Giving a voice to young people with SEND as they return to school

Karen Erikson, Inclusion Lead at The Lakes School in Cumbria, a Youth Sport Trust Lead Inclusion School, discusses the importance of giving a voice to young people with SEND as schools return.

For young people, lockdown has almost become the new norm. Having had nearly 12 months of being in and out of lockdown we know that many will either have struggled with continuous readjustments to their lifestyle, or indeed may have thrived and welcomed these changes. For example, in recent Ofsted research on remote learning, it was noted that:

Conversely, for some children, there have been benefits to remote education including being able to work more at their own pace, take breaks when they need rather than at prescribed times and work in a space in which they experience less sensory overload.

Indeed, they highlight that post-pandemic, it would be beneficial to pupils with SEND if schools could consider how they might retain some of these benefits going forward.

As schools, we need to be aware of the different experiences our young people have experienced and look at how we support them to feel happy, safe and secure.

Through physical education, physical activity and sport we can support pupils as they return to school, enabling them to connect with one another, increase their self-confidence and sense of community, as well as enhance overall wellbeing. I truly believe that this could be the tool to support all young people to recover and develop physically, socially, and emotionally. To do this we will need to understand, from their voice, what is going to engage and motivate them.  

One of the ways schools could go about this is through a tailored approach to the three Rs: Reconnect, Recover and Reinvent. For example:

  1. How do we know what our pupils have experienced and, in relation to that, is what we want to offer (reinvent) in physical education going to be meaningful and relevant?
  2. How are our pupils feeling about their lockdown experiences and how can we as a school support them to recover?
  3. For our pupils who have either continued to attend school or access learning at home, what reconnection process is going to be necessary?

Even before the global pandemic, young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) may not have often had the opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings, particularly when it comes to their PE, school sport and physical activity offer. Nationally, 20% of schools said that they did not feel young people with SEND had a voice in school in the context of PE and school sport, according to the findings from the 2018-19 School Games Inclusive Health Check report, based on 10,780 school responses.

As a YST County Lead School for Inclusion, we have approached this by taking time to explore how our young people across the county are feeling about being in school, learning from home, returning and understanding what they may have missed the most. We engaged a range of school settings, working collaboratively with Special, Alternative Provision, primary and secondary schools, speaking with pupils, parents, carers and colleagues. We decided upon a range of methods which included questionnaires (some young people needing more support than others), talking with pupils both within school and virtually, and using visual aids such as Chateez cards.

We found that:

  • Primary pupils reported feeling bored, sad and lonely at home. They also wanted to play with friends as soon as the lockdown ended.
  • Pupils in special and alternative provision shared that they had enjoyed learning at home and were anticipating struggles to coming back to school. For some, they were keen to return to school (primarily to be with their friends) but had anxiety around the virus, whether that be catching it themselves, or passing it onto elderly relatives.
  • Some of our secondary schools shared that students were looking forward to returning to school to see their friends, although sharing feelings of anxiety when considering their lost learning as well as being keen to return to physical activity with friends.

Having conducted this research, my advice to other schools facing similar challenges would be to consider:

  1. How are you going to find out about your pupils’ unique lived experiences throughout this lockdown? Plan for how you will do this. Some schools have taken a pandemic register sharing with colleagues their pupils’ experiences and what they are most anxious about.
  2. Consider how you will approach engaging your pupils, and how you will solicit pupil voice. For some pupils who may be unable to verbalise their thoughts and feelings, consider the use of visual aids such as emoji cards or Chateez.
  3. Plan how you can create fun and enjoyment through PE, school sport and physical activity to provide a sense of belonging and rebuild friendships that are so critical for young people.

To help you with this, the Youth Sport Trust has produced an inclusive voice toolkit through the Department for Education-funded Inclusion 2020 project. This toolkit is designed to support practitioners in a range of ways to engage pupil voice in their school, and ensure it is representative of a diverse community of pupils, particularly those with SEND.


A headshot of Karen Erikson, Inclusion Lead at the Lakes school in Cumbria
Published on 5 March 2021