A fair and equitable curriculum for young children with special educational needs and disability

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In this article, Dr Alexandra Morfaki, Nursery Manager at The Students’ Union at UWE, discusses her doctoral research which focused on Inclusion in the Early Years. Alex’s thesis explored the dilemmas of difference, roles and partnerships in the operationalisation of inclusive practices for children with Special Educational Needs and Disability.

The provision of a fair and equitable curriculum for young children and the means and strategies that early years educators adopt to promote equality of opportunity and prevent the stigmatisation of children who learn differently is a topic that remains under- researched. Yet it is even more relevant now, in light of the recent period of the lockdown, which has brought the inequalities, faced by the most vulnerable children in society to the fore, and exposed the personal, social and emotional impact these challenging times have exerted upon young children.

My research study sought early years educators’ perspectives on inclusion and the tensions and moral dilemmas they encounter (Norwich,2009,2014), when they have to make decisions related to provision for children with special educational needs. I adopted a qualitative multiple case study approach, and utilised interviews and focus group discussions with Special Educational Needs coordinators and Early Years Educators, to collect my data.

My research explored three strands:

  1. What educators thought was the most appropriate early years pedagogical location (mainstream or specialist settings)
  2. The  benefits and drawbacks of diagnoses and Education and Health Care Plans (EHCP) for children with special educational needs and disability (SEND).
  3. The curricular provisions on offer for children with special educational needs and disability (SEND).

This article will discuss the curricular provisions for young children with special educational needs and disability and provides a synopsis of the findings related to the inclusive educational provisions on offer, to unveil how differentiated provision unfolds within the early years sector.

It could be claimed that the Early Years Foundation Stage (DfE, 2017) through its focus on dispositions and play-based teaching and learning (Roberts-Holmes, 2012) provides an elasticity that allows practitioners to develop opportunities for all children to take part in a range of activities that could incorporate personalisation to meet the needs of various children. Although there appears to be flexibility in terms of the pedagogy and teaching strategies implemented to deliver the areas of learning, there is a set of predetermined early learning goals children are expected to achieve by the end of the reception year. These expectations appear to have permeated early years education and care and instilled the concept of ‘school readiness’ into a sector previously considered care- led and play-based.

Given the highly prescriptive nature of the EYFS’s accompanying documents, such as the ‘Development Matters’(DfE, Early Education, 2012), the planning and organising of educational provisions has veered towards an end product: the development of measurable abilities to the detriment of creative and cognitively meaningful skills and dispositions. Requirements such as cohort or individual child progress tracking often favoured by Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education) and local educational authorities, set expectations for practitioners to identify progress against specific goals in the prime and specific areas of a child’s development (Bradbury, 2019). Although such practices may serve to highlight groups or individual children who require additional support, they equally serve as means of singling them out and setting them on the path of differentiated provision. If this provision does not take into account the institutional and contextual specificities of the classroom that hinder learning and recognise the personal challenges children face in accessing the curriculum, it remains tokenistic and devoid of meaning.

It is unsurprising that children with SEND are likely to ‘fall short’ of the expectations and arbitrary goals set in the ‘Development Matters’ document. The linear trajectory inherent within the ‘Development Matters’ certainly disadvantages children whose development and progression is non -linear or atypical. Furthermore, it underestimates the value and significance of play as a ‘stand-alone process’ which is not aimed at an end product (Palaiologou, 2017).

The explication of inclusion appears elusive and efforts to produce an ecumenical definition have failed. Given that it is hard to define the concept, which appears to exist upon a spectrum of values ranging from the ‘traditionalist’ beliefs that favour highly specialist provision and strategies to the liberal notions of inclusion which eschew notions of the ‘one size fits all’ approach in favour of intuitive well-thought-out practices, it is unsurprising that what constitutes inclusive pedagogy is equally contested.

My study set out to map the pedagogy that early years educators deploy to deliver an equitable curriculum and unveil their craft knowledge and skills (Black-Hawkins and Florian, 2012). Inclusive pedagogy has been dominated by notions of commonality (providing the same provision for all) versus additionality (offering different provisions for groups or individual children). These two notions have been perceived as incompatible rather than complementary. Instead of viewing the practices of commonality and additionality as binary, my participants set out to ‘communalise personalised provision’.  The term personalised rather than individualised is used in this section to denote provision, which is not restricted to the individual child but provides a holistic form of differentiation. Personalised provision in this research was rooted in an understanding of the child and the educators reported that allowing time to build meaningful partnerships, engaging with the child and observing them enabled them to ascertain their interests, establish their readiness levels and plan activities that were relevant and meaningful. The role of the key person was critical and building secure attachments was the cornerstone upon which truly inclusive provision was based. The majority of early years educators in this study relied upon their unique knowledge and understanding of their child; their relationships with the children had led them to discard a simplistic ‘one size fits all’ (King-Sears, 2008) approach to teaching in favour of a ‘trial and error’ stance that promotes experimentation and creativity

This was evident in my research and educators utilised a range of strategies to actualise pedagogical equity: the ‘institutionalisation’ of specific routines, the provision of open-ended activities and the cultivation of a sense of ownership and belonging.

 The ‘institutionalisation’ of free- flow routines and small groups throughout the day and the deployment of circuit activities offered children the opportunity to ‘dip in and out’ of activities without placing an expectation upon them to participate or produce an artefact; there was a wide variety of choices on offer to enable them to pursue their interests at their own pace. Small groups led by key persons allowed children and educators to engage in meaningful exchanges and carefully support learning.

The educators exhorted the benefits of small group activities that allowed children to learn from peers (Janney and Snell 2006) and developed flexible routines that focused on children’s choices and assisted them to develop independence and feel valued for their contribution. In some settings, there was flexibility during lunchtimes, which encouraged the children to complete their chosen task before they sat for their meal.

 Good inclusive practice was not always planned meticulously but often focused upon well- thought- out, open-ended activities. Play was accessible to all and although a plethora of resources was set up, the means by which children experimented and explored the material was open to them; educators perceived the gains and goals achieved through these activities to be different depending on the child’s individual needs and interests. Differentiation was mainly based on outcomes-each child was perceived to acquire different knowledge and benefit in various ways. There appeared to be a well-orchestrated scaffolding of learning, where the educator was willing to take a back step when required. Children in this instance became responsible for their own differentiation; what they learned was unique to them.

Open-ended activities instigated children’s curiosity, creativity and appealed to their need for active exploration. Essentially the activities focused on cultivating dispositions (Carr, 2001) such as perseverance, active experimentation and co-operation rather than being target driven or compartmentalising learning into specific areas. Practitioners felt that dispositions should constitute the core of the curriculum replacing the prime and specific areas of learning. Dispositions are not restricted to children’s mastered skills but take into account knowledge, inclinations, ability and characteristics that can be cultivated and foregrounded into an environment that promotes and rewards them.

 Equally, the notion of ownership became very powerful in the social and institutionalised context of early years settings where engagement was encouraged and participation was considered critical in establishing an inclusive environment. Children were seen to co-own the daily routines, were allowed to make decisions, affect what happens next in relation to activities, and make their own choices.  These were pedagogical practices that actively advocated for children’s rights and entitlement to a meaningful curriculum; they utilised stimulating resources and discarded advice, which was seen as inappropriate. For example, in creating visual aids and cards to enhance the understanding of routines and promote communication, the key person in one of the case study settings liaised with children to create their own cards, which were relevant to their own setting and depicted the children engaged in the activities.  The children were seen as a ‘co-investors’ (Sebba et al, 2011) in their own learning. The key-person acknowledged their right to feel that they had contributed to the process of card making and affected the setting’s pedagogical decision-making.

The sense of ownership, evoked by certain activities and the familiarisation of routines, was considered critical in allowing children to develop agency, released them from the passivity of being the recipients of ‘professional wisdom’ and transformed them into active and autonomous agents (Cefai et al, 2015). In addition, children’s joint sharing of ‘recurring class routines’ were seen as an essential aspect of participating and developing a sense of belonging in a community (Erwin and Guintini, 2010).

The incorporation of personalised teaching approaches into a common curriculum (and vice versa) is seen to enhance a communitarian version of inclusion. The concept of the community as conducive to learning has been well substantiated in theory (Wenger, 1998; 2000) but its tenets have not been applied to inclusive classroom environments. Communities, however big or small, interact with pre-existing structures, utilise an established language, and deploy certain artefacts which secure their perpetuation; these in turn serve to induce ‘novices’ or exclude new members. To ensure new members are welcome the structures, terminology and resources should be flexible and diverse –they should be geared towards serving different learning styles, abilities and proclivities.

In inclusive classroom communities of this type, the structures are not governed by prescriptive and compartmentalised curricula, performance is not measured by’ mean average’ statements, and children are provided with a range of artefacts they could utilise and claim as their own. These artefacts could include toys and resources but extend further to incorporate routines, pedagogical approaches and the overall environment that frames classroom interactions. They are ultimately weaved into the fabric that determines community membership.

Communitarian inclusion in the early years is about bridging differences and introducing various means of expression and representation (Eke et al, 2009) that bind the community of learners together. For example, in one of the early years settings, augmentative communication approaches such as Makaton were rolled out across classrooms to enable children, who did not utilise conventional language, and their peers to communicate and enhance social interaction. In another nursery, sensory intervention advice provided by an occupational therapist was utilised to merge the personalised advice into the core curriculum and enrich sensory provision for all children.

In establishing a truly inclusive environment for young children, it quickly became clear that conventional means of assessment, which rely strictly on Piagetian notions of linear development, were insufficient in capturing the breath, depth and nuances of children’s actual development. The participants in this study felt that the ‘Development Matters’ has outlived its usefulness. It has become the de-facto textbook of normative development. Furthermore, it serves a functional yet insidious purpose; it is seen as a surveillance tool that highlights gaps in children’s development and notes deviation from the mean average. It is there to monitor, record and aggregate children’s performance and reinforces concepts of developmental normalcy, which are not consistent with atypical progress. In trying to place children in boxes and plan based on predetermined targets, we lose sight of what constitutes inclusive and holistic pedagogy and assessment in early years. The participants in this study demonstrated that, where there is flexibility and a relaxation of ‘top-down’ legislation and guidelines (as in the case of the teaching strategies and their delivery), truly inclusive practices could flourish.

In September, the revised EYFS curriculum will be coming into force; the rhetoric supporting the amendments indicates a shift towards an approach that favours quality interactions and pedagogical experimentation. Despite this, the pre-occupation with ‘what children know and can do’ (DfE, 2021) is evident. What remains to be seen is whether the revisions will be accompanied by genuine changes in inspection regime priorities and will be escalated by the government to enable classroom and wider policy and culture shifts.


Bradbury, A. (2019) Datafied at four: the role of data in the ‘schoolification’ of early childhood education in England. Learning, Media and Technology. 44 (1), pp.7-21.

Carr, M. (2001) Assessment in Early Childhood Settings: Learning Stories [online]. London: Paul Chapman.

Cefai, C., Cavioni, V., Bartolo, P., Simoes, C., Miljevic-Ridicki, R., Bouilet, D., Pavin Ivanec, T., Matsopoulos, A., Gavogiannaki, M., Zanetti, M.A., Galea, K., Lebre, P., Kimber, B. & Eriksson, C. (2015), “Social inclusion and social justice”, Journal for multicultural education,9,( 3), pp. 122-139.

DfE (2017) (Department for Education), Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage: setting the standards for learning, development and care for children from birth to five. [online] Accessed 01/10/18 Available from: https://www.gov.uk/early-years-foundation-stage

DfE (2021) (Department for Education), Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage: setting the standards for learning, development and care for children from birth to five. [online] Accessed 01/06 /18 [online] Accessed 01/10/18 Available from: https://www.gov.uk/early-years-foundation-stage

Early Education. (2012) Development Matters in the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) [online]. Accessed 01/11/17 ,Available from: https://www.foundationyears.org.uk/files/2012/03/Development-Matters-FINAL-PRINT-AMENDED.pdf

Eke, R., Butcher, H. and Lee, M. (2009) Whose Childhood is it?: The Roles of Children, Adults, and Policy Makers [online]. London: Continuum.

Janney, R.E. & Snell, M.E. (2006), “Modifying Schoolwork in Inclusive Classrooms”, Theory into practice, vol. 45, no. 3, pp. 215-223.

Erwin, E.J. and Guintini, M. (2000) Inclusion and Classroom Membership in Early Childhood. International Journal of Disability, Development and Education. 47 (3), pp.237-257.

King-Sears, M. (2009) Universal Design for Learning: Technology and Pedagogy. Learning Disability Quarterly. 32 (4), pp.199-201

Norwich, B. (2009), “Dilemmas of difference and the identification of special educational needs/disability: international perspectives”, British Educational Research Journal, vol. 35, no. 3, pp. 447. 

Norwich, B. (2014) Recognising value tensions that underlie problems in inclusive education. Cambridge Journal of Education. 44 (4), pp.495-510. 

Palaiologou, I. (2017) Assessing children’s play: reality or illusion? The case of early years foundation stage in England. Early Child Development and Care. 187 (8), pp.1259-1272.

Roberts-Holmes, G. (2012) ‘It’s the bread and butter of our practice’: experiencing the Early Years Foundation Stage. International Journal of Early Years Education. 20 (1), pp.30-42.

Sebba, J., Peacock, A., DiFinizio, A. and Johnson, M. (2011) Personalisation and special educational needs. Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs. 11 (3), pp.203-224.

Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wenger, E. (2000), “Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems”, Organization, 7, (2), pp. 225-246.

Images provided by Dr Morfaki who says “The first picture is of a child in a circle – circles are often used to symbolise belonging and inclusion. The second is a very happy one of a rainbow”.

Nature – a source of solace or anxiety for children and young people?

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In Mental Health Awareness week, Dr Verity Jones, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Education and Childhood at UWE Bristol explains that although connecting with nature is important for our mental health, increasingly, children and young people are experiencing anxiety about the natural world and the environment. Dr Jones has proposed a three-stage approach to engaging children and young people with these issues and has also devised a questionnaire for 7 – 18 year olds which will enable young people to talk about climate change and have their voice heard in this important global issue.

The central theme of Mental Health Awareness Week 2021 is Nature and how connecting with it can benefit our mental health. Going outside, taking a walk, being in green spaces.

Research by the Mental Health Foundation reports that through the pandemic, going outside was one of our top coping strategies. This is perhaps unsurprising when Nature is central to our psychological and emotional health. However, there are growing numbers of people who, rather than finding solace in Nature, instead are becoming more anxious by it. Eco-anxiety is a growing concern. There is a deadline approaching –  the UN have suggested that humanity only has 9 years to take action in the face of the potential catastrophic effects of climate change.  Combine this with the images of wildfires, droughts, floods and famines that bombard our social media streams and news reels and the result is increasing numbers of young people feeling deeply negative thoughts. Many of our children are losing sleep, not eating properly, not communicating. Many of our children are feeling helpless.

In the research I do with children and young people I often hear how they are scared, anxious and angry about the state of the world. These feelings need space to be discussed. In many schools, consideration of climate change may be reading the news in tutor time, or talking about the physical processes or social and environmental impacts in science or geography. There is little time for our young learners to talk about how they feel and try and make sense of what is going on.

I support a three stage approach to engaging children and young people with these issues.

  1. Make time to talk – having space to share feelings will help individuals they are not alone.
  2. Make time to plan – find out ways that individuals can get involved in doing something. Recognising that children and young people can be part of the solution, part of their community, is really powerful.
  3. Making time to do – don’t just talk about making changes actually do them. This could be something at home (switching off lights, wasting less food or water or mending clothes) or it could be with the community (helping tidy and plant a local green space, do a beach clean, sign petitions, write to authorities).

Including young people in discussions and actions is vital if we are to move towards more sustainable futures together; more hopeful futures.

Unfortunately, including children and young people in discussions doesn’t always happen. In fact, sometimes they are completely ignored.   Back in March, SKYNews reported on a survey that was supposedly representing the views of Britain with regard climate change and what the population thought were (or weren’t) appropriate actions for them to take. Looking at this in a little more detail  it seems that Britain was represented by adults over 18 years old. All other younger people were ignored. In my view, this is wrong. If we are to represent Britain we can’t ignore a large section of the society. So, I have rewritten the survey questions for younger audiences and have gained ethical clearance from UWE to send out an updated version for 7 –  18 year olds. Doing this survey will provide a space for adults and young people to talk about climate change, as well as provide young people a voice in this important global issue.

Being in / with Nature can improve our well being, but if we are to support those with eco-anxiety, we also need to have time to talk about this relationship and do something about it.

If you have a 7-18 year old who would like to take part in this anonymous survey please contact Verity on  Verity6.Jones@uwe.ac.uk.

Survey closes 31st May 2021.

Photos by Eyoel Khassay Callum Shaw on Unsplash

Raising awareness of Neurodiversity: my lived experience of dyspraxia

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Dr Sarah Chicken Senior Lecturer in Childhood and Education at UWE marks Neurodiversity Celebration Week (15-21 March 2021) by taking the opportunity to raise awareness about dyspraxia by telling some of her personal story. 

I am a senior lecturer within the Department of Childhood and Education where I have worked for seventeen years.  I am also a member of the neurodivergent community with a diagnosis of dyspraxia.

Dyspraxia or Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD) is a complex neurological condition which affects the messages between the brain and the body impacting on movement and cognition.    Instead of a message going from A to B, for someone with dyspraxia, it can take a detour from A to X, Y and Z ( in no particular order) before making the journey back to B.  This can be exhausting! 

An important issue is that others may not understand how substantial some challenges can be; for example, I have been an educator for decades, I have a PhD and a range of Master’s level qualifications so when I find difficulties filling in forms, driving a car, finding my way around university systems and the world in general, this can seem perplexing to others.

However, a ‘spikey’ learning profile, (where there are significant discrepancies between the things that someone is good at and those that they struggle with) is a key feature of a neurodivergent profile.   In my own case, psychometric tests indicate a large gap between my verbal reasoning at the one end of the scale and my processing speed and working memory at the other end of the scale.

This often feels like I have a fantastic computer which has been ill-matched with some rather outdated software and I spend a lot of time feeling out of synch.   This can impact on my physical co-ordination (my dancing is legendary for all of the wrong reasons 😊) and my speech and cognition which sometimes is not quite connected.   When I am tired or anxious, I can stumble over words or words can tumble out of my mouth in ‘my incoherent soup’. This anxiety-inducing prospect can lead to remaining quiet in large group situations despite having lots of ideas.  On other occasions, I end up talking over the top of people as I can’t quite find the right place to come into a conversation and this can appear impolite. 

Many neurodivergent people have issues with the processing of sensory information; whilst I can hear words in busy environments, I am not always sure if I have fully processed the meaning. Harsh lighting is challenging for me   and can cause eye disturbances which feel as if I am looking through a kaleidoscope with pieces of the picture all jumbled up.     Unfortunately, this is often the case in many parts of my working environment including shared social spaces. 

At the same time, I am determined and driven (pardon the pun), whilst it took me 17 years to pass my driving test, I got there in the end!   This is because, I have limited spatial awareness or depth perception, whilst I can physically see space, I can’t quite ‘feel’ or judge if my car ( or body) can fit.    On the odd occasions that I have been brave enough to drive to work, students have found great amusement as I have tried to park my car, I don’t blame them, I need a runway!

To return to my computer analogy, the cognitive pressure of too much multi-tasking can feel like having too many tabs open at the same time and I start to slow down – now throw into the mix the mismatch between my computer and out- of-date software and there is a danger that I could shut down altogether.  Since my diagnosis I realise that this has implications for my work and life and I am far more successful when I can really concentrate on a small range of activities ( I am a details person)  rather than being spread thinly across many. 

At the same time, my dyspraxia can be viewed as a gift and a superpower.   It offers a unique perspective of the world leading to creative and ‘outside of the box’ thinking when I am in environments where I feel ‘safe’ and valued.  I have a good sense of humour; I have to see the funny side of often tripping over and bumping into things and jumbling up my words. Like others with dyspraxia, I have a ‘stick with it ‘attitude, I am solution focussed, analytical and very empathetic.  I am fortunate to be in a job where I can draw on these strengths to design and deliver teaching, learning and research opportunities which engage and inspire and most of all where I am able to celebrate the wonderful range of diversity seen within the human race.

Dr Sarah Chicken Senior Fellow HEA

Senior Lecturer  Childhood and Education  

I am a champion of neurodiversity. 

Watch this short film produced by the British Dyslexia Association to find out more about neurodiversity. 

How do you teach science through engineering amidst lockdowns and school closures?

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Dr Fay Lewis, Programme Leader MA – Education in the Department of Education and Childhood at UWE Bristol, describes how students from UWE Bristol provided an innovative introduction to science and engineering for local primary school children.

British Science Week is a ten-day celebration of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) taking place this year between 5-14th March.

Despite the many challenges of taking part in Science Week during a global pandemic, UWE Primary Education students have been engaging with celebrations whole-heartedly, ensuring that local children have the best opportunity possible to celebrate science and its role in society.  The students have been exploring novel ways of cross curricular working, finding new ways of connecting with local schools despite lockdowns, school closures and a whole lot of uncertainty!

This cross-faculty work brought together groups of student teachers and student engineers to design a range of engineering challenges and activities to introduce local primary school children to engineering and to help them to explore science through engineering. 

But how to teach a class of pupils during a time of school closures and remote learning?

Our students solved that problem, collaborating together to create their own blend of face to face and digital educational resources providing children across the primary age phase with opportunities to meet engineers, gain an insight into their work and experience some engineering themselves.

Over 50 student engineers recorded a set of videos; the first to introduce themselves to the pupils, the area of engineering they study, their interests, what inspired them to become engineers, and advice about different engineering career pathways. The second video was more subject-specific, helping teach the pupils some of their curriculum-linked learning using a combination of presentations, demonstrations and follow-along activities.  The student teachers then took these materials into schools and explored these videos with children alongside working through the engineering challenges devised by the collaborative groups.

From the feedback coming in so far from all students involved, it looks like the project has been a huge success! We’d like to thank all of the students and schools involved!


Meet Noble, student engineer at UWE Bristol, introducing himself to KS1 students and having some fun with forces.

Link to further videos from students in the UWE Bristol Department of Engineering Design and Mathematics


Dr Fay Lewis

Programme Leader – MA Education, Department of Education and Childhood


Covid- Proof Engineering in Schools

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Despite the pandemic, approximately sixty primary schools, took part in an engineering challenge as part of British Science week supporting the ‘Big Beam In’ run by DETI (Digital Engineering Technology & Innovation Initiative). The challenges were planned by teacher education and engineering students from UWE Bristol.

For the live teaching by our students in schools, the children were given an engaging engineering challenge supported by videos from the engineers on what it is like being an engineering student and also explaining the science in their task. Other schools were sent teaching packs with activities and videos from the teacher and engineers. Some of engineers’ videos can be seen on Youtube at https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL9z52T1dzQlb-Q4UiNnfloq4R7BPLply_

The aim of the project is to develop communication and outreach skills in engineers and to give the education students an experience of planning and teaching an engineering task in schools. The children will get an understanding of the broad range of engineering careers as well as exposure to everyday role models studying engineering and talking about why it interests them. Elizabeth Hadlington (Yr 2 Primary Education) said this was ‘an exciting opportunity to gather an insight into engineering allowing us to inspire young minds and create opportunities for the future’.

For further details please contact juliet.edmonds@uwe.ac.uk or Fay.lewis@uwe.ac.uk

The image is a slide from UWE students Charlie Simmonds (Yr 2 Primary Education) and Noble Varghese ( Yr 3 Engineering) for KS1

Don’t just listen to young people ….

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Over the last few years we have watched the sound of young people’s voices get louder in response to global climate change. Before lockdown we saw thousands gather to protest in public places around the world demanding change. Demanding action. Young people leading young people to insist that the global community act now, and act quickly to ensure a fairer, more sustainable future for all.

Here in Bristol the voices of young people are not overlooked. This year I have been privileged to work with the Global Goals Centre; an exciting new visitor centre that will offer immersive ways of learning about the climate and ecological emergency framed around the Sustainable Development Goals. Learning about these important issues through fun and engaging ways – with an emphasis on what we can do to make a difference – is a key theme running through all stages of development.

As young people will be an important audience for the Centre, I ran workshops across the city to enlist their help in the designing the first of the immersive experiences. Through the Youth Design Challenge young people were invited to design a space around the theme of fast fashion. Entries were judged on creativity, engagement with the theme and consideration of different learning experiences. Whilst knowledge of ocean plastics and the need to reduce carbon emissions was acknowledged, few young people had previously considered their connection with the fast fashion supply chain, but they did not disappoint with their thinking and creative response to the situation.

On 23rd November a host of dignitaries gathered on a zoom call to celebrate the work of those who had entered the competition. Marvin Rees (Bristol’s Mayor) was delighted to make the presentations after the young audience listened to Bristol’s leading young climate activist, Mya Rose Craig (also known as BirdGirl). Finisterre, a Cornwall based company specialising in sustainable clothing donated the prizes.

The competition was not a token nod to the voices of the young. It was not a cheap marketing technique to get buy in from sponsors and lead the headlines. Instead, this competition is just another step in engaging and enabling young people’s voices to be heard in the development of the Centre. These designs will now be used by the creative team to inform pilot designs which are hoped to be tested later in 2021.

Young people aren’t just making noise about wanting a sustainable future, they are full of amazing ideas and ready to think through difficult problems in new ways. We mustn’t just listen, Instead, we need to provide ways in which young people’s voices can inform change.   It is not up to our youth to make the change – such pressure is both unfair and untenable with many experiencing eco-anxiety and grief as a result. Instead, we need to work together – old and young – for a better future.

Check out the Mayor’s blog for more information https://thebristolmayor.com/2020/11/24/teaching-us-a-thing-or-two/

[This research is made possible by UWE’s Vice Chancellor’s Early Career Research award]

Dr Verity Jones is a Senior Lecturer on the Initial Teacher Training Programme (ITT) in the Department of Education and Childhood at UWE.

Follow Dr Jones on twitter @VerityJones_edu

We deserve to be taught about it: climate crisis classes for all students – a word of caution

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Recently The Guardian reported on how some universities are ‘bowing’ to student pressure and including classes on climate throughout all courses – whether they be geography and environmental studies (where such issues have traditionally been included) or music and fashion (where issues of connected with climate may not seem so obvious).

A report published this month by Winchester University  showed that 54% of 16-18 year olds saw climate breakdown as the second biggest threat to the UK (after the quality of the NHS). The same percentage considered universities failing in their job of addressing it.

Without doubt, the demand and need for engagement with issues relating to the climate and ecological emergency have never been so clear. We are all aware that there is a need for action if we are to secure a more sustainable future. However, there is growing evidence that with the emergency increasing numbers of young people are reporting the effects of eco-anxiety. Higher Education institutions need to consider how they approach embedding these issues and what the impact may be.

At UWE, Bristol we have been mapping how every programme across the university engages with the Sustainable Development Goals. This has provided an opportunity for us to engage and enable learning for students around real issues associated with the climate and ecological emergency; making explicit links, providing up to date information and opportunities to problem solve. What it has also allowed for is time; time to discuss these issues in supportive groups, share both fears and hopes; share the problems which affect us all.   Delivering the knowledge isn’t enough. Making the time to talk and problem solve together is essential in order to combat feelings of isolation, hopelessness, and despondency that our current situation is having on many people. The emotional landscape attached to these issues must be carefully negotiated.

As someone who delivers the Initial Teacher Education programme here at UWE, and undertakes research with young people regarding eco anxiety and sustainable futures, it is clear that emotions are running high in classrooms in both the university and primary classroom. Anger and helplessness are common emotions displayed by the learners. This is often mirrored by the fear or hope embedded in many educational resources used to engage with climate discussion. It is all too easy to say ‘teach climate’. We need to be thinking carefully of how we teach it, and what the impact of the teaching is having both in the short and long term.  

At present I am working with The Global Goals Centre in developing immersive experiences which support young people in learning about the climate and ecological emergency. At the heart of this project is young people’s voice: what they want to learn, how they want to learn and how they feel about the issues. Workshops and focus groups are informing every step, in order to develop a unique learning experience, meeting the needs of the audience rather than socially engineering emotional appeals. Finding out who they think can help and be part of the solution is critical – the image shows one example of how an 8-year-old sees this jigsaw; they are very much part of the solution. However, not all young people have such a sophisticated and hopeful vision.

Teaching about the climate isn’t something that can be done quickly or easily. This is something we need, we need to do well, and we need to think through carefully and with support.

Dr Verity Jones is a  Senior Lecturer on the Initial Teacher Training Programme in the Department of Education and Childhood at UWE and is a member of UWE Bristol’s Knowledge Exchange for Sustainable Development group. Her research with the Global Goals Centre is funded by UWEs Vice Chancellors Early Career Researcher Award.

Follow Dr Verity Jones on twitter

‘It’s our job to take the limits away’: A case study approach to exploring culture of teacher expectations in an English secondary school

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Education Research from UWE reaches around the globe…

In this article, Dr Smith draws on her doctoral research, carried out in the Department of Education and Childhood at UWE, investigating the beliefs and practices of high expectation teachers.

Although Dr Smith’s EdD thesis was only submitted recently, it has already had global reach. One of her supervisors, Dr Richard Waller received an unexpected email from a researcher at the New Zealand Council for Educational Research who wrote to say how impressed he was with the quality of Dr Smith’s research.

Having only had my thesis revisions accepted in June, I am still somewhat in a haze and only just beginning to reflect on my doctoral journey. I began my professional doctorate in education with a keen interest in extending my understanding and in improving practice: I wanted to generate professional knowledge that would have real impact. Achieving that goal was without doubt a challenging, but incredibly rewarding and enriching experience.

My professional interest in my research project was born from a sense of social injustice. Having taught in the state sector for over twenty years, I have been increasingly troubled by the concept of labelling and notions of fixed abilities that are prevalent in our education system. From the earliest stages of formal education, teachers are required to make predictions about future development of the children based on present attainment, as well as determining students’ academic ability. Children from lower socio-economic groups and from particular minority ethnic groups are over-represented in lower sets and streams, and allocation to these groups does not always match the level of ‘ability’ as designated by test scores. As children progress through school, attainment gaps widen between children from lower socio-economic groups and their peers, suggesting that schooling exacerbates inequalities in educational attainment.

This sense of injustice led me to explore the beliefs of ‘high expectation teachers’, and the practices through which teachers aim to build an inclusive learning environment, in addition to the ways they develop strategies that do not rely on pre-determined ability labelling. This exploration led me to understand that what constitutes a ‘high expectation’ teacher needed to be investigated from particular locations: through government policy; through theoretical models; through professional regulation and performance management, and through notions of professional identity. I learnt that these positions sometimes overlap, but at times, also conflict with one another.

The case study design of my research is focussed on one phenomenon, that of the beliefs and practices of high expectation teachers, and one bounded case illustrates the phenomenon. The case is specific, and bounded by time and location. It is intended to emphasize uniqueness through the in-depth exploration of the participants’ experiences. Within this bounded system are the relationships between people and events, and within those are differing perspectives, as the positions on what makes a ‘high expectation’ teacher are contradictory, and not universally agreed.

I used thematic analysis to analyse data collected through questionnaires, interviews and focus groups, but reflected that despite the in-depth nature of this analysis, the phenomena of high teacher expectation remained only partially scrutinised in terms of social justice. Therefore, the social concerns raised throughout my study are also explored through the theories of Bourdieu with the aim of making sense of the wider issues of inequality inherent in this study, particularly in the sense that habitus is helped by, and helps shape, pedagogical action.

My findings are that there needs to be a recognition that in education, socially advantaged interests and voices dominate in terms of social mobility agendas. Social cohesion is therefore a challenge as inequality rises from an education system tailored to white, middle-class values, and until we value the diversity of heritage in all its forms, we cannot hope for greater equity for our students. Furthermore, teachers tend to be granted space in the public domain only through technical competency. Findings also suggest that teachers must be able to be emotionally committed to different aspects of their jobs, as their sense of moral responsibility is at the core of their professional identity.

The research also challenges the assumption that academic achievement is paramount and suggests that there are many other measures of success, in which students discover and are celebrated for a particular talent, or a passion for something new. The ability to make choices should be a fundamental right and should be accessible to all as a result of social justice.

This presents a challenge in today’s economic and political climate. At the time of writing the thesis, 4.1 million children in the UK are living in poverty, a rise of 500,000 in the last five years, and in-work poverty has been rising even faster than unemployment, driven almost entirely by increasing poverty among working parents. In addition to the economic context our young people are living in, educational policy increases social inequities rather than reducing the poverty attainment gap. For example, additional funding has been allocated for new grammar school places, despite evidence that dividing children into the most ‘able’ and the rest from an early age does not appear to lead to better results for either group, including for the most disadvantaged students.

The financial landscape for most schools paints a bleaker picture than that for grammar schools. A further significant challenge for the education sector is the recruitment of the required number of teachers of sufficient quality and motivation, at a time of continued public pay restraint and rising student numbers. Similarly, spending on early education, Sure Start and the childcare element of Working Tax Credit fell by 21% from 2009–10 and 2012–13, with falls of 11% for early education, 29% for targeted support for childcare and 32% for Sure Start. Child Tax Credit and Child Benefit payments were frozen in financial terms. In addition to cuts to income support, community-based support services and to the funding of voluntary groups and services, this financial context may have an impact on children as they enter the school system.

Furthermore, Britain’s high-status professions remain dominated by the privileged; those from traditionally working-class backgrounds earn on average £6,800 less than colleagues from professional and managerial backgrounds. Although students in my study feel that they can ‘get ahead’ on merit, it could be suggested that British society is profoundly unfair. Education is crucial to change, but it cannot be considered in isolation if we are going to tackle the challenge of disadvantage. Education must be freed from its current constraints so that educators have the opportunity to develop every child’s personality, talents and abilities to the full.

Within the constraints of this wider context, one recommendation that arose from the study with the aim of creating a culture of high expectations is that a form of ‘high-integrity’ setting could be implemented in schools. In practice, strategies such as: making setting as subject-specific as possible; grouping students by attainment rather than perceived effort; regularly testing and moving students between sets, and using a lottery system when assigning borderline students to sets may help mitigate the consequences of attainment grouping. Schools, however, may be deterred from implementing more equitable grouping practices by perceptions of middle-class parental and student preferences for attainment grouping. A further complication raised in this study is that most teachers who currently teach in attainment groupings believe that mixed attainment groupings would create further barriers to progress.

A final reflection for me is on the complex and problematic nature of the barriers to creating a culture of high expectation. I entered into this research project with a rather idealistic notion that exploring one definition of high-expectation beliefs and teaching practices could lead to the creation of a culture of high expectation. The reality is far messier. In addition to my exploration of the contradictory definitions of what makes a ‘high expectation’ teacher, research discourse related to teachers tends to be prescriptive, rather than serious study of, or collaboration with, those prescribed to or portrayed. This resonates with my own professional experience, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to explore this complex phenomenon through several lenses, even though at times these lenses seemed somewhat elusive!

Dr. Julie Smith has recently completed her doctoral research into the beliefs and practices of high expectation teachers, in the Department of Education and Childhood under the supervision of Dr. Richard Waller, Dr. Nicola Bowden-Clissold and Dr. Sarah Chicken. She is also Vice-Principal at a secondary school in Gloucestershire.

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School reopening? top scientists say not yet*

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“It is clear from the evidence we have collected that 1 June is simply too early to go back. By going ahead with this dangerous decision, the government is further risking the health of our communities and the likelihood of a second spike.” (Sir David King, Independent SAGE Group)

This blog post could end there, but given the high stakes, it’s worth pondering more…

Teachers and their unions have been robustly rallying against the Government’s decision to re-open schools as early as June 1st. Some sections of the press and government ministers have revisited Michael Gove’s characterisation of these opponents as the “Blob”, who according to the Daily Mail is

“made up of political opponents, union barons and local government administrations – is colluding to sabotage the reopening of schools.”

In 2013, I was one of the 100 academics who signed a letter against Gove’s damaging curriculum reforms, and this time it’s even more serious, so much so that the neutral British Medical Association (BMA) have supported the call from the Independent SAGE Group to keep schools closed for the time-being.

Because of misleading advice and data issued by Downing Street, renowned medical scientists decided to set-up an Independent SAGE group (ISG).

The ISG’s opposition to 1st June re-opening of schools came after a meeting, which included Mumsnet, and supplemented by rigorous advice from expert educationists. Professor Sir David King concluded that there is almost zero chance of conditions being reached for a safe reopening of schools on 1 June.

The report makes clear that decisions on school re-opening should depend on low levels of infections in the community and the capacity to respond quickly to new infections through a local test, track and isolate strategy. We are not there yet.

Although children are less likely than adults to get ill, they are still transmission agents. Even the DfE advice seems to reflect this concern:

Some studies suggest younger children may transmit less, but this evidence is mixed and provides a low degree of confidence at best.”

So, a child carrying the infection but not showing symptoms could spread it unnoticed to other children and staff, and it could then reach family members with existing medical problems as well as older relatives. The collateral damage could be fatally serious.

The Government have been keen to stress that their decision was about ethics stating that working class children are being disproportionately disadvantaged because they do not have the learning resources that children from wealthier families have for home schooling.

But the ISG report stresses that rather than rushing to re-open schools, it would be safer to provision computer equipment and offer distance learning. When the conditions are appropriate, outdoor (where transmission is minimised) summer activity schemes, including educational “catch up” sessions would be a viable option.

The current situation opens-up existential questions about how we conceive of education.  We in the Reclaiming Schools network have (long) argued that it is necessary to take a rounded view of children’s needs, not just getting children (back) behind desks.

Education should be geared for developing children’s social, emotional, and wider characteristics. In this context, one could imagine a school strictly adhering to social distancing being harmful for children. Stories of nurseries and reception classes having to remove all toys for a June 1st re-opening are clearly being forced to create an environment devoid of richness.

Furthermore, the Government instruction to get the youngest children back first is questionable. In most nations in the world, the school starting age is 6 or 7, so very few children of nursery and reception age are actually in school.

Mental health problems in children are always much lower in countries with admission at age 6 or 7. Children have had the chance to be children, and without baseline testing (followed by high stakes tests at 7, 11, 16 – England tests more than any comparable country).

There is a strong case to postpone national standardised high stakes testing, it would provide an opportunity to evaluate the impact of tests on children and teachers.

In any given year, around 15% of teacher leave the profession just after 12 months, and over 30% leave within 5 years. In most cases, that’s 4 years of education/training to find out that teaching is not only hard work, the external pressures of tests and league tables make it mentally and physically damaging, ultimately impossible.

Beyond and C-19, we need to reclaim education to make it progressive and socially responsible, and a National Education Service provides a vehicle to do this. 

Dr Alpesh Maisuria is Associate Professor of Education Policy in Critical Education at the University of the West of England. He writes widely about issues of social class, educational policy, neoliberalism and Marxism, as well the proposal of the Nationalised Education Service; academy and free schools; private schools; Swedish social democracy and class. This blog post is written in a personal capacity. 

*Sections of this writing have been reworked from a Reclaiming Schools blog post. Alpesh Maisuria is a Steering Group member of Reclaiming Schools.

Keep calm and carry on learning – Part 7

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Equality of learning in lockdown …

In the seventh in a series of blog posts, Dr Verity Jones, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Education and Childhood at UWE, and Online Project Lead considers some of the challenges families from disadvantaged groups are facing in lockdown and what is needed to combat these inequalities.

Nine weeks in…

 … here in England things are changing. We’re now allowed to sit in a park and have a picnic. We can have as much exercise as we like and even go to garden centres. The first steps of returning to ‘normality’ are tentatively taking shape. However, the outlook for young people to return to schools and colleges is not on the horizon and our youth continue to be home schooled.

For some youngsters home schooling is working. Lessons are emailed in, downloaded and supported by parents and carers. However, there has been and continues to be a disproportionate impact of Covid19.

Home schooling has been dominated by online access. Week after week we welcome more organisations supporting online learning with free access to their resources, daily online activities and a social media frenzy of ideas to keep young people engaged while stuck at home. This blog has done its fair share of sharing such websites. But what about those who haven’t got access to the internet?

This week, the Good Law Project has argued that the reliance on online learning during lockdown is illegally disadvantaging some young learners who don’t have access to tablets and laptops and inadequate broadband. If hardware is available it may be shared by the family and pupils won’t have access to it for school work when they need it.

Add to this how greater numbers of lower income families, in what tend to be  more densely populated homes, are having to turn to food banks. Those pupils who would normally receive free school meals are having to negotiate new systems and pressures to ensure they have food.   In such circumstances it is not surprising that these groups have been the most harshly hit by the virus.

Covid19 has shown the reality of inequality in the UK.

Over the coming weeks it is essential that educational inequalities are addressed else the most vulnerable will become yet more vulnerable. But what intervention would work? Many schools are reporting distributing laptops and tablets to their most disadvantaged pupils, but this doesn’t ensure there is access to broadband or even electricity to support them.  This cannot be the answer.

Our most disadvantaged learners need a clear and supported educational strategy to ensure that the gap in achievement is not increased; every individual needs to be supported in order to meet their potential.

Reopening schools as soon as possible is not the answer.

It needs to be safe for both pupils and staff. Once back, the gaps need to be assessed and the curriculum adjusted. Reform is essential in order to rebalance teacher workload and improve the retention of our teachers so consistency can be maintained for our learners. Reform is essential to rethink the exams and assessments undertaken at all school stages and take account of the inequalities the pandemic has accentuated. We cannot just expect the gaps to grow and mind them.

Our education system needs to be right for all, not just for some. It is failing and will continue to fail if systematic change does not occur. 

Dr Verity Jones is Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of the West of England, Bristol. Online Learning Project Lead and Acting Associate Head of Department for Learning, Teaching and Student Experience.

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