Over a hundred primary and secondary SENCos, senior leaders and council representatives took part in ‘Big-Hearted Schools’; Herts for Learning’s annual event for SEND specialists at the Hertfordshire Development Centre in Stevenage on Thursday 14th November.


Robyn Steward

The Big-Hearted Schools are those that welcome pupils with SEND and embrace the opportunity to grow great provision for all their pupils. Nick Whittaker, HMI, Specialist adviser, SEND, believes that ‘the experience of pupils who have SEN and/or disabilities is a bellwether of the school’s performance.’ Nick has written about this in his blogs, High standards – and highly inclusive and ‘Ask Listen Do’.  This year’s conference explored this concept further and built on the message central to the 2019 Ofsted Framework that ‘academic excellence, and effective SEND provision, are all part of the same picture and a school cannot be truly outstanding if it’s letting some of its pupils down.’

Rachel Macfarlane, HfL’s Director of Education Services, gave the motivating opening address.

She said: “It is through practising big hearted schooling that we draw out of pupils, especially those with SEND, the very best that they can be, their talents and aptitudes, that we show that they can achieve far more than perhaps was imagined or believed by those around them.” 

Rachel went on: “Leading with our hearts is crucial because it is about role-modelling the values and character that we want for our society, the behaviours that we want our students to adopt. We are not engaged solely in producing good performers able to thrive the market place. As Cardinal Hume said, “Our task is the training of good human beings, purposeful and wise, themselves with a vision of what it is to be human and the kind of society that makes this possible.”

Daniel Sobel then inspired the audience with his own personal story of overcoming disadvantage to become an academic and then a teacher and SENCO, and his journey to become Founder and Lead Consultant of The Inclusion Expert. From his experience of working with many schools, he had many examples of “soft solutions to hard data problems” and shared his simple matrix for delegates to take away and implement in their own schools, which he calls “one page to save ‘em all”.

Daniel explained: “An intervention that’s worth its weight in gold is very cheap, bespoke to the child, and usually quite enjoyable”. He went on: “Any intervention can be done consistently if it takes less time, money and stress.”

Over lunch, delegates had the opportunity to visit the conference exhibitors: Crossbow Education, MarvellousMe, Scanning Pens and SEN Books as well as the Herts for Learning stand.

Delegates then went on to a range of workshops to share best practice further.  Daniel Sobel shared tips and tricks from his work with 2000 schools.  Karin Hutchinson, Herts for Learning’s own Lead wellbeing adviser talked through the Herts Steps approach in her workshop: ‘Behaviour with a big heart’.  Angharad Paterson and Lianne Taylor from Mary Exton Primary School described their journey back from what they called ‘the SEND cliff edge’. 

Robyn Steward, an autism trainer, author and broadcaster brought the conference to a close in her emotive session: ‘Autism from a person, not just a textbook’. 

Robyn talked about how her experiences going through school led her to a multi-faceted career, which includes educating neurotypical people about autism.  Although her school experience was too often negative, she shared with the audience how once particular teacher had changed her time at school because they did three important things: listened to her, helped her to be part of the school community and taught her about sharing and clear boundaries.

Robyn highlighted the importance of ensuring young people with SEND know that they are valued within their community; it’s not always the most obvious skills that can be most important.  She said there are other people who, like her, prove that they can still be successful.  Even if they don’t succeed academically, they haven’t failed as a person. 

She remarked: “It’s important that young people know that with the hoops you jump through in school, you don’t have to be a show jumper – there are other ways forward.”

For further information, visit: Special Educational Needs and/or Disabilities (SEND)