CfESEND blog: design thinking at Derby College

Blog by Sarah Le-Good, Inclusion Director and CfESEND Curriculum Project Lead at Derby College Group, for the Centres for Excellence in SEND programme.


A priority in our work at Derby College as a Centre for Excellence in SEND is to develop a platform where expertise from across the sector is gathered and shared, so we can all continuously, relentlessly, develop ourselves.

Covid-19 has shown that when times are hard, there is a strong instinct for us to unite, share knowledge, skills and resources. It’s that reciprocal element that drives us, especially from a leadership perspective, working together to lead change with inclusion at the heart of everything we do.

Derby College’s Principal and CEO, Mandie Stravino, is a strong believer in the value of inclusion and has led the development of our organisation’s strategy, challenging all staff to embed inclusivity in their work. The method we have used to draw together diverse groups of experts, developing strategies to create solutions and implementing organisational change, is design thinking, which is based in Entrepreneurial Thought and Action (ET&A).

Design thinking has been pivotal to our journey, even informing the move to change the language we use to describe our practice; We rarely use the term SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities) at Derby College. The term that is central to our work is ‘inclusion.

We talk about inclusive practice, inclusion needs, including everyone. Through the design thinking process, we concluded that descriptors based on the medical model of disability limited our thinking. So we deliberately looked at the language we were using and challenged ourselves to change it. We determined that the word ‘inclusion’ emphasises the responsibility of everyone in the organisation to remove barriers that exclude people. That change in language changed how we market ourselves, changed role profiles and job descriptions, changed how we recruit staff.

The process of design thinking involves gathering a group that represents stakeholders. If we were looking, for example, to improve the accessibility of our website, the stakeholders may include a range of students, parents, carers, support professionals, career information advice and guidance staff, vocational staff, web development staff and of course there would be representation from the inclusion team as well.

The group is then supported to move through the following five phases of innovation:

  1. Empathise – Using a range of creative strategies to learn how the end-user feels. What’s working? What do we need to do more of? What do we need to stop doing?
  1. Define challenge – Taking the elements explored in the empathise stage that are most important to most of your stakeholders, then refining them to work out the nub of the problem and creating a definition.
  1. Ideate and select – This is the time when the group works independently to generate ideas for a solution to the reframed problem. The ideas can be over-ambitious or even untenable at first – a broad brush approach is encouraged. Then there is a group vote to decide on solutions to prototype.
  1. Prototype – Explore ideas and design your prototype, then present it to your stakeholders. Say what you’re going to doH and put a plan in place.

    At Derby College the implementation has been completed in as short a timeframe as 6 weeks and as long as an academic year. Then when you have got your prototype, you deliver it.

  1. Test, review and refine – Work through a series of iterations until you are satisfied that the solution works well. This phase mirrors the ‘plan, do, review’ cycle of planning, teaching, assessment, reflection and refining that is so familiar in Post 16 education.

In other scenarios, participants might arrive with a pre-prepared set of challenges. Those challenges are often linked to a quality improvement plan created following self-assessment. That quality improvement plan is deconstructed to identify key performance indicators, then you explore a whole array of ways to make the desired impact.

In light of the ever-changing world brought about by the global pandemic, it’s even more pertinent to consider how we lead challenge and change, as we prepare for a future that has become even harder to predict. This is why design thinking is a powerful tool to have at one’s disposal. It is a useful method not only in working through an issue that needs action or focus but to get to the root of what that issue actually is.

Does this sound like something you want to know more about?  Well here’s an opportunity. On 17th September,  Mandie Stravino, CEO of Derby College Group and lead of Centre for Excellence in SEND (curriculum), will host a free leadership webinar to discuss how she has led the development of our organisation’s strategy, challenging all staff to embed inclusivity in their work. The CfESEND Curriculum project team will discuss: developing inclusive thinking and intent in organisational strategy, developing inclusive policies, and inclusive curriculum for all learners, but particularly those with SEND, resulting in an impact on ourselves and our practice. Do keep an eye on our SEND site and booking system to register for a place

The session is aimed at principals, CEOs, governors and senior leaders who want to create an inclusive and high-quality curriculum in their organisation. Or simply develop a range of tools to manage their strategic intent around curriculum. We look forward to seeing you there!

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