Strengthening inclusivity

From Leader magazine - 2020 Spring Term 1

ASCL Specialist Margaret Mulholland shares her thoughts on how leaders can strengthen inclusivity and improve outcomes for pupils with special educational needs.

When working with teachers and leaders I often ask them how they define inclusion. They find it illuminating to think of a word or a concept to use instead of inclusivity when articulating outcomes for young people with SEND.

What’s your definition?

In a nutshell, leaders and teachers have a wide range of views and understanding of inclusivity. At one recent workshop, a headteacher and SENCO had their ‘aha’ moment when they realised they had completely different interpretations of what inclusion actually meant for them.

The headteacher’s thinking was driven more by whether he should include a child with special needs in this classroom or not. By welcoming a child with a disability into the school, he believed that was inclusion in action. The SENCO’s interpretation went far beyond that, defining inclusion as not just access to the classroom but more importantly effective access to the curriculum. Both believed a sense of belonging mattered and had built a collective ethos around this.

Their differing interpretations of daily practice, however, reflect the need to re-visit the concept of inclusivity regularly.

Shared understanding

It’s a lesson for all of us. As the old adage of a ‘common language that divides us’ goes, we should take the time and opportunity to clarify shared expectations and understanding of the goals of young people who have learning difficulties. These need to be understood not just by the SENCO, but by everyone. We should reflect on this across the board. Does your school’s vision for inclusivity reflect such shared understanding across the whole school community, from parents to canteen staff to teachers and leaders?

The evidence

Evidence from both the latest Education Policy Institute (EPI) report ( and the National Audit Office (NAO) update on SEND ( is compelling as to why this is ever more vital. Both highlight the intractable challenges of funding and postcode inconsistencies that impact aggressively on current provision. The EPI report stresses that 44% of pupils are, at some point in their school lives, identified with a special educational need. How can any school see SEND planning as something peripheral to school improvement planning? One answer is that schools, when considering their most vulnerable pupils, should recognise SEN improvement planning as core rather than secondary. In other words, it should be ‘built in, not bolted on’.

Call to arms

In response to the National Audit Office report, the Director of the Council for Disabled Children (CDC), Christine Lenehan, warned leaders not to be deafened or distracted by the noise around funding. She instead urged them to see the current crisis outlined in the report as a call to arms. We know that addressing inclusivity in dynamic but resource-short school environments is challenging. What support exists for school leaders to reframe and prioritise planning for pupils with SEND?

Some schools have found particular success using the SEND Review Framework, which the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has recently commissioned for a nationwide trial – see The framework looks at eight aspects of SEND provision including leadership. It helps schools with a structured self-evaluation process, reflecting on the quality of provision to achieve good outcomes for pupils with SEND.

It’s a process that so many schools have not yet had the opportunity to adopt. The EEF trial led by Whole School SEND will involve 160 mainstream secondary schools and will provide opportunities for school SENCOs and leaders to develop expertise and implement strategic SEND development planning. It is certainly timely.

  • To register your interest please email Helen Prosser, Project Manager at

Margaret Mulholland
ASCL SEND and Inclusion Specialist

Related Pages

Equality, diversity and inclusion

  • Leadership
  • ASCL
  • Council
  • Ethics
  • Equalities
  • Inclusion
  • Diversity
  • Independent

Updates on SEND and Inclusion - September 2020

  • Inclusion
  • Health and Wellbeing
  • Health and safety
  • Safeguarding
  • Parents
  • Mental Health
  • Disability
  • SEND
  • RSE

Ramadan: Exams and Tests, 2020

  • Inclusion
  • Assessment
  • Health and Wellbeing
  • Safeguarding
  • Examinations
  • Diversity