In 2020, what is dubbed the ‘supernova’ of Covid-19 devastated global education and business, leading to increasing calls to move beyond previous models of classroom-based education towards better ways of educating young minds (Azorin 2020).
According to the data from UNESCO, 1.6 billion children have been left out of education during the crisis, and virtually all schools have been paused at some point creating both gaps in learning, and the need for quick re-organisations of resources around digital platforms (Zhao 2020).
We do not know the long-term implications of the educational absences, the differing approaches towards schooling within and between countries, nor the impact on teachers and students’ wellbeing (Harris and Jones 2020).
So what do we know?
From a staffing perspective, there has to be new expectations for teachers needing to embrace a digital world, where the work/home balance is thrown out of kilter through the necessities of delivering lessons digitally (Hargreaves and Fullan 2020).
From a family perspective, the digital divide has been thrown into stark relief, with data from countries like the USA showing 15% of households could not meet the minimum requirements needed to access a digital world, and the UK showing 1.9 million households could not meet these requirements (Harris and Jones 2020).
From a leadership perspective, it has been important to act quickly and with foresight, but also taking the time to carefully consider all options, consequences and side effects of any action which will be taken (Netolicky 2020). Yet this is no easy feat when the future can be as yet unknown government policies or student numbers, and many bricks and mortar international schools facing an existential crisis.
What is clear for school leaders from the research is that: context responsive leadership has become increasingly important
Thus, what is considered best practice in one context may be very inappropriate in others.
Whilst the research field of school leadership and the various responses to the pandemic has become increasingly well researched over the last year, an unintended consequence perhaps of lockdown policies, research which focuses on the impact on students’ labeled with SEN/D has been much slower in its production.
Anecdotally, I can say that the education of these marginalised students has been something of a debate in most globally Northern countries leading to very different outcomes, with the UK prioritising the physical teaching of SEN/D students compared to Canada’s teaching of SEN/D students remaining online.
With this degree of stark variance in methodologies being employed, it is no surprise that a universal consensus on best-practice for educating these learners during a pandemic has not yet emerged.
Therefore whilst the research in general paints a depressing picture as to the impact of this ‘supernova’ for the majority of students, I am going to offer a more hopeful alternative narrative.
SEN/D practices can be split into at least three ideological schools.
You have the medical model of SEN/D which provides ideas about diagnosis, labelling, and therapies - these are all certainly more difficult online as the face-to-face interaction is such a big part of these processes. I would argue that best practice in relation to these facets of SEN/D and Inclusion requires schools to delay or remove the need for labelling entirely, and instead focus on implementing more techniques from the social model.
The social model of SEN/D argues that learners are faced with barriers to their full participation by society, and it is therefore the responsibility of society to remove these barriers. For example, if a student cannot access a digital world as they need a device, or training, or one-to-one coaching, then it is the responsibility of the school to implement this.
At first glance, this personalised approach to access seems easy, however in reality this inclusion requires a change in expectations for class teachers, support assistants, and leadership. This is because best practice in a digital world entails identifying the students who will struggle to access (which may be very different from the typical SEN/D list), identify possible solutions, implement these within a timeline and review them periodically.
Effectively taking the Assess, Plan, Do, Review procedures from the UK’s 2015 code of practice and applying them online, irrespective of whether a student has been diagnosed with a learning need but simply because they need the support to access the learning.
To give some examples, many students who have previously been diagnosed with dyslexia or reading difficulties will need support with their literacy. This can be achieved by downloading a computer reader (I personally recommend ‘Claroread’ for Google Chrome). They may also benefit from screen tints or font adjustments, and a wonderful chrome extension for this is Helperbird.
However, they will all certainly need signposting towards these, and help whilst they first use them, which will require staff to be confident in supporting students to adapt their learning with these tools. Yet the long-term benefits of students adapting their own learning should be clear, with increased independence and sustainable differentiation for their individual needs which will last beyond their schooling.
To achieve these long-term results, the best-practices which have emerged as part of the digital world will need to be blended back into any physical classrooms, in this case with teachers providing all written material through a digital copy in advance. Not an unreasonable expectation for classroom teachers, and yet this change in mindset will only be achieved consistently across schools if it is an expectation that is set and modelled by the leadership.
Many practices utilised by the paraprofessional workforce can also be employed online, such as leading groups of learners, helping students to pre-learn material, reteaching core concepts, to name but a few functions of these vital school personnel.
This requires from leadership a consistency to timetabling, with lesson times which are set and lesson structures with more rigidity than normal.
One model which works particularly well is to have up to half the lesson time led by the class teacher, and half the lesson time in groups so students who receive learning support can receive this. If all lessons follow the same structure, then the communication between teachers and support assistants becomes much easier, with the support assistant knowing what is going on and how they can help.
Another huge benefit of the online medium is that meetings are considerably easier, and therefore daily planning between teachers and assistants is less of an ideal and more a practical reality, if it is timetabled and monitored by leadership.
Therefore in this new digital landscape, there is a hopeful future for SEN/D students, as if their needs are prioritised on an individual basis then previous barriers to their full participation can be removed permanently.
This means inclusion may never have been nearer to becoming a reality.
Perhaps we have one thing to thank Covid for at least.
This article was written by Matthew Lee, Deputy Headteacher and Head of Inclusion at the International Community School - Amman, Jordan. Matthew is a speaker at this year's Outstanding Schools Middle East Conference, on the 12-14 October.