Monday 20 March 2023

Square Pegs: Inclusivity, compassion and fitting in (Book Review)

When Square Pegs: Inclusivity, compassion and fitting in landed on my doorstep with a thud a couple of weeks ago, I wondered how I would find the time to read it. It is a weighty tome, and I feared that it would end up languishing at the bottom of my to-do list. But as I flicked through the pages, I quickly realised it would be difficult to put down. There are so many passages from the book that I would like to quote, because I believe they need to be shared far and wide. I wish everyone could read this book! So bear with me as I try not to get carried away...

White book cover with title text square pegs and handwritten list of school problems from a child's point of view

This book has been written and compiled by Fran Morgan and Ellie Costello. Fran founded Square Peg in 2019 in the wake of her own daughter's struggles in the education system and Ellie joined as Square Peg Director in 2020, after advocating for her two children who had undiagnosed SEND and underlying health conditions. Square Peg was set up in order to improve things for children with school-based anxiety and their families, and then developed to include all low or non-attenders, whether excluded on behaviour grounds, too anxious to attend, or disengaged with an education system which lacks relevance. The team have been working extremely hard behind the scenes even before this book was published, raising Parliamentary questions around attendance, kick-starting a legal challenge around the current attendance policy and codes, and attended meetings with the NEU (National Education Union) and Children Commissioner’s office, amongst others. 

A key part of Square Peg's work has been making connections with both academics and practitioners. These connections span a range of expertise, such as in education, psychology, sociology, policy, law and technology. Square Peg sits on two INSA committees (the International Network for School Attendance) and they hold the firm belief that the only way attendance issues will be solved is by collaborating and thinking out of the box. 

black and white illustration of uniform cut out children with different children images not fitting into each cut out

The term Square Pegs comes from the phrase 'a square peg in a round hole' and refers to an individual who is in a situation or doing something that does not suit them. And as the book states:

The trouble with square pegs is that by forcing them to fit the system's round holes, you end up damaging the peg, not the hole.

I would add to that; if education continues to put all its efforts and rewards into those that fit into the round holes whilst casting the square pegs aside, much of the star quality and difference that is vital for a 'well-rounded' society will be lost along the way.

I am a parent to two square pegs, although personally I have decided to refer to them as star polyhedrons (I have just had to look up that term but I wouldn't be surprised if our younger daughter, who has an amazing grasp of the English language despite her lack of formal education, somehow already knows it). Sasha's potted journey through education has been documented previously via this blog of course, and for anyone interested in finding out more, I can point you towards my post Back to School, or not?  but also to the animation she has created and shared on YouTube, describing her experiences. It is simply called 'School.

For reasons that are similar in some ways but very different in others, over the last few years the education system has proven to be not only not suitable but also potentially damaging for our eldest daughter, and this is building to a peak as she approaches her A-level exams this summer.

For this book, over fifty contributors from across the fields of education, SEND, leadership, pastoral work, social care, mental health, youth work and law have come together to share thoughts and suggestions of what can be done to solve the current issues in the education system. The book begins with a brief summary of their roles and following that is the introduction from Fran. She describes her own daughter's difficult path and explains how this was not a case of 'wouldn't' but instead 'couldn't'. Not choosing to not attend school, but finding it too difficult. This applies for both my girls too. Fran also introduces some statistics around the numbers of children who are persistently absent from school, and those who have faced permanent exclusions. However the point made here is that the data recorded for absences is not detailed enough, so how can we put support in place if we don't fully understand the underlying problem?

handwritten note list: too many people, scary, work is to hard, no friends, can't cope, pains in my stomach, worry for the next day when i come home, can't eat in school

This introduction also shares some hard-hitting notes and messages from other square pegs; children who the system has clearly damaged along the way. The cover of the book shares a note from C, age 11, as shown above, but there are others that also bring tears to the eyes. In brave messages that I hope have been read and listened to by others, my children have also shared their thoughts about their school struggles. They would both rather be in school, doing well - here is perhaps a good time to highlight Dr Ross Greene's words, "Kids do well if they can". 

Fran did eventually find a deputy head teacher who gave her daughter what she needed to thrive - time, space, communication, understanding and flexibility. Less than two miles from somewhere that had given the opposite - proving that attitudes are all-important.

All of this requires time, flexibility and resources, but, even before that, it needs senior leaders to step in and protect families from the rigidity and inflexibilty of the system. They must create a culture and environment that can scaffold each child and collaborate beyond the school walls to find innovative and creative solutions. They must bend the rules where necessary and use all the resources they have within their school and community networks (and some) to make it work. That is what this book is about.

There are 38 chapters and the book is divided into five parts with the following headings: Square Pegs and Round Holes, Law and the System, Relationship, Mental Health and the Brain, Beyond the Here and Now. Some of the highlights for me (although the whole book was one big highlight if I'm honest!) were Chapter 1, When Ideas Meet Real Children, written by one of my all-time fave writers, Naomi Fisher; Chapter 2, School Attendance Problems and Barriers; Chapter 3, A Tale of Three Families; Chapter 4, The Big Power of Little Things.... oh, actually, can you see where I am going here?! Every chapter is worth reading over and over, and I desperately hope that this book can change minds and hearts of those who have not yet understood that there is a better way.

Many words from the book have stuck with me; these first, from Naomi Fisher:

As children go through the school system, the choices available in their environment narrows. By the time they are 8 or 9, they have many fewer choices than when they were at nursery. Now, there is no option to play outside all day or to spend time with a favourite book. The process of schooling is inherently one of expecting greater compliance while providing fewer options for children to make interest-based choices. Even at age 14, when they choose GCSE options, the choices are far more limited than in a good nursery classroom. There are no options to throw yourself into a passion wholeheartedly, for example, by spending weeks of intense focus on something that interests you. There is certainly no option to spend your whole day outside, engaged in open exploration and construction. Ultimately, choices are reduced to and guided by which exam you will take at the end.

For some, school works as intended. They progress academically, enjoy it and do well. For others, the process is miserable. They just don’t seem to be able to learn in the same way that everyone else does, and so are often labelled as having learning difficulties. Others refuse to go to school or protest loudly through their behaviour when they are there, resulting in sanctions and exclusion from the classroom, or from the school itself. At times, despite best intentions, everything the school does seems to make things worse, especially for the children who become less motivated, not more, as they move through the system.

A word about champions from Tom Quilter; people who are there to help the child and family:

Creativity is key here to find the cracks in the system to make things happen – a where there’s a will, there’s a way mentality. It will often take a whole team to support a single family, but sometimes it takes just one person. A champion who can stand up when something is wrong to make sure families and individuals know their legal rights, along with the responsibilities of the services they meet, and who can help them to get the support. They need to respectfully but strongly challenge, though services, if necessary. Someone who can lead the way in encouraging all parties to be creative in the face of what might look like insurmountable obstacles.

'The little things matter' is a phrase I have often used about living with our PDA daughter over the past fifteen years. Ginny Bootman talks about this in her chapter 'The Big Power of Little Things':

As educators, we need to build connection with all those involved with the children in our care – children, parents, teachers and senior leadership team (including the busy, headteacher) as well as outside agencies. And noticed that I refer to ‘building connection’. It is about more than just linking up, attending a meeting or two, or cc’ing someone in an email. Well-built connections entail trust, reciprocity, and a mutual desire to collaborate and do whatever it takes to achieve the sought-after outcome. Connection is something that is earned. Once earned, it allows us to challenge our peers professionally, even when it is uncomfortable, and even if it involves hearing that our behaviours may be the cause of the problem. Trust builds up over time. Once it is firmly established, parents begin to let their barriers down and let us into their world, and then we can truly start that journey together to help the child. It is built by being honest and open, by not shying away from those tricky conversations, but by talking them through.

The brilliant illustrations in the book are from very talented Eliza Fricker, author of best-selling Can't Not Won't and The Family Experience of PDA books.

The final chapters of the book consider what the future options for education could be. More learnings are shared, including some on assistive technology that I think many will find helpful.

A final thought, taken from Chapter 35:

Education, real education, is different for every person. We aren’t all on the same life path. What is satisfying and meaningful to one person will be quite different from what is satisfying and meaningful to another. That is wonderful. That is what makes life interesting and makes an economy hum. We need people with different goals, tastes, insights and knowledge. Our schools try to squeeze everyone through the same round hole. 

Square Pegs: Inclusivity, compassion and fitting in is billed as a guide for schools but I think it is important for parents to see and read this too. Knowing that there are plenty of good people out there, trying to enact change for the better of all our children, is encouraging and uplifting. This book is available from Amazon here: Square Pegs: Inclusivity, compassion and fitting in.

For those unable to purchase (or even if you are!), asking your local library to stock this book is a good way of ensuring it can be seen and read by many.

Back cover of book with text a one-size-fits-all education system is creating a growing number of square pegs

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