A Bespoke
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Bespoke learning for life

School performance tables have become an entrenched reality as successive Governments and parents seek to determine a school’s success by, at primary level, its SATs results and, in the secondary phase, GCSE and A-level results. Whilst value-added performance indicators have gone some way to redress the balance, the continued focus on league tables does little to enhance the inclusion agenda. Too many mainstream schools inadvertently aggravate problems for their most vulnerable students; afraid to take risks and introduce new learning strategies and reforms that could materially improve the performance of pupils at the lower achieving end of the scale. The obsession with testing and league tables has done nothing to make the education system fairer and for those pupils least likely to perform well – they are too often neglected. Many parents across the country will have anecdotes of prejudice against their child based on a concern regarding the said child’s potential negative effect on the identified school’s place on the list.  That is not to denigrate either schools or Headteachers as they wrestle to maintain their school’s academic reputation and continued future success.  It is a broader battle of ethics.

For an increasing number of schools, the publication of exam results has become a practise consigned to history.  For those schools, such as Riverston School in south east London, that are non-selective, the focus has undergone something of a metamorphosis from the sole interest in academic achievement to a growing emphasis on ‘Bespoke learning for Life’.  The development of skills for life is not at the detriment of academic success, more a relevant focus on and for the individual.  Individuality and a school’s ability to address those unique needs become the success criteria for a truly inclusive, non-selective school.

Designated specialist provision, progress unit, transition phase, nurture group, learning support base – all are used to describe facilities designed to meet the needs of students with additional needs in mainstream provision.  In the absence of one of these facilities, can truly inclusive, mixed-ability teaching really work across the school?  The Alliance for Inclusive Education believes that “education should support the development of physical, vocational and academic abilities through mixed-ability tuition in mainstream schools so that all students have the opportunity to build relationships with one another. .” [Ref: www.allfie.org.uk]. However, does the physical inclusion of all children into a mixed-ability classroom result in successful inclusion? Does inclusion mean placing all children together and, in so doing, feel satisfied that they are learning together?  Should we not, instead, focus on the individual child and consider what may be appropriate for them?

Schools that have the ability to focus on the individual, to create an individualised programme, to develop a scheme of bespoke learning have the opportunity to create educational, as well as social, inclusion.  Providing opportunities to learn in the most appropriate learning environment for each student is to meet the real needs of that individual and not the perceived needs based on our own standpoint.  For some children in some aspects of their learning, this will be in a mixed-ability classroom; for others it may be alongside peers of similar ability. A school that can provide opportunities for both ability-based and mixed-ability learning addresses the individual learning styles of its students in different circumstances.

Inclusive education promotes acceptance, tolerance, understanding and belonging.  However, an inclusive school creates a community that is not only understanding, tolerant and accepting because, actually, these are insufficient in creating a truly inclusive society.  To accept and to tolerate are not to include.  To understand, to celebrate that which makes us succeed – because of our differences, not in spite of them – to embrace the uniqueness that all children bring is to begin to create an inclusive school.

Bespoke – bi’spōk – specially made for a particular person, tailor-made, made to order [ref: http://dictionary.cambridge.org].  Children arrive at a school as a unique bundle of abilities, needs and idiosyncrasies.  Successful learning acknowledges this unique blend and provides a reliable, predictable and structured environment in which to flourish.

Opportunities for a variety of learning situations focused on individual priorities will enable the school to nurture children’s strengths whilst scaffolding their learning in a concrete and meaningful way.  This means that ‘Tony’ can work with his peers in a mixed-ability English lesson and spend the next lesson working with a friend developing his confidence with independent travel.  He can work in a small group focused on understanding the complexities of facial expression and social nuances, play more individualised games in his PE lesson and still end the day in Registration with his peers. Learning strategies and therapies that are, as far as possible, included in normal day-to-day learning provide children with everyday practice to generalise learning rather than one-off therapy sessions.

Riverston School makes effective use of, for example, drama therapy techniques to provide students with greater social understanding and skills.  Using myths and fables as a route into story-telling and key themes as a basis for creating performance, drama therapy becomes an integral component of an increasingly complex programme of social communication learning for students.  Taking advantage of relevant props, fabrics, masks and puppetry, students get the opportunity to develop their understanding of social situations, extending their appreciation of other perspectives, opinions and points-of-view.  Whilst avoiding the challenges of personal experiences inherent in psycho drama, themes in stories can be related to individual experiences, creating a deeper understanding from concrete, relevant and meaningful contexts. Drama therapy techniques are just one component of a weekly curriculum at Riverston that includes further social-communication teaching, speech and language therapy, communication skills, occupational therapy and continuing development of social skills understanding.

I was fortunate recently to overhear the following conversation between Fred (year 4) and Martin (year 9) as one tucked into his bowl of pasta with soy sauce and the other enjoyed his daily lunch of bread and butter with a banana:

Fred:    I’m autistic you know.

Martin: That’s cool, so am I.

Fred:    I don’t really know too much about it but it makes me different.

Martin: Me too – it’s definitely cool.

At this point Martin put his arm around Fred’s shoulders and they left the dining hall deep in conversation about their autism.  With knowledge and understanding come acceptance, tolerance and active celebration of diversity.  No longer does the school need to rely on an arbitrary position in a misguided and ill-informed performance table; bespoke learning creates both individual and community success.

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Michael Lewis and James Allen, Riverston School. www.riverstonschool.co.uk

Written by:
Michael Lewis