05 SES 04, Supporting Students with Complex Needs
The expression “educational fragilities” is concerned with all those children and young people whose Special Educational Needs (SEN) cannot be framed in the horizon of physical disabilities and learning difficulties. Their difficulties can be traced back to non-specific disorders, to a threshold cognitive function, to a socioeconomic, language, cultural deficit. More often than not there is no clear-cut psychological and/or medical diagnosis since the difficulties met by these children and kids “do not correspond to the symptoms/signs of diagnostic handbooks (Girelli & Bevilacqua, 2018).
International guidelines stress how students with SEN are more likely to support lower-level school performance, poorer relationships, and behavioral difficulties than the average; they are therefore considered a group at risk of school dropout, ESL and formative failure (OECD, 2013). But students with educational fragilities are more exposed to these risks than students with physical disabilities or learning difficulties, as they cannot resort to the same resources (guaranteed by specific guidelines and regulations), with consequences regarding individual, social and family costs.
To prevent and tackle ESL and formative failure, the international guidelines stress the need of a strengthening of the inclusiveness of the school and training paths (European Commission, 2017; 2018). A “whole-school approach” is also considered necessary as it includes not only primary, secondary and tertiary prevention measures, but also the creation and the empowerment of the educational networks within the contexts where these students daily live (European Commission, 2015).
The role of the SEN Coordinators (SENCos) therefore appears to be of central importance. In Italy, a recent school Italian reform (L. n. 107/2015) established the figure of the ‘Coordinator for inclusion’ who “working with the school principals, ensures effective co-ordination of all project planning activities aimed at promoting the full integration of each pupil in the classroom and school context” (Perla & Agrati, 2018). But his/her action can be considered really effective if it goes beyond the 'dynamic synthesis' between the different areas within the school context. The direction to be pursued is the promotion of the student's project of life (Girelli & Bevilacqua, 2018). For this reason, the empowerment of the SENCos middle management dimension appears an urgency that cannot be postponed.
To date, the debate on middle management is still at an early stage (Spillane& Diamond, 2007). Although there are many middle management roles in the school context, research and literature on school management are mainly focused on headships (Hallinger & Heck, 2011). In Italy the regulatory aspects of this role present fragilities: in particular the recruitment has built on personal trust relationship with the head of the school (Law 59/1997) and there is no increased financial charge for public finances; profile of generic collaborator with no specific mention of a formal role of assistant heads (Law 107/2015). Enhancing the role of middle-management of the SENCos is desirable for two reasons. First, it is about realizing roles and functions that the SENCos already cover and assume, as they function as faculty leaders, key stage managers, head of departments, teachers in charge of subjects, and team leaders (Piggot-Irvine & Locke, 1999). Second, the informal strategies they usually implement include both management and pedagogical responsibilities (Muijs at al., 2013) which could be easier and more effective if the SENCos middle-management role was recognized and formalized.
The questions that oriented the research are: what are the actions that identify the SENCos’ functions? How does the SENCos work for the promotion of inclusion within the school? What are the elements that favor or hinder their actions? What is considered appropriate and useful to best perform this function?
The research has been contextualized within the ecological paradigm, since it allows to grasp, through the use of qualitative research methodologies, the essence and the qualities of the reality. The naturalistic epistemological approach indicates the need to study the phenomenon in the context in which it ordinarily presents itself, in order to understand the interweaving of the relationships that structure the reality (Mortari, 2007). The sequential qualitative mixed method designs (Morse, 2010) included in the first phase a qualitative survey aimed et exploring the role of the SENCos’, concerning the dimensions highlighted in the research questions; in the second phase, explicative focus groups have been carried out to understand and deepen the results that have previously emerged. Adopting two different research methodologies also allows to increase the scientific rigor of the research results, thanks to the data triangulation process (Denzin, 1973). The inductive content analysis (ICA) has been adopted for the qualitative data analysis. The ICA is a method of analyzing written, verbal or visual messages, which is often used also as a document analysis (Elo, Kyngas, 2008). It allows to obtain a concise and broad description of the phenomenon, through the elaboration of concepts and categories that contribute to the elaboration of model, conceptual systems, conceptual maps that allow the researcher to understand the phenomenon. THE ICA doesn’t include a simple description of the data, but it deeply deals with the meanings, the intentions, the consequences and the context in which the phenomenon is located. For this reason, during the analytical phase, the researcher considered it useful to adopt the principles that characterize the phenomenological approach, to guide both her methodological choices and her posture. Paying particular attention to the qualities in which things have been described. The principles of evidence and fedelty have been experiencing, to grasp the phenomenon as it was described. For this purpose it was essential to first implement an unconditional listening to the words written by the students, then a scrupulous attention to the words. To achieve this, a constant process of self-reflexivity has been promoted, that means a questioning of the tacit assumptions and the conceptual devices hat usually influence the researcher’s posture (Mortari, 2007)
Although the phenomenological principles that guide the posture and the actions of the researchers who act within the ecological paradigm highlight the need to implement non-oriented attention and the principle of epochē (Mortari, 2002), the results obtained so far (Girelli, Bevilacqua, 2018) allow the researchers to prefigure how the expected results could revolve around the theme of middle management in the perspective of distributed leadership. According with the literature analysis elaborated by Paletta and Pisanu (2015), working in terms of distributed leadership means not only manage and maintain the workflow effectively and stably. It also implies creating opportunities for experimentation and change because distributed leadership involves going beyond "progressive delegation", promoting a collaborative school environment which is strongly oriented to the improvement of teaching and learning. This direction of empowerment depends on several element. First, on the participatory organizational culture promoted by the headships. Second, on the presence of competent teachers, willing to take the initiative, to assume responsibility, to re-interpret their professional role by putting themselves at the service of colleagues and the school community. Third, on how cohesive and dynamic the school community is.
Denzin, N. K. (1973), The research act. A theoretical introduction to sociological methods. Transaction Publishers. Elo, S., Kyngäs, H. (2008). The qualitative content analysis process. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 62, 1, pp. 107-115 European Commission, (2015). A whole school approach to tackling early school leaving. Policy messages. Education & Training ET 2020, Brussels. European Commission, (2017). Education and Training Monitor 2017, Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union. Girelli, C., & Bevilacqua, A. (2018). Leggere le fragilità educative a scuola per intervenire. Una ricerca partecipativa per sostenere i processi di crescita degli studenti nelle scuole trentine. Trento: IPRASE. Hallinger, P.; Heck, R.H. (2011), Collaborative leadership and school improvement: Understanding the impact on school capacity and student learning, School Leadership and Management 30(2):95-110. Morse, J.M. (2010). Simultaneous and Sequential Qualitative Mixed Method Designs, Qualitative Inquiry, 16(6) 483–491. Mortari, L. (2007). Cultura della ricerca e pedagogia. Prospettive epistemologiche. Roma: Carocci. Muijs, D., and Harris, A. (2003). Teacher leadership—Improvement through empowerment? An overview of the literature. Educational Management Administration and Leadership, 31(4), 437-448. OECD, (2013). PISA 2012 Results: Excellence through Equity – giving every student the chance to succeed’, V. 2, OECD Publishing. Paletta, A., Pisanu, F. (2015), Leadership distribuita e miglioramento scolastico: il ruolo del “middle management”, in Angelo Paletta (a cura di), Dirigenti scolastici leader per l’apprendimento, IPRASE, Trento. Perla L., Agrati L.S. (2018), Reconsidering the Role of the SEN Coordinator: A critical overview, ECER2018 abstract. Piggot -Irvine, E. and Locke, J. (1999). Innovative schooling rests upon effective middle management. New Zealand Journal of Educational Administration, 14, 5-9. Spillane, J.P. & Diamond, J.B. (2007). Taking a distributed perspective. In J.P., Spillane, and J.B, Diamond (eds.) Distributed Leadership in practice (pp.1-15). New York: Teachers College Press.
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