16th October 2018

School life without labels: breaking down barriers for SEN pupils

School life without labels: breaking down barriers for SEN pupils Cover Photo

CEO and Schools’ Proprietor Thomas Keaney shares TCES Group’s unique approach to integrating pupils with autism spectrum conditions (ASC) and social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) needs...

Parents and families who have children with special educational needs often tell of the struggle that they face to receive a diagnosis. We’ve all heard stories about the challenges some people have obtaining a Statement of Special Educational Needs (SEN) or an Education, Health and Care Plan for their child.

A statement or plan is seen as a passport to support and it does play a role in ensuring access; however, at TCES Group we believe that labels should not define a pupil.

TCES Group is a leading provider of specialist education for children or young people who have been excluded or for whom mainstream schools are unable to provide the necessary support. Many of our pupils have experienced multiple school placement rejections and, on average, have been out of full-time education for 18 months before joining us. The progression of their social, emotional and communication skills is often impaired or delayed by their experiences or condition.

We believe that every pupil should be given the opportunity to thrive and we pride ourselves on never permanently excluding any child or young person. We support pupils to learn from each other and have created school communities that are inclusive, thriving, and socially and emotionally healthy. Uniquely, we integrate pupils with autism spectrum conditions and social, emotional and mental health needs. We do not separate and segregate pupils because of their support needs. Instead we educate them together in specially adapted state-of-the-art autism friendly environments that work well for both typical and atypical pupils.

Our radical approach to inclusion involves twice-weekly whole school pupil meetings in each of our schools. These Group Process sessions provide a forum for young people to reflect on their experience of difference in themselves and others. The results we’ve witnessed by empowering pupils to have a voice have been both moving and surprising.

Through Group Process, pupils describe in detail how they have internalised these experiences and concluded that they do not and cannot ‘belong’ in any social institution. We work with the internalised damaging outcomes of these rejections and support our pupils to redefine and rebuild a personal identity that is strengths-based and supports their self-esteem and well-being in the long term.

Group Process allows pupils to develop self-reflection, empathy, self-esteem, listening and speaking skills, communication skills, and social and independence skills. We encourage them to play an active part in their school community but to use their voice to communicate their needs in pro-social and emotionally healthy ways.

Pupils have discussed wide-ranging issues including gender differences, homophobia, race, class, disability, and rejection. They learn to acknowledge and understand the impulse that they may have to exclude, demean or diminish others. These impulses often have their roots in their own experience of social exclusion and stem from their personal fears, anxieties and concern about their identity.

We work with our pupils to acknowledge their own experiences of social isolation, hopelessness and despair, and to discover new opportunities to take part in a school community in which they feel they ‘truly belong’. Pupils describe being at one of our schools as ‘like a family’. I am inspired by the courage and integrity that they bring to the Group Process.

All pupils are encouraged to have a voice, and those on our Student Councils particularly have expressed how much value they gain from the process. Our pupils’ journey starts in the development of healthy functioning of pupil groups, starting with the Student Councils. Here, opportunities are offered to pupils who struggle to have a voice, to join a democratic Student Council where their voices are both heard and acted upon. Pupils who would not normally be seen as positive influences across their school are transformed by being given an opportunity to join. They are given a real say and, as importantly, are seen by peers as champions of other pupils’ wishes and feelings around the running of a democratically empowering school.

In our experience, SEMH pupils often struggle with shyness, emotional sensitivity, embarrassment, shame, and impulsivity. Their ASC peers may bring opposite but equally difficult experiences of social deficits, including mild disinhibition or limits in self-awareness and the inability to deliberate and think on their experiences of self and others.

Through Group Process, our ASC pupils have developed a greater sensitivity to others and they are more receptive to the rhythm of a group dialogue. They are more able to link the discussion to their own experience, learning skills of social adjustment and discovering in their own kindness and care for others a new shared identity of respect and mutual support, and empowerment of self and others. Similarly, our SEMH pupils have discovered a greater receptivity to others, increased ability to tolerate others, and a new understanding of their own sensitivity and ability to listen and be receptive towards others’ experience.

Our Group Process meetings instil hope and develop pupils’ understanding of universal human experiences of isolation, rejection and exclusion, which are understood and transformed into a major recommitment to engage both in learning and with their school community.

Group Process requires skilled facilitation and support skills from our staff teams and group leaders. We have a team of experts including psychotherapists and motivational and leadership coaches, and we engage with research teams to explore the impact of our Group Process as a way of building healthy whole school communities and accelerating social skills development for all.

Thomas Keaney has 25 years’ experience of educating children and young people with the most complex and wide-ranging special educational needs. Operating as a Social Enterprise, TCES Group runs three independent schools in London and the South East, plus Therapeutic Hubs for its parallel service, Create, for young people with multiple overlapping and complex needs who need more intensive adult and clinical support in a range of non-school settings.