'Inclusion is a process of identifying, understanding and breaking down barriers to participation and belonging'.
Early Childhood Forum (2003)
Effective inclusive practice can be difficult to achieve in isolation. All of the stakeholders involved in early years provision - children, families, practitioners at all levels, managers, childminders and any associated professionals - can benefit from opportunities to network with others in a similar role or situation.
Networks are interconnected systems of people. They can serve a number of functions for their members, including the opportunity to share knowledge, policy, information and experiences; compare and contrast practice; support each other; and campaign about and address overarching problems and issues.
Importantly, networks can provide a collective voice for individuals who might otherwise have been ignored.
Local networks vary enormously, but if you are a practitioner or childminder, it is likely that there are already formal and informal networks in your local area that you might access. Some local authorities provide a specific forum for early years SENC0s and equal opportunity co-ordinators. In some areas, settings can provide models of practice or become inclusion 'hubs' where local resources and expertise are held.
Training events and conferences provide an important opportunity to find out about what is available locally and nationally. Information services, area SENCOs and advisory teachers should also hold this information. Providers in all sectors sometimes host internal networks for staff and families as part of developing good practice.
If there is no network that meets your needs locally or nationally, then it may be possible to set up your own specific group. Find out if funding is available from your local authority and if there is any support available. Use any opportunity that presents itself to meet like-minded individuals face to face.
Bear in mind that, although information technology and social networking now provide us with a host of useful opportunities to get in touch with one another, they may sometimes need to be approached with caution because of organisational guidelines or confidentiality and privacy issues.
Mary Dickins is an early years consultant (All Together Consultancy/London Met. University).