This is a question that is made repeatedly about the pupils that attend Eton College. There is perhaps an assumption that at a school where the exam results are consistently good, learning support is not needed.
Learning Difficulties or Special Educational Needs and Disabilities are not exclusive to those with cognitive difficulties. Learning Difficulties can and do affect a wide range of people. They have always been around. As a country, the UK is now much better at identifying and supporting those with a range of needs and this is why students with learning difficulties are able to access academically selective schools and universities more now than ever before. This is also why the Learning Support Department at Eton College continues to grow, both in terms of the number of pupils they support and the range of programmes and areas they support pupils in. The barriers to fully accessing the curriculum are being broken down constantly and the stigma associated with the Learning Support Centre is being challenged and diminished, slowly but consistently. The range of pupils and needs that we see are broad. The one thing that every pupil here has in common is that they know they can do better, and want to do so. All would be considered ‘Twice Exceptional’:
Twice exceptional individuals demonstrate exceptional levels of capacity, competence, commitment, or creativity in one of more domains coupled with one or more learning difficulties…Their exceptional potentialities may dominate, hiding their disability; their disability may dominate, hiding their exceptional potentialities; each may mask the other so that neither is recognised or addressed (Kaufman, 2018).
The Learning Support Department has been a recognised provision at Eton College since the early 1990s. The aim of the department, then and today, is to provide appropriate provision to pupils that cognitively have the ability to access education but need adjustments to support them in reaching their full potential; and to ensure that all pupils, no matter their learning difficulty or special educational need, have equal opportunities and access during their time here at Eton. Increasingly, parents are notifying the College of incoming pupils’ needs so that appropriate support is organised and in place upon arrival. This is one of the most supportive steps that parents are doing for their sons with additional needs, as it means they join the College feeling more supported and successful. In the Learning Support Department we are seeing the pupils’ confidence and acceptance of Learning Support growing year by year, and this does not stop at Eton: the number of pupils from within our department that go on to Oxbridge, Ivy League and Russell Group Universities continues to increase.
At present, about 8% of pupils at Eton have some form of input from the Learning Support Department. They come from all boarding houses and year groups. Some have academic scholarships. Whether a pupil has dyslexia or dyspraxia, executive functioning difficulties, autism, speech and language needs, visual or hearing impairment or physical disabilities (to name a few), we have experienced staff and support programmes available. We offer a range of provisions such as one-to-one lessons, small groups addressing areas such as executive functioning skills, and various assessments. We support their teachers by providing recommendations that can be implemented in the classroom. Pupils can be referred by their House Masters or make a self-referral (which is increasingly common).
One of the first areas that is covered is ‘self-advocacy’, based on our belief that no matter what a pupil’s needs are if they are able to advocate for themselves they will go far. As Judy Galbraith outlines in her article ‘Twice Exceptionality and Social-Emotional Development: One Label, Many Facets’, ‘Students benefit enormously when they learn how to be assertive and can respectfully and reasonably communicate what is going on…, how they feel about something…, and what they would prefer to be different.’ (Galbraith, 2018: 141) Since adopting this approach with the pupils, there has been more ownership by them of their education and provision. This has meant that the pupils buy into what the department is providing more, and have more confidence in themselves.
In speaking directly to the pupils about the perception of Learning Support at Eton, a majority of them said that they were apprehensive to start with, but once they saw first hand how the strategies and support were enhancing their education, they knew it was the right provision for them. As one year 13 pupil stated, ‘Why wouldn’t I take advantage of a resource that is going to help me progress not only with my academics but my confidence?’. Pupils are encouraged to voice what is actually working for them or to identify their sticking points.
Teachers at the College have noted that when it comes to differentiating their lessons, the recommendations provided by our department and conversations between them and the pupils have aided success at differentiating in their lessons.
We are aware of increasing openness to Learning Support through the number of pupils that say that they have recommended a friend comes to see us, or that they promote the department if they hear that a younger pupil in their house needs help. They also speak about siblings and friends receiving similar support in other schools, which to their eyes normalises the provision as something not unique to Eton.
True openness to needing support and special educational needs and disabilities is something we work hard to achieve.
With the development of the Tony Little Centre we were given a section of the building with individual classrooms and up-to-date resources. All staff, parents and prospective pupils have commented on the space and how welcoming it feels. Pupils have also commented on how the department’s dedicated and modern space has helped them to want to attend and see it as fully integrated in the school. This is important to those who teach in the department, because we feel that Learning Support is not being ‘hidden away in the attic’. The school’s decision to situate Learning Support in CIRL clearly shows they recognise our department’s centrality to a school and its importance.
True openness to needing support and Special Educational Needs and Disabilities is something we work hard to achieve. We want pupils to feel that they are always welcome, that the provision is a valuable resource, and that we are here to support and develop the pupils into more confident and self-aware learners. This is where there is a massive crossover between academic and pastoral support for the pupils within the department. A pupil who works with Learning Support on an ad-hoc basis said that when he started at the College the Year 13 boys would make fun of the new year 9 boys that attended Learning Support; now, however, ‘the whole culture of the house and school has changed with regards to asking for help’.
To continue to encourage openness and support, we will train and offer advice to every one of the teachers and support staff that work alongside these pupils to ensure that they are meeting the needs of each individual. In doing such work, more and more staff and parents have started speaking openly about their own needs that they had when they were in school and the strategies they have used to ensure these have not held them back.
Through the support and acknowledgement from the leadership team that Learning Difficulties and Special Educational Needs are important aspects of the school, Eton College has been able to ensure they are providing a top-quality education to every pupil in their care. The number of pupils attending Learning Support is at an all-time high and the range of pupils and needs is very varied. These are a testament to the openness and inclusivity that is promoted within the College.
Galbraith, J. (2018). Twice exceptionality and social emotional development. In S. B. Kaufman (Ed.). Twice exceptional: supporting
and education bright and creative students with learning difficulties. New York: Oxford University Press.
Kaufman, S. B. (2018). Twice exceptional: supporting and education bright and creative students with learning difficulties. New York:
Oxford University Press.