Special needs education has long been a popular option for teachers, but with the government's drive for inclusion resulting in the closure of a growing number of special schools, teachers are increasingly perceiving that sector as a backwater not offering much of a future.
"Some teachers feel it will be difficult to get back into the mainstream," says Mel Farrar, headteacher of Foxdenton, a special school in Oldham. Moreover, some feel that as children with moderate difficulties are increasingly included in mainstream schools and special schools are left with children with more complex difficulties, "what goes on in special schools doesn't give you as much credibility in mainstream as it did".
Recent legislation has emphasised the inclusion of children with special educational needs and many local authorities have introduced measures to increase integration. North Tyneside, for example, announced in January that it plans to increase its mainstream school population to 90 per cent by 2010 with only 10 per cent of SEN pupils attending special schools.
The good news for those wanting to work in SEN is that there are increasing opportunites to follow a career in mainstream schools. Every school now has to have an SEN co-ordinator and many schools also want teachers with experience and qualifications related to specific problems - dyslexia or behavioural difficulties, for example - to work in a special needs unit.
As in all subject areas, there is a shortage of suitable teachers. The recent TESSecondary Heads Association survey of 876 secondary schools identified 94 vacancies in special educational needs (eighth in a list of 16 subject areas in which vacancies ranged from 413 for English to five for dance). The result is a growing tendency to take teachers without SEN experience and train them on the job.
Many teachers now working in special schools and in special needs in the mainstream do ot have SEN qualifications, said Sue Panter, honorary general secretary of the National Association of Special Educational Needs. "They do their training when in school.
"In the past, special schools wanted and usually got teachers who had experience, but now they are often employing newly qualified teachers and relying on training them on the job."
Ms Panter, who is also an assistant headteacher and SENCo at a mainstream school, says her school recently advertised for someone to work with children with educational and behavioural difficulties (EBD). It received two applications for the job.
"Fortunately, though one was totally unsuitable, the other was totally suitable, a mainstream teacher who had helped in a social inclusion unit and been on a training course. She is going to start after Easter and is doing a three-year distance learning Masters course at Birmingham University in EBD."
Teachers of classes of children with hearing, visual and multi-sensory impairment in special schools or in units attached to mainstream schools have to obtain a mandatory post-graduate qualification, though they can do this while teaching. There are nine courses available at higher education institutions, offering full-time, part-time and distance learning options. In other areas teachers can acquire skills through shorter courses andor in-service training.
While some see the inclusion policy as sidelining special schools, others see an opportunity. "We have to transfer what is going on in special schools to the mainstream," says Keith Bovair, headteacher of Durants school in Enfield, north London, which until recently took children with moderate learning difficulties and now teaches children with complex needs.
Special schools have already formed relationships with mainstream schools in terms of children participating part-time in mainstream education, but now some are carrying this further and forming productive links with mainstream schools so that each can learn and offer support. Where this works, special schools may not be the jobs backwater that some fear.