School life without labels; from social exclusion to school inclusion

Posted on 25th Jul 2019 in School News, Emotional and behavioural difficulties, TCES Group

Thomas Keaney, CEO and Schools’ Proprietor of TCES Group, celebrates ‘the art of the possible’...

In its purest form inclusive practice means the complete inclusion into mainstream classrooms, with the correct level of support for the pupil with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) to be successful. To be truly inclusive, the school must wrap itself around the child’s special education needs or disabilities and not expect the child to adapt to the school.

However, there are a number of barriers to inclusion. In reality, mainstream school staff often do not feel they have the training, skills or expertise to support pupils with the most complex needs. Inclusion studies show that further concern has arisen from schools who feel that their performance might be damaged – either in reality or in the way their outcomes are reported publicly – if they are to become ‘too’ inclusive.

Much of society and some mainstream schools are not yet ready to accept hidden disabilities like autism or social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) needs, especially if they come with behavioural issues as one of the symptoms. These are the ways SEND pupils communicate their disabilities and their symptoms whilst awaiting much needed support, but they lead to significant disadvantage through being marginalised or excluded by society and schools due to this manifestation of their disability.

Sadly, if autistic or SEMH pupils are a challenge for a mainstream school they are either moved to an on-site learning support unit, off-site to one-to-one outreach programmes, an alternative provision like a pupil referral unit (PRU), or they become part of a managed move to another school, avoiding the ‘permanent inclusion’ tag.

If none of the above options are available, then the pupil is excluded from mainstream, often with a condemning and exaggerated negative report. This ‘paperwork passport’ usually indicates enough labels and high-end needs to make the most inclusive Head Teacher run a mile.

There has been a general buzz lately condemning the number of permanent exclusions that mainstream schools and academies are making, highlighting the high level of risk this can place on a pupil. This is especially true of pupils with SEND, who are up to six times more likely to be permanently excluded. Despite pressure from external sources such as the Department for Education or Ofsted regarding ‘off-rolling’, pupil exclusions are rising significantly.

SEND pupils, those in KS4 embarking on their GCSE programmes and pupils from low-income families are particularly affected. Sadly, it is also affecting ‘care experienced’ pupils, who are facing the problem of a ‘school-to-prison’ pipeline.

Parents of children who have been excluded or are labelled as too overly complex for mainstream education look to specialist schools as the last option. Usually these schools further ‘segregate’ pupils into two separate groups – ‘autism spectrum condition’ (ASC), or ‘SEMH needs’. General opinions of these schools in the past indicate that they should be separated – however, the 2015 SEND Code of Practice reveals significant similarities in these pupils’ needs.

The art of the possible

At TCES Group, we believe that a school should be an inclusive place for all pupils, and not just an exclusive place for some pupils.

Being inclusive can work extraordinarily well in the most challenging of circumstances. After 20 years of working with SEND pupils with some of the most complex, challenging and co-morbid needs, we have never excluded a pupil.

Our schools aim to be truly inclusive, and we work extremely hard to remove labels, promote mutual respect and a general acceptance of everyone. We prepare our pupils for life after school, and have high expectations for our pupils with SEND as both UK and global citizens. Exposure to diversity creates resilience in our pupils, reduces prejudices and makes them more employable and emotionally healthy.

While working with some of the most complex pupils with ASC and SEMH, our first step is to deliver a message of inclusion. We explore and agree our values with the whole school community – pupils, staff, parents and carers – and share the elements of each school that make us most proud, displaying them around the school as reminders.

This helps to signal to all pupils that they are accepted into the school community, that they are understood and will be supported. We ensure that they know their school is a place for all abilities, and remove the sense of feeling that SEND pupils are a problem. Our children are not damaged, deranged or dangerous – they simply need our support to engage them. We help them believe that they are important and can succeed in whatever they do.

Child psychologist Bruno Bettleheim’s view that “Children don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” is an important first step for our staff. Every child needs an adult figure in their life who is willing to go the extra mile for them, even if this is against the prevailing culture of a school.

Our pupils are encouraged to deliver ‘all about me’ presentations to each other, which allow them to talk about their strengths, talents, families, disabilities, triggers, likes and dislikes in a way that ensures that each pupil’s differences are celebrated. These pupils with SEMH and ASC are then educated together in the same classrooms. They ‘get’ each other, and accept each other.

The only labels that we tolerate are those which describe our pupils as gifted, talented, or in a position of leadership. Many of our pupils have withstood issues in their lives that would knock down most adults. Issues they have encountered early in their lives can develop hidden talents, like resilience and humour – the job of a good school is to support them in evolving these talents and turning them into positive strengths.

Thomas Keaney has 25 years’ experience of educating children and young people with the most complex and wide-ranging special educational needs. He is CEO and Schools’ Proprietor for TCES Group, which operates three independent schools in London and Essex, 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.

This article first appeared in the 2019/20 edition of Which School? for Special Needs. The digital version can be viewed here: