4 Collaborating with others to create a more inclusive learning environment
Changing attitudes, behaviours and systems to be more inclusive takes time and a consistent focus on why such changes are necessary for the good of the students’ learning. As a leader, you may have begun to change your own perspective and be modelling more inclusive attitudes and behaviours, but facilitating your staff to be more inclusive will only come if they are empowered at an individual level to think about the implications for their own practice, to hear of what others are doing and to share their thoughts. Inclusion will be most successful in improving learning outcomes if it is consistent across the school and embedded in every aspect of a student’s experience. Therefore it is essential that all staff are involved collaboratively in the process of planning and taking action.
Now read the story of Mrs Menon, a school leader who felt forced to take action to broach the equality, diversity and inclusion agenda in her school.
Case Study 1: Mrs Menon’ s staff meeting
An order had been received by Mrs Menon, the principal of an elementary school, regarding a 25 per cent reservation for students from economically deprived families. She and her colleagues felt that 25 per cent of the new students must not be forced on their school from the deprived socio-economic section. Yet the order had arrived in the form of a circular that she could not ignore. She would have to break the news to her board. They would ask her how she was going to do this. It was Friday, and she had no plan.
By the time she boarded the bus going home, Mrs Menon had sent a copy of the circular to her staff, with a note requesting them to stay on after school on Monday for a meeting about the issue. She sent a similar note to the non-teaching and office staff. She picked up a copy of the National Curriculum Framework and the RtE from her office cupboard. She was going to read them over the weekend and prepare for the meeting, which could be stormy.
It was a very different Mrs Menon who entered school after the weekend. Although she regularly walked around the school on a Monday, this time she seemed to be looking for something particular. During a class observation she asked the students a lot of questions that were very different compared with those she usually asked during her rounds. Then when she went through their notebooks, she asked for the learning resources and seemed more interested in their content than in what the students had written.
That afternoon, Mrs Menon began the meeting in a new way. She asked her teachers to sit in groups. Each group was then joined by one or two non-teaching staff members. She asked them to listen to some passages she read out from the NCF that spoke of the educator’s responsibility in bringing about social change. She had photocopied the relevant passage and handed it out to the groups. At the end of the readings, she said:
There was silence in the staff room. Then one teacher said, ‘Yes, ma’am, of course we can accept the challenge.’ And then everyone got to work.
Mrs Menon went from group to group, listening intently to the discussions, noting the teachers who were speaking with passion. She knew they would be her future champions and that she would need them to speak up often. At the end of the meeting, Mrs Menon was armed with enough strategies to answer the queries from her board. By changing the way she ran her staff meeting, Mrs Menon had involved her staff in the issues and solutions, modelling implicitly an inclusive approach and generating a range of strategies that she may never have thought of herself.
Activity 5: Collaborating to explore new approaches
Reflect on Case Study 1 in your Learning Diary by considering the following questions:
- Mrs Menon underwent a significant change in her own attitudes towards the issues that the circular raised. Consider what she would have done over the weekend to instigate this change. How easy or difficult do you feel it would have been for her to make this change? What factors might hinder someone else in that situation from being able to make the same shift in their mindset?
- The staff at the meeting were also asked to make a significant change in their attitudes. What helped them to do this? If you were in the same situation, what arguments or resources could you draw on to help make the case to staff about the importance of changing their perspectives?
- What steps did Mrs. Menon employ in the meeting to empower each member of staff to work collaboratively?
- What have you learned from this case study that could help you in a similar scenario?
You will have noticed that although Mrs Menon had reservations about including students from other groups in her school, she embraced the challenges and took a positive approach. She realised that to successfully accommodate these new students, she needed to prepare for their arrival and inclusion in the school.
We aren’t told what actions Mrs Menon took over the weekend that caused her own change in perspective, but we know she consulted official documentation. It is unlikely that this in itself will have caused a change in attitude, but may have put in sharp relief that she needed to engage and address these issues. However, we know that in keeping student achievement and participation in mind, Mrs Menon was open to having her opinions changed. Not everyone finds this easy, and there may be staff in your school who consciously or subconsciously fight against alterative perspectives or ways of thinking. In this particular case study there was an external factor driving the change and a short timescale that made Mrs Menon address her own attitude very quickly. However, it is likely that you will identify issues and address them over a longer period of time, giving you the ability to gradually introduce changes and ways of thinking, bringing around staff who have difficulty in making the transition.
Mrs Menon, we can suspect, knew it was going to be difficult to change the attitudes of her staff in such a short period of time, so she was clear with her staff about what was expected and sought out her allies. All research states clearly that the leader of the school has to be clear about the goals of education and that, by broadening their goals beyond exam results for the few to inclusive learning opportunities for all, a leader will build a school where students and staff value equity and relationships.
Did you notice that Mrs Menon asked her staff to embrace these new students ‘without prejudice’? That is a key request. We all have prejudices – sometimes grounded in bad experiences, but more often they are not founded on real evidence. It is important always to examine the basis for our prejudice in order to question its validity. Prejudice against ethnic groups, women or people with a disability is unfortunately very common, but schools can be a place where that prejudice is not accepted as valid. Mrs Menon tackled head on the prejudicial attitudes that she suspected were in her school, leading by example in reassessing and tackling her own prejudices.
You may also note that, as leader, Mrs Menon realised that she did not have to address ‘the problem’ all by herself: she used the resources – the ideas and skills – within the school to help that school community rise to the challenge together. And you will note also that she involved all members of that community. It is easy for us as teachers to discriminate against ‘non-teaching’ staff: they may not ‘teach’, but anyone who interacts with students are important partners in setting the tone of inclusion within the school community. Therefore, they offer a very valuable perspective that complements that of teaching colleagues.
Having got her staff to discuss the issues relating to a priority group of students and think about actions they could or should take collectively to ensure that these students achieved to their potential, Mrs Menon and her staff would then have to plan how to implement these changes. These changes will be context- and student-specific.
Activity 6: Baseline for an action plan
In Activity 5, Mr Sharma noted that, as well as being the object of prejudice, there were fewer learning opportunities for a female student from the economically weaker section of a minority community with poor access to education and awareness. Either use this example or choose a priority area you have identified for addressing inclusion in your school and think about what steps can be taken to address their needs. You will have started to think about this in Activity 6, but now is the time to make more concrete, specific action plans. You might want to work with another colleague on this to share perceptions and collaborate on appropriate actions. It may help if you consider doing the following.
Identify the girls from the economically weaker section of different minority groups in your school (or the students from your chosen priority). Identify the students, their class, subjects taken, the family and socio-cultural background, and the attendance and grades obtained in each subject. If you have a large number of students to focus on, then choose a case study group of, say, six to ten students to get a feel for the issues that they face.
- Consider the four dimensions of inclusion (access, acceptance, participation and achievement) to assess in what specific ways the students experience exclusion or disadvantage.
- Find some time from your busy schedule to sit in on some lessons with these students. Do not obviously make them the focus of your attention, but observe how they engage with learning. Ask yourself: Are they participating? What might be the barriers to their active participation? How might they be supported individually to participate more fully in the teaching–learning process?
- You may like to also to understand their background and home situation more holistically . Consider meeting the parents of these students. Have any of them met with you to speak about their child, or the difficulties that the child has faced in school? What is it they would like for their children? What support for their learning or what learning experiences do they receive at home?
- Arrange to talk to the students about their experiences in school and of their learning. You will need to carefully assess whether this is best done in a group situation or individually, and you must ensure that they feel relaxed and free to talk without fear of your reaction or of others finding out the specifics of what they have said. However, it is essential to hear directly from these students, as they are likely to have a very good grasp of the specific difficulties that they face and may be able to tell you what interventions will work.
You are building the baseline for an individual education profile of each of the students. Although these students will have certain factors in common, it is very important not to treat them merely as a ‘set’. Each one may have other factors that also impact on their learning; differing personalities will also influence their readiness to learn and resilience. You will not therefore be looking for a single solution to address their needs and improve their learning, although there may be common themes that can be addressed as a single intervention.
Having thought in detail about a particular inclusion issue in your school, you are likely to have developed a good understanding of what is preventing the identified students from achieving their potential and have already identified the actions that need to be taken. Interventions or actions to create a more inclusive learning environment will be quite specific to your context but may involve the following:
- Considering how to create a stronger feeling of partnership between the student and teachers. This could involve empowering the students to speak up if they are having difficulty – which will help staff to understand how students are finding the learning – or for teachers to be more active in seeking feedback on how the students feel they are getting on.
- Developing systems to enable students to discuss personal circumstances that are having a negative impact on their learning.
- Adjusting the teaching methods, learning resources or assessment techniques to enable students to learn fully and effectively.
- Making changes to the school environment or systems to ensure that students feel safe, supported and provided with the maximum opportunity to succeed.
- Addressing specific attitudes or behaviours that have a negative impact on the culture of the school as a whole. This might be expressed through actions, how students are referred to or talked about (for example, if a lack of attainment in socio-economically deprived students is always accepted as the norm without any sense of ambition for better), or something as seemingly small as to how rewards or prizes are given (for example, if school prizes are only given for sport, and are always given to male students).
Activity 7: Making a strategic plan to promote inclusion
Now you will make a plan using this same example of ‘female students from the economically weaker section of a minority community with poor access to education and awareness as well as being the object of prejudice’, or the alternative group that you have identified for your school.
- Assign roles to teachers in identifying the students from different classes. Discuss what data is to be collected for purposes of planning. Also define how it is to be collected (for example, by interaction, observation, from parents or others), and how it is to be recorded.
- Study the data that you and your staff have gathered, and identify your collective vision of how the female students’ learning outcomes will be different over the next term and year.
- Develop a strategy to work with these students not as a homogenous group but on an individual basis , involving their parents and your staff towards this goal. Are there others who might help advise you on this?
- Identify the barriers to reaching your goal in terms of the skills, attitudes and the motivation of the female students, parents and the staff.
- Identify how to build the skills, attitudes and motivation that are needed (for example, training or coaching), and negotiate any resources that might be needed.
- Agree to a schedule to monitor progress and evaluate outcomes at the end.
- Schedule periodic meetings with those involved to discuss progress, provide feedback and review the adopted strategy.
This is not an activity that you can do alone. It needs to involve others on your team to ensure a whole-school approach. You may also consider getting the target students involved, or a student council, if you have such a body. You may also draw on the advice or expertise of a community group that understands issues relating to this specific group, thereby getting the community involved.