You are currently viewing Confidence Through Challenges: Paul Bray’s Perspective and Solutions for Mental Health Advocacy in Education
Paul Bray

Confidence Through Challenges: Paul Bray’s Perspective and Solutions for Mental Health Advocacy in Education

Paul Bray, the Director of Consultancy & Training at SEND International has emerged from a diverse early career that defies simplicity. Leaving school at 16 without qualifications, he delved into the labor force of warehouses and building sites, his educational experience marred by a system that did not accommodate his unique learning style.

Growing up in a single-parent family, in social housing, Paul faced the weight of societal judgment and labels. The challenges he encountered fueled his passion for inclusive education and motivated him to become the teacher he once needed. Encouragement from professionals during his involvement in community arts projects provided him with a second chance at education, shaping his teaching philosophy around relationships and mutual respect.

However, after 25 successful years in teaching and school leadership roles, the political influence on the UK education system led Paul to clash with CEOs of newly formed Education Trusts. The experience prompting him to move on before his mental health suffered further. Founding organizations like INSIGHT training & consultancy and INSIGHT Support Community Interest Company, he championed an ethos devoid of discrimination and punitive approaches.

In 2023, Paul received the invitation to become the Director and Educational Consultant/Training Lead for SEND International. This collaboration with Beth Widdrington, MD of The Specialist SEND Group, aligns with his values, offering a unified front to advocate for children unable to speak for themselves. SEND International with its global head-hunting recruitment team, specialized tutoring programs and educational consultancy, merges with The Specialist SEND Group to broaden their support for the global SEND community. Paul’s journey, from challenging beginnings to leading a collaborative force which epitomizes a commitment to transformative, inclusive education is inspiring.

From Silence to Empowerment

Paul’s inspiration for his book stemmed from a deep commitment to advocating for those who needed a voice, particularly individuals with SEND. As the Head of a Post-16 SEND provision, he noticed a glaring gap in Relationships & Sexuality Education (RSE) for his students, leading him to embark on research and development efforts. Facing the challenges of young people grappling with understanding their changing bodies, navigating relationships and ensuring their safety, Paul observed, “They were vulnerable to exploitation as well as accusations of inappropriate sexualized behavior towards others.”

Recognizing the scarcity of RSE support and guidance, Paul confronted a pivotal choice: ignore the evident need or take action. Guided by a commitment to shared humanity, he emphasizes, “Any difficult educational and moral decision has always been made based on our shared humanity.” He asserts the undeniable fact that everyone, including those with additional needs, has rights as human beings, challenging the views of others uncomfortable with addressing these facts.

Quoting from UNESCO’s ‘International technical guidance on sexuality education,’ Paul highlights the profound failure in current approaches, stating, …too many young people still make the transition from childhood to adulthood receiving inaccurate, incomplete or judgement-laden information affecting their physical, social and emotional development. This inadequate preparation not only exacerbates the vulnerability of children and youth to exploitation… but it also represents the failure of society’s duty bearers to fulfil their obligations to an entire generation. “ He echoes UNESCO’s Director-General, Audrey Azoulay, in affirming that society’s duty bearers are falling short in this crucial aspect of lifelong learning.

Despite comprehensive guidance, Paul notes the minimal attention to individuals with disabilities in existing documents. Expressing hope for his book, he aspires for it to serve as a valuable SEND safeguarding and RSE resource challenging societal views on disability and prompting reflection on what it truly means to be human and an equal member of society.

Conversations that Transform

Paul champions the transformative power of conversations in the pursuit of a more inclusive educational landscape, stating, “We can shape a better future for our special learners with one conversation, or lecture, at a time.” He views each ‘light-bulb moment’ as a victory recognizing its potential to spark a chain reaction of changed perspectives.

Paul acknowledges the need for commitment from governments, education authorities and universities to achieve the desired changes. In the UK, despite the Equality Act of 2010 and the SEND Code of Practice since 2015 proclaiming that every teacher is a teacher of children with special educational needs, the reality falls short. He emphasizes the challenge, stating, “It is difficult to achieve when teachers are not given the necessary training to succeed at it.”

Having shared his insights globally, including conferences in Dubai, Cape Town and Seville, Paul is encouraged by the evolving inclusive landscape. He notes, “My confidence in an ever-changing inclusive landscape is realistic,” citing experiences from six different countries. However, he underscores the importance of global authorities recognizing the need to promote inclusivity in education.

Paul, affiliated with SEND International, remains committed to bridging gaps in Initial Teacher Training. He asserts, “We will continue to work with all interested individuals and universities, ensuring that the next generation of educators emerges as confident supporters of special learners.”

The Specialist SEND Group have started work with the University of Bolton to coordinate and accredit a national project to train and provide tutors to deliver mandatory training on Learning Disabilities and Autism for the UK’s National Health Service. Paul is determined that the training, and a wider understanding of SEND, will become mandatory for all public sector professionals.

This year The Specialist SEND Group have also founded a Charitable Trust; ‘The SEND Foundation’ with board members from around the world who have a shared vision of promoting inclusivity in all walks of life.

The SEND Foundation will be able to support collaborations with even more schools worldwide to enhance SEND knowledge and practices, contributing positively to the life chances of special learners globally.

Advocating Inclusivity

Paul passionately advocates for an inclusive education system, asserting, “I believe if you get your educational provision right for those with SEND and Additional Needs, you get it right for everyone.” He envisions an inclusive society emerging naturally from an inclusive education system, benefiting both special and mainstream learners. Having witnessed the tangible, lifelong benefits of truly inclusive learning experiences, Paul acknowledges the complexities of the current landscape.

Realism becomes crucial, recognizing that mainstream settings may not always be the best for individuals with SEND and Additional Needs at this point in time. He candidly expresses, “For some individuals with SEND and Additional Needs, a placement within a mainstream education setting may not be the best placement for them, yet.” Despite aspirations for universal inclusivity, Paul acknowledges the existing gaps and challenges in accommodating diverse academic, physical and cognitive abilities.

Highlighting the current reality, he highlights on the separation that some special learners face in mainstream schools, stating, “Inclusion, in reality, means separation from their mainstream peers.” This separation, often with insufficient support hinders potential connections, friendships and a sense of belonging. Paul empathizes with parents navigating these decisions emphasizing that specialist provisions can indeed offer significant progress, heightened self-esteem and increased independence.

In urging a shift in societal priorities, Paul challenges educators to rethink their role in today’s context, emphasizing the need for a departure from outdated educational models. He asks, “What is the role of teachers and schools in the context of today’s society?” With a call for reconsideration, Paul envisions a truly inclusive society devoid of discrimination and inequality, challenging the status quo for the benefit of all of us.

In 2024 SEND International will be launching the ‘SEND Aware’ accreditation scheme. Paul is clear; “This is the obvious next step for us, offering guidance and support for all organizations to improve their inclusive practice.” Organizations like supermarkets, libraries, airlines – every organization that offers services to the public – can demonstrate their commitment to inclusive practice and offer their services to accommodate all needs.

Organizations will go through a process of a SEND focused assessment of need, then undergo identified training in a range of augmentative communication skills, and SEND best practice; including identifying environmental needs. “Every organization that has a statutory requirement to show they are embracing equality and anti-discrimination laws, now have this opportunity to do more than tick a box.”

Rewriting Narratives

Paul underscores the essence of relationships and effective communication in the realm of education, noting, “It is all about relationships and finding ways to communicate with each other.” Drawing inspiration from fellow advocate Jo Grace, he emphasizes that a person’s ability to communicate is not solely dependent on them mastering specific skills but on a collective capacity to listen and communicate responsively.

Paul delves into the profound impact of understanding behavior as a form of communication. He believes that empowering individuals to recognize shared similarities over differences leads to collective rewards, stating, “When we can empower people to understand that there is more that makes us all the same than different, we can start to see the rewards, for all.”

Reflecting on the now-discontinued Kielder’s Challenge in the UK, Paul recalls a transformative experience where mainstream and special school learners formed teams. The initial encounter was marked by anxiety, apprehension and fear, especially from mainstream teenagers. However, over four years, the impact was remarkable evolving from anxiety to understanding, care and friendships.

Notably, a young man from the mainstream school, driven by the experience applied for a job at Paul’s SEND school and later started his outdoor activity company for individuals with Additional Needs. Another SEND learner became a full-time, qualified swimming coach showcasing the transformative power of inclusive experiences.

Serious Work, Shared Joy

Paul gained valuable perspective during the course of his career, noting, “When mainstream teaching colleagues were moaning in the staffroom about working conditions, I would have an inner smile.” Having experienced physically demanding work on a freezing building site at 5 am, he appreciates the warmth of a staff room and a hot drink.

As a SEND teacher and school leader, Paul navigated challenging environments where colleagues faced daily encounters with significant dysregulated behaviors. Acknowledging the demoralizing effect, he emphasizes the best resource we have is each other underscoring the importance of seeking help as a sign of professional strength, not weakness. Within the serious and professional roles at SEND International, he advocates for a touch of levity and fun, recognizing that the ability to laugh at oneself is essential in SEND education and within The Specialist SEND Group.

At SEND International, Paul emphasizes the avoidance of egos hindering the development of trusting relationships. He asserts, “We cannot let our egos get in the way,” recognizing the paramount importance of collaboration and support in creating safe, secure environments for children’s learning and development. Mutual trust and respect fostered in a collaborative working and learning environment form the foundation for successful SEND education. Paul’s insights focus on maintaining resilience, seeking help and infusing a bit of joy into the serious realm of professional roles within the field of Special Educational Needs and Disabilities.

Voices for the Vulnerable

Paul is a staunch advocate for mental health awareness who candidly acknowledges the universal struggle to find a healthy work-life balance, stating, “It is something that we all need to work on.” His commitment to men’s mental health intensified after losing a dear friend and teaching colleague to suicide in 2019. Paul emphasizes the importance of breaking the silence around mental health, saying, “We need to start talking to each other and accept the fact it is okay to talk about how we are feeling.” Sharing his personal journey, Paul reveals his struggles with anxiety leading to depression and the need for counseling and medication. He reflects on the transformative power of openness, stating, “Since I started to be open and honest about living with anxiety, I have started to have a better understanding and balance.”

Turning to the alarming issue of children and young people grappling with mental health challenges, Paul cites UNICEF’s pre-pandemic estimate that one in seven adolescents worldwide experience mental disorders, amounting to an estimated 166 million boys and girls. He questions the lack of contingency plans amid the pandemic, particularly concerning its impact on children. Paul, a father himself, acknowledges the struggles his own children faced, highlighting the detrimental effects of policies focusing on ‘catch-up’ education, longer school days and increased expectations.

As members of the UK’s ‘Children & Young People’s Mental Health Coalition,’ SEND International, under Paul’s leadership, actively pressures the government to prioritize the mental health of the younger generation. Paul affirms, “All our talented trainers have undertaken Youth Mental Health First Aider training,” emphasizing the organization’s commitment to encouraging schools to adapt policies and provisions that positively impact the well-being of both staff and learners.

Navigating Detours

Paul, reflecting on his educational journey, acknowledges the twists and turns he navigated, stating, “My route into graduate and postgraduate education was not without detours.” Challenging himself to secure a place at a university became a pivotal confidence-building experience allowing him to demonstrate that academic success is achievable with the right support.

Expressing his commitment to continuous academic challenges, Paul notes, “I will continue to challenge myself academically because it also enables me to have the conversations I want to have with people of influence.” The positive reception of his Master’s dissertation opened doors leading to opportunities to contribute articles for national educational magazines and being interviewed by a national newspaper. These experiences culminated in an invitation to write a book for Routledge publishers.

Paul’s naturally curious and skeptical nature fuels his drive to seek the truth, stating, “My academic experience has encouraged that drive to find the truth behind what is presented to us.” He emphasizes the importance of conducting independent research before making significant decisions, whether related to organizational direction, policy, or course content. Paul’s journey illustrates the transformative power of education in building confidence, fostering curiosity and equipping him to influence positive change.

Transformative Teaching

Offering invaluable advice, Paul urges educators to maintain an open mind and question stereotypical teaching strategies tied to specific learning impairments, have an open mind and question the accepted teaching strategies. He highlights the complexity of special learners who often have multiple diagnoses, advising, “If you have a learner who has Down’s syndrome and is also autistic, then the teaching strategies need to be focused on the autistic child.”

Encouraging creativity, Paul advises educators not to be influenced by a child’s information folder and historical dramas. He emphasizes the transformative potential of every new relationship, stating, “Every new relationship can be the relationship that changes a child’s life for the better–and it could be the relationship you offer.”

Addressing the complication of managing challenging behaviors, Paul underscores the importance of interpreting behavior as communication and responding appropriately; all behavior is communication and to understand what is being communicated we need to respond not react. He encourages educators to understand the function of challenging behavior and choose to be de-escalators rather than escalators in a given situation.

Paul’s advice is a powerful reminder for educators to approach each special learner with flexibility, creativity and a deep understanding of their unique needs, fostering positive and transformative relationships.