Why I decided to move on from mainstream

It’s not just students who can feel the benefit of an alternative learning environment. We spoke to three teachers about how a change in sector transformed their careers and kept them in teaching.

Simon Lock

Switching To An SEND Or Alternative Provision School Could Transform Your Career

For most new teachers, it can be hard to see how their job can exist beyond leading a 30-strong group of learners, while rigidly following the curriculum. But this set up doesn’t play to everyone’s strengths.

There is more to teaching than the traditional mainstream classroom. Outside of this structure, in special schools and alternative provision centres, the teaching landscape looks completely different. And for some students, and some teachers, a new approach to learning can transform their experience.

We spoke to three English teachers who left the mainstream classroom and found their place in special education and alternative provision.


Having worked in a number of mainstream schools, Fran finally moved from teaching at an independent girls’ school to work in an alternative provision centre, where she still teaches now.  

“It was mainly to do with factors outside of school to be honest; needing more time to write and be a grandparent. I was looking for an opportunity to teach without the marking burden, and alternative provision means it’s quite challenging while you’re there but because you’re only teaching one-to-one or one-to-two, you don’t have the same marking burden,” she says.

“It was really the amount of time being an English teacher takes outside of school that prompted the move. I found there was an opportunity to do what I really enjoy most – which is teaching.”


Mike worked at an independent school until making a decision to specialise in special education.

“When you’re teaching children of any age you usually get one or two or maybe more than that, who cause some trouble within your class. Very early on in teaching I realised that I quite liked helping those children.

“I was working quite closely with the Senco and by working with a lot of those children it swayed me towards moving sectors.”


Ciara was teaching English in a secondary school with a view to becoming an educational psychologist, until a surprise job opportunity kept her in the classroom.

“The deputy head at my school said ‘the special needs school down the road is looking for someone part-time and that would be amazing experience for you’. I did that for two years and then during my time at Carwarden, which is where I work now, the headteacher said to me ‘we’d love to have you ful ltime’,” Ciara says.

We asked these three teachers to tell us more about their experiences.

How did you find the change from a mainstream school?

Fran: “It was quite a shock to the system. I suppose, what I wasn’t really prepared for was how intense the one-to-one teaching is.

“For the type of students that turn up to the centre, it’s full-on for them to do a whole hour of English with one person. So, you have to find strategies to lighten that up a bit. It’s lots of new ways of teaching that I hadn’t really thought of before.”

Mike: “Special schools can have a stigma of being a scary place to work. I did a little bit of supply in between the move, and I could then try out some special schools, and find out really what it was all about before I took the big leap into doing it full time.

“You have a big range of ability, from fairly highly motivated autistic kids down to children who don’t know the alphabet, so you have to be able to accommodate all that within this same lesson, which can be difficult.”

Ciara: “The switch in planning to marking ratio was probably the thing that struck me the most. Teaching English A level and GCSE there’s loads and loads of marking, obviously you’re invested in the planning but it didn’t take as long.

“Here that ratio switches the other way, you have to spend a lot more time planning because our students are a lot more complex, but actually the marking that you do is really quite minimal.”

What were the best bits about switching sectors?  

Fran: “The main reason behind the centre that I work in is to teach maths and English, to get the children through that tricky GCSE period so they get a chance to go on to college.

“It’s rewarding to know that some of the children have now got an opportunity to go to college and do mechanics, or something like that, because they’ve stuck at their lessons. Whereas if they’d dropped out all together they would have less chance of going and doing something in further education.”

Mike: “The advantages are smaller class groups and more support within your lessons. Compared to having to have 30 children or teaching every single lesson type, here I’m just teaching English and another couple of lessons, like PE or RE.

Ciara: “It’s really nice to have that time to talk to students and get to know them. And probably the staff as well. In a huge great secondary school you don’t get the chance to build relationships like you do here.”

What have been the biggest challenges?

Fran: “I teach mainly boys and they’re often boys who prefer maths to English, and for them English is often something that they’ve struggled with. So to be the English teacher means finding ways to engage with them that are disguised as maths.

“I’ve changed a lot of the way I do things and how I might present a novel like Lord of the Flies, so we’re putting characters in order or creating an emotion graph; things they can relate to. That’s just radical for me, because I’m rubbish at maths.”

Mike: “They can have volatile days, but you’re dealing with children with a variety of special learning issues; from Down’s syndrome through to autism and quite difficult behaviours. You need to be patient enough to take this on board."

Ciara: “Coming here, it took me a while to realise that I had to build more personal relationships with the students, otherwise I wasn’t going to know what they needed. At secondary school, what they needed was to know these things to pass this exam, so it’s more about building those relationships and taking the time to invest in them.”

Would you recommend switching outside of mainstream teaching?

Fran: “It’s more different than I thought it would be, but I would recommend it. I think you have to be prepared for the discouragement in that you just don’t win them all, because some students have become so disengaged, or they come to us so late.

“[It’s a good option] if you’re looking for a way to teach without the marking burden, and I think that’s especially so for English or essay subjects. I do quite a lot of marking, but I mark with the students. So, they do a piece of work and you're sitting and assessing it with them. It’s the ideal situation and what I’ve wanted to do for 15 years, but haven’t had time to do with students in mainstream schools. It really does move them on more quickly than you can do in a classroom."

Mike: “The rewards are much more tangible. With lots of patience, there is a greater possibility of witnessing incredible progress with the students you teach. Generally, the classes are well supported by like-minded support staff, so the students’ achievements are seen and achieved by us all as a team.”

Ciara: “I’d say definitely give it a go. It’s 100 per cent the thing that’s kept me in teaching. I love the students. I love the work that we do. I appreciate that qualifications are important, but we’re preparing them for so much more than just the next exam. It’s about preparing for their life, helping them to be successful and getting a job, and hopefully living independently one day.”

Fran teaches English for an alternative education provider in Warwickshire. Mike and Ciara teach English at a special school in Surrey.

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