Delivering bespoke learning opportunities to children and young adults with special educational needs and disabilities.
Proactive, positive education delivered in dynamic, creative and flexible ways is key to the iCademy Middle East ethos. The school’s Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) department known as iCad+ is no different in this regard.
Based at the iCademy Middle East campus in Dubai Knowledge Park, iCad+ delivers the kind of education that students with varying degrees of special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) deserve. Led by Jo Nolan, a champion of SEND education, and a respected specialist in her field, iCad+’s aim is to provide a nurturing education for students aged 12 to 21 who present with a wide range of learning difficulties.
iCad+ has provided the opportunity for SEND students in the UAE to learn and progress at their own pace for 10 years. But perhaps what makes the iCad+ programme really unique is that, with the support of its dedicated staff, each child is given his or her own flexible and bespoke curriculum using a unique blend of internationally accredited learning systems from the UK and USA (ASDAN and K12) alongside pre-vocational, and life-skills training.
The programme is designed around the individual child’s level of ability and can be advantageously modified based on regular assessments of progress. If for example a child that appears on the autism spectrum is assessed to have displayed a specific talent in a subject, the student can be accelerated in that subject to maximise his or her potential. Learning at the appropriate pace is at the heart of iCad+. A teacher to student ratio of 6:1 alongside three shadow teachers and support staff helps maintain this high level of understanding and awareness of progress.
The belief is that to truly unlock the potential of SEND students, iCad+ must be more than simply a school. It has to be a community dedicated to the support of student growth – be it educationally or pastorally.
As the mother of a child with autism, Jo Nolan, the lead learning coach for the iCad+ group and SENCO, has fought the fights that needed fighting and learned the lessons no one could teach on behalf of her son. Using her first-hand experience to curate the iCad+ programme, Jo has created an education system that complements the iCademy Middle East methodology while developing a community and a support system for parents and children alike. Her role is unusual in that she is the department head, an education expert, and child advocate – but she is also the shoulder to cry on, an occasional counsellor, and often the guiding hand for parents who were never expecting to need SEND support.
Jo explains: “There is often a process of loss and adjustment or a bereavement process that has to be dealt with when parents first come to see us here. They are facing the reality that their kids do not have the academic opportunities that they had hoped and worked for. It is a process I myself have been through, and I help parents, where I can, to come to terms with their new ‘normal’. I work very hard to develop trust and rapport with our parents as this is important for the family as a whole.
“But what I work hardest at is coming to a mutual understanding with our parents and leading them to the realisation of what is, and a positive acceptance of what can be and to understand what success could look like for a student. Sometimes parents hope that their children can be ‘fixed’, and my job is to help them accept that in many cases, this is not a realistic or helpful goal. I try to get them to a less scary and more optimistic place – where we can work together to fulfil the maximum potential of their children, whatever that might be.”
Attitudes to SEND teaching and learning practices are changing, and more is being done in the UAE to increase options for parents, which can only be a good thing, and iCademy Middle East is happy to contribute to this process. But for some children the ‘mainstream’ school experience may not be compatible with their individual best interest or best practice – particularly as SEND children’s learning ability begins to stall and their fellow students’ begins to accelerate. While it can have short-term benefits to children at a younger age, in too many cases what looks like inclusivity can be experienced by the student as exclusion. It is also important to consider the long-term best outcome, as the focus shifts to how SEND students can transition to the adult world. Curriculum needs to be designed to help prepare them for this.
“The earlier children come to us, the better the outcomes we see, as we have time to focus on their key learning objectives” Jo adds. “We agree with and understand the urge to give children access to a mainstream school experience, but in many cases the point at which the school has intervened and recommended a new course of action, problems have already begun to set in which can lead to real stress and disappointment. That said, we do recognise that the need for real inclusion and social interaction is enormous, and ultimately this is beneficial for everyone in the school community – which is why iCad+ is not separate from the rest of iCademy Middle East. We are involved in every aspect of the school life and when the whole school comes together, we play our part. We are two departments with a single mission and we try our best to give our students a wonderful school experience at every level.”