A common characteristic of the British education system is the high level of student diversity that exists within classrooms. Whether new to teaching or experienced, a key challenge for all teachers is catering simultaneously for all the different learning needs.
It is important to recognise that every child is an individual with unique characteristics, needs and developmental pathways, including:
- Students with Special Needs and disability (SEND)
- Students from Ethnic Minority backgrounds – (see Diagram 1)
- Black and Minority Ethnic (BME)
- English as an Additional Language (EAL)
- Gyspy, Roma and Travellers (GRT)
- Disadvantaged (Ofsted and DfE use the same definition)
- Students entitled for free school meals (FSM)
- Looked after children (LAC)
- Most Able and Gifted and Talented
These groups are not necessarily homogenous – students within some of these categories may have more than one need. It is equally important to consider that these categories are not labels, but indicators to support teachers in planning appropriate support for every child in their class. All students bring different strengths to the classroom. For example, bilingual students may bring a range of linguistic skills and valuable personal and educational experiences. Equally, some children identified with Asperger syndrome could also be very able children and be high performers in one or more subjects.
Addressing the diverse needs of learners will help to ensure that ‘access to education is not compromised by poverty, social class, gender, race and learning disability’ (West-Burnham and Coates, 2005). While there is no single model to achieve this in the classroom, I have found the strategies below helpful:
- Target setting and tracking – make regular and effective use of as wide a range of data as possible: prior attainment, teacher assessment, comparative data (national and local data), attendance and exclusions data, gifted and talented profiles, EAL profiles, baseline assessment, and any student or parent surveys undertaken by your school.
- Focused assessment – use assessment information to tailor teaching to the needs of students and to engage in a dialogue with students about their progress and learning.
- The learning environment – create a learning environment to suit a range of learning activities (flexible approaches to timetabling, maximising use of the learning space).
- Curriculum organisation – aim to enable all learners to fully access the curriculum.
- Support children’s wider needs – try to consider what barriers might exist beyond the classroom and see if your school has resources to address them. This could include personal tutors or mentoring (DCSF, 2008).
Actively trying to address diverse learning needs is a fundamental part of the philosophy of inclusive education. More than particular techniques, it is getting to know your students and reacting to them with ‘subtle, flexible and responsive approaches’ that allows every individual to learn (Cowley, 2018).
Mirela Temo is an Education Improvement Adviser (Ealing LA) and her experience in education includes both teaching and leadership, in primary, secondary education and post-graduate programmes.