Review by Neil Miller

Deputy CEO, London and South East Academies Trust

22 Oct 2022, 5:00

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The Conversation – with Neil Miller

Neil Miller’s top picks of this week’s education topics. Click on the headings to access the original content

Reducing exclusions 

While I’m not an advocate of a blanket zero-exclusions policy (they are sometimes needed for the good of the child, other children, and staff), reducing exclusions as much as possible should be a priority across the board.  

Changing the way schools address difficult behaviour is not easy, but taking a more holistic approach – as set out in this blog by an assistant head of inclusion – has undoubtable benefits.  

Efficient cross-team and multi-agency working is fundamental, ensuring everyone is pulling in the same direction to support the child. Therapeutic and learning interventions are also crucial, ensuring we understand and unpick any underlying issues. 

But as ever, despite having the best intentions, many schools are scuppered financially – simply having no way to fund these ‘extra’ services.   

Yet the irony is that the cost will end up being far higher when dealing with children who haven’t been properly supported early on in their education, with the risk of exclusion increasing significantly when young people enter secondary school. 

A longer-term approach, improved mental health services, and much earlier interventions are therefore needed if we truly want to reduce exclusions.

The right to sight

SeeAbility is a fantastic charity which has been working with NHS England to establish an eyecare service for special schools. One of our own special schools – Woodside Academy – has been involved in this scheme and it has had an extremely positive impact on many of our pupils, who all have ASD and moderate learning needs.    

The service provides sight tests and glasses to children in the familiar environment of their own school. This reduces stress and anxiety for the child as well as making it easier for families to access tests. We see this happening first-hand at Woodside.

The importance of this is clear when you consider that half of children in special schools have a sight problem, yet four in ten have never had a sight test. What’s more, children with learning disabilities are 28 times more likely to have a sight problem than other children.  

So, it is worrying to read from SeeAbility’s Aylee Richmond in this Special Needs Jungle blog that NHS England may not be progressing such a vital programme as planned. The focus seems to have shifted to residential special schools, leaving concerns for the many children in day special schools who need the service.

We can’t underestimate the importance of eyecare for these children. A child who can’t see well cannot fully engage with their learning – particularly when they are facing many other challenges. We must absolutely ensure every child has an equal right to sight.

Poverty and free school meals  

Jamie Oliver has added his voice to the increasingly loud calls to extend the threshold for free school meals (FSM), currently set at an annual family income of less than £7400.

This shockingly low figure means that there are many families living in poverty who don’t receive this basic support. Schools are doing their best by offering breakfast to many children, but more help is needed.

Children coming to school hungry has a detrimental impact on their learning. They will be tired and lethargic, making it hard for them to focus. Sadly, this is becoming more widespread as the cost-of-living crisis bites – and is something we are certainly seeing in our own schools.  

These are also the children most negatively affected by the pandemic in terms of learning gaps – and hunger is a key element of this. 

Food poverty shouldn’t be a political issue. Our entire society should be working together to address it as no child should be going hungry. Research shows that children who have breakfast and lunch learn better – which to me is obvious. So surely extending FSM to every family on universal credit at the very least is also obvious?

It certainly shouldn’t take a celebrity chef to raise awareness of an issue that affects so many, but hopefully action will now follow.  

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