In February 2023, we hosted the third of four roundtable events with our partner the Confederation of School Trusts, exploring how to improve SEND provision in England’s schools.
The session focused on finding bright spots where principles such as greater inclusion and a broader conception of a good life are being exemplified in the system.
We welcomed Nicole Dempsey, Director of SEND and Safeguarding at Dixons Academies Trust who shared how and why she evolved an alternative approach to SEND inclusion, first at one of the academies and now, increasingly, throughout the trust.
This is a transcript of Nicole’s keynote.
We’ve done a lot of learning at Dixons Academies Trust over the last 10 years about SEND inclusion. Although things have evolved and circumstances change, the underpinning philosophy behind our approach has remained the same.
I only became a teacher to be a SENCO and so that I could work on what I work on now. I arrived at my interview for SENCO at Dixons Trinity Academy with my views and ideas already intact and I was lucky to be given the chance to enact them. Not many SENCOs get the chance to work in open sandbox mode.
"There’s no such thing as children and SEND children, only children."
In the interview, I told them that there was no such thing as children and SEND children, only children. I told them that we should design the school to be inherently inclusive as we knew there was going to be a diverse range of need: we could plan for it without segregated systems and the two-tier experience that the typical approach creates.
They asked me how we would provide one to one and small group intervention, and I said there would need to be additional teachers and enough timetabled lesson time to accommodate it. And then that’s what we did. So the first aspect of our approach to be born was Double Staffing, not Mountain Rescue (or my preferred term true inclusion) itself.
At the very start, Double Staffing was just one primary trained teacher who effectively double staffed all English and maths lessons where there were children with need for more targeted or individualised approaches. Then, as we grew, we committed to having two qualified teachers in all ‘group four’ core subjects, then some non-core subjects got in on the act too. It is still, sometimes, two teachers in a classroom where you’d expect one, but in general it is a rejection of the typical models of 1:30 ratios, possibly a teaching assistant, and children getting their additionality from less qualified staff somewhere else in the building. It is smarter timetabling and a hard line on unacceptable compromises. Double Staffing alone is a big beast – students are only taught directly by qualified teachers, other specialist input is provided by other specialist staff. No pupil is withdrawn from the timetable or put on alternative pathways.
"Whatever it takes for as long as it takes."
Initially my department was called Individual Needs (IN) and I was known as the INCO, in acknowledgement of the ‘needs not labels’ responsive and holistic approach we wanted. I asked to move my office in with the year heads as a way of learning, being in the loop and influencing their decision making – not in meetings but in the moment. My old office became a base for the multidisciplinary team of mentors, key workers and therapeutic staff, and our all-encompassing pastoral mega-department began to take shape. At Dixons Trinity, all children are climbing their mountain so that they can succeed at university or a real alternative, thrive in a top job, and have a great life. The mountain analogy is present in all aspects of academy life. We used to call IN ‘Mountain Rescue’ as a joke, and it stuck. It says it on our doors now.
At its heart, Mountain Rescue is a needs responsive pastoral department that operates based on its motto – whatever it takes for as long as it takes, when they need it and because they need it. It combines the ‘big three’ – safeguarding, SEND and behaviour – but also covers looked after children, medical, first aid, mental health and everything else. If it isn’t one of the academic departments, it’s probably Mountain Rescue, and it is there equally for all children. Mountain Rescue is a three-tier department, realised through shared spaces to facilitate collaborative working and learning from one another’s expertise. The jewel in Mountain Rescue’s crown is the child-facing one-stop-shop that is Mountain Rescue proper, often referred to as the mentor’s office.
We have a particular approach to staff CPD, how the timetable is structured and the routines on which the whole academy runs. We have tight, purposeful and main calendared Assess, Plan, Do and Review (APDR) processes, and a graduated response with its strong, stable base securely in the main of what we do. I describe Mountain Rescue as my perfect sandcastle, and every grain of sand must be protected and kept in place for it to continue to work.
"There aren't children that came to learn and children that came to be looked after."
If anything, we are more closely adhered to the law, not at all deviated from it. Need is met through high quality teaching that is differentiated and personalised. All teachers are teachers of SEND because they have to be. We include pupils by breaking down barriers in the main of what we do, not by providing something else and pretending that that’s the best thing for some children. That last point usually gets some backs up, and maybe ‘pretends’ is a bit strong, but at best it is ableist unconscious bias.
Every indicator we have, albeit often indirect evidence, for the typical mainstream ‘additional and different and alternative pathways approach’, is appalling. We can’t continue to pretend it's equal. There aren’t children that came to learn and children that came to be looked after. Addressing it won’t be easy, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t the right thing to do, and the first step might be being honest about what is and isn’t compromising a child’s education and experience.
Mountain Rescue was built on bold claims and trust, but it has often been the case that the evidence has appeared later and helped us understand ourselves and articulate better. Our academic outcomes came five years after the school opened, but the thing that always stands out most to me is Scope’s disability perception gap report, released in 2018. It is, of course, another indirect evidence base but, for me, the links are clear – proximity facilitates understanding and people learn first-hand that ability diversity is a positive thing. It raises the same questions that we were wrestling with when Dixons Trinity was still unfolding. What does that typical approach to being inclusive in mainstream schools teach children about themselves? About each other? More importantly, what opportunities and experiences does it deny them?
"A refusal to lean into received wisdoms and bad habits."
The schools I have worked in that were the best at ensuring all learners could succeed alongside one another, regardless of the range of needs and apparent differences in the cohort, were special schools. It isn’t uncommon for the Mountain Rescue approach to be misinterpreted as a drive for 100% mainstreaming, or even as negativity towards the highly specialist part of our sector, including both specialist support to mainstream and special schools themselves. But this isn’t the case.
What it is, is a refusal to lean into received wisdoms and bad habits. It’s a willingness to change and do something different based on real evidence, but also some real soul searching and examining of our values. What we created is another option, in a system where the only real choice is mainstream or special. And at the point mainstream is being directed or special becomes available, it often isn’t an active choice at all. I don’t know if Mountain Rescue is the way forward, but I know it is a way forward. I feel proud that we were brave enough to try something different, and I think there’s space and need for other schools to try other things based on research and reflection and what their unique opportunities are at the time. Hopefully we can evolve an education system where every child goes to a school in which they can thrive within the main of what is happening there. Dixons Trinity is a place that’s willing to make big changes to be truly inclusive. It’s also a place where it’s common and fine to be the only one who needs something, or has a particular behaviour or presentation, and it isn’t going to stop you being in the classroom. It isn’t going to block your access to anything.
"Responsibility and agency to do something different."
As big a barrier to inclusion as any, but the one we have the most control of – although it may feel like we don’t, is the responsibility and agency to do something different in response to what we know about the current situation. None of us can change the world, but we can each work on our little corner of it, including if that little corner is a 600 place secondary school in the middle of Bradford.
A former colleague shared two pieces of advice. Firstly, to never make a decision without a child at the end of your arm and, secondly, that there’s no use banging your head against a brick wall. Instead, we must chip away at the bottom of it. All of us, chip away at our own little bit of it. Eventually, the wall will fall.
Go further. In collaboration with the Confederation of School Trusts (CST), Ambition expert Tom Rees and Vice Principal Ben Newark have published A GOOD LIFE: Towards greater dignity for people with learning disability. This paper responds to the government's consultation on SEND reform and is free to read here.