Including children in their own education

Annie Brookman-Byrne reports from the Division of Educational and Child Psychology Annual Conference 2020 in Northampton.

A role for neuroscience?

Neuroscience is clearly a hot topic for the Division of Educational and Child Psychology (DECP), as the words neuroalarmism, neuroenthusiasm, neurobalance, neurobabble, neurohype, neurorealism and neuroessentialism all appeared in talks at the DECP conference this year. Nicki Carpenter outlined neuroalarmist and neuroenthusiast views on adolescent development in the digital age, but ended with an emphasis on neurobalance – growing digital resilience well before the teenage years so as to moderate any risk associated with technology.

Not everyone agreed on the role of neuroscience in educational psychology. Dan O’Hare voiced concerned that neurobabble (overly simplified and misinterpreted neuroscience) is occurring more and more in educational psychology. He argued that educational psychology doesn’t need neuroscience, that psychological confidence is what’s needed. Tamara Hussain and Veronica Lawrence described trepidation and wariness around neuroscience among educational psychologists but argued that educational psychologists are actually the ones who can dispel myths about neuroscience, bridging the gap between neuroscience and education. For now it looks like the field is not willing to do what O’Hare urged in his talk and ‘remove the brain!’.

Including trans children

‘We are not at a place of full acceptance or equality for trans people yet’, Robin Dundas told us last year in The Psychologist. So it’s not surprising that almost all research into the experiences of trans children has focused on the negatives. But Matt Leonard said that he wanted to explore the positive school experiences of trans children. Leonard set out to research the small things at school that made a difference to the young people he interviewed – not dismissing their negative experiences, but focusing on what made things better. One interviewee initially said he had no positive experiences to report, then remembered a moment of acceptance – when his teacher said ‘ladies and gentleman’, rather than just ‘ladies’, to include him at the girls’ school he attended. This exemplifies the most prolific theme that Leonard identified, the importance of language. Respect of their chosen name was often the first sign of respect these children experienced.

Other themes that Leonard identified were support from an individual teacher who would challenge students and peers, whole-school approaches such as LGBT societies, the importance of community both online and through youth groups, and ‘my own best friend’ – self-advocacy and humour that provided self-support. Leonard said educational psychologists are uniquely placed to support transgender children, so an understanding of these positive experiences might help.

Cora Sargeant recommended the BPS guidelines for psychologists working with gender, sexuality and relationship diversity. Sargeant spoke about a new model of gender that she would like to introduce to children, moving away from the binary girl/boy model. In Sargeant’s model there are three spectra, along which people can land anywhere (or in more than one place, or nowhere) on a scale from masculinity to femininity. These three spectra are biological configuration, gender identity, and gender expression. While Sargeant sees this model as a bit reductionist too, the aim is to communicate the idea that gender can be diverse, there are many ways of being in the world, and all of these are okay. Sargeant likened this to the shift there has been to accepting and understanding different sexualities.

Segregation within mainstream schools

Becky Taylor told us that education in England is generally very comprehensive, but that there is a lot of segregation within schools – at age 15, pretty much everyone is in segregated classes for at least one subject. Despite this widespread practice, there is no overall benefit of segregation, and in fact it exacerbates wider social inequalities, resulting in a double disadvantage. Taylor highlighted that pupils can be misallocated to groups, with black students, Asian students and girls more likely misallocated to lower sets, and white students and boys more likely misallocated to higher sets.

There is also evidence of teacher allocation bias, said Taylor, with the highly qualified teachers allocated to high sets. Perhaps the most concerning evidence Taylor presented was the effect of this segregation on students’ confidence – being in a higher or lower set had a causal impact on self-confidence, which also resulted in a self-fulfilling prophecy. Taylor didn’t recommend abolishing segregation in schools – first there needs to be an evidence base around what will make mixed attainment groups work. She did recommend that any segregation should be based on attainment only, so that attitudes, behaviour and teacher opinions don’t come into play.

Rob Webster spoke about the experiences of pupils who work with a teaching assistant (TA). The inclusion of special educational needs (SEN) children in mainstream schools is heavily reliant on TAs, who make up 26 per cent of the school workforce. Webster described a pattern of segregation and separation of these pupils who are more likely to be grouped together in class, and have more interactions with TAs at the expense of interactions with peers and teachers.

This is a problem because TAs offer lower quality pedagogy (Webster stressed this is not their fault), giving inaccurate or confusing explanations, with a focus on task completion and correction, through unengaging and repetitive tasks. TAs can even sometimes complete the work for the child. One-to-one TAs are considered essential for some pupils, but it can be embarrassing to have a TA, and Webster said that one TA voiced the view that it may not be healthy for a child to spend 20 hours a week with one person. Overall, Webster painted a picture of the marginalisation of SEN children in what is presented as an inclusive setting.

Much like Taylor’s cautionary words, Webster didn’t recommend abolishing TAs – they make up such a large part of the school workforce that it is not clear what would happen if they were to go. Instead, schools should review and improve the use of TAs. 

Inclusion and play

Former Labour MP Thelma Walker was a headteacher and SENCO before leaving under Michael Gove to go into politics. Walker argued that we need a cultural shift in how vulnerable children are supported in school. She described how exclusions can be an easy option for schools, so that the excluded pupil isn’t impacting on school results. Walker spoke about the human rights issue relating to isolation booths, whereby pupils are denied the right to learn effectively. Involving children in the writing of their education and health care plans was one of Walker’s recommendations for including the voice of the young person. Walker described herself as a voice for vulnerable people, and though she is no longer a teacher or an MP, she intends to continue being that voice.

The conference itself enacted inclusion through inviting two different groups of young people to speak. Shooting Stars, a group of young people with special educational needs and disability (SEND) spoke about their involvement in local decision-making in organisations and the county council. Talk Out Loud, a mental health awareness group for young people, presented their work that promotes the idea that it’s okay to talk about mental health. They also crucially share information on where young people can go to find support for each other. 

The DECP launched a video at the conference, following on from the Division’s position paper on children’s right to play that was published last year. The children in the video speak about the fun of play, its health and wellbeing benefits, while giving advice for adults: ‘If adults played more they wouldn’t be as stressed all the time’ (if only it were that simple, children). The video emphasises a key point from the position paper – that excluding children from play time should never be a punishment. The video features author Michael Rosen, who says: ‘Play isn’t an extra, it isn’t an add-on. Play is a fundamental human right.’

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