Catherine O'Farrell, Head of Student Support Services, Bloom Education, UAE

Catherine began her career with a B-Ed from DCU in Dublin, teaching in Ireland and Australia for 6 years before moving into psychology. She gained a BSc Psych from The Open University in the UK and began counselling and coaching in the UK and the UAE. Catherine is a fully qualified counsellor and psychotherapist with diplomas in Forensic Psych, Counselling & multiple certifications in varied approaches. Catherine completed her MSc in Systems Thinking with The Open University following her move into Senior Management, where she saw the need for Strategic Systems Optimisation. She has since completed a PGC in Business Administration. Catherine has been consulting in education, schools development and improvement and inclusion internationally for over 6 years and has been published on 3 continents. Catherine is currently Head of Student Support Services for Bloom Education in the UAE.


What percentage of students are identified internationally as having individual learning needs?

Approximately 12%, but this percentage has dropped significantly over the past year and a half in the MENA (anecdotal evidence) due to the effects of distance learning.

Why are our identified numbers dropping?

The shift to online learning has created a huge barrier for teachers in identifying special educational needs in students from KG through to university level.

The multiple and complex nuisances that we pick up in the classroom are being lost through the interface of digital platforms resulting in a great reduction in referrals and therefore support for our more vulnerable students. This will undoubtedly have a severe and knock-on effect on student performance and progress, potentially having lasting effects for many years.

Under identification is not entirely a new phenomenon and has been an issue of concern for years, now extenuated by the sudden and rushed shift to distance learning.

UNESCO’s Guide for ensuring equity in education 2017 notes that further efforts are needed to minimize barriers to ensure all learners experience genuine inclusion while the Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG4) calls for inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning opportunities for all by 2030.

So, what can we do about it?

Inclusive practice is driven by inclusive schools and leaders. UNESCO notes 4 dimensions of devising inclusive policy:

Every leader should be asking the following questions:

Is the school’s ethos:

  • Inclusive in its nature?
  • Does it mention inclusivity and equity?
  • Is it clearly understood, and is it valued across the school’s community?
  • Is this value reflected in policy statements that inform practice, and is it facilitated and supported by positive systems and structures creating positive feedback loops that reinforce inclusive practice?

The answer to each of these questions should be a resounding YES – if it’s not, a review is needed!

How is this different in the online setting?

Well, it shouldn’t be, but in reality, it is. Delivery of support has changed completely, where students with profound and extreme needs are struggling to access their education online. There has been a huge drop in the uptake of support in the MENA region. SEN students attendance is down around 40% in many schools (anecdotal based on reporting from c.200 school leaders) across the UAE and MENA, while many families have given up completely on online education for their children with profound needs.

What can we do?

As school leaders, we need to start with the student and end with the student – taking a deep dive into your data to carefully appraise where the greatest areas of need are.

Are the families with the most profound needs being supported in a meaningful and practical way by the school?

Do they know who to talk to if they have concerns or trouble accessing delivery? The school’s safeguarding teams are invaluable in supporting the inclusion teams in engaging and supporting families and students. This is achieved through regular and meaningful communication and live conversations with families – gaining insight into the realities behind the screen and challenges families are facing.

Modifying delivery and content to facilitate students’ individual needs is key- the inclusion team should work hand in hand with the teacher and parents to ensure that realistic goals are being set.

Adapting existing documentation and paperwork such as the IEP to reflect online delivery or blended learning.

A simplified, easy access IEP should be implemented to reflect the more complex setting of online learning, fitting the goals to suit the new environment and ensuring that students are being challenged to achieve their goals.

The simplified IEP should reflect 5 key areas and always be fully SMART.

  • Student information
  • Student’s learning style
  • Classroom (digital or F2F) accommodations
  • Targets
  • Stakeholders
Are we challenging our more able learners?

How are we ensuring that our more able learners are provided with the opportunity to grow and thrive independently and at pace?

Roughly 10% (Smutny, 2000) of students are deemed to be gifted and or talented through multiple and often co-occurrent dimensions:

  • General intellectual ability or talent
  • Specific academic aptitude or talent
  • Creative and productive thinking
  • Leadership ability
  • Visual and performing arts
  • Psychomotor ability

Smutny (2000) speaks about supporting more able learners through enhancing the learning environment by:

  • creating learning centres
  • compacting the curriculum
  • providing a variety of learning methods
  • allowing for flexibility in grouping
  • offering choices
  • encouragement of creative thinking and brainstorming

Engaging flipped learning is an excellent means of challenging more able learners.

What is Flipped Learning?

In flipped learning, the learning content takes place outside of the classroom while the application takes place within. This allows students to accelerate and through content at their own speed and to bring their knowledge to the class where they can create and synthesize their learning.

You can set up Teams, Google Classroom, Edmodo, Moodle etc., to track students independent progress through content through access, quizzes or attendance. This can facilitate tracking of behaviour over time, allowing for a more individually tailored learning plan.

You can set these up to speak to your data tracking system, iSams, Sims, etc. and track performance regularly.

By triangulating your data, you can easily monitor and track student progress and ensure that more able students are continuously accelerated and challenged.

This requires continuous appraisal and monitoring. Don’t be afraid to trial and trial again!

By constantly appraising the systems in place in the school, data can be analyzed in detail, giving clear pictures of each individual students’ needs. This can be levered by teachers to ensure that needs are being met in a real and impactful way.

By modifying practice based on data and appraisal, teachers are better informed, progress is consistent, and the school can adequately and efficiently tailor delivery to meet the needs of all students.

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