Fitting In & Fitting Around — SEND v Mainstream Schools

Rosie Clayton

*pic from LEAP Innovations

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of ‘fit’, ‘fitting in’ and ‘fitting around’ when it comes to schools, and organisational design more generally — prompted by a conversation with Elliot Washor from the Big Picture Learning network about what he calls the Deeper Four of school design, and Fit being the most important element.

When it comes to the business world for example organisations recruit based on both skills and fit — what will this person bring to the team, can they do the job, will they fit in within our organisation, are their values aligned, how will they be a great addition to our professional community. And the recruitee goes through a similar thought process — would I fit into this organisation, will I enjoy the working environment, will I get on with the team and leadership, how can I contribute and what opportunities/experiences will I gain that will help me achieve my ambitions. It’s a mutual scoping exercise based around building relationships and sussing out fit-ability.

When it comes to schools however (and I’m talking secondary schools really) the exact opposite is true — young people have to fit in within and conform to an existing system and organisational structure, it is a one sided dynamic. And as I wrote in this post, they get institutionally labelled and categorised depending on how the organisation defines them (good student, intelligent, good/bad at X subject, badly behaved) rather than by how they see themselves as people, or through the passions and ambitions that they hold for their lives.

This is not the case with SEND schools though, and I’ve been lucky enough to visit and work with leaders from a couple of really incredible schools (Ysgol Y Gogarth in North Wales and Kingfisher Special School in Oldham) which has given me insight into how school can conceptually and culturally be designed around the needs, interests and abilities of every child. Creating a culture of mutual fit fundamentally has to be the starting point, as the spectrum of capability (social, emotional, intellectual, physical etc) within special schools is so broad, and every young person has a totally unique set of needs.

Ysgol Y Gogarth for example is a day and residential special school for 3–19 year olds, with currently around 250 students on roll and oversubscribed. It’s an inspiring place, fantastically designed to accommodate a range of learning needs and including specialist facilities. Every child has a highly personalised curriculum and learning pathway, and the school works with a vast range of external organisations and agencies to source opportunities and provide learning experiences. Teachers and support staff, including mental and physical health practitioners and sports therapists have a huge amount of creative freedom to work with and support each child.

They broadly follow the Welsh national curriculum, but only around 5 children are able to take any sort of GCSE or formal qualifications at age 16, so they are not driven by this agenda. Instead the whole focus is on supporting transitions, the development of personal and life skills, and enabling the expression of individual potential — across a massively broad and unboxable notion of ability. It’s impossible to see human capability, intelligence and potential solely through the prism of academic achievement within this context. And success in life is going to be a very personal and family/community dependent concept for each young person.

Spending time in these settings has also made me think quite critically about the systemic drivers which determine institutional behaviours in SEND v mainstream schools.

With SEND schools, enabling young people to gain the knowledge and skills to survive and participate within society and their local community is the core objective. This includes the absolute basics e.g. understanding the norms of crossing the road, how to navigate a supermarket, how to set up a bank account. So giving students as much exposure to the world outside of the school walls is critical to developing awareness and understanding. And for those where it’s feasible and appropriate, they are enabled to achieve a number of qualifications which will allow them to access work or further education opportunities.

With mainstream schools, the main systemic driver right now is preparation for University, and increasingly apprenticeships — both of which are linked to economic and employment imperatives. And the examinations system serves as a mechanism for categorising and designating people into different pathways, and if you don’t fit neatly into one of these two tracks — academic or vocational — you are stuffed. (or worse, as has been the case with a number of my friends and family, if you are actually highly capable and smart but are seen within the school environment as disruptive or disengaged for whatever reason, you are labelled as low ability or a low achiever, put in the bottom set, and sent on a pathway to ‘failure’)

Viewing and comparing SEND and mainstream schools through this kind of economic/employment lens provides an interesting insight. With SEND provision the State invests approximately £18K per year on each individual, who then receives an educational experience similar to the one outlined above, and the whole purpose is to maximise potential and capability, whatever this may look like for each individual, and giving them the best chance of success in life — even though they may never be able to work or earn a wage and pay taxes. However they will be contributing to society and community in manifestly different and unquantifiable ways.

With mainstream schools, the State invests around £5K per year on each individual, where the majority experience a standardised and impersonal learning environment designed around qualification attainment to enable progression to employment, and only 65% of young people each year reach the required benchmark and metric of success at age 16 (5A*CEM). And this figure has been pretty static over time, despite increased investment and continual structural reforms — see https://www.thersa.org/discover/publications-and-articles/rsa-blogs/2016/12/policyfailure by Anthony Painter. This sort of return on investment in the business world would be unacceptable.

Which leads me on to 3 things:

  • Why cant every young person be entitled to the sort of educational experience that a young person in a SEND school experiences — where school structures fit around them, their needs, passions and abilities. And institutional design and culture is mutually contributory and relational.
  • Why is it acceptable to have one set of school environments which measures and defines ability, capability and success in a personalised and holistic way, taking into account the wide spectrum of social, emotional and psychological abilities and needs that makes us human. And another which defines success and ability across a narrow set of performance metrics in standardised tests.
  • Why do economic paradigms from the industrial revolution continue to determine school design and operation, and the educational experiences of the majority. Where the logic dictates conformity rather than individuality and recognising the reality that we are all different and learn in different ways, in the same way that SEND schools recognise, understand and respect this.

As Jean Garrity from LEAP Innovations said to me a couple of weeks ago, there is now a strong feeling (in the US at least) that the prevailing school model has now reached the end of its useful lifecycle. And for those of us working in school design/redesign, the structures, models, cultures and learning designs within the SEND sector could provide an excellent starting point for imagining what could be possible next.

Rosie Clayton

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#educationalist #technologist #designer #adventurer #campaigner #entreprenerd | T: @RosieClayton

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