Eastlea Community School
The ALLFIE staff team visit a secondary school in Newham to see how they put inclusion into practice
ALLFIE staff team
ALLFIE has known about Eastlea Community School, in the London Borough of Newham, for some time because of the work they are doing to include disabled young people, but we hadn’t had an opportunity to visit until we were contacted by the parents of Finn Murphy who travels across London every day to attend the school. The ALLFIE staff team visited the school in May this year.
The school had received funding for refurbishment and for an extension, and was clearly well resourced. Governor Linda Jordan explained that they received additional resources via the pupil premium. During the works, disabled pupils were involved in auditing the school’s accessibility where they noted simple things like the position of the door knobs, which were at a standard height rather than accessible for wheelchair users. The classrooms are set out in an informal but purposeful manner that allows small groups of children to sit together whilst providing opportunities for disabled children to work as part of the group with their learning support assistants. Gone are the days of rows of desks with the teacher in front of the class demanding pupils’ attention.
The school is visibly incredibly diverse – over 60 different languages are spoken. As we walked down one of the hallways we saw a notice board displaying a Guinness World of Records certificate from 2014 for the classroom with most nationalities at a history lesson (41). The prom photo board proudly included a number of disabled pupils.
17.5% of students at Eastlea have SEN, and some of these have statements/EHC plans, but many do not because Newham has for many years prioritised a resource provision model which focuses on building the capacity of mainstream schools to be inclusive. Eastlea is particularly interesting because many of the young people we met have significant levels of impairment and support needs – many of whom, if they lived elsewhere, would be on a fast track to segregation.
We started our visit in the Additional Learning Centre where students access a range of additional support either for learning or related to their impairment. Some pupils may spend part of the day here. However every student, whatever their impairment, health condition or learning ability, is in mainstream classes for at least 50% of the time, where they are supported to access the national curriculum.
For instance when we visited a Maths class on averages, some pupils with learning difficulties were exploring figures with numbers of plastic frogs or beads. In an English Literature class on the Merchant of Venice, students were assembling news stories about the play’s storyline using picture collages. Teaching assistants at Eastlea are assigned to a specific subject area because supporting the differentiated curriculum requires them to have knowledge of the subject area.
Students with labels of challenging behaviour were also supported – we met a student who when she first arrived had hit a couple of staff, including the Head, but instead of leaping to a sanction, the school worked with her to develop a “social story” book that support staff use with her – the book helps her to think about other things she might do with her hands, such as waving. The social story also helps others to understand why she behaves in a particular way. Such techniques are used to ensure that students are not excluded from the school for behavioural or other reasons. Emma Lane, the Inclusion Lead, explained that the staff use every situation as an opportunity for learning, and work together to come up with possible solutions. ‘Exclusion’ of any student was not an option.
A lot of thought has also gone into developing communication dictionaries with those young people who communicate through movement or sound rather than speech, which has clearly helped staff and fellow pupils to engage with them and appreciate their method of communication.
Some children go to alternative provision outside the school, and this is mostly where for instance they are attending hairdressing or mechanics courses which the school is not equipped to provide – but pupils stay on the school roll.
We asked Emma whether bullying of disabled children was ever a problem. She explained that because the pupils have mostly come from Newham primary schools they are well used to inclusion of disabled pupils, and because the school population is so diverse in other ways it is not really an issue.
Emma also explained that the challenges of inclusion were sometimes just as much about extracurricular activities as about the curriculum. For instance one pupil, who used the school transport service to get to school, stood for the student council. It was not easy to get the transport service to understand that collecting her at 3.25 pm would not allow her to be fully involved in the life of the school.
Ana-Maria Grigore is the very dedicated complex needs teacher at Eastlea. Ana is clear that her role is to help the teaching staff develop skills to support the learning of ALL the students in their class. Differentiation of the curriculum is time intensive and can’t be done as a standard set of materials that will suit many children, but a set can at least be used as the basis for the next pupil. She explained the various processes they have implemented and how they keep trying different techniques to ensure that all students leave school with a qualification and enrolled into a college.
She was clear that being in mainstream benefits even students with the most significant learning difficulties: “For them to be in a mainstream class and just hear the noises of the activities or the silence of the lesson is progress in itself because in a special school they don’t have this type of experience.”
Ana stressed that their ethos of inclusion required a whole school approach with staff sharing good practice across the school – just having great SENCOs and support staff is not enough, and sharing ideas externally by attending SENCO network events and conferences is also important. She feels that although teachers are getting inclusion training in colleges, and support for inclusion among teachers coming into the school is clearly growing, there must be legislation to back this process up.
It was also easy to see the benefits of inclusion for non-disabled students. Classrooms reflect the similarities and differences of people in the real world. It felt that the non-disabled students were not ‘disrupted’ by disabled students in the classroom and in fact the atmosphere of the school was surprisingly peaceful – Emma told us that Ofsted inspectors always commented on this too – and the students we came into contact with were polite and welcoming.
The only disappointment was not having the opportunity to talk with both the disabled and non disabled pupils about the ethos and inclusivity of their school from their perspective.
In 2014 OFSTED found Eastlea school “good” in all areas. Interestingly, and despite the narrowing down of the inspection regime, OFSTED have shown a real interest in the inclusive practice happening at Eastlea, and have recently visited the school to capture that practice on film with the intention of training their inspectors.
Unsurprisingly, staff we talked to were concerned about the future for Eastlea and its inclusive ethos, particularly with the constant pressure on schools to academise and to achieve academic results. It was clear to them that their work on inclusion of disabled children was not valued in the statistics, or politically: “When it comes to assessments, when it comes to exams, when it comes to the numbers, then we do not count,” says Ana. They also had concerns about how these pressures can affect the mix of schools in an area: “When the whole inspection criteria are based on academic attainment you can see why heads that have that leeway would exclude children with SEN. If you then become the only school in an area that meets those needs then that’s not fair on us,” says Governor Linda Jordan. Finn Murphy’s case is an example: every school in his home borough refused to accept him as a student because he is disabled, and so he came to Eastlea.
What struck us was that the school understood that inclusive education is not a one-size fits all, but an ongoing, changeable and dynamic process that requires constant learning. Linda stressed that the reason inclusion works for them is that it has the full support of the Head Teacher and board of governors. Emma, the Inclusion Lead, is a member of the Senior Management Team. There is no doubt that the amazing and innovative work that is happening at Eastlea Community school is under threat. It is crucial to share their good practice and learning with other education providers to ensure that the lessons of what is possible filter across the entire education sector, dispelling the myth that inclusion isn’t for every disabled child – Eastlea is living proof that inclusion works!
You can also hear children and staff of Eastlea talk about how inclusion works in the school, the challenges and benefits and what it means to them in this video.