The Role of School Psychologists in Supporting Teachers and LD Teachers to Work Inclusively Within a Standards Agenda
A theme that is apparent throughout much of the School Psychology discourse I have been a part of, or been witness to, is that of the top-down pressures on schools and their staff today. Federal and state government are often named and framed as being antagonistic to the work the School Psychologist is trying to achieve within a school, particularly around issues of inclusion. I have been increasingly involved in meetings and consultations with Learning Disability (LD) teachers, mainstream teachers and parents and have witnessed first-hand LD Teachers openly decrying the curriculum and the constraints that are put upon them. Their goal in mind is often to achieve learning and wellbeing despite the curriculum, rather than because of it. I have also found myself unsure of a response when a LD Teacher tells me the school wishes for a pupil to go to a different provision because they do not think he will meet the expected standard of results. When the choice is framed as being out of the school’s hands, I find myself unsure of a how to respond. The difficulties of finding a common ground between teachers and SPs in these situations can lead to, in my experience, SPs becoming frustrated with teachers and seeking to blame and criticise them as not being inclusive. I would not be surprised if teachers were having similar conversation about SPs not being realistic.
This extended piece of writing will attempt to unpick and clarify the various contexts within which schools operate, the real and perceived pressures teachers are under, and how SPs can work effectively alongside them to promote inclusion. First I will explore the performative context in which teachers and LD Teachers find themselves working today, and the impact this can have on them. I will discuss what role SPs can have in supporting staff in this area, before discussing what approaches that address inclusion and achievement, without sacrificing either, might look like in practice, and discuss examples of work that has already been conducted in this area. Finally, I will reflect on what the implications of this work might be on my own practice.
To begin, I will look at the context under which schools operate, which has been largely influenced in recent decades by what has come to be known as ‘the standards agenda’.
‘For the teacher today, the demands of the job can be overwhelming if not managed carefully. The threat of an impending Ofsted inspection, ridiculous paperwork demands and intensive monitoring all take their toll. And that’s without mentioning the children, who can be more challenging and demanding today than they have ever been’ (Kent, 2012).
Increased centralization of control over both the curriculum and assessment (Z. Brown & Manktelow, 2016), has resulted in a view of education as the attainment of narrowly defined targets (Dyson, Gallannaugh, & Millward, 2003). Schools’ performance data is publicly presented in league tables, and parents are given rights to choose school preferences for their children. ‘The publication of the SAT [Statutory Assessment Tests] results in league tables prioritized the SAT process as a high stakes test for schools, placing schools in direct competition with one another’ (Z. Brown & Manktelow, 2016, p. 71). Rather than achieving professional status through their own training, experience and knowledge, teachers now have to earn such status through externally set performance standards, under increasing public scrutiny. Ball (2003) describes how this culture of performativity creates teachers whose worth is measured through their performance output, regulated through systems of surveillance and self-monitoring:
‘It is the data-base, the appraisal meeting, the annual review, report writing, the regular publication of results and promotion applications, inspections and peer reviews that are the mechanics of performativity. The teacher, researcher, academic are subject to a myriad of judgements, measures, comparisons and targets. Information is collected continuously, recorded and published – often in the form of League Tables, and performance is also monitored eventfully by peer reviews, site visits and inspections. Within all this, there is a high degree of uncertainty and instability. A sense of being constantly judged in different ways, by different means, according to different criteria, through different agents and agencies. There is a flow of changing demands, expectations and indicators that makes one continually accountable and constantly recorded. We become ontologically insecure: unsure whether we are doing enough, doing the right thing, doing as much as others, or as well as others, constantly looking to improve, to be better, to be excellent. And yet it is not always very clear what is expected’ (Ball, 2003, p. 220).
I have included the entirety of the above quote as I feel it aptly captures a sense of the constant pressure experienced by many teachers. Where can inclusion fit in to this performative context? Achieving externally prescribed narrow performance targets, whilst maintaining inclusive principles of welcoming all learners is seen by many as a difficult, perhaps incompatible situation as market competition and public accountability drive schools to become increasingly concerned with the overall performance data (Dyson et al., 2003; Lunt & Norwich, 2008).
In this context, ‘those learners with learning difficulties become problematic for schools […] likely to have a detrimental impact on school performance data (Glazzard, 2011, p. 59). Lunt and Norwich (2008) suggest that schools which rank highly on attainment league tables are not often the same schools that show success in catering for pupils who may be categorized as having special educational needs (SEN), and schools and teachers are not blind to this fact (Hick, Kershner, & Farrell, 2009).
Many pupils’ strengths and abilities may be considered better suited to alternative pathways, perhaps exploring vocational options, apprenticeships or, for some, courses designed to teach and practice independent living skills. Until recently, these alternative pathways were also a source of points for schools in their performance data. But this is no longer the case. With the new Progress 8 system in place, secondary schools are scored solely on their attainment data across certain GCSEs. I have witnessed the effects of this already, with secondary school LD Teachers being concerned about those pupils who are attaining below expected levels. Schools apear no longer incentivised to cater for pupils who aren’t likely to score well in their GCSEs. Inevitably, support for such pupils receives less funding, and options they may have had a few years ago are less likely to be offered by schools. The pressure of maintaining “standards” passes to teachers with such pupils in their class. These teachers are left deciding whether they should act in a way that is inclusive and in line with their beliefs, or whether they should they act in a way that will be observed, measured and secure them some relief from fear of falling short (Ball, 2003; McQueen, 2014). This environment can lead to some very real and concerning impacts upon teaching staff in terms of stress, which will be discussed below.
At the time of writing, recent news reports show that teaching is now considered by some to be in the top three stressful jobs (Wiggins, 2015). Workload and stress have been linked with many negative outcomes for teachers, including damage to health, self-esteem, loss of effectiveness and increased attrition from the profession (Greenfield, 2015). One teacher, writing anonymously in a national newspaper on how the organizational demands of teaching have been a factor in his struggles with mental health, tells of how he eventually had to switch to supply teaching to reduce workload and stress: ‘I demand a lot of myself as a teacher and the demands placed on the teaching profession – by local authorities, Whitehall, governing bodies, heads, parents – mean that I feel a failure far more often than I feel that I am of worth’ (The Secret Teacher, 2016). Stories such as this, when seen in the context of performativity and insecurity described above, suggest that some teachers may start to lose belief in their ability to do the job. Belief in one’s own ability to teach is a key component of teacher self-efficacy, a lack of which is strongly correlated with teacher burnout (C. G. Brown, 2012). Furthermore, C. G. Brown (2012, p. 60) found a particularly strong link with low self-efficacy and depersonalisation, defined as ‘an individual feeling they do not have control over their work situation’. Given the context described above, it is not hard to see where such a feeling might come from. Such descriptions also call to mind the ‘autonomy’ component of self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 2000), which is assumed to be critical to motivation. ‘Teachers spoke of the extent to which in recent years they had lost a degree of autonomy as a result of the necessity to deliver the ‘standards agenda’’ (Dyson et al., 2003, p. 240).
It may not be that all teachers feel this way, or to this degree, but it is a very real possibility that these factors are present in school staff decision-making regarding performance output, and that this stress can be added to when trying to work inclusively as well. How should SPs respond to this situation and how can be work positively and collaboratively with teachers who are working in a very different position to us? Ideas regarding approaches to doing this are explored below.
As discussed above, the current educational climate may be serving to rob teachers of their sense of autonomy, ownership and identity, a process which may exacerbate teacher burn-out and low self-efficacy. In his review of the distinctive contribution of the SP, Cameron (2006, p. 298) discusses the ‘importance of giving parents, teachers, care staff and other direct contact personnel, not only the skills but also conferring on them the status/beliefs to be able to intervene positively on behalf of their children’, noting the outcomes related to empowerment including hopefulness, optimism and a sense of being in control. A consultative approach to SP working (Wagner, 2008) should provide a context within which teachers and LD Teachers are listened to, and their experience and expertise not questioned or undermined. Greenfield (2015, p. 62) suggests that ‘by safeguarding and augmenting teachers’ sense of hope, self-efficacy and purpose we are protecting and promoting their resilience’, which is associated with teacher retention and wellbeing (Beltman, Mansfield, & Harris, 2016). Both Greenfield and Beltman et al. also identify a role for the SP (or school psychologist) in enabling or promoting teacher resilience, whilst other research has identified a role for the SP in also developing a teachers’ sense of efficacy (Gibbs & Miller, 2014) and emotional wellbeing (Salter-Jones, 2012).
Athanasiou, Geil, Hazel, and Copeland (2002) discuss a number of benefits experienced by staff who are in consultation with an Educational or School Psychologist, one of which is the experience of having emotional support. As one teacher from the study described: ‘“[It was helpful] just for me to have somebody to say ‘I’m burned out. I don’t know what to do’ or ‘I’m mad,’ or whatever”’ (p. 291). In my own experience, I have been in the SP role receiving similar sentiments when a school LD Teacher has spoken of how resources to support inclusion has been cut so dramatically over the last few years that she feels that she cannot possibly begin to provide the support many of the children in school require. As described above, there are times when I have felt at a loss for what to say. These matters often consist of very practical concerns, but they come with a high amount of personal stress and anxiety. It is important for an SP to remember that while there is a concern with the practical problems, there is also an important and useful role for us in listening and supporting a staff member’s emotional responses to the situation.
This is not to say that consultation does not involve more practical inputs as well however, and indeed our support is unlikely to be compartmentalised, but will involve both emotional support and practical advice. Beltman et al. (2016, p. 180) describes the provision of ‘strategies, support, encouragement and reinforcement that [teachers] are doing really well under difficult circumstances [helps teachers] feel supported and gives them a sense there is something they can do’. Athanasiou et al. (2002, p. 291) also mention that teachers ‘emphasised a team approach, and wanted support through idea sharing, help coordinating interventions, communication with other professionals and parents, listening, evaluation, feedback etc.’ In my experience with this particular LD Teacher, her main concern was that she had lost a lot of staff members that she could implement to provide 1:1 support for pupils, as well as administering small group interventions. With these options no longer available to the LD Teacher, we discussed how else we might address the pupils’ needs. This is when the broad concept of inclusion becomes more relevant, as we decided any approaches we would consider may have to be built into teaching and classroom practices, as there was no longer capacity for so much individual support. Our thoughts therefore turned to how to support the children she saw as “struggling”, by supporting the whole classes of which they were a part. This is unlikely to be an isolated concern within the current educational climate, and with austerity continuing to hit the pockets of schools and local authorities. In the muddy trenches of real SP work, how can we sup ort teachers and LD Teachers with dwindling resources to work within such a context, whilst also promoting and protecting principles of inclusion? I have highlighted the importance of providing emotional support, and next I will look at practical approaches that may be worth considering.
At this stage, it may be necessary to discuss exactly what we mean by inclusion, if, in fact, we believe it has a single definition. For many, inclusion has been synonymous with “integrating” or “mainstreaming”, and has been preoccupied with the assimilation of children and young people regarding as having special education needs (SEN) into a mainstream classroom. This may be where the perceived problem lies from the perspective of school staff, as integrating all children into a mainstream classroom might imply that all those children must be attaining the same standards, as constructed by governmental guidelines. Today, however, a broader understanding of inclusion has emerged, that does not rely on differential labelling, but instead is concerned with all learners, ‘a process in which schools, communities, local authorities and governments strive to reduce barriers to participation and learning for all citizens’ (Hick et al., 2009, p. 3).
Although this essay concerns itself primarily with school staff, this definition of inclusion serves to remind us that perhaps inclusion cannot simply be achieved within a school, but requires barriers to be removed within and by communities, local authorities and government. Although SPs can and do interact at individual, school and local authority levels (Scottish Executive, 2002), in my experience the most visual direct impact appears to be within a single classroom or school, but it is worth considering a bioecological systems perspective (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 2006), which conceives the classroom as being one of a series of nested systems, reaching from the individual child, out toward larger context of social policies and wider culture. ‘Factors at each level of the system can influence and be influenced by other levels of the system’ claim Odom et al. (2004, p. 18) who give the example that the more time children spend in inclusive programs, the greater their parent’s satisfaction with inclusion is shown to be. Although it may be difficult to imagine that a single meeting with a teacher, parent or LD Teacher is going to change education policy or wider cultural beliefs, it may be some small comfort to believe that an SP’s influence could travel out of the meeting room in the hearts and minds of those we interact with, and may have further impact long after our words spoken and actions performed. For me, this thought underlines the importance of developing and protecting positive relationships with teachers, supporting them however we can, and seeking to work collaboratively to find inclusive solutions they can practice in a standards – driven culture. Before engaging with inclusive practices, teachers will very likely be concerned as to whether such approaches will have a detrimental impact on standards and attainment of pupils. This notion is explored further below.
‘Inclusion and raising standards are of course, incompatible if we choose to adopt the interpretation of these terms made by politicians’ (Rose, 2014, p. 56). With this, an argument is made for celebrating and embracing those teachers and schools who persevere to give all their pupils a full and varied education for life, rather than simply teaching to test. I fully agree that these cases should be celebrated, but my concern is that the politicians of which Rose speaks are the very same that write the statutory legislation that schools and teachers are under pressure to follow. To choose alternative interpretations of inclusion and standards may be easier said than done. ‘When considering the SAT objectives teachers appear predominantly to feel forced to conform’ (Z. Brown & Manktelow, 2016, p. 72). Can schools promote inclusion and effectiveness? If so, there is a key role for SPs in disseminating such information and supporting schools to use such approaches.
There is research to suggest that school staff will be receptive toward finding inclusive solutions. Dyson et al. (2003) describe case studies of some schools that took part in a collaborative action research project with their local authority (LA) and university research teams to explore the tensions between inclusion and the standards agenda, as well as developing practices aimed at overcoming these tensions. Many of the approaches were deemed by the schools to be successful. Whilst much has been written about the dissonance between the two agendas, it was noted that it was this very dissonance that provided ‘the stimulus for schools in the project to try alternative solutions to what were variously described as problems of underachievement, lack of motivation or disengagement in their populations’ (Dyson et al., 2003, pp. 237-238). The researchers also drew attention the fact that the LA tended to support the autonomy of schools and their staff, rather than taking a directive approach. The university research team, in turn, played a role of ‘critical friendship’ for the schools. As I have addressed the issues of lack of control and autonomy for a teacher above, this information would support my own conclusion that supporting teacher’s sense of autonomy and acting as a critical friend should be a key component to and work conducted by an SP.
From all that has been discussed above, it might seem surprising that a school should wish to engage with such a project. As an explanation, it was offered that many schools had reached a plateau with their attainment levels, and there was a growing awareness that current practices were not appropriate to engage all the pupils in their schools. A focus on standards alone can only take us so far. It should also be noted that at the time of the project (beginning in 2000) there may have been more of a political culture supporting inclusion than there is today. As such, school were willing to experiment and explore new and innovative practices to better include all pupils in the classroom. These practices and others will be discussed in the following section, which will focus on supporting teachers through sharing ideas and building awareness of inclusive practices.
As one participant of the Dyson et al. (2003, p. 236) study commented: ‘“Well you can have all these working groups and you can have a national literacy strategy and goodness knows what, and be ticking all those off, but you need somebody working with teachers in the classroom to effect some change.”’ Alongside the emotional support described above, SPs can also play a role in working alongside teachers to create change and to implement new ideas and interventions. This can involve practical activities and specific curricular approaches, but can also involve promoting inclusive ideals and ways of thinking. C. G. Brown (2012) recommends supporting school leadership to promote shared values, goals and norms. This may be an example of using Bronfenbrenner and Morris’s (2006) bioecological systems model to create layers of change. If school leadership can be engaged with and encouraged to think inclusively, and to value learning environments and assessment philosophies that do not promote exclusion of pupils who are attaining below government-prescribed expectations, then it is likely that this will find expression within the classrooms and with the teachers themselves.
When it comes to specific approaches that SPs can discuss with teachers and LD Teachers, one’s definition of inclusion becomes relevant. If approaches are designed to address specific assumed deficits in particular sets of children, this can be thought of as undermining the definition of inclusion given above. Using different pedagogies for different children could be seen as being as a practice of segregation. Florian (2009) argues that the implementation of ‘specialist’ pedagogy into mainstream classes creates problems in itself and can lower feelings of efficacy in teachers and promote negative attitudes toward inclusion. She concludes that ‘the more important agenda is about how to develop pedagogy that is inclusive of all learners’ (p. 42), and argues that ‘teaching strategies used in mainstream education can be adapted to assist students identified as having SEN (special educational needs) in learning’ (p. 48-49), and the idea that specific strategies for specific needs is not only an unrealistic expectation for a teacher’s working knowledge, but it is an approach that does not stand up to research scrutiny. The message that a teacher does not need to learn an indefinite list of different teaching approaches for different types of pupils and employ them all simultaneously in class might go toward relieving teacher stress. An alternative, and perhaps more appealing, approach is therefore to stay within whole-class teaching that ‘rejects deficit views of difference and deterministic beliefs about ability […] but see[s] individual differences as part of the human condition (Florian, 2009, p. 49).
Whilst this is a step in the right direction, I believe it is also of value to consider new and innovative approaches to pedagogy that are better suited to involvement from all pupils, without as much need for adaptation. Ideas around these approaches will be discussed below.
As mentioned above, a key element of inclusive teaching may involve a willingness to reject deficit views of children, and notions of fixed ability. This is undoubtedly a difficult ask for many in the teaching profession, as it is a deeply held construct within the field of education (Swann, Peacock, & Drummond, 2012), but rejection of this way of thinking may underpin truly inclusive ways of teaching and constructing learning. However, rather than attempting to persuade teachers to firstly become explicitly aware of their ontology, and then try to get them to change it, it may be that promoting and employing approaches based on interpretative epistemologies, which are then observed as being successful, could be a more realistic first step.
Swann et al.’s (2012) book ‘Creating Learning Without Limits’ provides a lengthy and comprehensive account of a single Primary School that undertook an extensive project to reconstruct how they view learners and how they construct learning. The foundation of this was a rejection of fixed-ability notions of intelligence and ability. Whilst there is no room here for discussion of the detailed specifics of the program and its outcomes, the overall result was that the school moved from a failing inspections to an ‘Outstanding’ rating in just a few years. To achieve this, the school adopted a pedagogical approach that aimed at transforming learning capacity, based upon the following three principles (Swann et al., 2012):
- Co-agency – Teachers and children work together for change. Children are recognised as active learners and meaning makers.
- Everybody – Decisions are taken in the interests of everybody. The group is a powerful resource for learning for everybody.
- Trust – All children can learn and want to learn, and can be indefinitely resourceful given supportive conditions.
A number of specific approaches to classroom practice are discussed, such as ‘offering choices’, ‘listening to children’, ‘involving children in assessing their own learning’ and ‘learning together’. Similar approaches to these can be seen in across the literature. For example, Kershner’s (2009) discussion of learning in inclusive classrooms draws on social constructivist models of learning, focusing on the ‘collective experience of classroom learning’ (p. 53) and ‘the interplay between individual and group that leads to cognitive growth’ (p.56). Putnam (2009) has also illustrated how co-operative learning can impact positively on academic achievement, social skill development and peer acceptance.
It might also be worth considering approaches that might be implemented with a single pupil or a small group of pupils in mind, but that could be carried out in a fashion that is not exclusionary. For example, with a pupil who was struggling with their reading, and displaying levels of associated anxiety and stress, the use of paired reading as a useful approach was that it constructed the ‘problem’ primarily in terms of the pupil’s stress and avoidance around reading, and it proved a successful way to overcome this barrier to learning. The intervention was not addressed at helping to overcome a deficit, or used in the context of a fixed notion of the child’s ability. The idea was that if the pupil could feel confident and enjoy her reading again, then she would be free to achieve her potential. In this context, the intervention had occurred with the LD Teacher and the pupil, but the potential for such an approach is that it could be used within the whole class, furthering reducing an exclusionary approach.
There are undoubtedly many more examples of inclusive approaches to classroom teaching, and I am encouraged by that which I have already read, such that I will continue to explore the subject, and continue to promote such thinking in schools. When work between SPs and schools is conducted collaboratively, it will be in the interest of both parties that approaches are both effective and inclusive. Whilst I have provided some example above, I would hope that there continues to be quality research conducted in this area.
The tensions that exist for teaching staff between the standards agenda and the inclusion agenda are very real and can be very debilitating, as discussed above. In my own practice, I have already found myself with a potential role in alleviating these tensions, and in this extended piece I have constructed a further role for an SP in recommending and promoting alternative approaches to the standard model of integrating children with various labels into a mainstream classroom. Breaking down the view of fixed ability and promoting the potential benefits of those elements not measured in performance tables, such as agency, involvement, autonomy and trust, seems integral in finding solutions to the barriers put in place with a devotion to standards. The irony is that attainment and achievement can be promoted by addressing these other needs.
The content of this piece therefore has very real implications for my own developing practice. Firstly, I am encouraged by the realization that just being there to provide emotional support to teachers and LD Teachers who are suffering from stress can be useful in and of itself. Secondly, I am gaining awareness and confidence in advocating for alternative approaches and ways of thinking, and am able to suggest these, not as an alternative to standards, but as an alternative approach to improve attainment for all children. However, I recognise that the prescriptive nature of the curriculum, as well as how progress is assessed, will remain a barrier. As Lunt and Norwich (2008, p. 105) conclude ‘there is more to inclusive education than setting out generic school-level strategies for special educational needs in general’. They emphasize a need for further interdisciplinary research in this area. There is also a role for the School Psychologist here, which will hopefully serve to address other parts of the systems described by Bronfenbrenner and Morris (2006). I have, however, come to believe that standards and inclusion can be achieved together, and therefore SPs can support school staff in a way that is genuinely collaborative and respectful. The assumption implied by some that school staff do not care about inclusion can be dismissed, and together we can work toward finding solutions.