Resource bases: What do stakeholders want and how can we ensure positive outcomes for pupils? – Beth Barnsley

In recent years there has been a substantial increase in the number of children being diagnosed with autism and consequently an increase in those educated in mainstream settings. In response to this, local authorities have commissioned specialist provisions within mainstream schools in a bid to meet the needs of those children with autism who struggle to access mainstream classes, yet do not meet the criteria for special school placements. However, there is little research or guidance regarding how these resources bases could best meet the needs of those with autism.

Last year I had the privilege of opening a resource base for pupils with autism within the mainstream primary school in which I work. We already had a number of pupils on the spectrum and were keen to welcome more to our school community. This coincided with my masters research, giving the perfect opportunity to find out what different stakeholders valued in this type of provision. It appears that pupils, parents, professionals and the Local Authority value different things and no single model will meet all desired criteria for all parties. It is also evident that there is not one size fits all and individuals will have differing needs and require differing provision. The important question is how can resource bases combine the priorities of all stakeholders, cater for individual needs and ensure positive outcomes for all pupils?

Research in the area of resource bases is limited. There is much debate as to the benefits of inclusion for pupils with autism with a mixture of negative and positive views. Studies had identified factors believed to equate to effective provision and suggested these were more likely to be found in schools with resource bases. My research was limited in terms of numbers and geographical regions and can only be taken as indication of the views of the individuals and groups involved, however it did serve to raise both questions and recommendations.

Firstly, it was clear that resource bases provided a level of inclusion that everyone valued. Both parents and professionals believed academic and social progress to be central to effective provision. Parents valued individually focused strategies, staff collaboration, home-school collaboration, attempts to identify triggers, awareness raising, visual cues, levels of training and autism specific knowledge. Professionals felt that there were no clear criteria and that there is a need for more clarification as to where bases fit in the continuum of educational provision. There was also a concern that equality of access to expert agencies was not comparable to special schools. Both parents and professionals felt individualisation was key and that pupils should be supported on a needs basis. Professionals highlighted strong leadership driving inclusion as important.

A focus on communication and interaction, individual strengths and interests and a whole school inclusive ethos, flexibility of approach and environment were vital in providing ‘good’ education according to professionals. Communication and dissemination of skills were considered imperative in meeting all children’s needs. It was felt that staff should not only a have high quality of training and experience but attributes such as flexibility, patience, in depth knowledge of individuals, calm responses and a sense of humour were also considered key. This raises the question of how we foster the wellbeing of those professionals supporting the children which is an under researched and even neglected aspect of effective support.

Professionals and pupils raised the issue of accessibility of provisions. Community and inclusion were considered important yet there were concerns that some pupils were travelling outside of their communities. It would be useful to evaluate the consequences of placing pupils outside of their local community and due consideration needs to be given as to how settings ensure families are included within the school community.

Pupils valued peer awareness, small classes, a calm environment and opportunities to develop friendships. They identified environmental aspects and resources such as space, sensory rooms and access to ICT; staff aspects such as training and support with anxiety and frustration; peer relationships and issues relating to unstructured times such as lunchtime. Pupils valued space, fun, happy staff with good knowledge and understanding and enthusiasm. They also wanted staff to be flexible and compromising. Issues such as space, overcrowding and designated areas could make the difference between a highly anxious and unhappy pupil and one who feels comfortable, supported and ready to learn. Pupils also expressed a wish for inclusion both in terms of their peers but also in terms of the school and community as a whole. Pupils mentioned anxiety and support with managing this to be an important need, yet anxiety was not an immediate consideration for the professionals.

The findings of this study, however small scale reveal a number of areas that require further research in addition to some key points for both policy and practice. I would recommend that guidance be produced to support new resource bases in establishing quality provision, including a minimum level of training for specialist resource base staff and continual professional development for whole school staff.

LAs and settings need to consider the distance pupils are travelling and take steps to ensure families of those travelling further are included within the school community. Consideration of the environment and available resources is necessary when identifying settings conducive to resources bases. We need to listen to pupils when they tell us how important the environment is for their wellbeing and ensure the social, emotional and mental wellbeing of those with autism is a priority.

The commissioning or allocation of additional resources so that bases have an equal level of specialist outside agency support as those in special school would help ensure equal opportunities. There is a need for greater collaboration between parents, pupils, local authorities and settings regarding the allocation of placements, clearer criteria and increased fluidity between provisions to ensure pupils are able to access the right provision at the right time. Parents need accessible information regarding the different provisions available, admissions procedures and greater opportunity to visit and express preference before decisions regarding placements are made. Is the purpose of bases to support pupils struggling to access mainstream education with the ultimate aim of moving to mainstream, are they mini special schools, or is each one different? Until a comprehensive piece of research is undertaken on a wide scale we will not know how effective resources bases are, what best practice might be or what the outcomes are for pupils in comparison to mainstream and special schools.

Ref relating to autism education in mainstream

Beth Barnsley is an Assistant Head Teacher and SENCO

Reflections on an Entitlement to the Arts – Mervyn Benford

“Schoolsweek” and NAPE’s “Primary First” recently featured work I did in the 1960s under Nuffield Junior Science- designed to produce what employers have consistently claimed missing when recruiting- people who can think for themselves, make decisions, take responsibility, work in teams and solve problems. Science suffers political ideology. Children’s entitlement is left a lottery. One result sees employers increasingly disown grades and certificates that parents, politicians and, paradoxically, those same employers have so hallowed. Those same intellectual virtues empower the Arts: the same conclusions emerge. In art activities, the brain investigates, adapts, appreciates, solves problems, at times involving teamwork. In the first school in which I taught- a large 420-pupil urban junior Y3-6 in Essex, I had scavenged for Nuffield science work from Marconi’s a heap of mixed scrap from which one pupil actually made a sculpture rather than a science investigation.

Painting was the major form of weekly artwork in most primaries, though in many cases coloured pencils, later felt-tip pens, were more usual. Paint was less used to support topic work then the regular curriculum diet, certainly not in the way a NET advocacy school in Slough treated studies of Chinese art. There is also the Y3/4 teacher in a small Cheshire village school, who had been a former bank employee but in mere minutes brought such as Picasso and Kandinsky to breath-taking life. Art really is exploited in good schools.

My commitment to the arts derived from having seen what teachers could draw out of children using their own talents and interests. It had encouraged me in two classes in my second large urban junior school to ask each to compose a Cantata, words, music and acting.

In the small village school (Lewknor) I led for 15 years I was determined to open the doors. For the first five years, entire Thursdays for the 50-60 pupils were devoted to art, later just the mornings as we reviewed aims rarely inspected or tested. I welcomed offers from artists and enthusiasts in the wider community. Staff, parents and local community all had good levels of skills on which we could draw, not least sewing and knitting. At age 14 my granddaughter has just been told by her art teacher she should take ‘A’ level now and by-pass GCSE. One of her great personal delights is making family birthday cakes of exquisite individualised design and careful construction. Art invades most human practical activities if recognised.

Printing in many forms was regularly undertaken both as a taught activity or a means to illustrate other work. Our adjacent church often appeared left to right reversed before they realised how printing worked!

Children learned that art in its great variety used hands and mind to convey meaning, appreciating certain qualities like line, form, colour, texture, relevant medium and in the 2D work composition. As an Ofsted RGI I was impressed by a 3-class school where older and younger pupil pairs did more than the reading that had become a norm, but also shared computer and art work, producing remarkably effective “master/apprentice” experiences!

In my later work helping develop quality in Swedish schools, derived from my Ofsted years, I observed pre-school children learning from a local expert to make traditional winter mittens from sheep’s’ wool. In another pre-school framed paintings down the wall by the stairs, much as I remember in a superb NET advocacy special school in Banbury, had started as group paintings on long lengths of paper roll before the extension task to select a piece for individual framing, effectively composition! The Arts are now seen as highly effective in lifting overall performance for disadvantaged children.  Does anyone remember Maud?

2017 also sees fresh affirmation of music strengthening language and Maths in all children. This has been observed for decades but is still not recognised enough by those prizing textbooks and computer programs. The sheer satisfaction of personal achievement raises self-esteem, in turn prompting effort and achievement in more difficult tasks.

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

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


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:

Social Mobility | A View from the foothills By Marc Rowland

Grammar Schools are the mountebank of social mobility. But we will have no impact if we leap into an entrenched position and stay there. Placard waving rallies make people feel good, but they rarely change policy. We need to be in the uncomfortable chair of decision making, rather than wrapped in the cosy duvet of vocal opposition.

If grammars do have any positive impact on social mobility, that impact will be most welcome. More disadvantaged pupils attending Cambridge is undoubtedly a good thing, but it will do little to tackle the deep-rooted issues our society faces. A genuine plan for social mobility needs to be bold, politically savvy, values driven and evidence based.

So I propose the following priorities:

Tackling the language gap we see in our disadvantaged pupils at risk of underachievement. This gives virtually every other education policy a better chance of success. The language gap and the evidence for it can be described below.

‘The landmark Hart and Risley study in 1995 identified “remarkable differences” in the early vocabulary experiences of young children. Researcher and author Betty Hart described the results of their observations: “Simply in words heard, the average child on welfare was having half as much experience per hour (616 words per hour) as the average working-class child (1,251 words per hour) and less than one-third that of the average child in a professional family (2,153 words per hour)” (Hart & Risley 2003, 8). This is important because vocabulary development during the preschool years is related to later reading skills and school success in general.’

In all my experience, school-led solutions are best placed to help tackle this issue. Reading hubs, where schools are responsible for working with children and their families to make a better start to early reading.. The hubs should work with families in the summer term prior to year R. Schools would be expected to reach a fixed proportion of disadvantaged and vulnerable children as part of the hubs.

Maximising the Impact of Early Years.

Kathy Sylva’s EPPSE 3-16 project shows that 2-3 years of high quality pre-school impacts on outcomes at least to 16, particularly for disadvantaged learners.

A quick glance online shows that Early Years professionals, who need to be educated to degree level, can expect to be paid between £22,000 and £33,000 (about the same as a bus driver). A well-known recruitment website lists the requirements for an Early Years professional as follows:

  • excellent communication skills;
  • good listening skills;
  • the capacity to learn quickly;
  • excellent organisational skills;
  • the ability to inspire and enthuse young children;
  • energy, resourcefulness, responsibility, patience and a caring nature;
  • an understanding of the needs and feelings of children;
  • ability to work independently, as well as being able to work in a team;
  • a sense of humour and the ability to keep things in perspective.

I’d argue that subject knowledge, a fundamental understanding of research and how to apply it are the gaping omissions here, along with the highest ambitions for all, regardless of background or barrier to learning.

Better opportunities for young people with learning difficulties

6% of adults aged 16-64 with learning difficulties are in paid employment. Of those surveyed, 65% want to work. The Social Mobility challenge is at its most glaring where the people concerned are the least likely to be heard.



Maximising the Curriculum.

In too many cases, the Key Stage 3 curriculum remains a rather desolate place. A few weeks back, I was told about pupils with excellent reading outcomes at KS2 going into year seven and been given a recommended reading list with Jacqueline Wilson and Roald Dahl. These suggestions sadly lack challenge and imagination.

A chasm in the DfE’s business plan is the lack of a challenging, high esteem technical education pathway. This should have literacy and numeracy at its heart which doesn’t narrow opportunity. We should learn from other countries about how we could do better. It remains an afterthought.

Oracy as standard  

If it were measurable, I suspect that one of the greatest achievement gaps we see in our schools is oracy and articulacy. Peter Hyman’s work at School21 is an exemplar of how we can improve the life chances and life choices of disadvantaged and vulnerable learners.

Good oracy, coupled with cultural literacy should be at the heart of the social mobility agenda.

The Power of Multi Academy Trusts.

We are only starting to see the potential with Multi Academy Trusts. With support, I believe we will see some diverse and innovative models evolving that produce excellent, long term outcomes for pupils of all backgrounds.

One of the true drivers for genuine, sustainable collaboration is shared accountability. Through MATs, we can create an education system which enables the very best teachers and expert support staff to work with the most disadvantaged pupils.

The quality of teaching has a significantly disproportionate effect on disadvantaged pupils. Pupils in the poorest communities are more likely to be taught by unqualified or inexperienced teachers. They are more likely to experience high teacher turnover. They are more likely to be taught by a teacher without a degree in the subject they teach. High quality teachers are more likely to move out of the most disadvantaged communities.

In some communities, such as rural North Yorkshire and Northumberland, Local Authorities need to be empowered to support this agenda too.

The Pupil Premium.

This has also been a very powerful vehicle for improving outcomes for disadvantaged students.

We should further improve the use and impact of the funding by ensuring schools have the highest of expectations, high quality teaching and cultural literacy. The policy itself should not change. The expectations of its impact should continue. Better designations data would help inform the use of funding. Good GCSE results only open a door for disadvantaged pupils. They need to have the expectations of themselves to step through it.

The Progress Problem.

Progress is one reasonable accountability measure for schools. But for individual pupils it is attainment that matters. ‘Expected Progress’ has been one of the most limiting factors for disadvantaged Pupils. As George Mallory said: ‘We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to live. That is what life means and what life is for.’

Aiming for the bare minimum means missed opportunity and wasted talent.

Leading the way.

I have yet to hear any argument for additional grammar schools that stands up to scrutiny.

But we need to be proactive too. If we let it, this gloomy green paper could become the Gavrilo Princip of a new and completely unnecessary education divide. The School-led system should be at the forefront of the alternative.

Marc Rowland, September 2016

*Pseudonym used

Vacuum at the top? by Dr Bernard Trafford

I fear that, whenever anyone sees my name at the top of a blog nowadays, they’ll assume I’m about to embark on a rant about the latest government initiative or policy. To be fair, I do it a lot.

But here I want to raise a slightly philosophical question about school leadership and, more specifically, headship: not about its nature, but about what happens when it becomes remote. The question concerns me, because we all too easily become so entangled in discussing structures and rationalisations that we risk overlooking an intensely human aspect of leadership.

The current government thrust is towards creating Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs). A powerful driver behind the Academies programme was successive governments’ suspicion of Local Authorities: many ministers found them unresponsive to Westminster’s agenda for school improvement:  hence the move to so-called independent academies (not a description I like, since I run a private – genuinely independent – school).

Successive governments have quickly realised that single stand-alone academies can find themselves isolated and that schools tend to fare better when collaborating. Moreover, they were also swift to appreciate that academy chains – in effect, MATs – bring with them not only mutual support but economies of scale: administrative functions can be centralised, both streamlining the staffing and arguably giving them more muscle in keenly-priced procurement.

Critics of the growth of MATs might suggest wryly that they now resemble Local Authorities, but without the democratic accountability. Simultaneously the enormous salaries commanded by top executives in some large academy chains, whether they are called chief executives or executive principals, have attracted media opprobrium.

The economies of scale are undeniable. With an executive principal at the top (however highly paid), there’s no obvious need to pay heads’ salaries to those running the individual institutions: they receive support from the centre, and don’t carry the ultimate burden.

Many functions related to improvement, quality assurance, even recruitment and marketing that might have been taken by deputy heads are now handled at the centre, so Senior Leadership Teams in each academy can be slimmer – and thus cheaper.

I’m not questioning the logic of all this. But, as I said at the start, it leaves me with a philosophical dilemma about the nature of headship.

It’s always seemed to me that parents must have access to the head, the final arbiter, the person who has the last say (pace the Governing Body) and sets the tone in the school. In practice, I can’t claim that, in my fairly large independent school (1300 pupils), parents beat a path to my door. If they did, I couldn’t cope: but they can (and do) get to me almost immediately if they need to.

Moreover, in (you might say) the traditional style of education’s private sector, they know the head’s there, not out running a couple more schools. They like to see the head in the old-fashioned way – at the school gate, taking assembly, just being around. The head is supposed to articulate the vision of the school, to walk the talk: it’s a rare independent head who runs more than a single institution or site.

Parents relish that visible leader-figure. They know the head cannot possibly know the name of every child, nor personally guide his or her development, protecting each individual from whatever storms that may come. Nonetheless they enjoy a sense of reassurance: not promised by the school, certainly – but, well, assumed.

I’m not seeking to denigrate the excellent work done by heads in MATs where there is an executive principal above them. But in my traditional world, parents and students like to know where the buck stops: I wonder how the lack of clarity in multi-institution structures really sits with those vital constituencies.

Accountants won’t justify the expense of a highly-paid head in each constituent unit of a MAT. Yet as a model it has worked for a long time: Tony Blair insisted he could judge how good a school was just from meeting the head.

I’m not having a go at MATs: nor at those highly effective professionals running individual academies; nor at their bosses, the executive principals. But if my kids were starting school again, I suspect I’d want to know that the head really ran the school, and to be able to see him/her in their office if I needed to.

Education ministers in the Blair government used to talk about sectors of society that were “hard to reach”. Though we might easily picture who they had in mind, I loved the riposte from someone speaking for the dispossessed: “It’s not us who are hard to reach: it’s the b*ggers at the top!”

Whatever the prevailing structures and systems, schools are essentially neighbourhood institutions, located within and serving a community. They are all about people, reaching out to, and working with them.

If the real power in the school/academy is elsewhere – at the MAT’s offices, with the executive principal directing at arm’s-length and making periodic, if regular, visits – I wonder how the institution can claim really to operate on a human scale, to be immediately approachable, truly at the service of parents and children.

I’m sure some MATs manage it. I doubt whether all do. I fear that the question is rarely, if ever, asked.

Yet humanity must, surely, always come before efficiency. Or it should do.

Dr Bernard Trafford is headmaster of the Newcastle upon Tyne Royal Grammar School, a NET Leading Thinker and a former Chairman of HMC.


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?


Down syndrome


Pupil premium


Bottom set


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.


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


Down syndrome


Pupil premium


Bottom set


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”