Ensuring an inclusive school environment which supports every pupil to be their best is a priority for school leader Bavaani Nanthabalan. She discusses three core principles for achieving this
This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on Headteacher Update
My commitment to ensuring the most inclusive school environment possible has been a cornerstone of my professional life. My family and I came to London in the early 1980s, leaving behind an assistant headship role in a Singapore school as my son was diagnosed as profoundly deaf and the provision for children like him was limited in our part of the world.
I started teaching in Camden in London and quickly realised how different the education system was to what I had left behind. Having been used to a system based around testing I found it more difficult that there wasn’t a standardised national curriculum, but I loved the freedom that teachers were given in teaching their curriculum.
When the national curriculum was brought in, I wasn’t worried about how we would implement it because I knew we could still keep the creativity we already had in our classrooms. I have always kept this sense of freedom and creativity across the schools I have overseen, both past and present. I was appointed as executive headteacher of a federation of schools in 2012 and within Netley Campus in Camden with the remit to raise standards and oversee a huge building programme.
The campus includes the mainstream primary school, the centre for autism for 24 children, and the pupil referral unit for 20 children. We also have an outreach service for language and communication and SEMH providing support to all primary schools in the borough.
So, our challenge was to build and maintain a school community which is truly inclusive, which has a spirit of creativity flowing through it, and which supports pupils to develop their identities despite the challenges of the modern world. In order to make this happen I concentrated on three key core principles.
The importance of developing leaders
I have been fortunate to work with incredibly committed and talented staff throughout my career – educators who share my values and help me to implement positive change. I have always seen this as a symbiotic process; as they support me to build the school community according to our shared vision, I do all I can to empower them and develop them as leaders.
This is particularly important with an executive headship role, overseeing more schools and depending more on my team to maintain our shared culture across different sites. This is an opportunity to develop staff, to act as a sounding board for ideas and as a critical friend where needed. The impact of such collaboration – on the school’s CPD offer and in growing leaders who seek inspiration beyond the school and even the education sector – has been immense.
It comes down to creating a culture of development, and establishing a love of learning, not just for our pupils but for our staff as well. I want our schools to have a real buzz around them, for staff to feel excited and for us to have a regular flow of new ideas, links and partnerships with external organisations.
Building a community spirit and creating new opportunities for pupils
I am particularly proud of the primary careers conference I started some five years ago – opening the eyes of primary school children to a range of careers through partnerships with a variety of organisations.
Children attend the conference, listen to inspiring speakers share their career journeys, and then return to school to create a small-scale careers event in their own schools, using their own community as a resource.
At Netley we also organise an annual exhibition evening, where we welcome representatives from our local and wider community to visit the school, alongside our children and their families, to celebrate their learning. It is an opportunity to showcase the children’s artistic and academic work and is a real highlight of the year. Our theme last year was ‘Our World’ and each year group took a different perspective of learning about, and advocating for, the environment.
In previous years we have celebrated trailblazers from the aviation, pop music, and space sectors for our ‘Pioneers’ evening, delved into different aspects of children’s literature in ‘The Magic of Books’, and even highlighted our focus on identity with the theme of ‘Who Do I Want To Be’?
Building an inclusive school community which supports every pupil to develop their own identity
At Netley we have a big question that the children reflect on through their time with us: ‘Who do I want to be?’
My over-riding priority for my pupils is for them to have a strong identity, to be informed on social and cultural challenges, and to act as agents of change in making our world a better place. Everyone in campus has the same shared ethos of a values-based curriculum with respect and equality at its core.
We are a UNICEF Rights Respecting School and our school curriculum is underpinned by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. I am proud that the school curriculum is innovative and, where possible, staff make links with children’s identity and community.
There is no failure in our campus. Children in our PRU and centre for autism have a sense of belonging and pride, participate in mainstream events with their families, socially interact (pre-COVID!) with their mainstream peers during playtimes and, for those who are ready, attend lessons in the mainstream classes.
In Netley, pupils learn about autism and difference – using Makaton as a communication tool is part of our assemblies. We know that this works – pupils and parents have all reported less bullying in the last three years, and children with differences are fully part of mainstream school.
Our fixed term exclusion rate is almost non-existent; if children are having a difficult time we work with them to try and understand why and we also work with the family using strategies that will support and nurture the child.
Campus colleagues with SEMH specialism are ever-willing to share knowledge and strategies and offer support to colleagues in different settings within campus.
Every pupil deserves to be happy and confident; to play, learn and grow, knowing they can better themselves through the nurture and experiences we offer them.
What could be more inclusive than that?