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”

‘Respect’ can be addictive by Dr Nick Tate

Take a random glance at school mission and values statements and you will find the following words cropping up again and again: ‘respect’, ‘tolerance, ‘non-judgmentalism’. ‘Respect’ and ‘tolerance’ are the most common, especially since DfE’s 2014 SMSC guidance identified them as ‘British values’ to be promoted. But it is far from clear what these words mean and whether the way we are currently interpreting them is in pupils’ interests or those of society.

‘Respect’ and ‘tolerance’ are often linked together as if they were the same thing. They are not. Traditionally ‘tolerance’ meant accepting the right of others to opinions and behaviours of which one did not approve. It has been a cornerstone of liberal democracy. But until recently it has never meant ‘respecting’ or refusing to pass judgment on opinions and behaviours of which one disapproved, let alone feeling obliged to ‘celebrate’ them.

If one elides ‘tolerance’ and ‘respect’, and sends out the message that one should ‘respect’ and ‘celebrate’ opinions and behaviours of which one disapproves, instead of judging them, negative consequences are liable to ensue.

First, one is telling pupils what to think in areas where they should be exercising their own judgment. Faced with views and behaviours on which they have opinions, pupils are discouraged from formulating and exploring these in case another person or group might feel they are not being ‘respected or ‘celebrated’. This is both illiberal and limits opportunities for developing judgment and ‘discrimination’ (the making of distinctions), which is a key objective of education.

Second, it sends the message that other people’s opinions are not to be taken seriously. Just accepting them uncritically, in the name of ‘respect’ and ‘non-judgmentalism’, is failing to engage with them.

Third, it is sentimentalism to use language which encourages blanket ‘respect’ and ‘celebration’ in relation to individuals and groups. Pupils’ moral, emotional and intellectual development occurs in situations of challenge, not when they are immersed in a syrup of universal respect. It is also dangerous to brush under the carpet the fact that people disagree fundamentally about the kind of society they would like to live in. On many issues we neither ‘respect’ nor wish to ‘celebrate’ other people’s opinions and it is better to deal with this, in age-appropriate ways, frankly and without pretence.

Fourth, excessive attention to unqualified ‘respect’ and the celebration of identities can become an addiction, as the sociologist Frank Furedi has pointed out. It encourages a feeble view of the self. It may help to explain the worrying developments in universities we are currently seeing, both in the UK and the USA, where students, used to being cossetted and flattered in school, are refusing to read upsetting books, banning speakers who might ‘offend’ them, and demanding the creation of ‘safe spaces’. Where unqualified ‘respect’ extends to whole groups and cultures, it can also undermine personal autonomy. Pupils are individuals, not representatives of groups from which in some cases they may even wish to escape.

This is not to suggest that we abandon ‘respect’. Pupils need to learn to ‘respect’ other people’s rights. They need to argue their own case using ‘respectful’ language. They need to listen ‘respectfully’ to what everyone else has to say, even when they disagree. How one manages these kinds of discussions will of course vary hugely from one age group to another, and from school to school.

Above all, however, we need to get back to the idea of ‘tolerance’, with its ‘respect’ for the right to differ (even on things like ‘British values’), its connotation of open debate, and its robust and positive assumptions about human nature.

Dr Nick Tate is the author of What is Education For? (2015) and a NET Leading Thinker.

Opening a values driven school

‘Opening a values driven school’ by Luke Sparkes

Dixons Trinity Academy in Bradford opened with 112 Year 7 students on 4th September 2012 and will rise to its full capacity of 720 students by September 2018. As a start-up, we had to do everything from scratch. Every staff member, system and policy had to be recruited or written. But it was also a chance to craft a school culture that has the highest standards.

Our academy is heavily oversubscribed. By the end of last year, students from the Class of 2020 (now Year 8) had made over 17 months’ progress in reading in a 9 month period, and the Class of 2019 (now Year 9) had made 31 months’ progress in a 21 month period. In January 2014, we became the first secondary free school to be judged outstanding in every category by Ofsted: ‘In this academy, only excellence will do’.

Starting a school is hard work and there are many challenges; however, growing a school is not as demanding as trying to turn a school around. For example, it is much easier to establish a strong school culture with just one year group and a small, newly appointed staff. We have made a strong start, but fully acknowledge that we are a young school with a lot to learn and that our first set of exam results will be the real measure of our success.

At Trinity, we have tried to take the best ideas from academies, schools, the independent sector and abroad. No individual element of our practice is revolutionary. Our core values of hard work, trust and fairness permeate all that we do. From the moment a student arrives at Dixons Trinity, we ask them to live these values. We also focus on three key drivers: Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose (Dan Pink, ‘Drive’).

Image via @gapingvoid.

Image via @gapingvoid.

Mastery is the urge to get better at things that matter made manifest through our commitment to Practice (Doug Lemov, ‘Teach Like a Champion’). We practise key techniques collectively as a staff twice every week during Morning Meetings and engineer more tailored Practice during one to one coaching sessions. We have also adapted ‘the cycle of highly effective teaching’ developed by Achievement First and introduced ‘data days’ to ensure that evidence about learning is used to adjust instruction to better meet student needs.

For our students, mastery means trying to get better at every little thing every day. The message at Trinity is that ALL students are going to university. Teachers talk to students about ‘climbing the mountain to university’ by working hard and taking steps towards the goal each day. Our proportion of Pupil Premium students is high, and over 50% of students live in the five most deprived wards in Bradford, one of the UK’s most significant areas of socio-economic challenge. Our priority is to raise aspirations, encourage young people to have a growth mindset, and to progress onto higher education. We continuously expose students to university.

Autonomy is the drive to direct our own lives; at Trinity 100% of students present an exhibition of their Stretch Project at the end of each assessment cycle. In addition to their more traditional curriculum, Stretch Projects allow students to explore an area of interest within a given theme. We aim to develop students’ autonomy and grow their love of learning. Teachers are free to teach as they want as long as students learn and make progress. However, we do expect a few core strategies to be embraced by every teacher in every lesson; for example, a ‘no hands-up’ rule to ensure all questions are targeted and all students are engaged.

Purpose is the drive to connect to a cause larger than ourselves. Those who have visited the school have recognised that our structures liberate teachers to teach and students to learn – because students know why we do things, they buy into them. To keep motivation that lasts, we focus on two important questions. First, we ask a big question to orient our life toward greater purpose – what’s my sentence? In one sentence we state what lasting impression we want to leave on the world. Then we keep asking a small question for day-to-day motivation – was I better today than yesterday?

Starting a brand new school has taught me about the importance of keeping things simple. We established the school around a few concrete ideas that were not radical and everything we have done since has built on those first principles. It’s not the strategies that matter, but the way they fit together and the fact that everybody does them. We all share a common drive to make our school the best that it can be. We keep things simple; if we say it, we mean it and it happens.

Luke Sparkes is Principal, Dixons Trinity Academy, Bradford