Is it time for a national Special Schools research network?

Today, as part of my recently acquired role developing Research and Development within the Oxfordshire Teaching Schools Alliance I attended an event on Closing the Gap and how to set up RCTs. Inevitably, given my professional background, my thoughts wandered on to how this would work within a Special School setting and in particular how we would achieve a large enough cohort size to create statistically relevant results. One of the models that was discussed was a ‘honeycomb’ framework of partnership, within which multiple settings delivered the intervention and from which the results were collated. This threw up some interesting discussions around variability and how this can be managed. However, whilst in principle this would be an effective way of increasing cohort sizes for Special school based studies, my concern is that there are significant additional variables in Special schools which may affect the data and therefore the conclusions.

The reason for this is that the structural and operational variance within Special schools seems to me to be greater than in mainstream settings. Part of the reason for this is the freedoms we are allowed in interpreting the curriculum to ensure its accessibility for our students, but also because there is no agreed, or indeed well evidenced, way of structuring Special schools and the provision they offer. The school’s broader philosophy, or sometimes just that of the Head, can often determine the core operational and organisational characteristics of the school in a wide variety of ways. So how would we increase the number of research participants in the ‘honeycomb’ manner, without introducing a multiplicity of variables that could render the comparability of the data meaningless?

What occurred to me, and I have had this thought previously, was that there may be value in setting up a national database of research focused Special schools. Within this you could capture the characteristics of the provision, operational and organisational structures and demographic information in order to find statistically and philosophically comparable schools across the country. Therefore when you were looking for participant schools to build viable cohorts you could begin to isolate certain variables which may affect the outcomes in ways unintended by the study. You could of course also search for areas of research experience or interest allowing schools to better identify those who may be of value approaching.

The following is a list of some of the variables which may be worth considering:

How pupils are grouped – e.g. Age, clinical diagnosis, combinations of multiple grouping approaches

Age range of the pupils

Designation of the school and in turn primary designation of the pupils attending

Number on role

Distribution of pupils by Gender, FSM, LAC, EAL, Ethnicity

Socio-economic characteristics of the school

Class sizes

Staff/pupil ratio

Residential or Day provision

Curricular structure

Way in which subjects are taught – Specialist / Generalist

Location of the school e.g. Unit in a mainstream school, Co-located, stand alone Special School

Now I am sure I have missed some, so let me know what else should be considered and then all we need to do is find a way of building and hosting the database.

How do I know how you feel?

I was talking to a group of Special school leaders at the recent Key conference, (Highly recommended by the way), and whilst discussing our approaches to assessment I was asked an interesting question. One of the delegates observed that assessing cognitive development was one thing, but could we assess, and in turn evaluate progress, relating to emotional development and in particular resilience. I tried to answer but resorted to describing what we did in terms of context based opportunities in the community rather than what was achieved, so then accepted that I’m unsure whether we do this particularly well. Coincidently this week the focus of our weekly curriculum development meeting, our only compulsory after school meeting, was on how we support the emotional needs of our pupils.

These meetings are guided by our development planning and are tightly focused on improving the outcomes for our pupils. They are intellectually demanding and robust discussions that shape the consensus necessary to achieve the consistency of provision that enables our pupils to succeed. This particular meeting was no different and threw up some really interesting and thought provoking questions.

They were, in no particular order:

How effective are we at supporting pupils to understand the nature of their feelings when they haven’t necessarily developed the linguistic skills required to express how they feel?

How effective are we at developing the relationships necessary to enable pupils to have the confidence to open up?

Do we focus too heavily on supporting the behavioural symptoms of emotional turmoil rather than investing time in developing our pupils’ strategies to manage their own emotions?

Given that much of the social behaviour we teach successfully comes from effective modelling, do we suppress our negative emotions in front of the pupils even when there is a shared emotional context?

Do we apply our own emotional reference points to the pupils’ responses too readily without evaluating objectively the extent to which our pupils may or may not respond to situations in a comparable way?

Can we develop resilience in our pupils without crudely exposing them to negative experiences and how can failure and disappointment be used in a sophisticated and constructive manner whilst progressively increasing the challenge?

Do we have a desire to make everything better and in doing so deny our students the opportunity to be better equipped for a world which can be quite bruising at times?

Is there a particular response we are looking for within certain emotional situations and is that informed by a preconception about what is typical?

Are our pupils inherently resilient as a result of the challenges they may have had to overcome?

Do we know how our pupils feel?

Now this is the beginning of a professional development journey and some of those questions will be answered very quickly and others less so. Some will require a longer term evaluative process and many hours of discussion before we begin to consolidate our thoughts, but consolidate them we will. This will result in the development of our collective understanding and the pedagogical approaches we use in order to try and ensure we do our very best for the pupils we teach.

Then it will be on to the next challenge.