The National Education Union: SEN, Disability and Inclusion
Colleen Johnson was recently elected onto the National Executive of the National Education Union as their representative for disabled members. A few months into office, Coleen describes what’s she’s been doing and sets out her vision for the future of disabled pupils and staff.
In January this year I took up my position as the new seat-holder for disabled members on the National Executive of the NEU. It was very important to me to build on the dynamism that resulted in me being elected. Thus quite early on I visited Lambeth district to talk about the effects of the funding crisis on our SEND pupils. It is good to see both parents and educators working closely together on this issue to highlight and challenge this dreadful situation. It is shocking to think that in 2019 we have schools saying they are not being given the funds to support SEND pupils and that pupils with SEND are six times more likely to be excluded from school than their peers!
More on SEND issues later – after meeting the new organiser for disabled members, it was decided under the spirit of ‘Nothing About Us Without Us’ to visit the proposed venue for our Disabled Members Conference 2019 and to do a full access audit with a group of disabled members and NEU staff. This felt like a much more inclusive process which should yield better results for members.
Since the beginning of the Spring term I have visited both Somerset and Southern Derbyshire NEU in order to talk to members about self-identifying as disabled to the NEU. It is important too I feel, that people really understand and use the social model of disability and realise that reasonable adjustments can and should be requested to help them at work. Our group needs to grow within the NEU as we must become a force to be reckoned with, not just an afterthought.
I have begun to think about what works for disabled members if we are to have a more diverse workforce. A meeting with both Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretaries, provided lots to think about when armed with questions from members. A meeting with Nick Gibb MP is being sought so that disabled members can talk about being in school and what works or causes barriers for them. What pleases me most is to hear about collective action in relation to a disabled member, like recently at Connaught School for Girls in Waltham Forest where NEU members supported their colleague brilliantly under the direction of the school rep, or when I’m chatting to a district secretary who is very skilled at supporting disabled members so they remain at work and are not managed out of the profession with a settlement agreement.
NEU Annual Conference took place in Liverpool this year and it began almost instantly with a very positive and large disabled members’ reception. It was great to see how our new larger union included more activists who wanted to be out and proud as disabled people. Different officers and officials from the union dropped by to say thank you to the outgoing seat holder Mandy Hudson and to welcome me to the role.
During the conference the motion from the Disabled Teachers Conference was passed despite attempts to weaken it. The motion called for role sharing on the national executive for disabled members, those with caring responsibilities or parents. It also sought the creation of a new publication to welcome disabled members to our profession and to tell them about their rights. Finally, it requested improved training for those representing disabled members. It was a wide ranging, ambitious motion but it passed with a two thirds majority required to get a rule change in this situation.
In the Education SEND Section, Motion 23 Supporting Special Educational Needs and Disabilities passed including both its amendments. It includes setting up a forum so that staff working within special needs can feed back to the union promptly. It highlighted the need for Changing Places facilities and it sought to improve SEND training for new teachers. On several occasions, the motion referred to an inclusive model and an inclusive curriculum – much needed for all our children, I feel.
During the conference breakout time I attended a session about The National Education Service where several people spoke eloquently about the future of education under a Labour administration. As plans are still not laid down in detail Richard Rieser from World of Inclusion noted that there was considerable wiggle room to highlight the importance of inclusion. He believed that there was the possibility of a new curriculum coming along and that in coming years a truly inclusive education system could be developed. This system would be based on added value where the social development of youngsters was key as part of a child-centred approach. Families of schools would work together in order to educate all our children together. As for barriers, there should be an ombudsman to deal with complaints from parents and schools. But schools should be accessible as should the curriculum. It was great to listen to this vision, a world away from our current test-based curriculum that is so damaging to all our children.
Going forwards myself – well there’s lots to do…Disabled Workers TUC, the Northern NEU Equality Conference, improving our training to support our members better and the SEND Conference in Durham to attend. All this as well as being in school with the children, teaching. These are exciting times if we are determined and are clear about what we want to achieve.