BLOG: Giving young people with SEND a voice

Vicci Wells, Development Manager for Inclusive Sport Programmes at YST, discusses how schools can ensure young people have the confidence to get involved in physical and sporting initiatives.

As a governor and in my role at the Youth Sport Trust I consistently challenge myself to ensure we are focused on meeting the needs of young people.

Young people are at the heart of all my decisions and it is important that we all, in my opinion make time to listen to the voice of young people to ensure we are as well informed as we can be.

Often, it is young people with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) that are least likely to have a voice in their school.

On National Student Volunteering Week, I want to discuss best practice and how schools can ensure their young people are involved in the decision-making process and have the confidence to get involved in all physical and sporting initiatives.

Inclusive schools

Last year the Youth Sport Trust worked with 136,025 young people to give them the leadership skills to gain their voice as well as provide us with the opportunity to listen to young people to check and challenge our work. Recently, we also analysed 9,000 responses to a tool designed to reflect inclusive practice in PE and School Sport. The School Games Inclusive Health Check, developed in partnership with the English Federation of Disability Sport is an online resource, designed to encourage schools to review how inclusive their PE and school sport offer is, and provide helpful tips to further enhance practice. From this 25% of schools felt young people with SEND do not have a voice in their school in the context of PE and School sport.

This finding along with another recent survey from Play Unified found that only 31% of young people with and without SEND felt school listened to their ideas about activities. This insight is a stark reminder to us all that young people, particularly those with SEND and who are often our most vulnerable groups of pupils in school, often find themselves relegated to the sidelines and excluded from having a say in decisions that will affect them.

All issues that affect young people such as access to education, employment and health, also affect young people with SEND but in a far more complex way. Attitudes, discrimination and environmental barriers are significant challenges which need to be recognised and addressed by schools, if we are to ensure our young people develop the life skills, confidence and competence they need as they continue their journey. 

The National Governance Association also highlight that listening to a broad range of pupils (as well as parents and staff) is fundamental to good governance in supporting the strategic direction of the school, and acting in the best interest for all pupils. Wouldn’t it be great if at every governance meeting - whether that is school governance, or sport related – meetings started with a young person focus or an example of great practice/development?

Creating change across the world

Today, over 122 governments from around the world have adopted national youth policies that focus on empowering young people. You may have a youth governing body or council in your school. As governors, we should consider whether these voices are truly representative of the broader youth community. Indeed, how diverse are we as a governing body?

In 2017 the Youth Sport Trust developed guidance for practitioners in education both in the UK and across Europe on facilitating accessible focus groups for children and young people with SEND.  This development is supporting our Lead Inclusion Schools national network in a pilot funded by the Department for Education through the Project Ability programme, bringing schools together to work with girls with SEND to identify what they would like to access in PE and School Sport, and importantly, how they would like it delivered to them. 

Early findings from these pilots include schools considering their environment, as often a lack of participation does not mean pupils do not want to take part - it means they can’t because something is stopping them. What is also being identified that is going beyond simply PE and sport, something I firmly believe in, is that PE and School Sport is often the motivator for young people with SEND. If we can really listen to young people and find out their motivations, we would be able to apply these findings to encourage and engage a wider love of learning.

Ensuring young people in schools are better included in decision making

So how do we as governors ensure young people in our schools are better included in decision making processes? Firstly, embrace true diversity! Ensure your school is reaching out to a wide range of young people and considering socio-economic, health, cultural and geographical factors. Secondly, we need to recognise that whilst young people are diverse, they are connected by age and the degree to which they rely on the present for their future. If we can recognise and respond to the growing demand (particularly social media) in how young people like to communicate we can collectively ensure they are given a platform to voice opinions. It is important to listen to young people about the services that directly affect them.  For example, at our governing body meetings concerning pupil welfare, we invite students to directly contribute to the meeting and it is run at a time of day to suit their needs.

These are some of the questions that can equate to good practice during meetings:
  • Are we properly engaged with our school community?
  • How effectively does our school consider young people’s voices?
  • How well do we listen to, understand and respond to our pupils?
  • How do we know how inclusive our school is? (One way is to find out if your school completed an Inclusive Health Check - and ask to see the responses. This way you can make a strategic link to the School Development Plan.)

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