Three strategies for building an inclusive school culture

Written by: Will Cannock | Published:
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How can we build a culture where inclusive learning can thrive in schools? SENCO and SEND lead Will Cannock identifies three key factors

As the late Bishop Desmond Tutu once said: “Inclusive, good-quality education is a foundation for dynamic and equitable societies.”

It stands to reason that building a more inclusive environment for all must begin in our schools. An inclusive culture provides support for pupils with additional needs and ensures the curriculum is diversified to reflect the multicultural world in which we live.

What steps can schools take to start to break down barriers and create the inclusive learning environment children need to succeed?

Exciting and engaging learning for all

In a school setting, a focus on inclusion is to intentionally create an environment where every child can take part in the same activities and enjoy the same experiences. While the needs of individual children and groups may be different, the end goal is for each pupil to feel included, valued and supported in everything they do.

Championing inclusive teaching is a key focus for Charles Dickens Primary School in south London, one of the Department for Education’s behaviour hub schools, and up until recently the school where I held the post of assistant head and SENCO.

My time at Charles Dickens has inspired me to take this commitment to inclusion with me into my new role as a SEND lead of the wider group of schools, the Charter Schools Educational Trust.

Outlined below are three key elements of inclusion introduced at Charles Dickens Primary which I believe could help any school to plan and deliver an inclusive education.

Team around a child

A focus on inclusion begins with the creation of a support network around children with SEND. This will enable them, wherever possible, to continue to learn alongside their peers.

In our school, we worked towards this by providing SEND training to staff across the school. This gave teachers and teaching assistants, lunchtime supervisors and support staff the knowledge and skills to recognise a broad range of educational needs and understand the strategies that can be used to support individual pupils and groups.

It was the groundwork needed to embed the culture of inclusion we strived for – where the understanding of how to help children to learn and thrive in school was extended beyond the four walls of the classroom.

Over time, teachers became increasingly accustomed to working closely with parents and pupils to shape individual education plans, with the SENCO very much in a supporting role. This helped to ensure the specialist support pupils had access to through the SENCO complemented the quality teaching they received in the classroom.

Ultimately this approach led to more children making progress within their mainstream classrooms, with the specialist skills of the SENCO targeted to where they were most needed.

Evidence-based collaboration

Academic research in the field of SEN continually evolves, but the latest thinking on conditions such as autism and ADHD doesn’t immediately filter down to the classroom.

As part of its inclusion strategy and as a research school, Charles Dickens Primary actively encourages teachers and staff to engage with and discuss current studies on identifying additional needs and helping children with SEND to progress.

One way we tried to bridge the gap between current SEND research and the classroom was to set up our Journal Club. Teachers and staff across the school were invited to regular meetings with academics working in SEND educational research. This gave them an opportunity to examine and critique new studies, discuss ideas and talk on a very practical level about how initiatives could be introduced into classroom practice and how the impact on pupils’ learning and development could be accurately measured.

Involvement in the Journal Club is completely voluntary, but the meetings were well attended. We also encourage teachers to get involved in trust-wide, local, regional and national SEND support research projects to expand the knowledge-base of staff on an on-going basis.

This has offered much food for thought to teachers making decisions about the help their pupils need and how they can embed inclusion more deeply into their lessons. Broader changes have been made as a result too, including an overhaul of CPD to ensure it is evidence-informed.

The importance of visual prompts

Children are often much happier, more engaged and make better progress in school when they get the help they need to be independent. This includes being able to make their way through the school day requiring the least amount of adult involvement possible.

So we also take steps to change the learning environment to ensure it is more inclusive. This includes incorporating visual prompts into the typical day for all children.

Every pupil has access to a visual timetable in our school, for example, which includes symbolised representations of all subjects. Teachers then routinely indicated on their own replica of the timetable what lessons were being taught as the school day progressed.

The symbol for literacy on a visual timetable could be an image of a stack of books and geography could be a globe. These visual prompts can help pupils who don’t yet have the information-processing or emotional regulation skills to understand what is happening at a particular moment in time and what is coming up next. Giving every child access to a visual timetable helps ensure children with additional needs do not feel singled out.

Symbols can be used to teach subject-specific vocabulary a few weeks before they come up in a lesson too. This gives children the opportunity to build their knowledge and memory of these terms before they encounter them in lessons and using symbols means they are immediately more accessible for children with speech, language and communication needs. Pre-teaching vocabulary to whole classes helped our school to close vocabulary gaps as children moved through each year group and key stage, giving them a head start each academic year.

  • Will Cannock is SEND lead at The Charter Schools Educational Trust and previously SENCO at Charles Dickens Primary School, one of the DfE's behaviour hub schools. The school uses Widgit symbols to develop resources to support its focus on inclusion.

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