|Why did you initially feel that it would work in the UK?
“It resonated very strongly with everything that I knew about psychology and working with families and individual children. Our traditional ways of working – annual or standard review processes – are staid in comparison.
“In stark contrast, person-centred planning’s child-centred approach was refreshing and resonated with my background as a primary school teacher. It was so much more interesting and appealing. The colours, the big images, the direct engagement, the use of dramatic approaches, and the use of props inspired each and every meeting. The square focus on really listening to the young person communicate was fresher and much more interesting. Of the countless meetings that I facilitated and chaired, I could clearly see the impact of this vibrant new approach and thought it was a brilliant way of working, as did Derek Wilson (my colleague and co-founder of Inclusive Solutions).
“So we learned and developed person-centred planning ways of working with other colleagues. We practised, we skilled up, we explored how to work with tools like Making Action Plans (MAPS) and Planning Alternative Tomorrows with Hope (PATH) and just started using them. And the circle of friends’ approach that runs alongside that was quite a nice addition. So we just kind of got good at it really.”
So, you were pretty much trailblazers really?
“I think so, because not many people were using it. Of course, Helen Sanderson Associates also existed then, and are still going strong, but they work mainly with disabled adults. In fact, as soon as we set up Inclusive Solutions, we were keen to promote this way of working. And, in fact, if you look right back at the early training that we were offering and the ways of working in schools and with families, it would have been a very person-centred approach.
“Of course, more recently, there’s been a lot more interest in this way of working with the Education Health and Care Plan (EHCP) and so on. Indeed, some local authorities (LAs), such as Suffolk for example, simply love this way of working and want us to do a lot more of it. So we’ve done lots of work for them, to really get these ways of working embedded in some of their existing approaches.”
Since the foundation of Inclusive Solutions, what main impacts have person-centred planning had?
“I would say that we’ve touched the hearts and minds of people up and down the UK. Wherever we’ve had an opportunity to offer training and do live demonstrations we’ve done that. We’ve really aimed to give people a vision of what it can look like at its best. We really hope that we have given people a sense of what it should really be like; how much fun it should be; how visual it should be; and how key individuals should be involved – particularly the friends and loved ones of each child.”
How can SEND practitioners ensure that person-centred planning is more than just an aspiration and really embeds as they grapple with the new Code?
“There is a real dilemma here in the new Code of Practice. Because, whilst, on the one hand, it has talked up person-centred ways of working, it has also drawn on the older, much more clinical, ever-present approaches – for example, the formal assessment processes involved in creating a statement. It’s like the government didn’t want to completely ditch the old, wanted a bit of the new but couldn’t quite bear to let go of the old. It’s a shame really, because it was quite an opportunity missed, the way it seems to me.
“But in terms of what SEND practitioners could be doing, I think that the challenge is that they should really be getting hold of this as an opportunity to show just how person-centred review meetings can be. The tools are there now: MAPS, PATH, child-centred reviews, so it’s really about whether SEN practitioners can prioritise the time to do them justice. The inherent danger is that person-centred planning only extends as far as a friendly front page, a fig leaf to the clinical content remaining at its heart.
“Real person-centred planning needs to come to life. Big sheets of paper and lots of visual activity should be placed in a room containing people who the child loves and those with whom they are friends. Combine this contextual environment with active listening and good facilitation so that, at the end of the process, the family will say: ‘yes, that really was respectful; that really respected my child’s wishes and my wishes.'”
A reader’s question: Many teachers and TAs perhaps feel that they have neither the skills, nor the time to support the needs of children with ASD/ADHD. CAMHS do not appear to have funding to support these children with their social, emotional and mental health needs. Many have severe anxiety issues and related difficulties such as OCD and school refusal, etc. Specialist teachers currently provide support and advice to schools in terms of appropriate strategies, but how can Inclusive Solutions further support the emotional and social needs of these children? What sorts of changes are needed in schools in order to implement and embed these practices more effectively than at the present time?
“Well, I’ve got a few angles on this really. There has been a move to medicalise many children, particularly around ADHD. To add to this, the increasingly common use of drugs (for example, Ritalin) is a worrying development. It has a way of disempowering lead SENCOs and SEN professionals in schools. They start getting the feeling that is voiced in this question. Indeed, to some, it may almost feel as if this situation is beyond what they can do and too complex to be resolved. Sometimes there is the sense that a new breed of child has suddenly arrived on our doorstep, which I don’t actually believe to be true. At the centre of this debate, is not only the way in which children are being diagnosed, but also the way in which they are perceived. It’s a complicated area and there is a lot of complexity for busy practitioners to get to grips with.
“We carry out a lot of training across the UK and parts of the globe on what we like to call ‘movement differences’. Originally, this came out of the world of understanding children with autism. However, it’s a very useful way of understanding children with increased movement who would otherwise get labelled as ADHD. It’s a much more respectful way of understanding the fact that we’re all moving around in bodies; that we all have difficulty stopping doing certain things; starting doing certain things; switching from one thing to another; executing complex movements; combining, switching and so on. So it gets right into that fresh and respectful way of thinking about behaviour.
“In many ways, this approach is about trying to debunk the exaggerated myths and claims around some of these conditions and try and normalise things – to get back to what’s really important to every child. Indeed, it’s about getting a better understanding of what makes a child a child and a human a human. It’s about getting back to basics. It is underpinned by the idea that we need to think about what works for any of us if we are really going to get a handle on exactly what’s needed.
“We also do a lot of work around building empathy and establishing connections between people’s own experiences – of their supposedly perfectly functioning bodies and minds – and the experiences of the child that they are worried about. Because, if you can understand yourself better, then you can understand the children who you are working with better.”
A reader’s question: The school admissions Code of Practice requires children and young people with SEN to be treated fairly. In what ways, again, does a person-centred planning approach bolster this aim?
“A person-centred planning approach really gets their voice out and allows them to be listened to. If a child is listened to properly, then there is a much greater chance that they will be treated fairly by the adults in the system and the other young people around them. Why, because people will understand that child better. Person-centred planning is designed for this because it is so respectful and is centred around listening to each child’s dreams, goals, interests, strengths and gifts.
“It’s also capacity-orientated. When you really draw out the true capacity of a young person, you give them the opportunity to be dealt with as another contributing young person in the school community. So, you change the narrative, as the young person is no longer characterised by a particular deficit or difficulty, but is instead defined by their capacity; their dreams; what their family wants for them; and what they want for themselves.”
In your view, what does an ideal EHCP or assessment look like and can adopting a truly person-centred planning approach ensure that some of the inconsistencies that we have seen are ironed out?
“There is of course a problem here. The DfE left everyone to make their own interpretations on how the legislation/Code will roll out. So, already, I’ve seen several starkly different approaches. If it was down to me, I would put much more onus on the person-centred planning aspects of the EHCPs. I would ensure that this aspect was most seriously carried out. In regard to the technical parts, the outcomes should be a spin-off really and not the dominant player in this way of working.
“So I would like the centrepiece to be a big, genuine person-centred planning meeting with all the right people present – those who are loved by and friends with the child, as well as the key stakeholders. Following this, the graphics and the detailed notes that come out of that meeting, would be the cornerstones of the EHCP. This effective approach contrasts sharply with the more traditional series of technical meetings which are in danger of focusing on the child’s deficits and problems, as opposed to what they actually bring to the table. Of course, for this to happen, it’s going to need a firm steer from the centre I think, from the government and the DfE. Because, ultimately, they have just left people to get on with it and, in many ways, it’s become a bit of a free-for-all – which is reminiscent of the free school programme.”
If an EHCP assessment was carried out according to person-centred planning principles, what would the role of staff within that school be?
“One would be to host the meeting and to take, what we like to call, a ‘radical hospitality’ approach. This is about getting the environment absolutely comfortable for the child involved. So, that might mean that the young person is carrying their favourite toy; or that their favourite music is playing; or that it is being held in their favourite room in the school. In fact, it might not be held in their school at all. It could even be in their home or in a neutral venue like a church hall – so long as it is somewhere where they feel very comfortable.
“Typically, school staff should take the following approach:
- Prepare for it.
- Make sure that the child is very comfortable.
- Sort out the venue so that it is where the child feels most at ease to plan.
- Draw the right people together.
“Also, they need to think about who will facilitate the person-centred planning. It might be LA-trained people; or independent people coming in to do it like ourselves; or school-based staff running it. Whoever facilitates it needs to have person-centred skills that they have learned and practised. At the meeting, one person facilitates the graphics and one person runs the meeting. So, there will always be two people. If both people can’t be secured from the school, then one person would be drawn from an external source.
“Of course, they would also need to ensure that they run the meeting along person-centred lines. They need to have the skills to do this and the training to ensure that they know exactly what they are looking for and they must respect the person-centred principles at all times.”
What practical steps can a school take to become better at person-centred planning and how can they best evaluate their progress?
“They need to:
- Get some good training from us or another quality education provider – then practise, practise, practise.
- Get their heads around it, read about what they are trying to do and then give it a try.
- Remember, at all times, that this is a person-centred and respectful way of working – would they want the experience for themselves or their own child or loved ones?
- Ensure that they have got a big visual graphic, that music is playing, that there is food and drink in the room, and that they have done everything that they can to make this as person-centred as possible.
- Detail one person to work with the group and another individual to look after the graphic.
“When the actual person-centred planning meeting has concluded, they need to reflect on the meeting, so as to improve their person-centred planning practice. They should:
- Review it with the people who were present.
- Ask searching questions about what they actually felt about that experience.
- Consider what might have improved it, what might have helped the child/family to feel more comfortable, and what would have enabled it to have more impact.
“Following this, just keep going with it really. Practise, practise, practise, and people will get better at it.”
A reader’s question: Do you think that we’re moving forward with inclusion, marking time, or slipping back? What signs of life might you highlight?
“On an optimistic day I think that we’re moving forward. Nowadays, for example, we can confidently say that inclusion has truly embedded nationwide. In that I mean that virtually every child’s impairment that can be identified is being dealt with in an inclusive way somewhere in the UK. We couldn’t have said that a few years ago.
“However, it’s a very different answer when you consider whether we have moved forward significantly. The fact that the number of children attending special schools hasn’t gone down significantly and the creation of the pupil referral units (PRUs) reflect the fact that there is still a long way to go. So, we’ve gone forward in some ways and stalled and slipped back in others too. Of course, I know that there are schools that have really got hold of this and have made fantastic progress and have seen amazing things happen. So, at this point we know that it’s possible and that the dream wasn’t a crazy dream. But, consider all of the other movements and developments that have taken place in education with the fact that the current coalition hasn’t really got behind inclusion and it’s clear that any progress that we have made has stalled in some places a little bit really.
“Of course, it’s important to note that there have been some quite considerable obstacles. The movement towards free schools and the academisation of the secondary school system has made it much more difficult for LAs to have any practical levers for change with local schools. So, when people have moved towards exclusion or segregation I think that it’s been much more difficult than it has been in the past to marshal and challenge that, because of the changes to the LAs and the increased independence of the schools.
“On the plus side, the world really has changed and the inclusive genie is out of the exclusive bottle. These children are out there and there are many families who would never see their child back in special education. I think that, also, the technology has moved on really rapidly. So, eye-pointing technology for instance, has allowed some children with very complex needs and no spoken language at all, to access mainstream secondary education very successfully. So I’ve seen some fantastically positive stories of inclusion as well.”
What potential pitfalls should SEND practitioners look for with the institution of person-centred planning over the coming year?
“One particular pitfall is falling into the trap of thinking that you are doing person-centred planning when, in fact, what you have carried out is nothing of the sort. Some people just do person-centred planning in a quite simplistic way and tick the person-centred planning box. One-page plans are a potent example of this. Because, you can very rapidly complete a one-page plan and then say that you have completed a person-centred plan. When, in fact, the reality is that this couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s very tempting for busy practitioners to say: ‘oh well, we had a great picture of him on the front of the documents; a smiley picture and we mentioned his interests; have we done it? Let’s just tick that big box’. This would be a long way short of a truly person-centred planning event, one that aims to plan for that young person and that young person’s family.
“The second one would be that person-centred planning gets squeezed and marginalised and that the more clinical focus on what’s wrong with the child becomes the dominant way of thinking about children with SEN. They have this little flirtation with person-centred planning and then the system defaults back to the old ways which are still with us. That is why it’s a real shame that the Code hasn’t been a bit more radical really.”
What’s your main message to SEND practitioners over the coming year and do you have any closing comments?
“Embrace person-centred planning with all your heart, because you really will find it an enjoyable and effective way of working.
“Recently, a SENCO said to me: ‘I’ve never known an annual review to be fun… I can see that this is going to be a lot of fun’. Following this, a child’s father stopped me to say that his child had put their person-centred planning graphic on their wall. Why is this illustrative? Why is this important? It’s because this critical example sheds light on the fact that this truly inclusive approach has directly led to a child placing their person-centred graphic on their wall. Can you really see a child doing the same with a statement? So, in essence, it’s about having some fun and creating something that a young person is so proud of that they are happy to display it. These are good markers.
“What would my main message to SEND practitioners be? Let’s make inclusion happen between us, nobody else is going to do it. Don’t wait for the government, and don’t wait for the DfE. We have got to do this together really. Let’s move forward and let’s use the person-centred planning way of working as tools to enable us to reach a truly inclusive society built around the needs of its most challenging and vulnerable young people.”