It’s really great, when you spend a lot of time preparing and delivering training materials yourself, to spend a day purely on your own learning – and that’s exactly what I did last Wednesday at the Challenge Partners Annual Conference.

It was a varied day with interesting workshops, thought-provoking keynotes and a panel debate. I came away having learned a lot, some personal and some professional lessons.

Collaboration was a major them, and I came away with lots of questions, sparked by the conference, such as:

What is social capital, and what should we, as educators, be doing about it?

It seemed to me, as I furiously took notes (as in at speed, rather than with increasing irritation) that we have a role to play, but perhaps not the one that we might think.

When Allana Gay called upon us to value diverse communities and seek to change the institutions that serve them rather than the children who come from them, I found myself nodding in vigorous agreement. When James Turner from the EEF ruminated on what social capital might be I morphed into an earlier version of myself and scribbled ‘gender’, ‘race’ and ‘class’ (in big capital letters) in my notebook and remembered my uncle, working class grammar school boy and university student of the seventies, explaining to me how his public schooled fellow students could wear an Afghan coat while he could not.

If what we are really talking about is ‘the bright poor’, then I think we need to have a wider conversation about underachievement; one that includes SEND (you can read our report, Through the Looking Glass here) and puts to bed the idea that children can somehow lift themselves out of poverty with nothing but their teacher to help them.

This is an attractive view, one that has been held by many for many years, almost perfectly encapsulated by the character Colin from The Secret Garden,

So long as Colin shut himself up in his room and thought only of his fears and weakness …he was a hysterical half-crazy little hypochondriac who knew nothing of the sunshine and the spring and also did not know that he could get well and could stand upon his feet if he tried to do it. When new beautiful thoughts began to push out the old hideous ones…strength poured into him like a flood. (Frances Hodgeson Burnett, The Secret Garden, 1911)

but it fails to address the very real barriers that exist for children living in underprivileged circumstances – especially if they are disabled. Ensuring that all children have the education they are entitled to is an altogether different thing to expecting children and their teachers to work miracles.

With the recent death of Stephen Hawking in our minds it is worth repeating that without significant support, in terms of health, education and social care, those with disabilities, which includes those children with SEND who are sitting in mainstream classrooms, visibly or invisibly impaired, disadvantaged children will not reach their potential. To ignore SEND is to ignore a major part of the story.

Without a proper strategy for SEND and honest conversations around EAL, cultural literacy (and the fact that cultures other than white, middle-class ones have much to value, celebrate and offer), then I fear that we are on a hiding to nothing with our talk of social mobility and social capital.

In the words of the great Stella Young,

“That quote, ‘the only disability in life is a bad attitude’, the reason that’s bullshit is … No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp. No amount of standing in the middle of a bookshelf and radiating a positive attitude is going to turn all those books into braille.”

Unlocking Potential

I was struck (in a very positive way) by Prof Sir George Berwick, who challenged us in his keynote speech (you can download his presentation here), to think about the talent that exists within the education and school system particularly. I thought about the collective knowledge that is contained within it, and how organisations such as Challenge Partners and Driver Youth Trust can work to unlock it in the interests of the children we serve. Yes, there is always something new to be learned, and as teachers, we should see ourselves as continual learners, but sometimes, we can persuade ourselves that we don’t know as much as we do, and that stops us from being the best we can be: a self-confident profession.

It is fair to say, though, that SEND provision is patchy across the country. There are some great centres of excellence, and it seems to me that what we need to do is get that knowledge shared. I came away with more questions than answers about how we might do that.

As organisations supporting education, how can we help to create pathways by which information and ideas can be effectively shared?  Websites are great, but research has shown that the people that teachers turn to the most are their colleagues. Face to face communication and collaboration works, and we need to help professionals to create spaces for connection in order that knowledge and experience can be shared effectively.

How can we create a professional culture that enables us to learn from each other in a supportive and positive way? After years of punitive inspection and lesson observation that do little to improve practice and much to increase levels of stress and anxiety amongst teachers, we need to look at how we go about creating a culture of peer review and peer support. This year, we have been continuing to develop our Drive for Literacy Programme, part of which seeks to create that space for professional development.

How can we create the space for reflection and articulation of what it is we do that works? As an organisation, Driver Youth Trust recently published a statement regarding the DfE consultation on strengthening QTS and career progression for teachers (you can read our response to the consultation here). Part of our thinking was about the role of mentors in schools for new teachers. Schools need to be able to develop cultures of mutual support and respect that see teachers as professionals to be developed and nurtured, along with the children they serve.

Which leads me to my final question: how can we create a culture that allows for innovation in the interests of all students? With the rise in exclusions and numbers of young people either home educated or in alternative provision, we need to ask what conditions need to be in place to allow schools to react positively to the challenges they face rather than turning to someone else to sort it out for them. Accountability measures, as they stand, need to be examined in the light of educational inclusion. If measures intended to hold teachers and schools to account have the effect of damaging the education of the children and young people who need it most, that is, those who do not possess privilege, the sort that is conferred upon them by gender, race or class, then we need to look at them again. DYT believes that the money allocated for SEND should be treated in the same way as the Pupil Premuim Grant.

At present, our education system and culture encourage fragmented (you can read our report on the fragmented approach to the Children and Families Act, Joining the Dots here) and deeply problematically competitive approaches to be adopted by educators.

Our future does not lie in fragments. Our future lies in working together.