Strong Leaders, Strong Relationships
Jayne Grant retired from her post as deputy head for inclusion at a North West London Primary School last year feeling exhausted – but not yet demoralised – by the unprecedented challenges facing inclusive education. Belinda Shaw met Jayne and heard about how schools have become difficult places to work in and why it is even more important for teachers not to give up the struggle for inclusion.
Jayne has worked for 40 years in primary education, the last twelve years at West Lodge Primary School in Harrow. The school has a reputation for a strong ethos of inclusion and since 2015 has developed an additionally resourced mainstream provision for children with a diagnosis of autism. Up to a quarter of the children in every class at West Lodge have additional needs.
West Lodge Headteacher, Jim Dees, said:
‘I had the privilege to work with Jayne Grant for 6 years at West Lodge and found her an inspirational colleague. Her commitment to supporting each and every child was instrumental in ensuring that an inclusive ethos, with understanding and acceptance at its heart, pervaded all aspects of life at West Lodge. She continually gave her time, energy and emotions to support pupils, staff and parents/carers – I consider myself extremely fortunate to have worked with such an incredible educator.’
Jayne came to focus on inclusion in education from a commitment to equal opportunities and human rights, including as a feminist and anti-apartheid and union campaigner, inspired by people rather than books or policies. Working for inclusive education was the natural consequence of a strong sense of justice, a belief in equality and a growing conviction that disability and special needs is not someone else’s responsibility: that every teacher is a teacher of pupils with special educational needs.
“I remember early in my career having children in my class who I knew needed additional support and colleagues telling me they should be somewhere else. But I remember thinking what’s that about? Why can’t we educate all children together?”
Jayne says at that time, when the former Inner London Education Authority managed inner London schools, resources were pooled and directed efficiently and money never seemed to be an issue. ILEA was abolished in 1990. Jayne paints a very different picture of education now.
She says “brutal” cuts and increasing numbers of children experiencing difficulties are significantly affecting schools’ ability to be “as inclusive as they want to be and as they should be”. Schools with a strong ethos of inclusion are “really struggling” to provide the best and most appropriate learning environment for an increasing number of disabled children and those with special educational needs. Even if extra funds can be secured through what too often has become a legal battle for an Education Health and Care Plan, they do not cover the salary for an additional adult.
Lack of disability training, over-emphasis on testing, publication of league tables, fragmentation of education including loss of local authority control, competition between schools and dismantling of support services add to the pressures, as does a gloomy atmosphere in the wider community due to a range of social problems and a search for scapegoats.
Against this background of a funding crisis and pressures in and outside schools Jayne, who is not lacking in resilience or a stranger to campaigning, has felt the strain in the work she loves. She is concerned children are being let down and that her energy and best efforts to be inclusive, including many hours of voluntary work at holidays and weekends, are being depleted. She describes being emotionally drained and realising she couldn’t carry on, even though she might like to: “I have to give 100% or more and if I can’t, I feel I am not doing my job properly.”
Jayne is proud of the inclusive practice she and her colleagues built up over the years at West Lodge. No pupil has been turned away, no pupil has ever been permanently excluded and detentions no longer exist. She is sad that relationships with families and authorities which have taken years to build are being put under pressure – even broken down – by the need to battle for funds and provision.
None of this has diminished Jayne’s passion for inclusive education. In fact she feels it has become even more important in these dark, difficult and uncertain times for schools and society.
“It’s a way of understanding and living in the real world and how we all participate in society. Inclusive education values diversity. This is crucial in times like these when there is less understanding and celebration of diversity and uniqueness”.
Jayne is inspired by the way West Lodge children “understand and support, acknowledge and celebrate’’ difference rather than being wary and mistrustful as can be a problem for many adults. She sees inclusive education as helping all children become “really decent human beings”.
“Imagine the kind of adults the children I have worked with are going to turn out to be. They are going to be amazing. They are still going to come up against situations where they are going to have to question and challenge themselves about how they feel but they have benefited so much from the start they have had in an inclusive school”.
Jayne believes teachers have a moral obligation to be inclusive. That involves discovering the unique “spark” in each child which lights up them and the world around them – and ensuring all children have equal opportunity to achieve without discrimination, intolerance and other barriers to learning. She is in no doubt about the challenges teachers face and that burnout is real, but is still asking them not to give up their chosen paths.
“There is always a solution for any challenge and there are always wonderful moments to celebrate every day”. Jayne says that to keep teachers going they need to be reminded of these moments, how far children have come and the valuable part they have played in making it happen in difficult circumstances. A commitment to inclusion does not mean teachers getting it right all the time but a need for reflecting on practice and ongoing professional development and improvement.
According to Jayne a key component of making inclusion work is the leadership role of promoting an inclusive ethos in school and fostering positive relationships at every level, no matter how challenging the situation. “I’m talking particularly about relationships between disabled children and those with special educational needs and their families, teachers, support staff and members of the leadership team including the headteacher. In many schools where I have worked the head is a somewhat remote figure, only called upon by teachers to reward or reprimand. Inclusion works best when the head and leadership team build positive relationships with all children particularly those with more challenging and complex needs.”
She says the leadership team need to be visible, available and flexible: eg “meeting and greeting” families when they arrive and leave school or taking responsibility for a class in situations of challenging behaviour while the teacher perhaps has a break or the teacher and pupil concerned take time out together to repair any potential breakdown in relationships.
Another key element for being a fully inclusive school, says Jayne, is commitment to a holistic and creative curriculum all children can access. In many schools the curriculum has narrowed due to pressure to achieve specific standards in core subjects. It is also important to recognise that children experiencing social and communication difficulties may struggle with the social demands of the classroom. “Creating a safe and supportive learning environment is crucial for these children. This is not only about having individual workstations with reduced distractions inside the classroom, but enhancing outdoor provision for learning and having other areas around the school where children and staff feel safe and supported. It’s more than making reasonable adjustments and differentiating learning tasks. It is about modification of the entire learning environment”.
Jayne is not sure where she will place her efforts for inclusion in the future and sees herself as probably needing to finish what feels like a convalescence period or maybe a gap year before she can decide.
Inclusion Now wishes Jayne good luck finding her way. I asked if we could interview her in a year’s time to check on progress. She did not say no.