Dr Kate Chhatwal

Schools are redefining ‘mainstream’ and need support

The policy and accountability framework is driving a too-narrow understanding of what it means to be a mainstream school. Parents know this from the quiet conversations at open days where they are advised that the school down the road would be better for their child because “we’re sorry, we just can’t meet their needs”. It doesn’t have to be like this.

The best mainstream schools are beacons of inclusive excellence, offering all pupils the chance to flourish. They don’t try to ensure children with SEND are taught elsewhere. They design their provision to embrace every child.

At Prescot Primary School, for example, headteacher Steve George is seeking to “expand our definition of mainstream education”. Inspired by provision he saw on a Challenge Partners quality assurance review in Nottingham, ‘The Hive’ is the school’s dedicated space to meet children’s short- and long-term additional needs, whether diagnosed with SEND or not.

It doesn’t stop there. The school has thought hard about how to develop their curriculum and pedagogy, extending a play-based approach through year one to offer a more active curriculum suited to their pupils. 

They have also harnessed the inclusive pedagogical power of technology. A recent evaluation at Leo Academy Trust highlighted how access to adaptive software on one-to-one devices led to greater inclusion and a reduction in pupils being added to the SEND register.

Hillside High School in Bootle has developed onsite provision for pupils who might otherwise be excluded or in alternative provision. The students have their own base, staffed by a full-time inclusion manager and higher level teaching assistant, with teaching from some of the school’s best staff. It is a significant investment, but one that headteacher Amanda Ryan believes is worthwhile.

Schools and trusts are also forging partnerships with outside specialists. St Paul’s CE Primary School in the Forward as One CE Trust has made innovative use of EHCP funding to meet the holistic needs of a wider cohort of children in 'The Nook'. This includes partnerships with music and play therapists, as well as weekly visits to sensory and swimming centres.

Many more mainstream schools across the country are working tirelessly and creatively to cater to increasingly complex cohorts, redefining mainstream education as they go. At Challenge Partners, we recently launched a pilot SEND developmental peer review to evaluate and enhance their impact, and accelerate improvement in mainstream SEND provision.

However, there is only so much schools and trusts can do for themselves. Barriers stemming from funding, workforce shortages and accountability constraints demand government intervention.

Investment across all services for young people is crucial, from schools to CAMHS to specialist therapists. While extra funds seem unlikely to be forthcoming, greater flexibility and discretion over how money is spent could help and even incentivise schools to attract more pupils with high needs.

The workforce challenge requires joined-up thinking across government departments. Schools need access to more counsellors, speech and language therapists and educational psychologists so pupils can flourish and teachers can teach. 

A plentiful supply of skilled teaching assistants is equally imperative. The best TAs are co-educators, able to share with teachers the specialist skills they develop through training and one-to-one pupil support. Yet too many are lost because their wages don’t cover the fuel to get to work.

Schools also need teachers who are properly equipped to meet the variety of needs entering their classroom each day. This means more time and focus to develop these skills through ITT, the ECF and beyond, with mandatory placements in special or alternative provision. It’s not enough just to say that every teacher is a teacher of SEND. We have to foster that mindset, prepare teachers for that role and support them to grow in it.

Finally, our accountability framework must incentivise inclusion and high expectations. Schools should not be rewarded for excluding needy pupils rather than ensuring their success.

In redefining mainstream schools as beacons of inclusive excellence, we can provide every child with the opportunity to thrive, fostering a truly equitable education system for all.

Article first published on Schools Week website