In late September, Camden Council launched its first ever crowdfunding initiative in an attempt to ensure that children without a laptop or computer would be able to continue learning online if they are sent home due to coronavirus, or in the event of another lockdown.
As the council’s Head of Special Education and Inclusive Intervention Services, Karen is well-placed to see the impact that the pandemic has had on some of society’s most vulnerable children and young people.
“One of the things that we found incredibly difficult was the speed at which it happened with no notice,” she says of coping with the first lockdown.
“It was incredibly difficult for schools to respond without notice and without the infrastructure, resources or funding to deliver something completely new and, in effect, to run two systems.”
She’s pleased that school attendance rates had been increasing but there is a wide concern that, with infection rates rising sharply, there may soon be a downturn again.
“This is a national issue, and parents are understandably concerned about the risks for their children and that has a disproportionate impact on children with SEN and their families – particularly if education providers were asked to close”.
Another concern that has risen as a result of the pandemic is the increase in requests for elective home learning – an issue, and the attendant reasons for it, that Karen and her colleagues are looking into and Prospect will be responding to the current House of Commons Education Select Committee inquiry on home education.
“Is it because they're concerned of prosecution if they’re not sending their children to school? That isn't something we would promote in Camden. We always take a ‘working with the families first’ approach.
“We just need to make sure children are getting the education that is appropriate for them, and working with families to try and ensure that is the case”.
Karen’s passion for education, and particularly for SEN provision and inclusion, is evident. Yet, her career arc was not exactly planned.
“I did a teacher training course because I didn't know what to do after I’d completed my degree, which was in philosophy and history, and I really didn't know what to do after.”
“I had initially thought about doing a Masters but the postgraduate teacher training was free at that time, so I did it. It was not in my plan at all, but as part of my teacher training experience I was fortunate to with key stage 4 children who had been excluded or who were in danger of being excluded”.
In fact, prior to her teacher training, Karen was a research fellow at Canterbury Christ Church University and had worked with Carl Parsons, a Professor of Social Inclusion Studies, so she already had a research background in school exclusion and evaluating the impact of multi-agency working on reducing recidivism rates by working with young offenders prior to release with a focus on supporting housing and employment.
She later went on to be a Senior Lecturer and programme director for the post-PGCE Initial Teacher Training Programme at Canterbury Christ Church University where she herself was trained.
Karen is firmly of the view that far greater emphasis, as well as curriculum and placement time, should be focused on teaching children with SEND as part of all Initial Teacher Training programmes.
As someone who came late, and via an untraditional route, into higher education herself, it is fitting that Karen’s work now is all about inclusivity and making sure that everyone has that equality of opportunity.
In 1994, representatives from 92 governments and 25 international organisations held a conference on special needs education in Salamanca, Spain, where they agreed upon the principle that mainstream inclusion was the expectation for every child.
It is an approach that Karen wholeheartedly endorses and strongly feels that inclusive schools lead to inclusive communities.
“Every child is different irrespective of SEND and inclusive schools cater for the needs of individuals, irrespective of any labels they may or may not arrive with”.
“I firmly believe that every school should be an autism-friendly school and that every teacher should know how to deal with behaviours that may challenge,” says Karen.
Currently in Camden, they’re working on trauma-informed practice training, with a focus on recognising the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).
Karen says the key is more training and support for schools to help staff understand the causes of behaviour, and the impact it has on children. By doing this, all schools can increase their confidence and ability to work with a greater range of children who have SEND. Her belief in inclusion can be expressed quite simply in terms of ‘local provision for local children’.
It is no surprise that Karen’s beliefs in equality and inclusion is a part of why she’s a member of Prospect, and who also sits on the Education and Children’s Services Group Executive Council.
“I’ve always been passionate about unions. I think they provide a pivotal role in terms of being able to challenge and influence governments, policy and the status quo.
“One of the things I enjoy, particularly about being on the GEC, is the ability to work and understand challenges nationally, across Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.”
As someone with considerable experience in developing policies, strategy and working with lots of staff, Karen has plenty to offer Prospect’s GEC, but she’s also found that her involvement has helped her own continuing professional development.
“I’ve been a member of a union all my professional life. I think it's really important to be able to give something back. That's what I like to do in my work. I felt that I had a second chance, and an opportunity to get back into education. I feel the same way about being in a union.”