Leadership - Why special schools need special heads

A school leader outlines the top five challenges in the sector. Are you ready to meet them?
5th June 2015, 1:00am


Leadership - Why special schools need special heads


Not once during my National Professional Qualification for Headship did we examine the varying leadership demands of different school contexts. As such, it was a bland and unsatisfactory preparation for leading a special school.

When I completed the qualification in 2011, it was generic. The distinctions between leading a tiny infant school, a large secondary and a sixth-form college, for example, were not reflected. This was a major oversight. All phases and sectors place specific demands on leaders, but I believe that leadership in special education has some fundamental differences.

There are about 1,000 special schools in England, making up just under 5 per cent of almost 22,000 state schools. Recruitment of leaders in special schools remains on life support and this is due, in part, to the demands of the post.

Those demands are plentiful. Below, I detail my five main areas of concern. It's vital that we work to support each other and ensure that the government realises these problems exist.

1 Government policy

Poring over policy announcements while muttering "How do I make this work for us when they've forgotten about children with learning difficulties?" is a depressingly regular feature of my working life.

When the government announced that coursework and modular exams were to be abolished, and that retakes wouldn't count in league tables, there was a collective gnashing of teeth from special school leaders. Some of my students are capable of succeeding at GCSE in some subjects. What they struggle with is demonstrating the skills and knowledge they have developed in the preferred method of assessment, namely the terminal written exam.

I suspect that policymakers were aware of what dropping coursework would mean for students like mine, but in the drive to prove that GCSEs were "hard" enough, it was something they were prepared to live with.

The abolition of national curriculum levels is another good example of special schools' tiny profile. "Levels are going - you decide," went the fanfare. "What about performance scales?" was our retort. I have a Yes Minister-style scene in my head of everyone realising they've never heard of P scales but quickly deciding to keep them in the absence of any alternative.

2 Undervaluing staff

Support staff generally make up a greater proportion of the workforce in special schools than mainstream ones. Where students have high support needs, this proportion can be very large indeed, and it is not untypical to see classes of 10 students with one teacher and six or so teaching assistants (TAs).

There is no national mandatory framework of standards for TAs in England. There is also no requirement for them to undertake performance management. The demands of the role for staff who are poorly paid and offered a limited career structure mean that turnover is relatively high. This affects well-being and recruitment.

Special school leaders have to support TAs to the best of their ability. For example, to deny staff an appraisal implies that you believe their contribution to the school isn't worth discussing.

3 Developing talent

As teachers, we are often drawn to certain fields: early years, PE, primary, pupils on the autistic spectrum. This, coupled with the small number of special schools, makes the pool of talent from which we recruit a small one. Providing a pathway for skilled and highly talented TAs to become teachers is therefore critical. One of my colleagues is currently undergoing a primary School Direct programme (there's no mechanism to do a special school course locally), and we are part-funding foundation degrees for two more. All will make great teachers.

4 Staff well-being

Once we've managed to recruit high-quality staff, we need to look after them. This can be difficult in a sector that presents enormous challenges. When I first started working in a special school, I was warned that some of my students would die. The prevalence of degenerative conditions among pupils means that many staff will have to cope with this issue at some point.

In addition, the day-to-day demands of working with children who have high-level needs, including intimate care or extremely challenging behaviour, mean that managing stress and sickness absence are key tasks for special school leaders.

5 Meeting parents' needs

The importance of understanding the circumstances and feelings of parents cannot be overestimated. Not only are they putting their child into your care to be educated, but in some cases they are also relying on you to keep their child alive.

Some of our students have very complex health needs that require specialist training to manage. Parents need to be reassured that you can, for example, activate a vagus nerve stimulator or administer buccal midazolam if their child is having an epileptic seizure. Tracheostomies, feeding tubes and insulin pumps are commonplace. Your team needs to be knowledgeable and confident in dealing with these things and that requires you to make time for training.

The points above aren't comprehensive; I haven't even touched on speech, language and on-site occupational therapists, psychotherapists, residential care, admissions or funding.

My aim here is not to scare teachers away from seeking leadership roles in special schools - quite the opposite. It is a thrilling, demanding and noble vocation, and I would recommend it to anyone. But we do have to make the pressures of the job more clearly known so that we can begin to address them, attract more teachers into the sector and ensure that everything is geared towards their success.

Jarlath O'Brien is headteacher of Carwarden House Community School in Surrey. Find him on Twitter @jarlathobrien

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