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Education, inclusion and learning to embrace the individual

Protesters gathered in Parliament Square calling for S.E.N.D. reform (Credit: ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo)

3 min read

It took the education system to point out that my two children, both born with congenital health problems, were “disadvantaged”. This was the start of a journey that transformed my life, turned me into a campaigner and has now made me the author of an Amazon bestseller.

Having spoken to hundreds of parents in a similar situation, we all felt the same at the beginning of our SEND journeys. We had no idea what “special educational needs” were or what “inclusion” meant – or its evil twin “exclusion” – let alone how to navigate concepts such as statutory duty, current legislation, school funding or the “local offer”. 

My education really took off when I began working with my local authority as a professional parent-carer representative and then with the National Children’s Bureau’s Special Education Consortium. Here I was fortunate to collaborate with colleagues, some of whom had experienced the worst of society’s prejudices. Separated from their parents, institutionalised, segregated, discriminated against, these wonderful human beings were now advocates and campaigners speaking up for families like mine. I was humbled, grateful and painfully aware for the first time of my own unconscious biases towards people with complex needs. 

It was against this backdrop of SEND policy work, campaigning and networking, and a challenging and protracted battle for my children to access the education they were legally due, that work started on what became an instant bestseller – our book, Square Pegs. 

Too often families like mine hear ‘I’m all for inclusion but’ or ‘I don’t think this is the school for your child...’

Never before had anyone gathered together such a disparate group of expert practitioners to share their insights and advice in one place. We did this with one aim – to support schools who wanted to do more for their “square pegs”, those children for whom mainstream education may not only be a challenge but can also be a genuine threat: psychologically, socially, physically and practically. 

These were the schools with leaders who looked beyond the data, results, league tables and dog whistle refrain of “standards, standards, standards” and saw the human beings coming through the gates each morning. The professionals who know inclusion is ethically and morally the right thing to do and, hard though it is, can be done. 

Such an aspiration is a long way off currently. SEND children represent almost 40 per cent of persistent absentees, with many families feeling let down, frustrated and isolated – themes we echo in the book. We conducted a survey in 2022 for the government’s consultation on attendance. Almost 2,000 families participated in 10 days. The top three priorities for working with a family whose child struggles with attendance were “flexibility” (90 per cent), “reasonable adjustments” (87 per cent) and “prioritising wellbeing and happiness” (86 per cent). The professionals in our book advocate for the same – championing safe, positive relationships with adults in schools and local systems at the centre of the work with children and their families. 

So many of the ideas we cover don’t need money, just a culture shift. Too often families like mine hear “I’m all for inclusion but...” or ‘I don’t think this is the school for your child...” Discrimination and segregation are normalised along with an education system that wants to cherry pick the children who will best serve the school, not the other way round. 

We need to shift the dial and place the needs of the most vulnerable and complex at the centre of education policy and planning. Special education isn’t an add-on; inclusion isn’t an “impact-statement” afterthought. When we build systems with our “square pegs” in mind, we not only save in the long run, we create a stronger society that is compassionate, innovative and forward thinking. 

Square Pegs: Inclusivity, compassion & fitting in – a guide for schools is available to order from all major retailers or direct from Independent Thinking Press.

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