How competition can remove barriers for disabled students

Clare Howard, Chief Executive, Natspec

The recent blog by Kathryn James discussed how the Paralympics has contributed to changing perceptions of disability. Paralympians, she wrote, are now seen as athletes like any other, and FE can begin to experience the same shift in attitudes relating to learners with Special Educational Needs and/or Disabilities (SEND) who should be encouraged to have high aspirations and be supported to achieve their goals.

To me the blog prompted a number of questions. Would the same shift in attitude have occurred if the Paralympics was not a separate event? Does the fact that Paralympians are not competing in mainstream events actually support integration? What role does competition have in raising the profile of disabled people? And how can we provide the same inspiration and role models in teaching, learning and achieving in FE and skills for students with SEND?

First, on separation or integration. Many people arguing for inclusion would say that separation encourages a focus on the disability, not the person or the ability. In education, there is growing concern over why the number of SEND learners in mainstream schools is reducing. But a separate Paralympic Games, with classification and eligibility based on disability, conversely gives us the time and space to give these athletes the attention they deserve. It enables the development of expertise, equipment, specialist networks and training regimes. The separate coverage helps to shift attitudes and provide role models and inspiration to others. Many of the British medallists in Rio only took up their sport having been inspired by the Paralympics in London 2012. Similarly in education, specialist colleges or discrete centres within mainstream can support integration and independence, and are inspirational places to learn, both for students and professionals.

But as general FE colleges experience a rise in learners with more complex needs, we need to find the right balance between discrete provision and mainstream, between specialist support and expertise, and upskilling mainstream tutors. Without a mixed economy of provision, students will not get the variety of options and quality of provision they need.

Secondly, we can learn much from London 2012 and Rio 2016 of  how competition can create role models, provide inspiration, and increase student motivation, enthusiasm and success. Natspec, AoC and WorldSkills UK have worked together to create the Inclusive Skills Competitions, which last month culminated in five new competitions being integrated into the main Skills Show at the NEC.

Building on expertise at Derwen College and partner employers, the competitions have grown from early pilots to exploring international partnerships. The 2017 Natspec-led programme will grow to ten competitions, and just like sport, will involve debates around whether eligibility should be about level of performance (skill level) or level of disability. Whilst sport has (for now) found a successful Olympic/Paralympic balance of ‘one movement, two events’, many would argue that they haven’t quite got it right just yet (there are particular issues for those with learning difficulties for example, where swimming is the only sport with events in the Paralympics, whilst the Special Olympics – set up for those with learning difficulties – does not receive the same level of funding or support).

Whatever the arguments, there is no doubt that Inclusive Skills Competitions, just like the Paralympics, can achieve a tremendous amount in changing attitudes. Employers are increasingly involved in the competitions, many act as judges and realise just how employable these young people are, just like the ‘mainstream competitors’.  Role models from previous years are inspiring new competitors. Winning medals, or just the experience of competing, has an incredible effect on levels of self-confidence, self-esteem, motivation and pride.

Meanwhile, the Natspec team, WorldSkills UK and partner organisations will continue to support and train the mainstream competition organisers to make the existing events more inclusive. Integrating disabled students, either through making adaptations or through better promotion and communication, is now firmly on the agenda of both the competition organising partners and WorldSkills UK themselves.

And just like the Paralympics, how can we maximise – through the SEND Workforce Development Project and other routes – the impact of specialist teaching and learning together with Inclusive Skills Competitions to best support integration, change attitudes and enable disabled students to succeed? Let me know what you think:

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