Enhancing Public Dialogue about Inclusion in School Education: A Citizens’ Panel Pilot


Enhancing Public Dialogue about Inclusion in School Education: A Citizens’ Panel Pilot

What were the main aims of the initiative?

The project involved two key objectives for this pilot:

  • To obtain information about how to modify a Citizens’ Panel process to enhance the effective participation of young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND)
  • To generate, via the modified Citizens’ Panel, more nuanced, grounded and integrated policy ideas about inclusion in school education.
Location, Setting, Scope, Key Events etc.

The Citizens’ Panel (CP) involved participants from the Portsmouth/Southampton area of the United Kingdom (England). It ran between October 2022 and April 2023

The project involved recruiting about 30 stakeholders in this locality: young people with and without special educational needs (SEN)/disability, parents of children and young people with and without SEN/disabilities and education professionals. The project involved a team that designed, implemented and evaluated the CP.

The project was led by Professor Brahm Norwich (University of Exeter) and Dr Rob Webster (University of Portsmoth at the time). They were supported by two organisations: Sortition Foundation, which has expertise in recruitment to deliberative publics (representative groups that carefully consider and discuss an issue), and Involve, which has expertise in the design and implementation of such groups. In addition, there was a professional specialist in working with young people with disabilities, and research to evaluate the pilot CP.

Issues Addressed
What issues/challenges does the example address?

Public dialogue, such as Citizens’ Assemblies and Citizens’ Panels, give members of the public opportunities to learn about, debate and come to conclusions about important issues in a safe and respectful space. The discussions produce practical recommendations to share with the people that make the decisions that affect their lives.

Public dialogues are sometimes designed to be inclusive of people with physical disabilities. However, few tend to accommodate the communication, emotional and processing needs of many people with additional needs and disabilities. This matters because, compared to people without these needs, they may find it harder to relate to fast-moving conversations and make themselves heard. As a result, they are at risk of being excluded from the discussion and decision-making.

This public dialogue pilot project was based on the principle that young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) have a right to express their views on public policy that affects their lives, such as how schools are designed. They should not just be included in public dialogue, but actively involved in its design.

How was the initiative implemented?

Step 1 – Choose location:

  • Portsmouth and wider Hampshire area
  • Education Research and Innovation Consultancy Unit (ERIC) local educational network helped recruitment
  • Working in single area made in-person working more feasible

Step 2 – Advertise and recruit:

  • Two local authorities sent online information pack to head teachers
  • Head teachers sent pack to parents and educational professionals
  • Local advocacy groups sent information to parents
  • 81 responses: 34 parents of young people with SEND, 20 parents of young people without SEND, 27 educational professionals

Step 3 – Select participants:

  • Sortition Foundation selected 30 participants
  • For young people this took account of national incidence of SEND types, level of support, gender, ethnicity and free school meals eligibility and school type
  • Seven participants dropped out with five of these being replaced – 28 took part

Step 4 – Meet young people

  • Initial phone and video calls with parents and young people with SEND
  • Gathered information about young peoples’ interests, strengths, preferences and needs
  • Provided information about project and identified technical needs (wifi, etc.)
  • Built familiarity and trust; answered questions and gained informed consent
  • Set up on-going dialogue via text/email

Step 5 – Online preparation: workshop 1:

  • Six young people with SEND, ages 12–16
  • Parents nearby to support as needed
  • Create safe, respectful environment
  • Build relationships of trust and mutual understanding
  • Explore citizen panel activities through quizzes, breakout groups
  • Listened to young peoples’ feedback/evaluations

Step 6 – Online preparation: workshop 2:

  • Further explored young peoples’ perspectives on citizen panel topic
  • Built confidence/skills by focusing on parts of the citizen panel process
  • Made decisions about the citizen panel event design
  • Invited young people to choose how to contribute to the citizen panel
  • Ensure young people felt ready to take part

Step 7 – Citizen Panel online event:

  • 28 participants: 6 young people with SEND, 4 young people without SEND, 13 parents, 5 educational professionals
  • Got to know how citizen panel process works
  • Explored ideas from online workshops in small groups with young people and adults mixed
  • Expert presentations and group discussions with experts

Step 8 – Citizen Panel in-person event:

  • Ensured young people familiar with environment, agenda and facilities
  • Explored in groups what schools are for and challenges for schools to be more inclusive
  • Agreed priorities in groups
  • Each group presented vision of inclusive school, with areas of disagreement highlighted
  • Final discussion across all citizen panel groups.
Key Outcomes & Impact
What where the key outcomes? What impact/added value did they prove? What were the biggest challenges?

The policy ideas generated by the Panel about inclusion in schools were more grounded, integrated and nuanced compared with current SEND and inclusion policy in England.

Groundedness was evident in the principles and practices of the Citizens’ Panel involving the lived experienced of a group of local stakeholders, learning, reflecting and deliberating inclusion. Integration was shown in the ideas that connected improvements in the general school system to those in the specialist system.

Nuance was shown via the Panel’s suggestions, most of which involved making changes that would benefit all young people, not just those with SEND, while also offering dignified and inclusive specialist provision. Many ideas related to general changes; for example, promoting well-being, changing the curriculum and teaching, adapting the environment, and school management.

Some of the general changes, such as promoting well-being and what young people learn, had no SEND-specific aspects, but had benefits for all, including those with SEND. Others had a specific SEND aspect, for example, training in SEND as part of teachers’ general professional education and development. This can be organised into a continuum of SEND elements in inclusive school provision: from ‘improvement for all’, to ‘improvement for all with some SEND-specific features’, to ‘SEND-specific’.

Has the initiative been evaluated or are there plans for this in the future?

The Citizens’ Panel was evaluated immediately after it had ended. The evaluation found that organising a Citizens’ Panel on school inclusion focused attention on the importance of inclusion in the organisation and delivery of the Panel itself. From involving participants to designing and delivering the discussion activities, much of the project’s success was due to thorough planning and preparation. At every step, the needs of the young people with SEND were carefully considered, with efforts made to reduce the emotional and cognitive load that would have limited the Panel’s accessibility.

Managing and mitigating the anxiety of meeting new people in an unfamiliar context and environment was key to maximising the comfort, confidence and contribution of the young people. However, the differentiated approach that was necessary to enhance the participation of those with SEND opposed the disruptive elements that often characterise good public dialogue. Trade-offs were required, some of which affected other participants’ experience; for example, the slower pace of the discussions and limited mixing up of the discussion groups.

Future Developments / Sustainability
Have any plans been made for future direction of the initiative?

The immediate plans are to disseminate the results of the pilot in various ways. There are plans for another research project on using deliberative approaches in educational policy-making.