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The right chemistry;Career development

Careers in special education are about to change, as Pauline Hoare reports.

Angela Cook, science co-ordinator at Durants special school, Enfield, north London, was a late entrant to teaching. After graduating in the 1970s she worked in telecommunications research but switched careers after bringing up a family.

She moved into special education after a year at a mainstream school because it offered the chance to make a mark in her subject area. "Many of our special needs pupils can be motivated by relevant, exciting and hands-on teaching and materials," says Ms Cook, who is studying for an MEd in special needs at the University of Hertforshire. "You have to start where they are."

Her experience of both mainstream and special education should offer her some exciting career opportunities as the boundaries between the two sectors become blurred. More special needs pupils will in future be educated within mainstream schools while special schools will become centres of excellence dealing with the most severe learning difficulties.

The career structure in special education is therefore likely to change dramatically. The Teacher Training Agency is reviewing the qualifications for teaching in special schools and will make recommendations next term. It has already issued the SENCO (special educational needs co-ordinator) standards, giving status and shape to the role.

This is how a career might look. A teacher starting off in mainstream education could study part-time for an advanced diploma, in special needs and become a SENCO. Building on the modules studied for the diploma, that teacher could study for an MA in special needs education or one of the mandatory qualifications for teaching children with specific needs - visual impairment, hearing impairment and multi-sensory impairment.

Once qualified, the next move might be to a special school or hospital school. Later, the teacher could return to a mainstream school to run a unit or become a special needs advisory teacher or inspector.

To date, teachers in special schools have had few promotion opportunities so what has mattered most is job satisfaction. SEN teachers tend to be gifted communicators, enthusiastic and drawn to the small, informal nature of special schools.

Tim Exell, head of Wendover House School, Tring, says: "You'll refine your teaching skills until they become an art form. It is much more demanding, you have got to bring your subject expertise and add rapport and sensitivity."

Certain types of special school - hospital schools, for example - often have no difficulty recruiting staff. Would-be teachers need at least an Advanced Diploma in Special Needs, and preferably an MA.

But all special schools have their own unique mix of students and learning needs. For that reason, headteachers arrange extra training so that staff develop expertise in the necessary areas.

Continuing professional development is usually pursued in a teacher's own time, though in some cases fees might be paid by the education authority or school. The University of Birmingham offers a range of distance learning or part-time courses at weekends for SENCOs in mainstream schools, as well as postgraduate teaching qualifications in special needs.

John Visser, lecturer in special education, strongly recommends that teachers first decide where their strengths, interests and experience lie. "You need to make sure that the institution you apply to specialises in the areas you're interested in."

Further information: Linda Scott, distance learning secretary, school of education, Birmingham University, Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 2TT tel: 0121 414 4866National Association for Special Educational Needs tel: 01223 277096

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