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UKRI – RSA Public Dialogue project update: Enhancing Public Dialogue About Inclusion in School Education: involving young people with special educational needs

Enhancing Public Dialogue About Inclusion in School Education: involving young people with special educational needs

Organisations: University of Exeter. University of Portsmouth

Partners: SEN Policy Research Forum, Sortition Foundation, Involve

Background information:

This public dialogue project asks how English schools can be made more inclusive for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). Based on the principle that that people with SEND have a right to express their views on any public policy that touches on their lives, a key aim of this pilot is to include young people with SEND in public dialogue by actively involving them in the process of its design.

Though typical reviews of school education (e.g. the recent Times Education Commission) often use stakeholder consultations involving children and young people, they are neither representative nor deliberative practices. What is more, the issue of SEND is often marginalised from wider schools policy. There were, for example, weak connections between the recently-shelved 2022 Schools White Paper and the SEND Green Paper.

This project aims to organise a representative and deliberative public dialogue about inclusion in the English school system. It gives primacy to SEND, using it as a lens for exploring how inclusion can be made integral to the general purposes of schooling. The project will help to determine whether the public dialogue process results in more nuanced, grounded and integrated policy ideas and recommendations about inclusion.

The UK’s first Citizens’ Panel on inclusion

We aim to recruit 30 people to form what we believe is the UK’s first Citizens’ Panel on school inclusion. Citizens’ Panels are similar to Citizens’ Assembly, but involve fewer people. Our Panel will involve 12 young people (aged 12-16) – eight with SEND and four without SEND – their parents/carers, plus six teachers in general and specialist roles. The Panel will convene in March 2023; first online, then in person in Portsmouth. Participants will hear evidence from experts and debate and decide what needs to happen to ensure children and young people with SEND feel welcome in school and succeed.

A key objective of the project is to gain knowledge about how to modify a Citizens’ Panel process to enhance the effective participation of young people with SEND. Therefore, to ensure the Panel events are designed with the requirements of young people with SEND in mind, we will hold to preliminary online meetings with them to consult on how they can best contribute to the discussion and deliberations.

The project has developed out of the SEN Policy Research Forum, which has 30 years’ experience of arranging policy seminars about SEN and inclusive education field with professionals, parents, voluntary organisations and policymakers. These seminars, as a type of public dialogue, are organised around key policy questions, which are addressed by invited expert presenters and are followed by participant discussion in small groups. An analysis of the deliberations are written up as an open access policy papers. This Citizen Panel project is an extension of the Forum’s work and is led by two of the Forum’s Lead Group members. Members of Forum’s Lead Group are on the project advisory group.

The project partners

We are working with Involve to design the Citizens’ Panel, which will be run by their expert facilitators. Involve is a leading public participation charity that develops and supports new ways to involve people in decisions that affect their lives. The Sortition Foundation – which offer bespoke selection and stratification services for a range of deliberative events – will oversee the process of randomly selecting participants for the Panel.

Also on the project team are Dr Jen McAnuff, an occupational therapist and researcher with experiencing of working with young people with SEND, who is helping with the design process; and Dr Sophie Hall, who will support the process of evaluating this project.

Early challenges

This vital and engaging project has brought several practical and conceptual challenges, which we have been working though with our partners. For example, due to the difficulty in being able to reach our target audience directly (unlike many other public dialogue events, we cannot target households), our recruitment process is being mediated by third parties: local authorities, schools and advocacy groups within the local SEND community. Therefore, one of the elements under test in our project is the effectiveness of recruiting young people in this somewhat vicarious manner, via two gatekeepers: their parents, and the leaders of their schools, on whose willingness and cooperation we are reliant to share the sign-up information. The success of our strategy will become clear in the new year, as we move into the selection and onboarding process.

For more about the project, email or



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