A postcard from a virtual meeting

Written by Phillipa Stobbs, Assistant Director, Education, Council for Disabled ChildrenDate 17 Dec 2020

The second biannual meeting of the European Agency in 2020 was held in the virtual environment of Teams.

As with all other virtual meetings, what we really missed was the casual conversation in the coffee queue and in breaks during the day, where, like someone holding up a mirror, the chance to see the topic under discussion from a different perspective helps you to understand your own.

Of course, much of the discussion was about COVID, the impact of school closures across Europe, and the disproportionate impact on disadvantaged groups of children and young people, including those with SEN and disabilities. These are the immediate issues dominating everyone’s lives, both professionally and personally across Europe, and across the planet.

The meeting was also designed to support progress on core projects that are part of the main European Agency programme of work. So, firmly on the agenda, each with its neat acronym, were:

All of these projects spoke directly into the COVID agenda and issues of equity. This gave them a new urgency, with everyone recognising the potential for the successful implementation of this work to reduce the very gaps that are being increased by the impact of the pandemic.

These projects are at different stages in their development and during the breakout discussions we reviewed latest drafts and next steps in the work. Importantly, both TPL4I and SISL, the school leadership project, build on earlier work on Teacher Education for Inclusion (yes, TE4I), which focused on initial teacher education. It is important that the focus of the two new projects is on a more continuous process of professional development, starting with initial teacher education and progressing through to leadership skills and the role of teacher educators. It is equally important that the focus on core values and areas of competence in the earlier work are brought forward into the new projects and reinforce the argument that:  

inclusive education is the responsibility of all teachers and that preparing all teachers for work in inclusive settings is the responsibility of all teacher educators working across ITE programmes.

And all of this work sits within the Agency’s vision for inclusive education:

The ultimate vision for inclusive education systems is to ensure that all learners of any age are provided with meaningful, high-quality educational opportunities in their local community, alongside their friends and peers.

If it were easy to achieve the ambitions in these two statements we would be closer to achieving them now, so there are some obvious challenges here. Some of the challenges were the focus of the discussion in the groups and were shared across Europe:

  • The tendency in many systems to focus resources on assessment, diagnosis, and, as it were, proving the need, rather than on teaching, learning and finding solutions
  • The challenges of establishing collaborative support to enable creative problem solving
  • The difficulty in changing attitudes so that the inclusion of all pupils is valued alongside improving outcomes, not one at the expense of the other
  • The challenges of ensuring pupils with the greatest difficulties in learning get their fair share of high quality teaching. 

On this last, the TPL4I cites the research that shows that:

…not all students are equal when it comes to access to high-quality teaching. In fact, PISA [Programme for International Student Assessment] data show that there are inequities in access to experienced and qualified teachers in many countries, and that they are related to the gap in learning outcomes between advantaged and disadvantaged students.

Access to high quality teaching then is not just about teacher professional development and takes us beyond, to the importance we attach to addressing inequities in our systems. TPL4I recognises that:  

The policy context in which students, teachers and school leaders find themselves, is a critical determinant of success or failure. If there is a clear political will and commitment to actively deal with inequity, then those leading classrooms and schools have, at least, a fighting chance.

Yes, this is about teacher professional development but it is also about much more. In England and in a number of other European countries, improvements in equity are dependent on bigger features of our respective educational systems, the tectonic plates of our education systems, as well as teacher professional development and the specific features of SEN systems themselves.

Can we find the political will and commitment to actively deal with inequity? At a time when the inequities are increasing, not least because of the pandemic? The need to do so is becoming more apparent with the publication of data brought together by the FFT education datalab which provides a worrying picture of the extent which pupils with SEN fall out of the state-funded school system.

Along with the FFT education datalab, we need to hope that the SEND review can identify the political will and commitment to actively deal with inequity and encourage them to do so.

Hope we can meet face-to-face soon,

Philippa