A conversation with Pam Jones, O.B.E. on art projects in SEN Schools

On a blustery day in January, I was invited by the vibrant Pam Jones O.B.E. and Ex-Executive Headteacher of the Cedar Federation to visit both Kings Farm and Ifield Special School. The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire was awarded to Pam for many things including her contribution in part of transforming Ifield Special School into a supportive and expansive environment for children with severe learning needs and communication difficulties. After only a few minutes of chatting, it was clear that Pam is a true advocate for transforming the way in which children with Special Educational Needs (SEN) receive their education. While Pam didn’t go into detail about her extensive work with SEN, a quick look on Google will show you that Pam was part of developing the SMILE Centre; a space for parents, teachers and Education professionals to receive support and training on how best to support children with SEN.

Through our art projects we are privileged to work with over 2 million children each year across the spectrum of education. Making it important to all us of in the APFS team to understand how different children react and receive our art-based projects. I was lucky enough to have a tour of Ifield Special School with both Pam and the new Executive Headteacher and ex-HMI Abi Birch and Mandy Braisted, Assistant Head Inclusion and ex-mainstream teacher. I was there to understand and discuss the scope of creativity across the breadth of education; aware that my understanding of SEN left a lot to be desired.

Fortunately for me, Pam was able to offer her perspective highlighting that for many children with SEN it was important that their work matched the national curriculum as close as possible. Pam informed me that as a rule of thumb, children with SEN work within a curriculum two or three year’s below their age. However, Pam was keen to make sure that I understood that every child is an individual regardless of whether they had SEN or not. The measure of progress also had to be thought about differently, with marked achievements such as, the toileting programme, cooking meals, life skills and independency celebrated. It was a shock to hear Pam talk about activities such as the toileting programme and brought home just how much I took for granted. It was clear from our discussion, that for children with SEN their biggest achievements were often from the successful completion of an everyday task. These achievements were often born out of the careful and deliberate steps orchestrated by their teachers and support team.

How art fits into the SEN narrative, amongst technology and day to day learning is a topic of contention. Often overshadowed in both mainstream and SEN schools, art and creativity as a subject is often overlooked from the syllabus. During the tour, we spoke about the lack of art being offered to children, with the opinion that art provides children with the opportunity to learn in a whole new way. Certainly, at APFS we believe there are many positive attributes to learning and exploring through art. Fundamentally, art provides children (and adults) with the chance to test their problem-solving abilities, creativity and expression of self. Pam’s insight into the subject highlighted the necessity of art in the classroom, especially for children with SEN whose learning is often explorative and sensory based.

When discussing how APFS could adapt our art projects to provide a more inclusive project for SEN schools. I was surprised to learn that for special needs schools, it’s expected and important that their curriculum matched mainstream schools. Instead, we discussed the need to have art projects that were similar across mainstream and special schools but included adapted accessibility. It was clear from the consensus in the room that regardless of learning abilities, children should be provided with the same opportunities.