Postcard from Belgrade

Before setting off to sunny Belgrade, I read about the previous European Agency gathering in Sofia. That conference ended in dramatic style with a show of Nestinari and traditional Balkan dancing over hot coals. This was detailed in the engaging style of my predecessor, Philippa Stobbs. And keeping on the topic of feet… the footwear metaphor was employed many a time in Belgrade: colleagues from around Europe commented on Philippa’s commitment and hard work, as well as her convivial personality. The bar has been set, and time for me to pay tribute to Philippa, step into those large shoes and continue her work.

The start of the conference was a reminder that education is never isolated or divorced from wider societal realities. The city of Belgrade, and the whole education sector in Serbia were still reeling from the tragic events when a 14 year-old pupil shot and killed 8 of his fellow pupils and a security guard. Despite this, the conference was a well-organised affair; credit to the Agency and the Serbian Ministry of Education.

Most of the first day was dedicated to the summary of the Voices into Action (VIA) project which set out to investigate how to best involve the voices of learners and their families and how to effectively include them in decision-making. Its phase one was a comprehensive literature review on best practice and rationale for learner and family voices influencing policy. The second phase involved three member countries working interactively with learners and their families. In our concluding session on VIA, delegates worked in small groups which all had learner and parent representation, deliberating how best we might – in the most practical terms – “integrate learner and family voices into policy-making and implementation”. It was interesting to hear perspectives from around Europe, all sharing similar challenges and wondering: are we reaching, listening to, and responding appropriately to all voices, including those often not heard? The good news for those interested, is that the European Agency produced a toolkit to support such efforts for meaningful participation. The tool kit, as well as the literature review and a simple infographic can be found here.

Reflecting on the state of play in England, it was reassuring to know that the concept of pupil voice is well established in our policies. It is certainly enshrined in the SEND Code of Practice and the Children and Families Act, and is doubled-down upon in the recently published SEND and Alternative Provision Improvement Plan:

Critically, we agree with what we heard during the consultation: that the national system should be co-produced with families, children and young people, so we can build their confidence that the system will meet their needs quickly and effectively. We are actively engaging with children, young people and families from the earliest stages of development of the new system.

Of course, we must ask ourselves if these declarations of intent are fully and successfully translated into practice and does this ethos filter down to all aspects of our children and young people’s lives. There is surely room for further improvements and the conference heard about one well-established methodology, the Lundy model of child participation. In fact, we had the privilege of hearing from Professor Lundy herself, who spoke with great clarity and purpose of her model. For those of us often wondering if our efforts at co-production and children and young people’s Voice are meaningful enough, Professor Lundy’s model offers a robust, thoughtful framework to consider. As she put it, she realised that ‘voice is not enough’. Her model sets out four concepts which, combined, might ensure a rights-compliant approach to participation:

  • SPACE: Children must be given the opportunity to express a view 
  • VOICE: Children must be facilitated to express their views 
  • AUDIENCE: The view must be listened to
  • INFLUENCE: The view must be acted upon, as appropriate.

Like all effective approaches, this one too feels intuitively helpful, indeed almost obvious: ‘influence’ as a concept, for example, must be kept centre-stage in order to ensure our efforts aren’t tokenistic.

Let us end this section on a positive note: upon my return from Belgrade, I received an email from the Education Select Committee, where I recently gave evidence for their enquiry into persistent absence and vulnerable pupils. They asked for support in engaging young people directly in the investigation, and I am hopeful that young people will indeed have their say in a roundtable session – and that this session adheres to the standards set out by Professor Lundy.

The VIA project was in the limelight in this conference, but by no means the only European Agency project reported upon. Another interesting, and certainly timely project is Building Resilience through Inclusive Education Systems (BRIES), which began in the wake of the pandemic, and set out to interrogate the impact of the pandemic (and, by extension, other unexpected crises) on inclusive education systems. Through engagement with stakeholders (learners, parents, teachers and policy makers) in chosen countries, the programme aims  “to provide tools for schools, learners, teachers, parents, policymakers and other stakeholders to react to future emergency situations.” The initial literature review analyses the impact of the pandemic. . But, as was reflected during our bi-annual meeting, two major themes arose in respect of the impact the pandemic had on vulnerable learners and inclusive education systems: vulnerable learners were disproportionately affected by lost learning; and the huge adverse impact of the pandemic on social and emotional well-being. These themes will surely sound familiar to educators, children and families here as well. BRIES began in June 2021 and we expect to hear a report on its conclusion during the next bi-annual meeting in November.

And lastly, a reflection on the question of inclusive education. The European Agency has been leading on the push to include as many children and young people as possible in mainstream (inclusive) school settings. This approach is epitomised by Malta, where there are almost no full-time pupils in special schools. This model is increasingly holding favour with educationalists and policymakers, where former special schools become regional hubs of expert knowledge providing support to the wider education system. The landscape in England is different, but it was certainly interesting to hear the different perspectives on the question of special needs provision and how it intersects with inclusive education. I know there are strong feelings on all sides of this debate – and all borne out of valid experiences and worthwhile aspirations. I also heard from colleagues across Europe of the practical challenges of such aspirations, and the inherent tensions arising sometimes between, for example, parental choices and such policies. What I took from the conversations, was a boost to what is surely the uncontested ambition in our system as well:

As part of its commitments under articles 7 and 24 of the United Nations Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the UK Government is committed to inclusive education of disabled children and young people and the progressive removal of barriers to learning and participation in mainstream education. (SEND CoP, 1.26).

On the last day, we had a poignant reminder of the power of inclusion – not only in the classroom, but in culture, when we were treated to a fantastic performance by the inclusive choir ISON. After three long, full days of conference, we were guests of the Serbian Ministry of Education at an old-town restaurant, where we were served huge amounts of food and some local plum brandy. A further bonus was a live band which went round our tables playing traditional Serbian music. On a careful listen, though, many of the tunes were traditional arrangements to old international favourites such as Autumn Leaves and Somewhere Over the Rainbow. This prompted me to think that similarly, during the conference we heard of the challenges and triumphs of educating our young – and most vulnerable: familiar stories in many local flavours and variations.

Wish you were here!


PS: Here's 5 things I learnt in Belgrade