It seems that SEN is the Cinderella of education.
Both physically and metaphorically, SEN provision is often relegated to the margins of the school. In the past it has been a somewhat arcane business in many schools, where leaders were reassured by an ethos of sympathy and bamboozled by the bandying of labels. This has begun to change, but there is a strong case for bringing SEN much more into the heart of the school – again, both physically and metaphorically. They key to this is the extent to which we invest in skills.
My teaching background includes both primary and secondary special education. I have worked in a fabulous primary school that fully embraced mainstreaming. We had a number of students with Down syndrome and others with ASD. I have also worked in a secondary school that had an attached physical disabilities unit and was a resource teacher for (amongst others) students with Down syndrome and intellectual disabilities.
In both of these settings, mainstreaming worked very well – because the schools were well-resourced with staff who were qualified SEN teachers. We saw notable successes with SEN students achieving both curriculum goals and social goals. One of these students, for example, was the first in the school to achieve one of the new Year 11 qualifications that were being rolled out. Another needed to establish friendships with other students. We achieved this goal through placing him as a library monitor at lunchtimes, where he established natural friendships. This in turn enabled him to participate with greater confidence in his regular classes. The resulting impact on perceptions of students with special needs was school-wide.
Effective SEN provision is vital. We need to ensure that there is top-quality support in place for students with legitimately diagnosed needs – physical and intellectual disabilities – to achieve both academic and social goals. We need to ensure that there are programmes in place for our most vulnerable students that are individualised to address their actual needs – not their ‘labels’. This requires well-developed assessment skills which are sceptical of fads and which identify learning goals broken down into small, achievable steps. Such provision should lead, incrementally, to more and more independence – a crucial measure of whether our support is achieving the right kind of long-term impact. And that requires a high level of expertise.
To teach SEN effectively requires a great deal of training. It is where we should be placing staff with the highest level of expertise . To take a medical analogy: would we expect the least trained staff in a hospital to be dealing with the most complex needs? This is the main thrust of John Hattie’s recent interview with the TES. So, why are LSAs so often thrown into classrooms with no training?
I’m not sure that Hattie was ‘slagging off’ teaching assistants but commenting on the current situation in many schools. However, @FranNantongwe is absolutely right – let’s invest in training and support. At the moment, this seems patchy at best. I recognise that there may have been a lot of work recently around the new framework for SEN, but that is not necessarily the same as developing more expertise in assessment and teaching. We need expert training, primarily for the benefit of the students, but also for the job satisfaction of the LSAs who are employed on modest pay rates. Many can consider themselves lucky if they get any training before they are thrust into classrooms with nothing but their initiative and common sense to guide them. And where is the SEN training for classroom teachers?
If teachers were trained thoroughly in sound practice, what a difference there would be. At the moment (in my experience) there is plenty of activity around meeting the new DfE guidance, and demonstrating progress for Ofsted. But there is precious little that teaches teachers practical ways of improving the quality of service that will enable SEN students to make better than average progress. Staff are often advised that there should be regular meetings with teachers and LSAs to discuss target students. But who has the time? This often happens so briefly as to be tokenism – a few seconds of instruction as a class arrives or reporting back as the class leaves. If this is important, and it is, why is no time allocated to ensuring that time is made for these meetings? School systems and priorities reflect the values we place on different aspects (and groups) within our school communities.
I have worked in a school where there was time made for staff to meet – at a termly INSET – with ‘round robins’ where all teachers met to discuss individual students in classes they taught. It was very valuable – ensuring that all staff understood the needs of each class and that there was consistency in management. It was particularly valuable for LSAs who had the chance to share their knowledge of the students, and to learn about effective strategies from other staff which they could also employ.
On the other hand, there are some obvious pitfalls that arise through a lack of good training. To make themselves useful, some LSAs end up doing everything for their students, and I mean everything. Why would students choose to do the work for themselves when they have such willing helpers at their side? This isn’t ineptitude but a lack of knowledge and skills. It should be the goal of all LSAs to be progressively working themselves out of a job, as the student gains more and more independence. But the importance of this principle, and the many subtle and systematic ways to achieve it, are often unknown by LSAs because training has not been given a high enough priority.
My experience of SEN training involved learning to write genuinely useful IEPs, in consultation with parents, teachers and LSAs, selecting appropriate measurable outcomes, and saw the growing independence of these young people as they achieved their goals. This takes skill and is not something to be fobbed off onto untrained LSAs – instructed to sit at a computer and select IEP goals from a drop-down menu for students they don’t know, let alone work with. It does happen – I have witnessed it with my own eyes! Such practices are not fair on the students or the LSAs.
Nor is being a teacher of SEN about being ‘nice’ people: it’s about caring enough and being committed enough to mark out the pathway that will lead to the student needing our assistance less and less. Effective SEN provision is not about being a caring person, it’s about being an effective practitioner – and that doesn’t preclude being a warm-hearted person as well!
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