.

Many of the synergies here relate to the professional practices that underpin high quality teaching and are less well pronounced when it comes to setting out the values and direction that are so clearly articulated in the Agency work on school leadership and inclusion. So where are we nationally in terms of setting direction?

Much of the pressure for the SEND Review has been driven by a consideration of the funding frameworks with the report from the National Audit Office saying very clearly that:

The system for supporting pupils with SEND is not, on current trends, financially sustainable.

…it's not unreasonable to point to the financial drivers for the SEND Review: they are significant. But we need to look beyond that to some of the drivers of our values (NAO again):

Pressures – such as incentives for mainstream schools to be less inclusive, increased demand for special school places, growing use of independent schools and reductions in per-pupil funding – are making the system less, rather than more, sustainable.

So where do we stand on those values that are so strongly articulated in the European Agency work on all the responsibilities of teachers at different stages in their career: those in initial training, in their early career, in their professional development and as school leaders? Do we have a clear articulation of those values? Is the direction clearly set? And is it the responsibility of the SEND Review or of the wider education system to set this direction?

Like so much else, the last few meetings of the European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education have been hosted in the virtual environment. However, to date, each virtual meeting has still been hosted by one of the member countries, with a welcoming ministerial speech, usually with the national flag, a national emblem or map in the background that confirms which country we are all visiting. This meeting was not hosted in a member country in the same way: our Chair was in Dublin, our Director in Odense in Denmark, each in a different time zone and we were each in our own kitchen, study, bedroom or broom cupboard. So I’m not sure why this was more confusing than pretending that we were all in Belgrade, but it was. It’s easier when you know where you are and when you’re all in the same place.   

Wish you were here

Hope to see you face-to-face soon,