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Blog: Making inclusion in the early years work

Blog: Making inclusion in the early years work

Catherine McLeod from Dingley’s Promise shares her thoughts and experiences on how can we ensure every child with SEND has the best chance to access the mainstream.

I believe that one day if we invest in and develop our early years sector, we can ensure that every child can access inclusive early years provision at the start of their educational journey. There is much to do to make this a reality, and the current capacity and understanding of early years settings to deliver inclusive practice needs to be developed if they are to cope with the increased demand that the Government’s new 30 hours offer will bring. Our research has shown that 63% of early years settings locally feel unable to offer more spaces to children with SEND unless they have more training and support, regardless of new funding streams.

Having worked with children with SEND in the early years for 34 years, Dingley’s Promise is committed to sharing our experiences and what has worked for us to enable more mainstream settings to feel able to work effectively with children with SEND. Last year at Dingley’s Promise, 60% of our transitions were to the mainstream, which shows how effective our model of using specialist early intervention to build pathways to inclusion is.

Meaningful Inclusion

Through our support of mainstream early years settings, we have seen different ways of including children – some very successful and others less so. One thing we have seen and heard time and again is the belief within mainstream settings that inclusion is about securing 1:1 support for children with SEND so that they have an extra practitioner in the playroom to work with them. At worst, this ‘velcro Vera’ style of support does not lead to meaningful inclusion as the 1:1 often dominates the child’s time, taking away the need for the whole setting to run truly inclusive activities. For inclusion to be meaningful, activities and environments must be adapted to ensure that different kinds of children are able to access learning together.

Central to establishing meaningful inclusion is listening to the voice of children and families, and involving them in every step of the process. The child’s needs and interests must be at the core of including them in the playroom, and families must be supported to understand strategies that work best so that they can use these at home and provide continuity.

How can we get children into mainstream provision successfully?

We have developed specific entry and exit criteria for our services, which highlight three key aspects relevant to transition:

  1. the child’s development
  2. the capacity of a mainstream setting to support the child
  3. the situation and views of the family

In the past, we had waited for the end of the year or the end of the early years to transition children, but we now transition children all year round when they, their family and the partner mainstream setting are ready.

It is useful to consider what we do within each of these three key areas to ensure children have the best chance of succeeding in the mainstream.

The development levels of each child vary, as well as the speed at which they develop. Our two main responsibilities are to ensure firstly that our practice is excellent, and secondly to ensure that we effectively track the development of the child. We track the levels of each child every term using the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) descriptors, and check these against expected levels of attainment to track how the gap between each child and average development levels is closing. Once the difference is within six months we aim to start the transition to mainstream, depending on the other two key aspects.

The capacity of the mainstream setting to take the child is also key to the process of transition, and begins when we start working with the family to identify the mainstream setting they would like their child to go to. We provide the setting with detailed information about the child, so that they can understand their development level, interests and needs. We also hand over tried-and-tested strategies for use with that child, so that the mainstream setting can also use the strategies and smooth the transition for the child, giving them the best chance of success. This is done through handing over reports, 1:1 discussions between key workers, and visits to our setting to see how the child interacts, and to the mainstream setting to support the transition process. In many cases, we have worked with a mainstream setting to build their knowledge, and have seen that later they feel confident enough to enrol more children with SEND directly without our intervention.

The final aspect is the situation and views of the family, which must be key to all aspects of the child’s learning experience. Sense’s 1996 report entitled ‘The Case for Play’ found that 55% of parents felt that professionals’ lack of knowledge was a barrier to their child accessing play. It is vital not to underestimate the importance of how comfortable a family feels with inclusive education and the knowledge practitioners have to be able to help their child thrive. If those families are pushed towards the mainstream without feeling their concerns are understood, they may decide not to send their child to any setting at all. It is the responsibility of the setting to reassure parents and show them that their child will be supported effectively.

How can mainstream settings use our experiences to become more inclusive?

With the one-off Access Funding from local authorities, mainstream settings could apply to spend extra hours working with the family and child to really understand both the level of the child and the views and situation of the family. Access Funding could also be used to fund staff training to ensure that staff are ready to work in a truly inclusive way with the child. Ongoing Inclusion Funding can also be used to provide support for children who do not have Education Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) on an ongoing basis. However, rather than apply for 1:1 support for that child, why not invest in upskilling the whole staff team in working in an inclusive way so that every child gets the chance to play and interact with their peers as equals?

In the future, I believe we will see early education that is fully inclusive, where strategies for meaningful inclusion are embedded across mainstream early years settings, and where eventually the need for specialist early years settings will disappear. However, this can only become a reality if we recognise the vital importance not just of the development level of the child, but also of their needs, views and interests. This, combined with a constructive, supportive relationship with parents and an understanding of their key concerns and aspirations, is the only way that we can ensure every child with SEND is able to access their full free entitlement.


Catherine McLeod MBE is Chief Executive of Dingley’s Promise and a passionate advocate of inclusion and access. She has worked in the field of disability for over 20 years, leading programmes and organisations both in Asia and in the UK.


Released On 30th Sep 2017