Kierran Pearce: Multi Schools Council
By Kierran Pearce, founder of Multi Schools Council.
My name is Kierran Pearce, and I am founder of Multi Schools Council. I have worked for 11 years across two special education (SEND) schools in the county of Essex, UK - first as a Learning Support Assistant and now as a teacher.
For me, school was not always a positive experience due to personal mental health difficulties, and I think this has driven me towards helping others now. I have always enjoyed playing sport and my role within education also took me towards becoming a sports co-ordinator. Now I enjoy working with children from all backgrounds and abilities, specifically on raising awareness towards those with SEND and mental health difficulties. This passion has been further ignited by my employment at Market Field school - a day school for children and young people aged 5-16 who experience moderate learning difficulties - working alongside fantastic professionals and, most importantly, the pupils themselves.
Identifying the need for action
The initial inspiration for Multi Schools Council came from a school council meeting we held at Market Field. I was asked by the head to lead the council and in one of the meetings it stuck with me when a pupil said: “People at this school understand us, but we don’t ever get the chance to meet other children or help others see us for who we are because they just see us as ‘special’. We are just like them really.”
Although a positive word, the term ‘special’ is often used as a negative within society and ever since hearing this pupil speak, it’s been all about changing that perception. The vehicle for doing so is the ‘Multi Schools Council’. The Multi Schools Council is all about bringing children together from different schools and backgrounds. This involves children at mainstream and special education schools coming together and developing ideas and projects that link to our aim of breaking down the negative perceptions towards children with SEND or those who may be ‘different’. It gives children a voice, a voice to ensure that discrimination will not start in schools and that we use our opportunity of education to build understanding about how we are all different. Difference is something that should be embraced, not feared!
The main objective of the Multi Schools Council is to break down the social stigmas that can be created in school. When children are developing awareness of themselves and others, it’s important we acknowledge and embrace everyone’s differences. Not only will that lead to children with learning differences feeling less isolated, but it will also empower young people to be confident in who they are.
How the Multi Schools Council works
I lead the Multi Schools Council, but the real work is done by the children. We meet 3 times throughout the academic year across 7 different areas in Essex, and the children discuss ideas linked to the objectives they have identified. For example, mental health was discussed back in 2017 as a growing problem within most of the schools, and the students came up with recommendations on how this area could be improved. They suggested training, projects and events, so together we took these ideas and started taking action. The pupils are always involved in the initiation of ideas, and wherever possible, the delivery. They are the audience of these ideas, and it’s key that we keep them at the forefront every step of the way.
We are at a place now where we want the students to take on more responsibility within the council, so we have enlisted ambassadors who take on extra commitments like leading talks, delivering training programmes, raising project profiles via social media output and more. Seeing how empowered this has made our pupils has inspired me even further to keep pushing this agenda. The aim eventually would be to have a council for children, run by children.
Launching Multi Schools Council
After that initial council meeting, it was clear that we needed to get things off the ground quickly. At the time, the Olympic and Paralympic games were being held in London, and as a result school sport was high on the agenda. We therefore arranged the hosting of a school sports event, working with 4 local mainstream schools. I contacted the local schools and the students then planned the types of sports they would like to deliver. The schools we spoke to were keen to get involved, and before we knew it, we had a Multi Schools Council Sports Day on our hands!
At the sports day, the children from Market Field led on different Para and Olympic game events, coaching the other children as they went along. It was almost ‘role reversal’ because historically, and wrongly, children with SEND and mental health difficulties have always been seen as the ones that need more support or the ones that need to be coached. Instead, our pupils felt really empowered coaching others who society judge as ‘normal’, when actually there is no such thing!
It was clear early on that if we wanted to challenge perceptions across education, we need to allow a wide spectrum of ideas to be discussed at our first few meetings. The sports event was the catalyst for growing and reaching other educational sectors, bringing together young people of all levels of ability. After the success of Sports Day, we looked at implementing different projects including inclusion weeks where students swap between schools to experience different learning environments, an art project where schools collaborate on pieces of art to challenge perceptions about disabilities, and a drama project where we bring together children with and without learning difficulties to perform on the same stage.
As the projects launch and develop, new objectives are being highlighted by the pupils on the council. These include things such as raising awareness about autism, highlighting the different areas of SEND and encouraging further resilience-building in schools. They have also identified other problems bigger than just education such as supporting refugees, bullying, homelessness and global warming. Council ambassadors and I go into local schools and educate others about these topics, hoping to encourage a cycle of positive change across the county and beyond.
Breaking social barriers
The biggest challenge at the start was getting others to see the value in what we were doing. This again came back to understanding. Our work was different - and sometimes people fear different. At Multi Schools Council, we have overcome these hurdles by giving the young people a platform to share their experiences and their talents with others – they are so inspiring and have been so powerful that people can’t help but see the value. Our decisions are driven by what the children tell us matters to them so again, people can’t really argue with this because they must reflect on who education is for – the young people. When the youth speak, they should and must be listened to - they are the best catalyst to bring about change.
As a whole, the proudest moment for Multi Schools Council so far has been developing our model across Essex and getting it to a point where it is now recognised and supported at county level. This is making a massive difference to the service we can offer and the social perceptions around SEND education that we are breaking. However, there are many individual moments where children have given talks about their mental health or come up with an idea that has changed how others view autism or inclusion; these personal milestones are also up there with our proudest moments!
On a personal level, coming back to Market Field school after my 150 mile walk across the county is the proudest moment of my life. This was another event idea planned by the pupils. We walked to every special needs school in Essex (18 in total!) in just five days to raise awareness of the work Multi Schools Council was doing, celebrating how the children involved are all so different and to raise money for future ideas.
Building on learnings and looking to the future
I don’t like the word failure; I prefer ‘learning’, as a failure is simply another step in our learning experience. Funding has been hard for us to gain; on reflection I believe this is because organisations don’t always fully understand what we do, or are not able to accept the fact we pass so much control over to our pupils.
We want the Multi Schools Council to be a national project. We firmly believe we have a model that could be beneficial across the educational sector to bring about change to the way children with SEND and mental health difficulties are seen. We are under no illusion that we have a long way to go, but we want to keep increasing our presence, and are delighted that we are already seeing growth in other UK counties and towns including Hertfordshire, Southend, Thurrock and Norfolk.
As we grow, we want to continue to influence change within schools. We have many strong, well developed programmes that have been designed and led by young people, and we want to encourage other education centres to start using them naturally. This would then help develop future SEND policies within schools and allow more children to access the education they are entitled to.
Youth are the future
Young people are not only the leaders of tomorrow, they are the leaders of today. This should be a clear and consistent message delivered throughout the education system. I love the quote ‘Don’t judge a tree on when you are there watering it, go back and judge it when its roots have grown and you can see it has blossomed’. If we allow youth to have a voice and to feel empowered, it will benefit them, and others, both in the moment and for years to come. We won’t always be around, so we must continue to inspire future generations to solve the challenges they may face.
My tips for those starting out with an initiative or project would be: 1. No idea is a stupid idea - if it sounded good to you someone else might think so too! 2. Find peers or people (for me this was other staff members) who will listen and support you. 3. Remember your opinion is just as important as everyone else’s. You only get one life and your opinion, no matter your ability or background, is as valuable as everyone else’s.
Article published: 19th February 2020
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