The project helping schools and parents find common ground, so children with SEND can thrive in mainstream secondary

with James Harris, former headteacher and SEND parent

two adults having a meeting

We’re always interested to hear about innovative projects that help meet the educational needs of disabled children. Former headteacher, James Harris, who is also the father of adopted children with SEND, got in touch to tell us about a pilot project he’s launching called "Finding Common Ground". It aims to offer free advice to parents and carers where their child is struggling to thrive in secondary school.

James says as a headteacher he was aware that a lot of points of unnecessary conflict between parents and schools arose due to difficulties of communication or misunderstandings. His experience meant understanding what is and isn’t possible and seeing where provision could easily be made, ensured his children broadly got the provision they needed. The free pilot project he’s trialling isn’t offering legal advice, but aims to build up an evidence base before seeking funding from educational trusts or charities. He say the parents he helps are struggling with issues such as attendance, consistency of provision and so on, and he helps with the process of talking issues through and suggesting realistic ways forward that can take the heat out of often very stressful situations.

James is here to tell us more…

Innovative pilot project to help parents navigate comminication with schools over emerging SEND issues. By James Harris

"Thank you so much. Speaking to someone who understands is priceless." Parent of a child with SEND in a mainstream secondary school

In mainstream schools, as a child moves into secondary school, communication and collaboration between school and family often become more challenging and fraught with potential issues. This is particularly the case when a child has additional educational needs. So often this is around understanding how secondary schools work and what is possible, who to talk to and the right questions to ask. 

As a mainstream secondary headteacher, I so often met with parents and carers who came in "all guns blazing" - understandably angry, upset or frustrated with the ways in which the school is failing to meet the individual needs of their child. The level of conflict was stressful for all concerned. So often the formal SEND system is seen as the only way in which to get support for a young person's needs when, in many cases, lower-level, earlier intervention based on intelligent collaboration can address many issues. 

As a parent, I have helped to bring up two sons with additional needs, now young adults, who both found secondary school very challenging. Positive relationships and informed collaboration was the key to getting them through the secondary school system and helping them to thrive. 

Finding Common Ground

My personal and professional life has brought me to a point where I have set up a pilot project called "Finding Common Ground" to help parents and carers work effectively with secondary schools. Knowledge empowers people and I am committed to supporting parents and carers to ask the right questions, to understand what is possible, and to collaborate and seek common ground with the school so their children can thrive with effective support as they should.

I still teach in a secondary school for the majority of each week because I am wholeheartedly committed to the value of inclusive education through the education system, where schools prioritise the individual needs of each child. It can be done, we just don't get it right all, or even most, of the time! School systems sometimes work against the best interests of the child and it needs intelligent, sensible collaboration between school and family to get it right. 

"Finding Common Ground" offers a service of advice to parents and carers where their child is struggling to thrive in mainstream secondary school. This is often parents of students with either undiagnosed needs, or whose needs are not (yet) at statutory assessment level. However, I have had quite a few conversations with parents of children with identified SEND who have been struggling with issues such as attendance, consistency of provision, allocation of funding etc.... The advice is free so it is seen as clearly independent. 

Positive feedback so far

The feedback so far has been very positive and the conversations have been around clarifying possible actions, identifying a plan, sorting out how to communicate with the school and what to ask for in meetings etc... I am not offering legal advice, although I refer to the relevant bits of the law if necessary. Neither am I offering specialist SEND advice, although I refer to parts of the SEND Code of Practice, as appropriate. I signpost people to the relevant organisations who may be able to help them if such specialist advice is needed. It is the process of talking issues through and suggesting realistic ways forward that appears to be welcome and helps to take the heat out of often very stressful situations. My advice is based on years of experience of being on both sides of the fence: as a parent of vulnerable children and as a headteacher of two highly-inclusive schools. 

The pilot is running up until April (2024) in the first instance. All the feedback that I get from families and professionals is that the service is much needed and that I will be inundated! The intention is to expand the service from April using a range of SEND specialists and other experts who I know would be interested in undertaking this advisory work, seeking funding to enable the service to remain independent and free to parents and carers. 

How you can help

If you are interested in helping me get this off the ground, there are a few ways you can help:

  • If you, or anyone you know, could benefit from the service of "Finding Common Ground" please get in touch via the website or email and share this post amongst your networks.
  • If, from your experience, you consider that such a service is useful, but have no need of it currently, please send a short message of support. I have had a number of these from around the country and they are invaluable in planning the way ahead.
  • If you are someone who feels that you have the training and exerience to help offer advice to families in this way, and you are interested in exploring the possibility of joining the project as an adviser, please get in touch.

Thank you!

About James Harris 

James Harris is a teacher with more than 30 years in secondary education. he is the ex-headteacher of two highly inclusive schools, anf a parent to two children with additional needs, committed to the children and young people who "go down the gaps" of our education systems. 

Useful Links:

For more information about the project: 

and for some of the issues covered in discussions: 

Also read:

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