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Qualified for the job but not prepared

New surveys pose fundamental questions about the way special education is tackled. David Budge reports

Too many newly qualified teachers are emerging from training colleges totally unprepared for the challenges posed by special needs pupils, according to a new survey. The study was conducted by Dr Philip Garner of Brunel University, who has concluded that even the basic principles of SEN work are not being dealt with at sufficient depth. He says that a typical comment by the newly qualified teachers (NQTs) he questioned was: "I'm unable to meet the demands of many of the kids in my class, and feel a total failure."

Since 1984 all initial teacher training courses have had to contain an SEN component, and in 1992 the Department for Education issued Circular 992 which specified that newly qualified teachers should be able to "identify special educational needs or learning difficulties".

But having questioned 52 primary and secondary teachers who emerged from PGCE and BEd courses in the summer of 1994 Dr Garner is convinced that the special needs training that most students are receiving in colleges is "lightweight and largely inconsequential . . . The evidence gathered from this group of NQTs suggests that both the regulations contained in Circular 992 and the guidance within the SEN Code of Practice exist largely as works of fiction and well-meaning rhetoric."

SEN work in colleges, which Dr Garner describes as "chaotic and piecemeal", had been squeezed by the focus on technical competence and subject knowledge and the increased emphasis on school-based training. Many training institutions had responded by opting for a process of "permeation" whereby "SEN matters are subsumed within each element of training and become the responsibility of all tutors". Others provided a free-standing mini-course on special educational needs but did not always make it compulsory.

Dr Garner, whose findings appear in the current British Educational Research Journal, says that 73 per cent of the NQTs had not been required to submit an assessed written assignment on a special needs-related topic. Only one-third had received six or more lectures on SEN topics while 36 per cent had had no more than two.

Those who had learned about SEN issues through subject-based studies were generally dissatisfied with the training they had received. A frequently-voiced concern was that college tutors had offered little practical input on differentiation.

One former PGCE student told Dr Garner: "Everyone who lectured us in college went on about individualisation, and associated it with some kind of philosophy. Putting it into practice was a joke, because we got no help . . . [he] then did a teaching practice visit and proceeded to give me stick because I wasn't 'differentiating', but he didn't know anything about it in the first place."

The survey also showed that NQTs, on average, covered less than 50 per cent of the topics shown in the table (right). Only two teachers said they had covered all the topics during college-based sessions while 39 per cent had been introduced to less than one-third of them.

"There appeared to be no coherent pattern to what was being included in the SEN training 'curriculum'," Dr Garner says. "Some NQTs stated, for example, that physical disability was dealt with in some depth, whilst emo-tionalbehavioural difficulties was omitted entirely. The discontinuities between one institution and another (and between one ITT course and another within the same institution) were noted by several NQTs. One observed that 'The two other NQTs in my school seem to know far more than me about what's going on . . . they seem to be in tune with the language', whilst another explained that 'My girlfriend had a good grounding in special needs . . . she was at the same college, but doing a different course'."

The teachers' comments about their school-based training were more positive, however. Thirty-eight per cent had had a timetabled opportunity to become involved in SEN work during their school placement. These experiences ranged from working in a specialised unit to teaching statemented children in a mainstream class.

"While 23 per cent of the NQTs had very little contact with either children who had been statemented because of severe learning difficulties or emotional and behavioural difficulties (EBD) an encouraging number had been able to visit special schools," Dr Garner says.

Nearly half the NQTs said that they had received formal support with SEN work, either in the form of tutorials or informal discussions, during their school-based training.

Nevertheless, Dr Garner admits he was surprised to find that by the end of their first term as full-time teachers just over half of the NQTs felt confident enough to deal with SEN children. Forty per cent thought they could cope with a statemented pupil but EBD children still represented too big a challenge for two-thirds of the teachers.

"It appears that this important aspect of SEN work remains something of a backwater," Dr Garner says. As one teacher told him: "I must admit I didn't even understand the meaning of the term EBD when I saw it on the questionnaire. "

Dr Garner's paper, A special education? The experiences of newly qualifying teachers during initial training, can be purchased for Pounds 10 from Carfax Publishing Company, PO Box 25, Abingdon, Oxfordshire OX14 3UE.

Special educational needs topics covered in initial teacher training courses: rank order 1 Identification of needs 2 Curriculum differentiation for SEN 3 SEN legislation 4 Classroom management 5 Child abuse 6 Gifted pupils 6 Support services 6 Emotional behavioural difficulties 9 The Elton Report 9 Behaviour management 11 SEN code of practice 12 Individual assessment of SEN 13 Physical disabilities 14 Severe learning difficulties

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