Last Wednesday, one of the main lecture theatres at The University of Manchester resounded to loud cheers, a standing ovation and the rapturous applause of over 400 trainee teachers and NQTs.
Was this an enthusiastic response to the thought-provoking keynote speeches in which experienced headteachers shared their words of wisdom, or to the dextrous ad-libbing of wordsmith Lemm Sissay? No, it was an unprompted outburst of delight for the two songs performed by the Makaton choir of the Bridge College, Manchester, a college which supports young people with a range of learning disabilities and communication disorders. For the gathered audience of emerging teachers, it was the exuberance of the life, the personalities and the music of the Bridge Makaton choir that gave meaning to the conference theme of ‘Inclusion and Inspiration: education for social justice’.
Education, the media, politicians and Joe-public alike prefer to work with neatly identified categories of groups of people and, indeed, invitations for this conference were sent out according to the university’s labelled groups of trainees: the primary PGCE trainees; the secondary PGCE trainees; School Direct trainees; Teach First trainees; and our last year’s trainees who are now NQTs.
However, the message of the keynotes and the twenty-four seminars on offer was incontestably that behind all the educational labels that trip off the tongue so easily are individuals with individual gifts and individual challenges. Gathering our trainees together in mixed phase seminars provided an opportunity for each trainee to step out beyond their designated peer group and to learn how trainees in other classrooms, other key stages and other contexts might address the practical classroom challenge of responding to the diversity of learners in our schools.
Last week’s CPRT blog by Branwen Bingle focussed on the need to recognise and support the gendered individuality of children and families so that they may be enabled to‘celebrate who they and their families really are’. The Manchester ‘Inclusion and inspiration’ conference had a similar goal of understanding and celebrating the educational and social diversity of individual children in our classrooms. Some of the seminars aimed to extend trainee understanding of the needs that might lie behind such labels as autism, children’s mental health, pupils with EAL, dyslexia and dyscalculia. Other seminars presented classroom-based approaches such as de-escalation strategies, growth mindsets, philosophy for children, and the UNICEF rights respecting framework, all of which can be used to support access to learning for as wide a group of children as possible. The choice of seminars served to emphasise the range of diverse needs that pupils bring with them to school and the immense task each teacher faces as they construct appropriate learning opportunities for all.
One trainee emailed me after the conference to say, ‘II just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed the session at the conference last week on working with EAL pupils. It really got me to think more about the pupils behind the “language barrier”, rather than just strategies for helping them.’
We noticed that some trainees started the day with specific questions about practical strategies for ‘dealing with’ children’s educational, emotional and social needs as this can be the immediate, albeit short-term, response to a specific individual in a placement class. However, many more trainees ended the day expressing the realisation that the starting point for any teacher is actually the professional need to ensure that each pupil feels ‘valued, cared for, respected and listened to’; precisely those values highlighted by Carol Robinson’s 2014 CPRT report on Children’s Voice.
As earlier CPRT blogs from Stephanie Northen and Sadie Phillips have reminded us, time to learn how to value and listen to each child as an individual is all too often squeezed out by the intensity of the PGCE course and the daily practical demands laid on trainee and NQT alike. Delivering high quality and effective teaching in lesson after lesson requires a stock-exchange trader’s sharpness of focus and a portfolio of finely honed time management skills. But – and there’s always a but when working with young people – for a new teacher to learn how to take each individual child beyond the labels that are assigned to them takes time. It takes time to talk to individuals; it takes time to think about individuals; it takes time to talk to colleagues and parents and siblings about individuals; it takes time to read about the experiences of others working with the individual diversity of our pupil populations. A quick glance through the CPRT priorities shows how the impact of individual diversity in our schools lies at the heart of so much in education. Systematic advances in equality and access, in pupil achievement and enrichment rely on teachers gaining and applying increasing professional insight into the reality of the individual diversity of their pupils.
The response of Manchester’s bright-eyed and bushy-tailed trainee teachers to the Bridge choir showed in no uncertain terms that those choosing to embark on the professional pathway of a teacher are doing so because they already value what children and young people can offer. We don’t need to convince new or not-so–new teachers that children have the potential to amaze and delight. Rather what we do need to do is to enable our newest recruits to hold on to their enthusiasm by giving them the time, the support and the opportunities to build their professional insight.
This does not happen overnight nor does it happen in the odd few moments snatched between lesson preparation and assessment record keeping. The ‘inclusion and inspiration’ of children depend on teachers having time to learn to listen to them as individuals with unique needs not merely as representatives of labelled groups. All that then remains is to persuade educational policymakers that the future of education really is safe in the hands of those who by inclination and by training seek to put the needs of children first.
Lise Hopwood leads the English primary PGCE at The University of Manchester and is the new co-ordinator of CPRT’s Great Manchester network. If you would like to join Lise in developing the network’s regional activities, contact her here.