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“A little boy turned to him and said, ‘If I looked like you I’d do away with myself’”

Alexis Camble and Susan Ross explore how schools can create an inclusive environment that values and respects pupils with a visible difference

  • “A little boy turned to him and said, ‘If I looked like you I’d do away with myself’”

When we ask young people with a visible difference what they want their teachers to know, a common answer is “Ask me – don’t make assumptions.”

Millions of people across the UK identify as having a visible difference, mark, scar or condition that affects their appearance, yet many teachers we speak to at Changing Faces feel unskilled and unprepared for supporting pupils who look different.

Children like Marcus, who was born with a facial cleft and cleft palate and was bullied and taunted at school with the names ‘Scarface’ and ‘Joker’ (see case study at the end of the feature).

As the UK’s leading charity for people with a visible difference, we know how important it is that teachers have access to advice and guidance that can help their classes recognise and challenge appearance-related stereotypes. We know that if we can get in early and get it right for children and young people, we can change lives.

Visible difference

The Equality Act 2010 requires schools in England and Wales to comply with the Public Sector Equality Duty, which covers ‘severe disfigurements’ within the protected characteristic of disability. Schools must therefore be mindful that their policies and procedures don’t inadvertently disadvantage pupils with a visible difference, and be prepared to make reasonable adjustments to meet the needs of those pupils.

This could include supporting a pupil to catch up with missed work due to absence for medical treatment, or talking to staff about the unconscious bias that can lead to teachers having lower behavioural or attainment expectations of pupils with a visible difference.

Teachers working within SEN provision will be used to taking a pupil-centred approach to inclusion, so ensuring that visible difference forms part of this practice should be a straightforward step to take. Changing Faces has developed age- and stage-appropriate Supporting Your Pupils Guides to help school staff support pupils in developing the social skills and confidence needed thrive at school, as well as guidance on key areas such as transition and working in partnership with parents/ guardians and other professionals.

Another issue that can have a significant impact on a pupil’s experience of school is appearance-related bullying. Sadly, over half of children and young people with a visible difference experience negative or nasty comments, with 59% of these comments made by people in school. Unfortunately, appearance-related bullying can sometimes be overlooked or written off as ‘playground banter.’

Our advice to schools is to ensure that staff are vigilant and sensitive to signs of bullying behaviour targeting a pupil’s appearance. Staff should support pupils in understanding the impact that appearance-related bullying has on their classmates, and ensure that any instances of it are addressed in the same way as any other bullying incident.

Inclusive environments

As well as tackling appearance-related bullying, teachers have a key role to play in encouraging all pupils to develop positive and respectful attitudes towards visible difference. Our research with young people shows that fewer than a third would be friends with someone with a disfigurement, which is why we’d encourage teachers to not shy away from talking about appearance in the classroom, and to demonstrate the use of appropriate, respectful language.

By using matter-of-fact language to describe aspects of someone’s appearance – such as ‘burns survivor’ or ‘a large scar’ – it’s possible to clearly convey how someone looks without attaching a judgement, as terms such as ‘horribly scarred’ might do. This approach also works when responding to questions from other pupils about a classmate’s appearance: “Mo has a scar from an operation, but he’s fine now. Why don’t you see if he wants to play with you at break?” That’s an example of how to provide enough information to answer a pupil’s question, whilst moving the conversation on and bringing it to a natural end.

Encouraging pupils to identify and discuss similarities and differences within the class is another way of facilitating discussion around the need to respect difference while treating everyone equally and fairly. If you require support in doing this, Changing Faces has produced a range of 15- to 35-minute classroom activities to help children to get to know their classmates better, discuss what makes them unique as people and together identify ways in which they can help tackle appearance-related bullying.

Challenging stereotypes

The images pupils see in school will play an important role when it comes to creating an inclusive learning environment that encourages everyone to respect and value difference. Incorporating images that reflect a wide range of appearances in lessons and assemblies is a great way of challenging the idea that there’s a ‘right’ way to look.

Unfortunately, persistent negative stereotypes of visible difference in popular culture work to reinforce the idea that looking different is somehow ‘wrong’. Films and TV shows that rely on the stereotype of the ‘scarred baddie’ in particular can often be a child’s only experience of seeing someone with a visible difference.

Studying books or films that represent visible difference in a positive, realistic way can help challenge negative associations of visible difference that pupils may have unconsciously developed. The novel Wonder, by RJ Palacio, tells the story of a boy with a craniofacial condition starting a new school, and has often been used successfully in many KS2 classes alongside a 2017 film adaptation. For younger pupils, the illustrated book Something Else by Kathryn Cave explores similar themes of belonging, tolerance and understanding in an accessible way.

Children and young people are under immense amounts of pressure to look a certain way; talking about visible difference in schools will help ensure that the next generation truly values difference and understands the importance of treating people equally and fairly.

Providing the right support at the right time for pupils who have a visible difference is vital if we’re to ensure that such pupils are able to thrive at school and go on to lead successful and happy lives. Teachers, SENCos and other school staff all have vital roles to play in supporting both individual pupils and the wider school community. When we get it right, it can truly be transformative.

Case study – Marcus, 15

Marcus was born with an unusual facial cleft and cleft palate. In the years since he has had over 20 operations, the first when he was just four months old. Starting school seemed to go well, but when Marcus was eight his mum Sam became very worried about him: “he went from being this bright, bubbly little boy to being very quiet and I knew something was wrong.” Marcus admitted that he was being bullied at school because of how he looked, and remembers it now as being a difficult time.

Sam says she didn’t know what to do. “It was very hard, because the school were saying they were sorting it, and then Marcus would come home and tell me that a little boy had turned round to him and said, ‘If I looked like you I’d have done away with myself.’ This little boy was eight years old. I was so shocked.”

Sam got contacted Changing Faces, which began work with the family and the school. Gradually, these efforts started to make a difference, to the point where Marcus was able to make a short film to tell his class more about himself. As Marcus explains, “I just didn’t want to be treated differently any more, so I made a DVD so that they could see that I’m just like them, and explain why I look the way I do.”

Alexis Camble is education project leader and Susan Ross head of education at Changing Faces. For advice or support contact 0345 450 0275.

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