A world that sees us

SEND provision in an international context

The announcement of a prestigious UK award to Bangkok-based vocational centre, Steps, prompts Andy Homden to reflect on changes in international SEND provision over the last 40 years.

Elusive goal

Establishing wide and effective SEND provision in an international context has been one of the most elusive goals for international schools. Finding the right business plan to provide the very best teaching and support services for a wide range of SEND provision by well-qualified and experienced teachers in an international school at a price that is affordable is no easy task. The need for small classes and one-to-one specialist teaching across the full K –12 age range, means either that families have to pay additional fees for their children if they have SEND requirements, or that the small classes involved are cross-subsidised by the fees of mainstream children. Both solutions can cause tensions, whether a school is for profit or not.

Not surprisingly then, despite the community nature of most international schools, their admissions policies tend not to allow entry to children ‘whose needs cannot be met’. The result is exclusion – even for SEND children who have siblings at the school.

SEND pioneers

This does not mean to say that solutions have not been found. The tremendous example pioneered by Mike Doherty at the Jockey Club Sarah Roe School set up by the English Schools Foundation in Hong Kong continues to be impressive. Only now, looking back at its foundation in 1986 do you realise how ahead of its time it was. Coordinating SEND provision across a group of schools, so that each ‘mainstream’ school has responsibility for a less demanding SEND requirement and creating a centre for meeting the needs of children that require more specialised provision seems so rational that the only surprise is that it is a model that has not been replicated much more widely.

Village International Education Centre, Bangkok

Another inspirational school has been the Village International Education Centre, founded in 1992 in Bangkok by pioneer Harshi Sehmar, for children with SEND requirements. It has gone from strength to strength and has since opened another branch in Pattaya.

And yet. These tremendous success stories have tended to be the exception rather than the rule in an international context – it is simply not easy to find a model for international SEND provision that works financially and educationally outside a few specific contexts.

Awareness and improvement

Of late there have been some welcome signs of change. A sense of obligation to a school’s wider community has undoubtedly grown. As schools expand, they can also offer wider provision. The collaborative relationship between the Council of British International Schools and nasen, the UK’s National Association for Special Needs has also brought a range of services (especially training) much closer and at a really affordable price to COBIS schools.

However, there is still reluctance on the part of many mainstream international schools to take on more and there is still the stigma (yes, even in 2022) to overcome, with the misconception that ‘standards’ will be diluted if children with a wider range of needs are admitted to a ‘mainstream’ school.

A breath of fresh air

The announcement in October 2021 of the latest nasen AwardsTransforming the lives of children and young people with SEND and learning differences, therefore, came as a real breath of fresh air, when a relative newcomer to the international scene, Bangkok-based Steps, was announced as one of the winners.

In 2016 Steps founders Max Simpson and Uang Hotrakitya hit on a unique solution for the needs of older students who were faced with the transition to employment. Max, a special needs educator and Uang, a diplomat turned pastry chef, set up a reasonably priced vocational training centre open to mainstream students as well as for those with SEND needs. They also opened a range of social businesses, including coffee shops, where their students gained valuable work experience. As they grew they started on-campus coffee shops in collaboration with two of Bangkok’s best-known international schools, St. Andrews International School, and St. Andrew’s  International 107.

Steps at St Andrews, 107

A logical extension of this relationship was that the expert practioners recruited for the Steps programme (occupational therapists, speech therapists, physiotherapists and SEND teachers) could be hired out to international schools who were in effect outsourcing some of their SEND requirements to experts that they knew and respected. Max and Uang have essentially created multiple income streams that makes the Steps financial model viable. As of January 2022, there are three Steps training centres, seven coffee shops (2 of which are franchised) and two business service centres (which provide outsource admin services to companies). Brilliant!

Other pioneers

With the opening of the Steps coffee shops there are echoes of another project with connections to international education- the Step and Stone Bakery in the west of England.

Step and Stone was founded by former international school parents, Jane Chong and Jane Kippax, who  themselves had lived the challenge of seeing their own children with SEND needs through an international education. The bakery is also a vocational base for providing pathways to future, secure employment in Bristol.

Considerable kudos also to the Institute of Child Education & Psychology (ICEP) Europe, sponsors of the nasen International Provision award. They too are pioneers in the sector and have been expanding their training to an increasing number of international schools. As Director and Founder of ICEP, Moira O’Brien said in her citation for the nasen award to Steps:

“Inclusion is becoming a bigger priority globally and what Steps has achieved is outstanding”

With these new models for SEND provision one feels that momentum for change is indeed growing.

Changing our perceptions

What people like Harshi, Max, Uang, the two Janes, Moira and Mike Doherty have been doing is much more than providing opportunities for young people. Their work has – and is – changing our perceptions. As the Steps vision statement simply states, what Max and Uang really want for their students is ‘A world that sees us’.

All power to them!

Andy Homden is the Founder and CEO of Consilium Education and a former international headteacher.




FEATURE IMAGE: by photosophia on Pixabay

Support Images with kind permission from:

Village International Education Centre, Bangkok

Steps, Bangkok

St. Andrews International School, Bangkok

Step and Stone Bakery, Bristol, UK