Meet Emily Ellington, GEMS Education’s recently appointed Head of Inclusion
Tell us a little about yourself – how did you arrive at inclusion?
GEMS Education is a company that is incredibly close to my heart because I am a proud alum from Jumeirah College Dubai (JCD). When I left JCD and Dubai, I returned to the UK and graduated with an undergraduate degree in Psychology from the University of Kent. I continued my professional study through completion of a postgraduate degree in Integrated Counselling and a Master’s in Special and Additional Learning Needs. I also trained in a number of evidence-based interventions specific to supporting children with additional needs.
I think, for me, an affinity to education was inevitable. Both my parents were teachers, school leaders, school inspectors and curriculum developers, so education is something I’ve been surrounded by my whole life. More specifically, my passion has always been around supporting people who find it more difficult to do things, in whatever way that might be. And I firmly believe in advocating for those who may find it harder to advocate for themselves – and so my career has followed a pathway of inclusion.
I worked in both primary and secondary schools directly supporting children with special needs for several years and then I moved into local authority education services. There, I worked directly with schools to improve their provision of support for children and young people with special education needs and disabilities. Before moving back to Dubai to take up this post with GEMS Education, I was leading SEND [Special Educational Needs and Disability] services for a large London local authority. Education is all I’ve ever known.
Parental engagement is a real priority. We can have all the degrees and training in the world, but the people who know the child best are the parents
What do you hope to bring to your new role?
I hope to bring innovation and experience of best international practice in relation to special educational needs and disabilities. I want to bring energy around the inclusion agenda and support GEMS Education to be regional leaders around inclusive practice.
What are some of the biggest challenges facing the UAE education sector and inclusion?
It’s the fact that we are home to a very transient community. We have children from a range of different cultural backgrounds, school settings and curriculums and this can mean that we are dealing with different benchmarks, languages and practices. In turn, this might make it harder to identify additional needs swiftly.
Another challenge is that we are working in an environment and climate where practice maybe isn’t as well established as it is in other parts of the world. It’s great to see the UAE increasing the focus on inclusive education but the available expertise isn’t necessarily matched. Upskilling and providing continuing professional development around the inclusion agenda is therefore really important.
How do you go about supporting a student with special educational needs?
Supporting a child individually and leading a strategic agenda around inclusive education are two different things. Something I talk about frequently is the fact that inclusion is not one person’s job, one person’s responsibility or one department’s role to support a student of determination. It’s about everybody, the whole school practice, and it’s a team effort.
So, if you were to ask, ‘how would a school support the student’, I would say by working collaboratively. By making sure that support is individualised and tailored to the student’s individual strengths and needs. We would set appropriate targets and we would ensure that the support and intervention received is regularly reviewed to ensure it is impactful. Our schools all have someone coordinating this process, but everyone is part of it.
What are your top three priorities for the year ahead?
Three of the main ones for inclusion are effective identification of additional needs, parental engagement and staff training and awareness. We have children who have joined our schools from a range of different backgrounds and experiences, so making sure we are competent at identifying additional needs at the earliest stages is important. Accurate and timely identification lays the foundation for early intervention, which is shown to be most effective for children with additional needs.
When it comes to planning and implementing support, parental engagement is a real priority. We can have all the degrees and training in the world, but parents know the child best. So, making sure that our families are at the heart of practice and process is important. The third priority is staff training and professional development; making sure every staff member feels competent to support these children.
What are the positives when it comes to inclusion in schools?
It’s fantastic that a lot of our schools are very proactive in reaching into the parent community, whether through coffee mornings or training and awareness sessions for parents. That’s incredibly powerful, because we need to make sure parents feel able to continue to support the strategies that we’re using in the classroom at home.
Every child, whether they have additional needs or not, has a unique profile of strengths and areas where they’re not so strong, and one of the great things about GEMS Education is that we are a network of schools. Where one environment can’t be adapted for a child in a certain way, we will have other schools that are able to do so. We need to have a strong understanding of each school’s landscape, status and environment so that we’re able to effectively support parents and direct them to schools where their children’s needs can be best met.