What is the ‘sense’ in Sensory Education? – Craig Clarke

Frequently in Special education we encounter the word ‘sensory’. We have sensory rooms, sensory diets, sensory stories, sensory circuits, sensory walks, and sensory gardens. Used in these myriad ways, what does the word ‘sensory’ mean?

The dictionary definition of sensory reads: ‘relating to sensation or the physical senses; transmitted or perceived by the senses’. Quite literally everything that we do as human beings is, in some way, a sensory activity. As I type this I can feel the firm plastic of the keyboard on my fingers and hear the thrum of the keys being tapped. I can smell the coffee in my cup that I see sitting on the coaster next to my computer. Yet, despite the sensory feedback I am receiving from this activity, I would never call this activity ‘sensory typing’, ‘sensory ICT’ or ‘sensory blogging’.

Significantly, for some pupils with special educational needs it would likely be confusing to use the term ‘sensory’ to describe contrasting spaces, activities, objects and experiences. What exactly do a sensory room, garden, story, walk or circuit have in common? Clearly the commonalty is the senses, but to take this logic to the extreme, the word ‘sensory’ should prefix every single location or activity within a school. ‘Sensory hall’, ‘sensory reception’, sensory snack’, ‘sensory toilet’, ‘sensory work experience’, ‘sensory swimming’ and so on. However, this naming convention is completely unworkable and obscures the function or nature of the room or activity.

When people talk about a ‘sensory garden’ presumably we are talking about a garden with significant points of visual, tactile, olfactory, auditory and, if we can ‘scrump’ an apple, gustatory interest. Arguably, a garden without a combination of these things fails to be a successful garden at all. As such, is the word ‘sensory’ a meaningful description of this space?

Let’s take a sensory story as another example. Sensory stories are tales enhanced by the same stimulus detailed above. Again, shouldn’t all stories contain a combination of these if we’re to inspire our learners, regardless of their needs? And if we do, surely they simply become ‘stories’ rather than ‘sensory stories’. By arguing the case for interesting sensory experiences to be the norm in our environment, teaching and learning, the word ‘sensory’ becomes completely redundant.

My concern is that the word ‘sensory’ shifts our focus away from the learning we expect to see in the activity at hand. Consider a sensory room where bubble tubes are fully-lit and firing, with music buzzing from a stereo and a TV show humming away on a screen. How can a place so busy, so full of sensory feedback, ever be considered an effective space for thoughtful, targeted teaching and learning? We need to unearth the immense potential these spaces have when used in very particular ways with a specific learning objective in mind. With the word ‘sensory’ preceding a range of locations, strategies and activities in special schools, we run the serious risk of doing things and subjecting our pupils to experiences, rather than teaching them and promoting their participation and independence in their learning.

Of course, we recognise that some of our children require specific resources, methodologies and inputs to illicit responses and to support them in their education. Furthermore, introducing interesting sounds, tastes, images, smells and textures into a lesson are an excellent way of exciting all learners. For example, this might take the form of using musical instruments to support a child in developing their auditory discrimination skills. We could use a range of smells as part of a communication activity where a child is learning to express a preference. A light toy is an excellent resource to teach a child to fix their gaze on and track a moving object as part of their early development skills. Calling these activities ‘sensory’ learning is unhelpful: we need to think much more carefully and intelligently about the terms we are using to describe our pupils’ learning and the specific skills that we are teaching them.

These sensory stimuli are the means by which we teach and should not define the learning that is taking place. Every teacher tailors their resources to the learning at hand in classrooms across the country. In the same way that I would use Base Ten resources to support the teaching of place value, I could use a water spray to teach a child how to anticipate. However, teaching place value doesn’t become ‘Base Ten learning’ in the same way that using a water spray to teach anticipation shouldn’t become ‘sensory learning’. In both cases I’ve identified the objective (understanding of place value; anticipation) and the means by which I want to teach it (Base Ten; water spray). In the latter example, at no point does the word ‘sensory’ need to be factored into my considerations: the objective, anticipation, should define the learning.

Recently, we replaced our sensory room and were eager to give it a new name. ‘Early Development Room’ sounded somewhat clinical, so instead we opted for ‘The Bubble’. The intention was that, by selecting an abstract name, there would be no preconceptions about what the room may be used for: it would be a blank canvas in which to create exciting learning opportunities. So, as our school moves into its own bubble, I wonder if some of us in Special education need to move out of our sensory bubble, leaving said word behind and thinking more critically and carefully about the resources we use, how we use them and, ultimately, what we want to teach our students.

Craig Clarke is Assistant Headteacher at Bardwell School

Learners First – Rob Stokoe OBE

 We live in interesting and challenging times as educators.  Challenging in that we know so much more about how we learn and how positivity, happiness and wellbeing have the ability to enhance learning and transform classrooms. As a consequence we are continually adapting as we embrace new understandings.  We also live with another truth which is pertinent to today and tomorrow, the only constant is change. If you accept that our lives are dominated by challenge and rapid change then pause for a moment, the students in our classrooms today will see the 22nd Century and the best way to manage change is to prepare for it.

New Visions of Learning

Today we are able to give consideration to new visions of learning; better suited to the connectedness and the increasing influence of the knowledge society. Educators have a greater understanding as to how learning takes place and how the brain seeks to make connections as it grows and learns. Within our schools and beyond them we have the potential to rephrase how learning occurs and where; to engage and empower students to pursue knowledge, to connect learning and to inform their interests and unique potential as they actively participate in their own learning.  Connecting student interest and curiosity to academic success, encouraging them to think about their learning, metacognition.  Teachers are adopting much more varied roles as they activate and generate learning. These ‘choreographers of learning’ think about learning as being relational as well  as linear, they shape lives as they support and guide students and  encourage risk taking as students gain greater ownership of their learning. They create opportunity for learning through the creation of safe and secure learning experiences where positivity informs the learning process and individual growth.

Building Capacity

Amongst many other things great learning is born of effective relationships at all levels, and an understanding of the perspectives of others.  The same can be said of great schools. In this paradigm, to be effective, change must focus upon successful, engaging learning which offers purpose and seeks to build capacity.  Unlocking the individual and collective potential within our schools is not the remit of individuals it must be a well-orchestrated, collective effort. As we place learning experiences before our students we need to clarify the purpose of any learning activity and its link to previous experience where applicable. This approach encourages students to become more self-aware, more able to see connections in their learning which promotes intentional learning.  These positive attitudes of mind and this growing self-awareness are capable of enabling students to integrate knowledge, to be confident in their learning potential and to become active and engaged learners.

Happy and Positive Learners

As educators our purpose is to inform successful learning for all of our students, to assist in the development of their capacity to live resilient, happy and fulfilling lives. They in turn want to be involved in the process of learning, they want to understand, and they want to be happy. We strive to develop skills and understanding, positive attitudes and resilience, and (most importantly) to sustain every student as a happy, successful learner, a creative curiosity machine.  Our students want to engage in positive learning experiences, to be involved in the process of learning, and to experience continual growth. As educators our purpose must be to inform successful learning, to make students aware of their success and able to celebrate it, continually growing their skills, their potential. Crucially, we must also maintain their creativity and curiosity as well as their positive attitudes and resilience.

Professional Collaboration

On issues related to learning, to learner growth and development over time there is a clear need for professional collaboration with authentic and purposeful engagement. It is the foundation of our professional context and growth. We need to come together to create better learners. To do this, we need to connect regularly as professionals and develop professional networks where educators are not only encouraged but wish to collaborate.  Teachers need to create a new paradigm for powerful learning, one in which we co-evolve, escaping our own thinking bubbles.  Collaboration through professional thinking teams presents the opportunity for teachers to think together and grow their collaborative abilities. This context will allow teachers to share insights into their strengths and successes; ultimately setting higher goals and expectations. Connecting professionals in such a meaningful and purposeful way is at the heart of improving schools and is a driver for innovation, focused change and ongoing challenge. Professional collaboration has the potential to energise and even transform classrooms in meaningful ways as long as we remain focused upon the notion of continually nurturing great learners and students who are emotional millionaires.  We would always acknowledge that genuine positivity is motivational, actively encouraging engagement, creativity and resilience.

Building Capacity for Change

Leading and managing such collaboration is not without challenge or risk but if we build consensus we will strengthen capacity for change, change that is cohesive and highly engaging. Effective leaders are skilled influencers. They build strong interpersonal relationships, engaging the abilities and often untapped potential of teachers to generate individual growth and great learning to the fullest. The best leaders are talent recognisers. They enhance teacher quality and capability by building people from within. They are great listeners who offer genuine interest and have an aptitude of humility. They think beyond their self-interest.  The most effective leaders actively seek to empower others. They give them opportunities to think, to innovate and to grow as they continually identify, encourage, support and reward our educators to release their true potential creating strong futures for their schools and for the wider profession.  Striving to develop the individual within allows us to build opportunities for an increasingly positive impact upon pupil learning, behaviours and character development.  As educators, continuous improvement is our moral imperative and a focus upon student wellbeing our moral compass. When we grow our individual learning potential we will be happier as will our students and our colleagues. It is my belief that every educator looks to learn continuously, responding to their professional, want to learn.

As educators demonstrate their care in nurturing safe, consistent and supportive learning relationships, their consistency will develop trust – a pre-requisite for effective classrooms and effective learning. Trust will always be built upon authentic emotions such as concern, care and empathy. Maintaining high levels of trust allow us to offer intellectual challenge developing opportunities for the ongoing protection and development of personal attributes such as curiosity, creativity, mental agility and resilience. Demand for innovation and progress determine that we educate beyond core skills, we must build further, think deeper and engender creativity, intellectual curiosity and honest inquiry. These attributes will equip students with the security and confidence to adapt to new learning situations. When partnered with the coherent integration of new technologies and the world beyond the classroom, this will greatly enrich and enliven their curriculum experience. The real test of a broad and balanced curriculum is the ability of students to confront a new problem and to have the confidence and skills to seek a new solution.

Creativity, Curiosity and the Ability to Think

We should not risk our students losing their creativity, curiosity and ability to think. Instead we should create a context where we enhance the potential of our learners through the use of imagination and intuitive creativity in an emotionally secure environment. However intentional learning, creativity and problem solving will always bring challenge and therefore risk. Positive emotional states can inform learning and are conducive to creativity yet we must balance this against the fact that to learn deeply and effectively, to be creative is never easy.  Creativity and learning causes us to think about things in a new way, it can be a breakthrough experience, such as the ‘Eureka’ moment, but this is a rare event. More often creativity and learning is a building process. It needs many, often small incremental changes which in high frequency bring about growth and collectively can inform wider change.  Creativity more often requires that we walk the path of most resistance, the path least often taken, because that is where the most creative solutions lie.

Core Competencies

Effective learning environments need to provide a range of learning experiences and opportunities offering a blend of structured activities that inform the development of key skills and accessible core competencies, critical reflection and the ability to ask focused questions. At the same time our classrooms need to offer potential for collaboration, play, exploration, creativity and mental agility. It will be interesting for us to consider what these core competencies need to be. A starting point may be the following:

  • Social competence, personal and team engagement, the ability to collaborate
  • The ability to ask questions and effective written and oral communication
  • The ability to influence, both on an individual and collective level.
  • To be able to access information and data.
  • To be curious, to analyse, to think and to innovate

I am sure the list will extend well beyond this but the key message is that in order to deliver this we need to integrate, to connect our learning experiences rather than continue with our current approach to curriculum delivery which was founded on the Carnegie principles of 125 years ago. Education had a different purpose then. Learning environment for today and tomorrow must make a deliberate step away from: This is what we do; the one subject area at a time and the one-shoe-fits-all approach. How can we possibly develop a blueprint for what children are to become? We have the adults of the 22nd Century in our classrooms today.  What is certain is that the less compartmentalised and rigid our curriculum is the more we offer potential for curiosity and creativity and the ability to think and solve problems.

Accessing Integrated Knowledge

In activating such powerful learning we must ensure a curriculum experience which is connected and accessible.  Accessing integrated knowledge that makes sense to students and is perceived as useful can provide a strong framework for personal growth, reflection and intellectual thinking. Such a curriculum must focus upon enquiry, critical thinking and increasing student capability as young people experience various ways of learning, new experiences and challenges that respect their unique talents.  These experiences will be offered in a diverse setting accessing written, oral and social means of learning which will include teamwork and collaboration. When this dynamic and positive context is realised, we will have created the best of learning situations, the best of schools.

Today’s educators must demonstrate the courage to risk, to seek meaning, in order to develop strong, robust learners. We need to nurture self-confidence in our learners as we walk the path of realisation that our mistakes are positive learning experiences.  Working in collaborative environments, we need to accept that students construct learning from diverse experience as they draw upon their previous knowledge. We need to choreograph active and engaging learning in environments where inquiry and critical thinking, curiosity and creativity are shared and valued every moment of every day.

I believe that great educators want to collaborate, contribute to and believe in innovative schools. Schools where every classroom is full of compassion, creativity, challenge and Innovation, and where mindful action creates intellectual and social learning environments that foster academic success and emotional security.

We create opportunities for our students to gain confidence in themselves as unique learners, building their individual capacity to learn, and we give them the confidence to use it as they respond to their curiosity, inquire and meet the challenges life will offer.  Our students expect great futures. For our part, we must provide environments that increases every learners’ sense of success and resilience in meeting the trials and challenges of today, preparing them for a better tomorrow.

Rob Stoke OBE is Managing Director at Al Futtaim Education Foundation

Can you replace a teacher with a robot? By Chris Yapp

Here we go again? Twenty years ago, the question being asked was “can you replace a teacher with a computer?” A case of déjà vu? There is a phrase in Hungarian that translated roughly means “there is nothing new in the world, only those things that we have forgotten”.

The standard answer 20 years ago, was “any teacher who can be replaced by a computer should be replaced by a computer”. Is it different this time? For a start, developments in “big data”, “artificial intelligence” and “machine learning” are impacting on other professional disciplines. In medicine, diagnostic systems can outperform skilled clinicians. The practise of law is being impacted by these technologies. We can find examples in architecture, accounting and many other disciplines. There are many studies suggesting that 40-60% of today’s jobs will be eliminated or seriously transformed in the next 20 years by advances across the technology spectrum.  Can education claim sufficient uniqueness that teaching alone will not be impacted by robotics and AI?

The problem about the above paragraph and many like it, is that it addresses the wrong question. Try this instead: “how can the education system, its institutions and professionals embrace, appropriately, advances in technology to improve access to and the experience of learning for professionals and students alike?”

Do you believe that the education system that we have is the best that there could be? Would an injection of more money, on its own, eliminate all significant challenges? I’d be happy to debate with anybody who believes that both the above questions can be answered yes.

For a start, technology has played a significant part in special needs education in lowering the barriers. We still have serious educational inequalities to address. Teacher stress leading to retention problems, difficulties in finding enough Heads. I could go on, but you know them better than I do.

For as long as I have been engaged with educational technologies, there has been a constant background debate about how to make education a researched-based profession. Too much education research is too small to have a real impact on policy and practise, be it at institutional or classroom level.

I would argue that the current round of technology advances provides the platform for the realisation of the teacher as an action researcher at scale. Links between education researchers and practitioners could at the system level using big data, AI and machine learning and low cost computing help create a culture of education research led by the needs of teachers. In my experience, schools do not suffer from a lack of creativity or innovation. The problem that I have seen is that innovations do not spread across the system. Imagine a health system where each hospital defined its own treatment and drug regimes. Health has its own problems, but there is a culture of spreading practise systemically. I can still use examples from the 1990s about practise in schools that I observed such as virtual reality in a primary school, modern foreign languages between children in classes in different countries and people think I’m talking about the future.

Now let’s look at the school level. Here I would argue is that schools have become masters of adapting to change imposed on them, often framed in the language of earned autonomy, guided localism. You are free to do what we tell you! My own feeling is that people do not resist change, they resist being changed.

I would argue that if schools do not embrace these advances they are not preparing young people for adult life and work in a world where these technologies will be pervasive. However, the obvious push back is that the computer that a 5-year-old uses will be nothing like the ones they will use when they are adults, so how can schools deliver without massive injections of resources?

Consider the diagram below:

Screen Shot 2017-01-13 at 09.14.20.png

Start by thinking about problems and opportunities you have, at classroom level or at institutional level. Back in the 1990s I evaluated a small project where a number of children with serious health problems were given technology that enabled them to stay involved with their school, their friends when in hospital or at home. When one child was in remission they were able to be reintroduced back to school without having experienced significant disruption to their education while away. Think about how you might enhance the education in your school by external links. In the 1990s I was involved in a school project where we had an “artist in non-residence”. An art teacher working in a school classroom had access to a professional artist who contributed to a school art project from his studio miles away. In a deprived community, another school opened at evenings and weekends to train parents and grandparents in how to use computers, true community schooling.

These examples all started from ideas generated from practitioners having real problems that they wanted to see if computers could help. The lesson 20 years ago, and now is the same. The Learning horse pulls the technology cart, not the other way around.

In stable times, our values and purposes can be implicit. In changing and turbulent times, we will get nowhere if we are not confident in our purpose and values.

So, what are the purposes of education? What are our values, as society, teachers or parents? These are old questions. We have new tools of incredible potential, but it is potential only.

My advice is this. Don’t be afraid of AI, machine learning, robots and big data. On the other hand, do not be complacent about change. The work teachers do will be different. How schools operate will change. The issue is whether we manage change well, or badly.

So, what would be my hopes for the next 10 years?

  1. We think about building a model of change management for education at the system and institutional level that involves and engages the professionals throughout the change process
  2. We build a system for diffusing innovations that work across all schools. Research in education should, at least in part, be driven by practitioners needs and assessed by their outcomes.
  3. We take the ideas of “schools without walls” seriously and look how links to other institutions can enrich the experience for teachers and pupils alike.
  4. We build new models for the development of both curriculum and assessment that consider technology advances and how teacher satisfaction and skills are part of the process not a bolt on or afterthought. I am reminded of Seymour Papert: “don’t teach children about computers, use computers to teach them about the world”. Please remember that computers are in that world.
  5. We need an education system at every level is confident about its purpose and values. We are preparing children for a world which we do not understand. Alec Reed, founder of REED Group put it to me well 20 years ago, He described the culture change in comparison to another rite of passage. He envisaged success as a world where students on leaving school put on their L plates to say “I am a learner” rather than take them off because they passed or failed.

At the end of the day, throwing technology at an ill-defined problem doesn’t help. If the dialogue goes like this “the answer is X, what’s the problem”, you know we are the next in a long line of “modems in cupboards” initiatives.

I used to say that the biggest policy problem was the flawed belief was


Add to that OLD WORLD (Teacher) NEW WORLD (Robot +AI).

The College of Teaching is a welcome development for me. Its aspirations fit my beliefs about what education needs to be, at the forefront of building the adults and workforce of the next generations.

Have a fun and productive 2017.

Chris is an independent Consultant specialising in Innovation and futures thinking. He has a 30 year background in IT and 25 of IT in Education. He is also a Patron of NACE, The National Association of Able Children in Education.

Training Teachers: Obstacles and Opportunities in 2017

As we rush headlong into 2017, with the excesses of Christmas slowly receding into memory, we all enter that period of committing to best-laid plans and hope-fuelled resolutions. Crucially, however, our resolutions are quickly hidden under shouty to-do lists and piles of marking. For most teachers, we want to get better and make improvements on the year before, but the necessary support and school structures can too often prove lacking.

As we admit our obstacles, we can angrily bemoan our workload (hey, it is the God-given right of every teacher) and complain about excess accountability and wrongheaded testing, but we should also recognise that many of the solutions to improving workload and to enhancing the quality of teacher training are within our grasp too.

Schools across the country are creating a regular rhythm of professional training that finds meaningful time and tools for teachers to reflect on their practice. In many schools, there are weekly or fortnightly training slots that allow teachers the time and tools to collaborate and plan together. It may require schools finishing early on a given day (with an inevitable wrangle over school buses), or schools being creative with collapsed timetable days etc., but it is doable and there are examples across the country.

Regular, high-quality CPD and planning time allows teachers time to get their head around the new curriculum and assessment model that has seemingly crashed into our working lives with force. Teacher training should not be an added burden to workload, ticking off boxes for performance management purposes, but instead a meaningful way to share our resources and lower the burden of all recreating our own resources and approaches to the new curriculum.

Many schools are harnessing the greater capacity of local collaboration, be it Multi-Academy Trusts or TSA partnerships, so that they can afford to budget for external expertise and challenge one another with their respective teacher expertise. Though our school system may be more fractured that in other countries, there is an appetite for better training and a fast increasing awareness of evidence in education and the useful science of learning.

With emergent organisations, like Research Schools (run by the ‘Education Endowment Foundation’ and the ‘Institute for Effective Education’), The College of Teaching, The Institute for Teaching and others, supporting established organisations like Teaching Schools, the Teaching School Council, The Teacher Development Trust, the National College, and the National Educational Trust, we have a great deal of deep expertise in our school system to help guide professional development.

What we must do is reject the deficit model of teachers and teaching that sees CPD as a compliance exercise, with teachers punching in yet more data to feed the tracking monster. We need training that allows the requisite time and space for subject specific knowledge and learning (along with any equivalent school phase). This should be supported by robust evidence about how children learn and the most impactful ways to teach.

With the new Chief Inspector for schools, Amanda Spielman, taking over the reins at OFSTED, there is the promise of accountability reform to help us further. As an entirely new curriculum and assessment model has been initiated, we can rightly consider that we have a few years to teach, train and develop upon our expertise. Hey, we can hope – 2016 is over; 2017 promises us better, surely!

With our newly coined resolutions pristine and fragile in our hands, we can, as teachers and school leaders, resolve to initiate the developments to our continuous professional development that best support our teachers who are working to manage their workload and grasp a new curriculum.

The DfE Standard for Teachers’ Professional Development (https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/537031/160712_-_PD_Expert_Group_Guidance.pdf) is a helpful place to start to evaluate your existing CPD provision so that you can ensure that 2017 is the year that best supports teachers with great training.


Alex Quigley is Director of Huntington Research School – find out more about their work here: https://huntington.researchschool.org.uk.

His recent book, “The Confident Teacher”, can be purchased here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Confident-Teacher-Developing-successful-pedagogy/dp/1138832340/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=

3 ways CPD can support the most vulnerable pupils

This blog gives a flavour of some of the ideas you will hear at the joint TDT/NET event – Developing Teachers to Meet the Needs of Vulnerable Learners – January 17th, London. Book your tickets here.

As teachers improve, the most at-risk children benefit. School is much tougher when you have to deal with ongoing mental, physical and emotional challenges. For these children the impact of the teacher can be much greater. If we improve the way we support and develop teachers then we can make a real difference for our most vulnerable pupils.

Target your CPD

Before you engage in some learning, do some preparation. Spend a short time identifying two or three vulnerable pupils that you teach. Consider what you might need to learn or improve to help them.

During the process – whether one-off training or something more extended – keep a page of notes with columns ruled for each pupil. Jot down:

  • Ideas you’ve heard that could help that pupil;
  • How you might assess whether the idea is really working;
  • How you might uncover more information about the issues; and
  • Who you could contact to get support & challenge.

Collect feedback constantly

Back in the classroom, you will want to try out new ideas. When you plan your lesson, make sure you plan ways to collect feedback. You want to constantly check: “am I making a difference yet?”

You are looking to collect information to help you understand your progress. You also want to uncover as much information as possible about the pupils’ learning. Feedback could include:

  • One-to-one interviews – you could record the audio or video if you have the correct permissions;
  • Asking pupils to write down responses to a carefully-designed question or task;
  • An informal multiple-choice test (there’s good guidance on these here);
  • Whole-class questioning using mini whiteboards; and
  • Mock examinations.

Bring the information that you collect to a discussion with colleagues. Use the different perspectives within the group to explore different ways to view the findings.

Connect with expertise

Identify those who can help you find the best approaches. You need to find digests of research about why different issues appear and summaries of research about the most effective interventions. Ideally, you need assessment tools and approaches that can reveal more about underlying issues as well as track progress as you learn.

Examples of expertise could include:

Find out more

Find out more about effective teacher development:

David Weston is the Chief Executive of the Teacher Development Trust and Chair of the DfE CPD Expert Group. David will be speaking at the TDT/NET event on 17th January in London. Follow him on Twitter at @informed_edu

“So here it is, Merry Christmas. Everybody’s having fun”……….or are they?

In the first of a series of blogs, Kiran Hingorani and Paul Catherall explore the notion of Quality of Life and its importance when working with young people with ASD and their families. If you would like to participate in their project Kiran can be contacted on KHingorani@swalcliffepark.co.uk


No matter how joyous or irritating you find the perennial Christmas song by Slade, we all know it will be difficult to avoid hearing it in the coming weeks. Christmas is definitely coming but will everybody be having fun? As we approach Christmas 2016, we may have very good reason to challenge Noddy Holder’s claim about this.

Bah, humbug, I hear you reply!

Yet, according to the findings of a large-scale survey of people from a number of European countries last year: “… the Christmas period is related to a decrease in life satisfaction and emotional well-being” (Mutz, 2015).

Now your own life circumstances as we approach the season of goodwill may well mean that you will be singing along with Noddy and his band……..then again after a few days of festivities, you might find yourself agreeing with Dr Mutz’s findings!

The findings in the 2015 study which were published in Applied Research in Quality of Life are, not surprisingly, about Quality of Life (QoL). But what does this term actually mean? Surely it means different things to different people and personal judgements about QoL have to be, by their very nature, subjective. You are the only person who can evaluate your own QoL…. not even the legendary Mr Holder can do this for you!

And another thing… your personal circumstances could easily and rapidly change and have positive or negative impacts on your life. Your financial situation might change suddenly – you may become much richer or much poorer. Your physical health might improve significantly or it may seriously deteriorate. Your personal relationships could blossom or start to decline. Your psychological well-being might be influenced by unexpected crises or happy life events. And so on.

So, this notion of QoL appears to be something that is highly personal and subjective; it is dynamic and ever-changing; and it is multi-dimensional – many things can influence its many components. While all this makes it complex to define, it is likely that most people would claim to have a fair understanding of what it means to them, even if it is a sensitive issue for them to discuss. In view of all this, why should it matter to anyone, other than each individual…at Christmas or indeed any other time?

And what has it got to do with education and schools anyway?

If the answer to this is of interest to you why not join us for our future blogs, where we will discuss the concept of Quality of Life and its relevance to children and young people with ASD and their families. We will propose that it is highly relevant to those of us who work in schools to support these children and young people. We will consider the extent to which we actually appreciate the impact of ASD on family life. We will even try to determine whether it is feasible to measure such an elusive concept and, if so, what can schools do with the information we collect.

In the meantime, look to the future now ….its only just begun, so festive greetings to everybody and jingle all the way!

Swalcliffe Park School – a specialist day and residential school for secondary-aged boys with ASD

We are all vulnerable sometimes.

Quite rightly, the education system concerns itself with aspiring to ensure that all children get an equitable opportunity and that irrespective of their background they should have the chance to achieve and indeed attain at the same specified level as any other child.

To achieve the required improvements within the education system, we often see the use of policy levers to try and affect change, such as the Pupil Premium. This approach has led to significant amounts of money, and indeed attention, being focussed on those children who qualify for this type of support.

It is also interesting to see that the way we use language within education has evolved during the period since the Pupil Premium was introduced. Disadvantage has come to be defined in predominantly socio economic terms despite the fact that there are numerous other ways in which children can be disadvantaged either permanently or indeed temporarily.

As a result of this characterisation of disadvantage, focussing so visibly on one particular group of children, and holding schools accountable for the progress of this group through the inspection process, we risk drawing attention away from others also at risk of lower attainment. If we want to ensure that we create an increasingly equitable education system then it is also important to consider the way in which the policy decisions potentially work to disadvantage those within the system and as such risk promoting inequality.

In his eloquent and thought provoking book, “Don’t Send Him in Tomorrow”, Jarlath O’Brien highlights the impact of having a learning disability on the individual. This analysis is characterised by catastrophically low rates of employment, greater risk of permanent exclusion from education, more likely to be living in poverty or end up in prison and likely to die fifteen years earlier than the average life expectancy. However, the main investment in the education of children with Special Educational Needs or Disability (SEND) has focussed on the systems which govern access to provision. Less attention appears to have been given so far to the quality of the education on offer or indeed the impact of that education on later life. Yet there is limited value in having world class administration if we are still struggling to provide consistently good provision.

To this regard, it is worth noting that if a school performs poorly during inspection in relation to their pupils in receipt of free school meals, and as such in receipt of the Pupil Premium, then they can be compelled to participate in a Pupil Premium review. Yet no such mechanism currently exists for those schools whose pupils with SEND are identified as receiving a low quality education, or those with English as an Additional Language, to name just two other groups who may benefit from greater attention being focussed on the education they have access to.

We also need to be mindful of the transient nature of some vulnerabilities, the turmoil that children can be exposed to unexpectedly and the impact that it can have on them. One example of this can be found in the debates around mental health and the broader wellbeing of the children in our schools that are highlighting a perceived change in the needs of the children we work with. We need to consider the extent to which we are able to meet emerging disadvantages and vulnerabilities and what may be happening to affect the changes that we seem to be seeing.

We find ourselves in a situation where there are systems of accountability that draw attention towards particular groups and it requires strong moral leadership to ensure, that in responding to these pressures, schools do not find themselves distracted from the needs of pupils who do not fall within those categories. To fail to do so, risks allowing a system to flourish where some pupils’ disadvantage is seen to be more important than others.

School leaders need to ensure that they have the clarity of vision necessary to be able to drive improvement for all pupils, irrespective of whether the quality of what their schools offer as a result addresses the political priorities of the time.

It would be a dereliction of duty to focus only on the needs of policy, when every child deserves the very best from their education. When every child has the potential to be vulnerable sometimes.

Simon Knight 

Director of Education at the National Education Trust

This blog is an edited chapter from NET’s upcoming book Learning without Labels due for publication by John Catt books in the New Year.

The theme of vulnerable learners will be explored in NET’s upcoming event in partnership with the Teacher Development Trust on January 17th, details of which can be found here: