Diana Robinson: art teacher to SEND expert

17 Jul 2019

Diana Robinson, who sits on Prospect’s Education and Children’s Services Group Executive Council, talks about her career, her union activism and some of the changes that she’d like to see in education policy.

Diana Robinson has enjoyed a long and varied career in education: as a teacher, a head teacher, an inspector and, latterly, in advisory work specialising in special educational needs and disabilities.

Although now retired for a few years, she continues to work as an independent consultant for a Multi-Academy Trust with special schools and alternative provision, and is a SEND expert for Independent Review Panels.

A long time union member, going back to Prospect’s predecessors, the National Association of Educational Inspectors, Advisers and Consultants (NAEIAC) and Aspect, she currently sits on Prospect’s Education and Children’s Services Group Executive Council.

With no history of teachers in her family, education was a career choice that she just fell into at university. “It became the right choice, at the right time,” she says.

How were your early years as a teacher?

I started as a secondary art teacher but I also did some stints as a supply teacher in primary schools. I came to prefer the work in primary schools because that’s teaching children, rather than teaching subjects. I related to the child development aspect in primary schools, which you’re not really focusing on in secondary schools.

I did a variety of small jobs in small primary schools. And I moved my way up, only because I thought, ‘I could do that job’. So I became senior teacher and then deputy head and then head, of a very small school. I moved on to be the head of a slightly larger primary school. And it was from that school that I applied to be an advisor.

What made you want to take that leap?

When I was doing that head role, I was approached by the person who was in charge of SEND in Kent, to do a course. I don’t think it’s offered anymore but it was about special educational needs in ordinary schools. I wrote a sort of dissertation for the course, and I think he had his eye on me after that for a possible county role.

After, I applied for the role, and I got it. The name of the role has changed many times over the years but in the beginning, I was called a consultant for SEN. I provided advisory support for all the special schools in the county and all the units attached to mainstream schools. They are now called specialist resource provisions.

Was it a big change from teaching? 

It was amazing that I did not feel competent in that job until about three years in. I really had to learn a different skill set to do the work. But luckily, I was part of a very good team and I had really good support. That’s when I joined NAEIAC at that point.

I was in the advisory service for nearly 20 years. In that time, the authority I worked for had a number of very big staffing re-organisations. The union became involved so I was really pleased to be a member and have that kind of support there.

Then, a round of redundancy coincided with my retirement, which was very, very convenient!

You kept your Prospect membership even after you left full-time work?

I realised that I wanted to carry on being a member, because I wanted to carry on with consultancy work and there was the link with the indemnity insurance provider.

I still wanted to be part of a larger organisation that had a strong voice that could influence government policy making where required.

I was a member of the National Association for Advisors for Special Educational Needs, and for them, I had been sitting on the Special Education Consortium. I still sit on that, but now I’m on it as a Prospect rep. So, my continuing membership enables me to carry on with some really important, influential, lobbying work.

What’s been your favourite job in education?

Probably the advisory work, when I finally felt competent at it, which took a few years. It doesn’t have the same direct influence, like headship does. But you felt that you could be making slightly more strategic suggestions that would aid the whole system.

Did you ever miss teaching? 

Well, no. Some parts of headship I hated. I just never got comfortable with doing assemblies! Other parts I loved, and I did miss the sort of closeness with a team that you have in a school.

But then I went to a large organisation, so I just found a different place to be a team member. I do like the immediate feedback you get with teaching: “Oh, the child got that.”

Now I can do all of that with my grandchildren!

When you’re growing up did any teachers leave a positive impression on you? 

I had an absolutely fabulous geography teacher. I wanted to impress him. There were others too but that one was the one I remember.

As a teacher, did any of the children leave a memorable impression on you?

Early on in my career, I wasn’t all that aware of SEN. I came across a child in my class who, from memory, could draw a correct map of Kent with all the towns in the right places in relation to each other.

Now he would probably be diagnosed with Asperger’s, but nobody was referring to that in those days.

Now you sit on Prospect’s Education and Children’s Services Group Executive Council. How has that been?

The first time around, when John Chowcat was the general secretary of NAEIAC, I was on its equivalent of Prospect’s GEC. I counted it as part of my continuous professional development, because I learned so much about things going on. So much was above my head that I wasn’t aware of.

Now, I’ve been on the Prospect GEC for about two years, and I think I’m just beginning to find my place. We are all coming from slightly different places, but that’s brilliant, because you get to a wider debate that way.

There is mostly great unanimity of views. My particular interests are special education needs and alternative provision. There could be completely different views about both of those but it seems that most people on the GEC hold the same kind of view. So, I’m pretty sure that we’re all much of a mind on the really important things.

Finally, what are the big changes that you’d like to see in education policy?

Well, I think that we are probably testing too much. I can see the strain on children, and I just don’t think that’s healthy for them. I understand the accountability but it’s the wrong people getting hurt. So I would love something different to be done for that.

However, my biggest concern at the moment is that governance isn’t given enough importance. Head teachers are given powerful positions in running schools and unless there’s good governance that’s foolish.

There were many occasions I saw when I was in my advisory board, where the governors were weak and just agreeing with head’s decisions. It shouldn’t be like that. I think that the whole system would be stronger if governance was better understood and properly delivered. I’m not seeing that universally.

As an example, I do a lot of work as a SEND expert on Independent Review Panels and the majority of the cases are quashed due to the inadequate knowledge of the governors who sit on the Governors’ Discipline Panel in terms of the Equality Act 2010 and Children and Families Act 2014. They demonstrate their lack of governance oversight by rubber stamping the head teacher’s decision to permanently exclude a child.