Heads to focus on special needs

Michael Shaw & Adi Bloom

Annual conference of specialist schools will urge them to pick learning difficulties as an area of expertise. Michael Shaw and Adi Bloom report

Specialist schools will be expected to prioritise special needs education, with staff being given extra training under plans drawn up by the architect of the movement.

Heads of the 2,381 schools, three-quarters of all secondaries, will hear the proposals at the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust annual conference in Birmingham next week.

Sir Cyril Taylor, chairman of the trust, said his speech would focus on how specialist schools could take a lead in supporting pupils with learning difficulties.

The trust is in talks with the Training and Development Agency for schools about creating a diploma programme for teachers working with SEN pupils.

The trust hopes that a handful of staff at each of its schools will take the qualification, extending expertise beyond existing special needs co-ordinators.

The Department for Education and Skills is also keen to allow secondaries to become specialists in special needs, following the example of 12 special schools which already have this status.

Sir Cyril said he had been astonished to learn that there were 1.2 million pupils with some form of special need, plus the 160,000 who are officially statemented, half of whom are in mainstream classes. "That's one in every six pupils," he said. "We want specialist schools to be their champions.

"Schools already have specialist teachers for subjects such as sport. Why shouldn't they have more with expertise in working with SEN pupils as well?"

Sir Cyril said he had found a sponsor for a state boarding school for vulnerable pupils which he is hoping to set up, but could not reveal who it was or when the school would be opened.

This week, Ian Coates, divisional manager for SEN at the DfES told the Commons education select committee that schools with large proportions of pupils with special needs might want to choose this as their specialism rather than the existing curriculum areas.

He said the DfES was exploring how it could alter league tables so they would better reflect the work of pupils with learning difficulties.

Sir Cyril said the trust wanted to make schools pick less popular subjects if they applied for a second specialism, and that special needs could be among them in the future.

Margaret Morrissey, spokeswoman for the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations, said: "I don't think most parents would think there was a stigma about sending their children to a school with a specialism in SEN. But some might have a niggling worry that the school was more concerned about helping some of its children to catch up than really pushing its students."

Micheline Mason, director of the Alliance for Inclusive Education, said she welcomed extra resources and recognition for mainstream schools which gave good support to pupils with SEN. But she said the status might lead to some schools taking on disproportionate numbers of SEN pupils, undermining inclusion.

Successful specialist schools have been able to bid for a second specialism since 2005. This allows them to receive an extra pound;60 per pupil on top of about pound;600,000 a year which they usually receive for their specialism. Nearly half are expected to take up the offer.

Sir Cyril said the first 140 schools to pilot second specialisms had often chosen subjects which were already popular, adding to imbalances in the choice available to pupils. "What we've learned is that there needs to be a more strategic vision," he said. "We can't have a free-for-all."

He said the trust planned to look at what specialisms were offered by schools in various parts of England, and whether schools should pick second topics that were not covered locally or were less popular.

One school which already has a second specialism is Callington community college in Cornwall, which added music to its sports specialism last year.

Steve Kenning, Callington's headteacher, said the specialisms had been easy to choose.

"We want to be the best, so we are competing with private schools. And private schools have a reputation for excelling at sport and music," he said.

* michael.shaw@tes.co.uk

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Michael Shaw & Adi Bloom

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