Inclusion: How does your school ‘feel’?

Written by: Daniel Sobel | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The real sign of greatness is not exam results or other measurable outcomes, but how your school makes people feel, what your values are, and how they are woven into everything you do. Daniel Sobel reflects

Two years ago, in the confinement of lockdown, I found myself breaking out and spreading my wings internationally by connecting with educators all over the world.

I felt freed and energised as I formed a group of inclusion-focused teachers from 105 countries (and counting).

In particular, I have been having an on-going discussion with one of the leading international school improvement experts who has more air miles under his belt than most pilots and has seen many schools from every continent.

Leo Thompson is an independent education consultant, writer, trainer and speaker based in Austria and who represents the Council of International Schools globally in school development and accreditation. His passions include high-quality learning across cultures, inclusion, wellbeing and global citizenship education, all intrinsically linked.

So what can we learn from the big wide world out there? This article captures some of these discussions and I hope it stimulates your thinking as much as it has mine.

“It is the diversity that makes my work with schools so fascinating”

What is it that causes uniqueness? I was pushing Leo for an answer. He said that of course every school is unique and every school you visit will surprise you: “For me, schools can be like cooking your signature dish – change a few ingredients and the flavour can be very different, for better or for worse.”

He gave an example of how some schools really differ in their stated mission and vision, even though they may have the same programme and this reality can be evident from the moment you enter the school. It can literally feel different.

A few weeks ago Leo was in Oman visiting two schools of a chain with an identical programme and curriculum authority. In the first school, the children walked down the corridors smiling, waving and saying hello, but in the other they didn’t. That greeting culture wasn’t in place yet. They haven’t added that secret sauce to the recipe. “Difference isn’t expressed in paperwork of a school but in it’s feel.”

I visited Highfurlong School in Blackpool which was awarded School of the Year at the National Schools Awards in 2021. What was good about it, I asked myself.

Well, following Leo’s lead, I looked for the “feel” and it was such a welcoming, warm, collaborative atmosphere built on lots of micro-praises and encouragements. I witnessed all the senior leaders being friendly and warm with each other and with everyone they passed. This feeling led to a belief in a shared mission which led to “exceeding all expectations” which led to a place of great innovation and excellence. It was, as Leo put it, the feel.

“There really isn’t a one-size-fits-all”

Leo continued: “We know that there are already so many variables in the world of education, and then you add the dominating spice of different cultures, diverse demographics, and governmental regulations into the mix and we realise just how ‘unique’ each school is.

“But by implication this means we need to recognise and be sensitive to this diversity and not apply a one-size-fits-all approach – a bit like asking everyone to wear the same suit regardless of their size and shape.”

I had found this in England. A school in rural Northumberland is simply not built of the same stuff as one in metropolitan inner city Manchester. Embracing the uniqueness of setting is often a key ingredient of excellence because it releases the school to be what it needs to be in order to serve its community. Stop trying to be like everyone else and just be you.

“The pandemic brought out the best and the worst practices, but it boiled down to how listening the school was”

Leo explained that the schools which moved fastest and realised that the disruption was not going to be short-term were able to flick the switch to online learning pretty quickly, but it was more than that.

Talking with parents and students on his support and evaluation visits during the pandemic, he learned that the schools who listened and responded to the needs and issues of the students and parents, and who were agile in catering for these needs, faired the best.

Educators were going to enormous lengths to support children with their learning. Leo described these schools as the real heroes of the pandemic.

And then there are best practices and worst practices to consider. Leo describes the worst practices centred on those who tried to teach everything the same way but just online. It was just simple substitution – perhaps an approach that can be forgiven at first given how little time people had to plan and adapt.

However, this just doesn’t work well and students could not be expected to stay engaged while planted in seats at home with very few intervals and breaks listening to a sage on the digital stage.

However, once teachers got up to speed and learned a few tech tricks, such as break-out groups, gaming, varying activities, having students take breaks, and moving their bodies, the engagement and learning improved. Students also became more independent and learned to manage their time, schedule and goals.

Schools have put mental and physical health front and centre”

Regardless of the country, the upheaval and distress of Covid has been massive. There is a huge amount of residual trauma and mental health work to do to help and support millions of children (and also educators) who got caged and isolated.

Both Leo and I have seen a proliferation of the inclusion agenda and at the heart of this conversation is wellbeing.

The revealing comment from Leo was how schools with the best practices have put mental and physical health front and centre alongside learning. This is a post-pandemic global advancement and something we can all learn from.

“Really excellent schools seek to get the students active beyond the classroom”

Leo says he has seen schools which redesigned learning schedules using student representative feedback and suggestions including the best time to have classes and how long intervals should be.

Leo said that there have been schools he has visited which really empowered student leadership and encouraged them to have more voice. This extended to inclusion areas such as diversity, equity, and anti-discrimination and conversations spurred on by the Black Lives Matter movement.

In one school in Hamburg, Germany, they call themselves JEDIs – justice, equity, diversity and inclusion – and the children are involved in a think-tank along with adults discussing how they can improve the school and its practices. That is both brave and exemplary and kids will usually rise to the occasion if trusted.

A lot of children are understandably concerned about global citizenship-related issues including climate and environment conversations. In one of the schools Leo supports in Ust-Kamenorgosk, Kazakstan, the students are involved in widespread conservation projects, actively participating in protecting local wildlife and ecology.

Some schools have been quite courageous in inviting students and involving them in some school improvement work. This can have really practical implications. For instance, Leo described a school in Dakar, Senegal, that has changed its hiring policy to be more open and diverse because they have realised the true value of having more cultures in their staff demographic as it gives students more exposure.

Leo said: “I think student agency, though a bit of a bandied term, is an interesting area and space at the centre of inclusion as it confers choice and independence, recognising the individuality of children.”

“Getting it right means starting with values and your purpose and identity – making those real

School improvement is the never-ending saga of betterment. So what is the real priority, beyond all the Ofstededness and exam results? Leo says you need to transcend the exams and means-to-an-end approaches.

“Start with who you are and what you stand for. This is your navigation guide and your compass, or whatever cliché you prefer, but in all honesty, it is strong values that should dictate your actions and decisions.

“For instance if you truly value inclusion than your systems, policies, processes, and entire school culture must genuinely do it. Your resources, finance, and strategic plan much genuinely make it happen.”

Leo gave an example of a school in Romania which has kindness in its mission. Now a lot of schools state values like “kindness” or “caring”, or something similar, but in this school, all the students talked about it, all the parents talked about it, and gave abundant examples of those moments.

They had an outreach and support programme teaching social emotional learning for free in impoverished areas, they shared resources, and did an enormous amount of fundraising. They invested into their community, because kindness is what they say and do.


I’m biased of course although Leo kindly agrees that most good practices relate to inclusion: how we include staff, give voice to children and promote them beyond the grades.

How we encourage, praise and support staff is essential to building a harmonious culture. Adding this to the centrality of the mental health ingredient, I gained the view that it is the human interaction that sits at the heart of good schooling and this is made up of honesty, willingness to try, seeing beyond the measurables, and knitting it together with heart.

That sounds about as wishy washy as it comes but Leo and I have both seen many hundreds if not thousands of schools between us and this is the gold at the end of the rainbow in our opinion.

And how do you know if a school has it? You can feel it, almost immediately as you walk in the door. So, find a stranger who has never been to your school before and ask them how they feel when they visit for the first time. That’s your indicator of greatness.

  • Daniel Sobel is founder of Inclusion Expert which provides SEND, Pupil Premium and looked-after children reviews, training and support. Find his previous articles for Headteacher Update via

This material is protected by MA Education Limited copyright.
See Terms and Conditions.


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Sign up Headteacher update Bulletin
About Us

Headteacher Update is a magazine, website, podcast and regular ebulletin dedicated to the primary school leadership team. We tackle a wide range of leadership issues, offering best practice, case studies and in-depth information, advice and guidance. Headteacher Update magazine is distributed free to approximately 20,000 primary school headteachers.

Learn more about Headteacher update


Register to receive regular updates on primary education news delivered free to your inbox.