Postcard from a virtual meeting

This year, the Autumn meeting of the European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education was a virtual one. So, not so much the excitement of meeting colleagues face to face in an intriguing European destination; in my case, I was settling down to a long day of sessions in a very cold spare room in North London. 

In my virtual postcard today, I’d like to focus on two aspects of the Agency’s work which echo some of the preoccupations in the SEND sector in England.  

The first relates to the Agency’s project Legislative Definitions around Learners Vulnerable to Exclusion. Granted, this is not the catchiest of titles, and in fact the project concluded in 2022. However, it touches upon a growing recognition across all member countries that those of our children and young people who face barriers to learning are not always easily, or effectively identified and supported. The project report is a lengthy and complex document but allows us to consider the way countries identify in policy this group of pupils vulnerable to exclusion; and what this might mean to inclusive practice and approaches.  

The term vulnerable to exclusion is useful as it captures a diverse group of pupils, many of whom will be, in the English context, labelled as ‘having SEND’, but not all. Increasingly, it appears that the SEND label might be too one-dimensional. To be clear, the intention here is not to discuss solely those who are excluded from school as an intervention or disciplinary step; ‘exclusion’ here denotes the risk of being unable to access education.  

Some obvious examples from the English context are the close to 25,000 children defined ‘children missing education’ in Spring 2023; the increasing numbers of pupils persistently and severely absent from school; permanent exclusion figures which disproportionately affect groups such as those with SEND and FSM; and the increasing numbers of children and young people reporting struggles with mental health challenges.  

This project set out to answer these questions: 

  • How do countries identify and label learners based on their needs and which legal definitions are being used?  

  • What may these definitions indicate in terms of an underlying approach to inclusive education systems? 

So, what has been learned?  

Looking at policies identifying learners vulnerable to exclusion, England is within the majority of countries which specify pupils in the ‘category’ of Disabilities, special needs and learning difficulties as a risk factor. However, we do not identify other groups vulnerable to exclusion, such as addiction and substance abuse (as in Austria and Scotland); experience of crisis or trauma (Bulgaria, Croatia, Lithuania, Poland, Serbia, Slovenia); or living in remote, rural or disadvantaged areas (Croatia, Denmark, Greece). These are just a sample of the sub-groups which feature in other countries’ policies and inform the way the risk – the vulnerability to – exclusion is registered.  

This speaks to a factor which is increasingly recognised as a necessary element in discussions around SEND and disadvantage: intersectionality. The lived experiences of disadvantaged pupils are multi-layered and complex, and to adequately assess and address barriers to learning, we need to consider (not an exhaustive list):  

gender, remoteness, wealth, disability, ethnicity, language, migration, displacement, incarceration, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, religion and other beliefs and attitudes (UNESCO, 2020: p. 4).  

The Agency’s research shows that only 6 countries mention intersectionality in their policies, and England is not among them. The complex and intersecting factors which contribute to disadvantage and disengagement probably merit a reassessment: are we doing enough to reflect these complexities in policy?  

The second thing emerging clearly from this study is, that most member countries still rely heavily on the categorisation of learners to inform policy and law. The European Agency is a strong proponent of the inclusive model of education, advocating for “a move away from categorising learners, towards a conceptualisation and approach that focus on the barriers some learners experience within the education system that may lead to their marginalisation and exclusion from learning opportunities.” In tune with this approach, the Agency used the term ‘learning needs’ to denote the suite of requirements for educational provision and support, rather than ‘special needs’. But there remains a significant gap between the approach advocated for by the Agency, and policy in member countries, where typically definitions are still reliant on a ‘categorical approach’ – labelling type of need, as deficit to be addressed.   

It is, of course, a labyrinthine debate, associated with what’s often referred to as the ‘recognition / redistribution dilemma’ (Fraser, 2020): (in very simplistic terms) to remedy the disadvantage of particular groups we need to categorise them, hence potentially further stigmatising and ‘othering’ them.  

The definition of SEN is socially constructed, and relative; a child will be appropriately labelled as having SEN if the resources needed to enable them to successfully participate are beyond those ordinarily available in the school context (and compared to their peers).  Children and young people might fall either side of this definition depending on what provision is generally made in mainstream context – and in effect, to what extent learning environments are inclusive.  

The SEND and AP Improvement Plan, and the associated Change Programme have inclusion at their stated heart. This project raises a second question: should we be considering a move towards an inclusive approach which ‘moves away from categorising learners – potentially based on medical models – and having an overall focus on all learners vulnerable to exclusion from education’? or, put another way, is our system too preoccupied with labelling our pupils at the expense of enhancing inclusion?                                                         

In a show of Anglo-Irish cooperation, I had the privilege of co-chairing the National Coordinator session with my Irish counterpart. The session looked at teacher training across Europe and how it equips (or otherwise) the teaching workforce to support pupils with SEND. Many members shared what might sound like a familiar challenge: the pressures of day-to-day classroom teaching leading some teachers to consider the labour involved in supporting pupils with SEND outside of their remit. I shared the well-rehearsed refrain that every teacher is a teacher of SEN; but acknowledged that concerns around capacity, know-how, increase of need and models of deploying support staff all create challenges.  

There was a shared feeling round the virtual table, that teacher training across Europe does not yet well enough equip teachers to support all pupils, and we discussed initiatives to remedy this. One of them is a recent Policy Statement in the Republic of Ireland making it compulsory to have a period of experience in a special needs context during teacher training. I should point out that DfE / DHSC’s Improvement Plan recommends ‘appropriate use of special schools for ITT placements’ (DfE, 2023: 55).  

Another conversation interrogated the nature of the ‘specialist knowledge’ teachers require: should this be based around categories of diagnosis such as autism, or focussed on inclusive practice as a pedagogy? The European Agency have developed a very interesting tool attempting to set out the skills necessary to the latter approach: Teacher Professional Learning for Inclusion.     

The Improvement Plan promises a review of our Initial Teacher Training: indeed, Ofsted’s recently published Annual Report comments on teacher development needs in the context of SEND that ‘new and experienced teachers want more training on how to teach pupils with SEND’. And more concerning, that teacher education is variable; in some cases, ‘training is limited to one-off sessions on SEND, with no opportunity to consolidate any learning in special school settings’. So, certainly more to be done.  

I am hopeful that by the EA’s Spring Meeting, I will be able to report on some progress on these matters - and if so, I should be able to do so in the reportedly charming surroundings of Tallin, capital of Estonia….