Inclusion in the Independent Sector - tolerance is not enough.
Through the lens of his own, traditional school experience, and the alternative world he now occupies at Rochester Independent College, Leighton Bright, Head of the Lower School and SENCO considers the ways schools can drive inclusion for young people in their crucial early stages of life.
In 1995 I joined an all boys Grammar School in Kent as a 13 year old. As with most momentous occasions in life I can still remember it, standing in the playground amongst many other nervous children. Much like Harry and Ron waiting to be sorted outside the Great Hall at Hogwarts, we had no idea what to expect. We were ushered into the School Hall, a dark 1950s building, lined with oil paintings of previous Headmasters (a term I use very deliberately) and handed a sheet of music with the words to the traditional school song “Consule Cunctis” (take thought got others). I can still recite the song today and remember the rugby driven metaphorical subtext and celebration of “800 fellows assembled in hall!’
At this point I think it is important to emphasise that this is not a criticism of this institution. I loved school; I loved the culture of the school; I loved rugby. I had some brilliant teachers who inspired me and ultimately encouraged me to pursue a teaching career; I still look back on my time at school with dewy eyed nostalgia and sentimentality. Over the years however, particularly since having children of my own and starting to teach at Rochester Independent College, I’ve started to reflect upon the experiences of others at the school and how school life was much easier for me - a white heterosexual boy - than it was for anyone who did not fit into this mold.
In terms of inclusion, the adoption of school uniforms is both an inclusive and exclusive decision. There is undoubtedly safety in similarity; by looking the same as everybody else as a teenager, you are removing one possible route by which you can be singled-out, criticised or ridiculed. The uniform could be said to give a sense of belonging and community; a feeling of being one body all working towards a common goal with common ideals. There is danger here though, that uniform rules invariably become pernickety and start to extend beyond matters of polyester and cotton. The colour of socks becomes important, the length of skirts, the top button, the drop of ties, the elasticity of trousers, the height of heels, the colour of scrunchies... More serious than this is the fact that the minutiae of uniform rules invariably lead to more general rules on appearance such as hair styles and colours, the length and colour of fingernails, the application of cosmetics.
Emma Dabiri (Irish-Nigerian author, academic and broadcaster) discusses this issue in her book ‘Don’t Touch my Hair’ (2019), in which she highlights the fact that the UK education system has traditionally found afro-textured hair difficult; leading to exclusions and suspensions of BAME students. It is clear that our appearance is inextricably linked to our sense of self; should any of us be telling young people to repress their personalities or racial heritage? On reflection, is it not complete lunacy that a student would be told that they cannot access their education due to their appearance? Perhaps I am missing something? As a follically challenged 41 year old man, I look at all hair with an awesome reverence; something I once had that is now a distant memory. In addition to the potential adverse impact which strict ‘uniform codes’ can have on young people, Schools and Colleges must also be wary of litigation; just last year 18 year old Ruby Williams successfully argued against her school’s uniform policy, with the backing of the Human Rights and Equality Commission.
At Rochester Independent College we have always adopted a fairly libertarian approach to clothing and appearance for both students and staff. Our argument has always been that a student’s appearance does not adversely affect their ability to learn and flourish, in fact the freedom of our students to express themselves invariably means that their educational outcomes are better than they would be in other settings. To be a truly inclusive education environment, we have to accept students for who they are, rather than trying to force a square peg into a round hole; RIC is a College which adapts to its wide and varied intake, rather than trying to force students to adapt to us. During my time in the RIC Lower School I have witnessed a number of students who feel like a weight has been lifted from their shoulders on joining our less-formal environment; they can finally be themselves and concentrate on the important process of learning and of learning to love learning. The sheer diversity of our intake means that difference is celebrated rather than repressed.
Back in the 1990s at my school the only thing to differentiate between one student and the next was the colour of the house tie and accompanying rugby top. I vividly remember being sent home to shave my sideburns as a 17 year old, which was both humiliating and infuriating in equal measure. I fully accept, obviously, that my struggles were nothing compared to the alienation and exclusion that members of the LGBTQI+ community within my school would have faced. In my five years in secondary education there was not one student who was openly anything other than male and heterosexual; that is 0% of ‘800 fellows’. The school was lead by a Senior Leadership team of white heterosexual men, with a range of pictures of white heterosexual Headmasters on the wall in the hall. Whilst the school did not consciously or deliberately discriminate against or exclude anybody, the culture of the institution was inherently not inclusive or diverse.
It is simply not good enough to claim to be inclusive, we have a duty to take inclusivity seriously and to make changes to our practices; all schools should pursue active rather than passive inclusion. At RIC all of our staff and students take place in diversity training delivered by the Assistant Head of the Lower School, Deborah Postgate. I think it is fair to say that we have all learned a great deal from this process, not least the fact that none of us are beyond reproach in this area. We have all been given advice and guidance on the importance of degendering our classrooms in terms of the language we use and the texts we teach. We have all learned to understand that every individual has their own story, their own history; if schools do not listen to their students and empathise with compassion and understanding, then we are neither fulfilling our professional obligations as teachers nor are we being decent human beings.
A few years ago I was asked by a parent to explain our LGBTQI+ policy. I replied that ultimately our values were based upon tolerance and acceptance, which at the time felt like a reasonable response. In hindsight, this just didn’t go far enough. Tolerance is defined as, ‘the ability or willingness to tolerate the existence of opinions or behaviour that one dislikes or disagrees with.’ Is this all we are aiming for? Any student who joins us as a member of the LGBTQI+ community has invariably had some additional challenges to those normally encountered by other young people at this stage in their lives. Most, if not all, will have experienced some form of discrimination prior to enrolment with us. Stonewall have reported that ‘one in five LGBT people have experienced a hate crime due to their sexual orientation within the last 12 months’. If these statistics tell us anything, it is that we must celebrate and promote the LGBTQI+ community rather than simply displaying tolerance. We must all become campaigners and champions for inclusion.
An article about inclusion cannot overlook the area of Special Educational Needs (SEN). As a starting point, I think it is very important to remember that when parents of a student with SEN come to any Dukes Education School or College looking for a place for their child, it is highly likely that they have already been through a number of battles on behalf of their children. Whether this has been obtaining a diagnosis, engaging appropriate professionals or trying to account for an unexpected lack of educational progress, SEN parents will have invariably had a tough time. This is a highly emotive process; to accept that your child may have additional needs is very difficult; to get others to agree and to formulate a plan, can feel close to impossible at times. This is why we must demonstrate understanding, empathy and compassion in our exchanges with all prospective parents of SEN students.
Regardless of the schools within which we work, we are all dealing with SEN students on a daily basis and must all view ourselves to a certain extent as SEN teachers. According to the ISC Census in 2020 16.3% of students in Independent Schools had an SEN diagnosis, this compares to a slightly lower figure of 14.9% in the State Sector. This means that it is likely that all teachers in all Dukes Schools and College will be teaching students with SEN every day in almost every lesson. Don’t forget that there are also many students within our schools who have undiagnosed special educational needs, particularly in our International cohorts, where additional needs may be more difficult to identify. Many SEN screening tests (the Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing, Gray Oral Reading Test and Test of Word Reading Efficiency for example) rely on a good level of written and spoken English, along with some western cultural references. Unless an assessor or SENCO can be sure that the student’s level of English is sufficient, these tests can produce unreliable results, which cannot be used with confidence. Furthermore, we must bear in mind that in some countries young people with SEN can be a source of shame for their families, resulting in the non-disclosure of SEN, for fear that these students will not be accepted.
So what is to be done? The SEN Code of Practice 2015 states that “teachers should set high expectations for every student.” This has always felt like a good starting point for me in terms of SEN inclusion and is something which is culturally embedded at RIC. As a non-selective, non-uniform school in Kent, we have always attracted a unique range of students meaning that our teaching staff are used to adapting their teaching methods to cater for a range of additional needs. We are in an extremely fortunate position to enjoy average class sizes of 8, meaning that we can offer truly personalised learning for each RIC student; our less formal atmosphere means that our students are more willing to ask for help and raise a hand when they don’t understand. Furthermore Dyslexia friendly techniques (For example: dividing lessons into manageable chunks; provision of key word lists; writing frames for extended writing; the use of IT) are embedded in the delivery of everyday lessons. Teaching in an SEN friendly way is simply another definition of good teaching. If every teacher understands and takes the time to understand how a student most effectively learns, then a truly inclusive approach has been achieved.
Finally, the celebration and promotion of difference is also vital to the success of integrating and including students from all over the world to RIC. Having students from 31 different nations from across the world at the College is a fantastic opportunity for staff and students alike to learn about new cultures and to understand different perspectives. All staff have a role to play in the inclusion of all students but particularly when it comes to International Students. House-keeping and catering staff alongside Boarding staff and teachers must approach their interactions with International students in a positive and inclusive manner. It can be easy to underestimate the fact that many of our International students are leaving home for the first time and are, in some cases, thousands of miles from their families. Many of our International students are being educated in English for the first time and most are taking on new subjects and topics with brand new terminology and in some cases new technology.
There are some relatively simple strategies and principles which can be adopted to ensure that we provide an inclusive teaching environment for our international students. First and foremost we must give our international students a voice; give them the space and time to educate us about their background, to tell us their story. Encourage all students to contribute to lesson discussions, perhaps with some targeted questions which are more accessible in the first instance, while mastery of the language is being established. Introduce group work to your lessons with mixed nationality groups who will all be sharing ideas and thoughts without judgement or embarrassment. Start slowly and build up speed; don’t overload international students with reams of information in their first week. In addition to this, close liaison with the EFL team and discussions between teachers can ensure that we share success stories as a staff body. Finally we must be aware of our own unconscious bias with regards to certain students and nationalities; whether we like it or not, all of us are guilty of making certain assumptions about certain parts of the world, even though these may not bear any resemblance to the reality of our international students’ lives.
This article is only really scratching the surface of inclusion and there is much here that I haven’t considered and many areas which could be explored much further. However, underpinning each area of inclusion discussed above is the fundamental idea that we must really get to know our students and their families. We must all understand the educational and personal journey that each student has taken which has led them to our front door; both the struggles but also the triumphs. Only an honest and open discussion, which highlights both the possibilities and limitations of what we can offer, will ensure that placements work, students get to where they want to go and families feel that their children are in the right place. In every interview and discussion I have had with parents and prospective students in the past, I’ve stressed that not every school suits every student; we cannot try to be all things to all people. What I can promise every parent and student who walks through the door at RIC is that they will be working with an open minded and flexible institution whereby difference is celebrated.