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

The Special Schools’ Curriculum Question By Lara Hughes

With the removal of National Curriculum Levels and the impending demise of P Scales many Special Schools are feeling worried about what they are going to replace them with. For some, the anxiety is even greater because these assessment materials have formed the basis of their whole curriculum. This is the unintended consequence of any assessment; teaching to the test.  Assessment criteria can also act as a crutch, so when a teacher thinks, “I don’t know what to do next for this student” they refer to the criteria for the next stage and so become intellectually disengaged with what learning looks like for that student. Whilst the P scales may offer some guidance, they do not and were not intended to show the nuanced progress that a child can make, either vertically or more often laterally and were certainly not formed to be used as the backbone of any curriculum framework.

But that does not answer the question, “What is a school to do?” As with all complex decisions and processes there is no one solution and in a recent conference held jointly by Swiss Cottage School, Camden and Frank Wise School, Banbury, it was clear that many Special Schools are indeed being brave enough to create their own, confident in the knowledge that theirs is the right curriculum for their students. No child is the same as another and so by extrapolation, no school of students will be the same, so it is up to the headteacher, senior leaders, teachers and teaching assistants in collaboration with parents to create a curriculum that promotes the aims and aspirations they have for those children and young adults. Once you have the “Why?” you can begin to formulate the “What?” and the “How?”

So all schools must begin with their vision and this should not just be some polished beautifully sounding epithet. It must be what is truly aspired for in relation to their whole community. What does the school believe? Is it all about individuality and functionality or is this interwoven with being part of many communities and having exposure to a breadth of experience? No answer is right or indeed wrong, but it has to be believed and supported by all stakeholders including the students themselves.

Once the vision is secure, the process of identifying what this will look like in practice can begin. Will the curriculum be broad and balanced or will it be tightly focussed on those skills that are needed for life beyond school; be that college, work or independent living? Will students be given the opportunity to find and develop interests and passions? Will the curriculum be internally driven and outward facing? Will the learning provide students for the lives they can lead in the future whilst also being expansive and aspirational? Will time be given to enable students to be fully immersed in the world that is presented to them through school?

From the broad categories of “What?” comes the intellectual demands of working out ‘How?’ this learning can be delivered. Schemes of work are not called for as this provides another ‘off-the-peg’ model for teachers which assume they cannot work out what their students need and hampers their innate creativity. Guidance documents however, prove very effective and if these are created in working parties in which teachers have an intellectual investment in the process, their understanding of underpinning skills for each area is rigorous.

The curriculum framework and guidance documents must also give thought to the thread that connects learning from a child’s first exposure to school through to post 16, post 19 and beyond. How can we make transition points smooth and ease students through the tangled web of getting older whilst developing cognitively at their own pace?

And beyond the curriculum, schools must consider the learning that happens throughout the day at other points. How do we notice and promote those? How can we capture the interactions between students at lunch times for example? Are the spontaneous decisions students make to solve a problem such as feeling thirsty recorded too?

So, in summary, here are some key questions a school should consider when embarking on this process:

  • What is the vision for our students? How does this relate to our aims and objectives?
  • Within the already segregated environment of a special school (segregated from their mainstream peers), do we want to be truly inclusive?
  • How can we encourage inclusion in the local community?
  • Are we making decisions in the best interests of the students or in the best interests of the staff? For example, is mixed ability just too hard?
  • Are we challenging our formally held beliefs? Do they stand a rigorous critique?
  • The process of preparing for adulthood does not begin in post 16 provision. Are we planning for it early enough?
  • Have we asked our students what their aspirations for the future are?
  • Is what we offer fun and engaging?

And once you have created the ‘perfect’ curriculum for your students, one that is like opening a box of wonder for each student, remember that is just the beginning. It should be ever-evolving; dynamic rather than static and robust rather than rigid. Any curriculum, if grown in this way also bears well under the scrutiny and sway of national policy change; external guidance act as a mirror by which to reflect upon what a school has. It should not rock the foundations but make them all the more secure. Questioning and challenge serve to make stronger the beliefs we all hold.

Lara Hughes is a Deputy Headteacher at Frank Wise School

What’s in your schema for SEN? By Jarlath O’Brien

I’m currently enjoying ‘Mindware’ by the American psychologist Richard Nisbett and it’s making me think very hard about thinking, inference and reasoning amongst other things.

Early on in the book there’s an arresting section on the schema concept. Nisbett describes the term schema as referring ‘to cognitive frameworks, templates or rule systems that we apply to the world to make sense of it’. We have them for all sorts of things: “basketball” (indoors, five-a-side, holding the ball in your hands) and “football” (outdoors, eleven-a-side, kicking the ball with your foot), for example, or “packed lunch” (sandwiches, fruit, crisps) and “school dinners” (hot meal, meat, vegetables).

Object schemas are used routinely in many special schools to help students with significant learning difficulties understand and prepare for what is coming next. A pair of goggles might signify that swimming is coming up, or a piece of Numicon will be used to indicate that the next session will be maths. You can see how object schemas are used to positively influence the behaviour of children for whom a regular timetable or verbal instruction in isolation is inaccessible. The child is more likely to understand what is happening next and is therefore more likely to be settled and comfortable as opposed to anxious and worried.

Schemas affect our judgement and how we behave and help us to select the appropriate behaviours for different locations and events such as visits to the dentist, job interviews or queuing in the supermarket.

Nisbett explains this influence is also true of our use of stereotypes – schemas about particular types of people and this set me thinking about learning difficulties and the people who have learning difficulties. Schemas are clearly working away in the subconscious, amongst a lot of other things as I am learning from Nisbett, and have developed and evolved throughout the courses of our lives.

What schemas do you have for the following words?

ADHD

Down syndrome

Autism

Pupil premium

Looked-after

Bottom set

SEN

Are the schemas that we have for these words negative in nature? Do they subconsciously suggest lower expectations for any children we teach who happen to be described using some of these terms? I’ll give you a word that’s specific to me.

Fitzgerald

I’m forced to admit that this word immediately brings forth some negative thoughts and words. I wish it weren’t so, but they’re there. I have to consciously put them away and refocus. The word does this because I worked with a number of children from the Fitzgerald family* when I first became a teacher in a comprehensive who all had some behavioural difficulties. Getting my class lists one late July for the next year, my eyes rested on another Fitzgerald. Within a fraction of a second I had judged this child without ever meeting them. Later on I was to learn a salutary lesson as it turned out that this particular Fitzgerald did not experience any behavioural difficulties, nor were they actually a member of that family at all (although that should have been irrelevant). I learnt the lesson, but my subconscious still drags up thoughts that, unchallenged, would unacceptably see me prejudge a child before meeting them.

Nisbett describes an experiment carried out by psychologists at Princeton University[1] in which students made stereotypical judgements about a child based on their judgement of her social class. The experiment contended that “[p]eople will expect and demand less of [working-class Hannah], and they will perceive her performance as being worse than if she were upper middle class”.

Reading that chapter a number of times and thinking deeply and honestly about the subconscious schemas that are operating in my head I am concerned that the adverse judgements made by the students in the Princeton study are more than likely to be replicated or, I fear, magnified, by society when they hear or see the words

ADHD

Down syndrome

Autism

Pupil premium

Looked-after

Bottom set

SEN

I fear this because I have seen first-hand how society in general (there I go with the broadest stereotype imaginable) has low expectations of people with Down syndrome. I see very little expectation that children with Down syndrome will go on to paid work or live independently. Why?

I am going to challenge you to confront your schemas and your stereotypes. Be brutally honest with yourself and dig deep to uncover what your subconscious mind is saying to you about those words in bold above and about the people you work with now, or have in the past, who have been described by those labels or others like them. It’s going to take some serious effort (I haven’t taught a Fitzgerald for eleven years) before each of us individually, and then society more broadly, replaces deficit schemas with ambitious schemas.

Jarlath O’Brien is Headteacher of Carwarden House Community School. His book ‘Don’t Send Him in Tomorrow’ is published by Independent Thinking Press.

 

* Fitzgerald is a pseudonym

[1] Darley and Gross, “A Hypothesis-Confirming Bias in Labelling Effects”