Tag Archives: SEMH

Last weekend saw the annual behemoth that is the researchED national conference come to Harris Academy St John’s Wood in London. Despite some navigational challenges it was rammed with people enjoying themselves speaking and listening and questionning in the way these things should be and I’ve seen various accounts blogged over the past week.

My role at work has changed this year as I start working for our trust on various bits including CPD so I had a mixed focus on the sessions I attended which included:

  • Karen Wespieser and Jules Daulby on Dyslexia
  • Becky Allen on Pupil Premium (OMG, if you weren’t there, or even if you were, read the blog version here)
  • Rob Coe, Steve Higgins, Philippa Cordingley & Greg Ashman on Meta Anaylsis
  • Daniel Muijs on Research at Ofsted
  • Sam Sims, Steve Farndon and Emily Henderson on Instructional Coaching
  • Christine Counsell charing a panel on 21st Century Curriculum

It was a guddun.

This year was also a bit different for me as I took a step out of my Journal Club comfort zone and gave a presentation on my experiences developing the research lead role in a special school (don’t worry JC fans, I’m already booked in to give those a good plug, with biscuits, at rEDBrum and the Habs Girls conference next year). I debated whether to include the term ‘Special School’ in the title of my talk as on one hand it provides a level of SEND visibility to rED, but on the other hand I worried about people dismissing my presentation as not for them. I do think visibility is important so I went for it and as it turned out I was up against Gibb and at least three other keynote-worthy sessions so I don’t think I needed to over-think the attendance too much.

One of the things I focussed on, aside from the logistical bits of being a research lead, was the element of ‘oh no, not you of course’ that I seem to come up against. I think SEMH is an interesting sort of SEND when it comes to research as our pupils can follow a reasonably mainstream curriculum and don’t generally have the needs people associate as ‘special’ so we find ourselves in the middle where if I point out something doesn’t quite fit us in either the mainstream or SEND I get the ‘ oh no, not you of course’ response. This seemed familiar to some of the people who came to my presentation too and is perhaps something for me to explore a little further.

Criticism of researchED is healthy and there have been some interesting reflections following Saturday, including a continuation of a conversation started by a comment on the amount of SEND representation on the line-up which Karen Wespieser and Jules Daulby have pretty much reflected my thoughts on already in their post ‘ResearchED 2018: Everyone’s a teacher of SEND’. I want to pick up on their point about an ‘us and them’ position because I keep coming back to it as I think about the day. I have spoken at lots of events, mostly about journal clubs, and for researchED this includes at least three national conferences, Washington DC, Sweden and Ontario. In addition to this I have attended many more and at each of these events, speaking or not, I was SEND representation. I am a teaching assistant, in an SEMH special school, and also happen to be the research lead – everything I take part in is framed in my context.

My presentation hit on some of the challenges I have faced as a special school research lead because there are differences and barriers. I completely agree that we have a responsibility to include SEND pupils and issues in our questions and reflections on any form of professional development, conference or otherwise. What ‘counts’ as SEND will differ between people but I know that researchED events are attended by the whole spectrum of educators including those from special schools, AP, PRUs, SENCOs and teaching assistants. I think presentations addressing some specific issues will be welcomed but I don’t want there to be tokenistic SEND presence to ward off criticism either. The thing is, we don’t know why everyone is there or what their motives are, and I think if we truly recognise that everyone is a teacher of SEND, then we must recognise that everyone is also a representative of SEND.

As always the researchED national conference has given me food for thought to start the new year. There are already exciting things coming up and I’ve got plenty of ideas to keep me going (in my SEND setting) and hopefully there are plenty more to come!


This was a juicy one. Our PE teacher Joe came to see me the other day to ask if I took requests for looking at research – Research Lead 101 says yes I do, so I did. Apparently PE Edutwitter has been talking about cooperative learning for teaching PE. He wanted to know if there’s anything specifically that supports cooperative learning for SEMH pupils.

Certainly in regards to more academic subjects (the cooperative learning literature seems to use ‘mainstream classroom’ a lot but I’m adding SEND to the mix so don’t want to confuse things) direct instruction with occasional support from a bit of group work is something I’m happy with. In PE there’s obviously a lot of group work going on so it seemed like something that was worth a look at, particularly the opportunity to look at it from an SEMH/SEBD (the literature hasn’t caught up with SEMH yet) point of view.

The other thing that intregued me was that a few times now (I’ve no references, just vague memories) I’ve heard sports instruction – direct instruction, drilling, practice of individual skills rather than whole-game – as examples for what we should be doing in other subjects. Here is PE looking at the alternatives to doing that.

I thought it was a good opportunity to try out something I’d been mulling over and create a single-subject add-on to Relay. I’ve ended up creating ‘Relay FOCUS’ which in this instance looks at the research surrounding PE and SEBD/cooperative learning more broadly and then explores how they might work together. I’m not sure whether Joe was quite after what I’ve ended up with but I’m pleased with how it’s turned out and hopefully there’s more individual requests that I can work on.

I know it’s not perfect and it won’t cover the whole topic nearly enough, but it’s not intended as a formal piece of literature research and hopefully it’s enough to help Joe decide whether he want to explore the approach or whether it’s something he wants to look into more.

If you fancy having a glance, the pdf’s here: http://westburyschool.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Relay-FOCUS-Cooperative-Learning-and-PE.pdf


I came to the realisation yesterday that our whole school is a bottom set.

I was very much looking forward to hearing Professor Becky Francis deliver her keynote at rEDYork yesterday. I’ve heard her speaking a few times, both as presenter and as questioning audience member, and I pretty much want to be Becky Francis when I grow up. This time the talk was about ‘The problematic interface between research, policy and practice: the case of attainment grouping’, with an overview of the general picture and an introduction the EEF-funded ‘Best Practice in Grouping Students’ study.

As our school works up to full 7-16 two-form entry we are finding ourselves in a position where we’re starting to allocate children to classes based partly on their attainment. There are other things we consider and sometimes there are still very different levels in the same class, but there’s a general move towards a ‘higher’ group and a ‘lower’ group. I don’t think the pupils are ever explicitly told this is the case – perhaps in KS2 where they switch up the classes for different subjects a bit more, but I’m not sure the pupils are particularly aware. Anyway, as we’re just starting to get on the ‘set’ bandwagon I was particularly interested in the presentation to see what I could take back to school.

What I found was something much more than a few take-away bits of feedback. I tweeted that I felt like I’d had an ‘epiphany’ and I’m still trying to work out what that is exactly, but as I sat scribbling my notes I pretty much worked out that our whole school is essentially a bottom set and there are probably other schools that are similar. I’m not sure how coherent I can be with what I’m thinking but I feel like there’s an answer to something here.

Our general school demographic matches Becky’s description of the make up of bottom sets – disproportionate representation of low socio-economic status, gender imbalance (we’re designated a mixed school but all 75 of our pupils are boys). All our pupils have been taken out of other schools, possibly after a few permanent exclusions and a stint at the PRU, normally for their behaviour (regardless of ‘ability’). With all of this they’re statistically likely to have already experienced being in a bottom set and many already have low self-confidence and feel like they’ve been written off. Add to this that for every one of our pupils they’ve got a bunch of similar friends back in mainstream, it’s probably not something that’s isolated to our school.

I’m still trying to write about my recent thoughts on cultural capital for a separate post and whilst this has thrown a bit of a spanner in things, I still think that as a staff team, and as a general school ethos, we recognise that we need to instill an attitude that they can achieve and be successful – providing them with opportunities and in many cases, a future. What we probably don’t admit, or perhaps recognise, is that the symbolic implications of segregation and the societal associations between setting and ‘high standards’ are probably so ingrained that we are still creating limits for them. Even without putting any of our pupils in sets, they come to us already matching the criteria for a bottom set and I’m wondering if our associations between the demographic and expectations are so deeply entrenched that we don’t even realise we’re doing it. If staff have these societal preconceptions, pupils have them and parents have them, what happens? Do we just accept it?

If we really tried to analyse our practice we could probably identify quite a few of the factors Becky mentioned – both ones we thought we were tackling and ones beyond our control. Lack of fluidity in groups – we’ve got two classes of c.8 pupils in each year; fluidity is tricky. Quality of teaching – we have a few specialist subject teachers but run a mostly primary model through to KS4 with class teacher to class group in all subjects. Teacher expectations and pedagogy – success is brilliant, but if we’re honest, we aren’t surprised if they don’t get straight A*s (or, for some, Ds). I worry that we become complacent and lower expectations are normal. This isn’t just staff as I said before, this is entrenched in staff, pupils, parents, society. It makes the successes we have stand out – even the small ones. And we celebrate them, and we should.

We are highly aware of the limitations that have already been put on our pupils but I realise now that it’s possibly the tip of an iceberg that doesn’t just impact our pupils and maybe the Bottom Set Effect has a wider, self-fulfilling reach. In more than one session yesterday I found myself coming back to the thought that ‘Does everything just work enough not to be seen as an urgent problem?’ Maybe this is one of those things too.

So what do you do when you realise your whole school is a bottom set? How do you go about changing these subconscious preconceptions? Even if they’ve turned into conscious preconceptions, can we change things? Change is hard and it’s risky.

I’ve still not quite formulated what my thoughts are but I have questions about whether as we expand into KS1 it’ll be better – getting them before the Bottom Set Effect hits – or as we get them earlier, does that ingrain the bottom-set-ness earlier? Are we actually just creaming off the bottom set early? Is that self-fulfilling? What happens when you put the bottom set in sets? How does it work with our small classes? I know when I’ve looked at setting in the past there’s been evidence that the impact is less on small groups due to the focussed attention etc. We’ve got 8 pupils and two staff in a class so maybe it’s not too bad?

Regardless of whether we set or not, I’m still struck by how closely we seem to fit the ‘criteria’ for a bottom set and I can’t help thinking that if we can apply some of the advice that comes from either the EEF trials or other investigation in this area, there’s an answer to something somewhere and I’m not even sure what the question should be, but we can make things better. We can always get better.


I vaguely followed the Michaela debates on Saturday, picking out bits from the people who were there and the conversations that took place for the rest of the weekend. A topic that seems to have caught wider attention is ‘“No Excuses” discipline’, with lots of Twitter activity and a few blogs setting out thoughts. Since then I’ve had a think about where our school sits in all this and actually I’m not sure it’s quite where I would’ve said it was on first thoughts.

My initial thoughts on ‘No Excuses’ are that it sounds great for some, but what happens to the ones that have to move on? I’m not the only one to think like this and I’ve seen references to SEND, family crises etc. What happens to the pupils and families that don’t ‘fit’? Where do they go? As Rachel Humphrey asked on Saturday, can the ‘No excuses’ setting only exist because there are others that will take the fall out? Quite often in these discussions, people put special schools to one side – “of course you’ll be different, you have different/ extreme circumstances” – but actually, as an SEMH school, all our pupils have all come from mainstream where they’ve left behind just as many pupils that could be here. We can’t afford to have strict ‘No Excuses’. We’re the end of the road. If I was asked during the debates, I would have said that we operate flexibly around our pupils’ needs. Having thought and read though, I think we do have ‘No Excuses’. We don’t let our pupils make excuses, but we do understand they have reasons.

Reading Jonathan Porter’s speech in favour of ‘No excuses discipline works’ I was struck with how much I agreed with – and how much of that we do. I wouldn’t have said it was ‘No Excuses’ but it seems to fit. I suppose it’s how we sanction pupils that’s probably different. Jonathan mentions the understandable points of uniform, time keeping, equipment. We have an awesome Attendance Officer solidly enforcing the expectation pupils are in by the 9.00 bell, so we get that one. Uniform’s not quite the same as it’s not compulsory, but they do get randomly rewarded if they’re in it when the Head does a spot-check and most of the boys wear it. As far as PE kit and equipment go, we recognise that there may be issues with these and so we’ve taken the problem away by providing (and washing) it all. No arguments over forgotten kits or swanky pencil cases. No excuses.

I recognise the tale of ‘Tom’ all to well. Our pupils come with chunky files and muliple agency recommendations. Very often there’s a history of sporadic school attendance and often a request for phased introduction. I’ve baselined kids hiding under tables, brandishing weapons and screaming their hearts out – some are being properly naughty, most of them are just scared. They’ve heard all sorts of tales, they’re pretty much de-schooled and I’m sitting there asking them to reveal how embarrassed they are about their reading levels. We don’t have them start part time. They come in full time and if they have a tantrum we sort it out and get them back in class. That’s where the vast majority stay for most of the time.

So it seems like we’re actually a lot more ‘No Excuses’ than I’d thought we were. Some of this is probably to do with how my idea of what ‘No Excuses’ means is perhaps a bit harsher than the reality, but I keep coming back to this idea of ‘Reasons’. We have our fixed heirarchy of sanctions, and obviously if there’s something violent or seriously disruptive there’ll be serious consequences, but we if we can understand the reasons for a behaviour, we can help solve the problem. For that reason I’m much more comfortable with John Tomsett’s approach.

If a pupil doesn’t take their medication in the morning, we don’t let them use it as an excuse not to behave. We deal with the behaviours as they happen, but if they reveal half way trough the day that they haven’t had their morning dose, it goes a long way to explaining why they’ve been up in the air and we know there’s nothing more serious* going on. We’d much rather they tell us first thing that they’ve not had their tablet – not as an excuse, but as a reason why they may need a few minutes out or be struggling to focus.

*I saw Sean Harford commented around safeguarding and ‘No Excuses’. This is another big niggle I’ve got going on. We know our boys. We know the patterns of behaviour they have and this is really important for spotting safeguarding issues. I worry that ‘No Excuses’ means that you can miss the reasons and miss what’s going on in a pupil’s life. They change so subtly and it’s for us to spot these things. this isn’t a special school thing, this is an every school thing.

One of the points in favour of ‘No Excuses’ that I read was how you can’t have different things for different people or it all falls apart.  I agree with this for the majority of the time, but I also think there are occasions where it is acceptable, and even beneficial to other pupils, to allow for concessions. I think it can be good for them to see that other people get different things sometimes. They don’t always like it at the time, but I think it can be important for pupils to see that sometimes things get in the way and consideration is given, whether that’s not having homework because they were kicked out of their home in the middle of the night, or Year 11 allowed to go off site for lunch and the others not. The way we deal with and explain it to pupils is important.

We aren’t perfect. There are times where we need to be more consistent and I would argue there are probably times where we could’ve been more flexible. We are facing the challenges of a fairly rapid school expansion within a building that doesn’t expand at the same rate. We have staff with 20+ years service (at our school) and staff fresh from a mainstream setting. There are more voices and opinions of how things should work than ever before and we need to do the best we can for our pupils. We are good at reviewing our systems regularly and understand that what works for KS4 one year might be totally inappropriate for the next. We’re small and can afford to make changes, but as we grow it is becoming harder.

Ultimately though, pupils like boundaries, they like to know where they stand and quite often ours come from a home life where the boundaries don’t exist. We can’t offer a ‘No Excuses’ environment where if a kid, or their family, doesn’t tow the line then they can go elsewhere. We are the end. We are it. People are surprised when they see how our pupils behave and what they achieve. We don’t let them use their backgrounds as an excuse not to do well, but there are reasons why they have a place with us and we need to recognise that.