Enhancing Public Dialogue about Inclusion in School Education: a Citizens’ Panel Pilot
(UKRI-RSA Rethinking Public Dialogue Programme)
Brahm Norwich and Rob Webster
Public dialogue gives members of the public opportunities to learn about and debate important issues in a safe and respectful space. The discussions produce practical recommendations to share with the people that make the decisions that affect their lives.
Events such as Citizens’ Assemblies and Citizens’ Panels are groups that get together to think about and debate important matters. They are sometimes designed to be inclusive of people with physical disabilities, but few tend to accommodate the communication, emotional, and processing needs of many people with additional needs and disabilities. This matters because, compared to people without these needs, they may find it harder to relate to fast-moving conversations and make themselves heard. As a result, they are at risk of being excluded from the discussion and decision-making.
This public dialogue pilot project was based on the principle that young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) have a right to express their views on public policy that affects their lives, such as how schools are designed. They should not just be included in public dialogue, but actively involved in its design. This project generated new learning about how public dialogues processes can be adapted so that their voices are heard and included in decisions.
The project involved running a Citizens’ Panel with 28 people: six young people with SEND; four young people without SEND; 13 parents/carers; and five education professionals, including teachers. It was preceded by an extensive preparatory phase, in which the young people with SEND were consulted on how to make the Citizens’ Panel as inclusive, engaging, and productive as possible.
The question the Panel was asked to address was: ‘How do we make schools more inclusive for children and young people with SEND?’ The Panel heard evidence from experts, debated aspects of school life (from curriculum to uniform), and then made recommendations about what needs to happen to ensure those with SEND feel welcome and can thrive in school.
The Panel’s ideas for making schools more inclusive for young people with SEND
The Panel generated a set of ideas, most of which involved making changes that would benefit all young people, not just those with SEND, while also offering dignified and inclusive specialist provision. Many of the ideas related to general changes; for example, promoting wellbeing, changes to the curriculum and teaching, adapting the environment, and management of the school. Some of these general changes, such as promoting wellbeing and what young people learn, had no SEND specific aspects, but had benefits for all, including those with SEND. While others had a specific SEND aspect; for example, training in SEND as part of teachers’ general professional education and development.
Panellists’ experiences of taking part in the Citizen Panel
Organising a Citizens’ Panel on school inclusion focused attention on the importance of inclusion in the organisation and delivery of the Panel itself. From onboarding participants to the design and delivery of the discussion activities, much of the success of the project was put down to thorough planning and preparation. At every step, the needs of the young people with SEND were carefully considered, with efforts made to reduce the emotional and cognitive load that would have limited the Panel’s accessibility.
Managing and mitigating the anxiety produced by meeting new people in an unfamiliar context and environment was key to maximising the comfort, confidence, and contribution of the young people. However, the differentiated approach that was necessary for enhancing the participation of those with SEND bumped up against the disruptive elements that often characterise good public dialogue. Trade- offs were required, some of which affected the experience of the other participants; for example, the slower pace of the discussions and limited mixing up of the discussion groups.
Overall, this project was successful in achieving its aim of enhancing the effective participation of young people with SEND in public dialogue. Participants reported generally that taking part in the Citizens’ Panel was a positive and worthwhile experience, and that they developed empathy and insight into the lives of young people with SEND.
The adjustments made to the Citizens’ Panel process were successful for the six young people with SEND who took part. This project produced broad, transferable guidance that can be applied to other public dialogues involving a different group of young people with different needs. A key conclusion from this project is that the design and delivery of each new type of deliberative public dialogue involving young people with SEND must be appropriately differentiated and responsive to their individual and collective needs, if it is to be as productive, meaningful, and authentically inclusive as possible.
You can access the full report by clicking here:
Norwich, B., Webster, R., Hall, S., McAnuff, J. & Black, P. 2023. Enhancing Public Dialogue about Inclusion in School Education: A Citizens’ Panel Pilot