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SENs and sensibility

Ever felt you don't have the skills to teach special needs children? Carolyn O'Grady explains how you can set about acquiring them

How confident are you that you are meeting - or will be able to meet - the needs of children with special educational needs in your classroom? If recent research is anything to go by, probably not confident at all.

And you are not alone. More than two-thirds of new staff feel unprepared to meet the needs of the fast growing number of SEN children in today's schools, concluded Philip Garner and John Dwfor Davies in a survey of teachers with between two and three years' experience. More than half of the teachers they interviewed said their initial teacher training had been inadequate.

The DfEE has increasingly backed the inclusion of SEN children into mainstream schools, emphasising that "promoting inclusion I where parents want it and appropriate support can be provided, remains a cornerstone of our strategy". But how can that be achieved if teacher training is inadequate to respond to the challenge, leaving schools unable to meet the needs of these children?

And could it be that the decision-makers are attracted to inclusion simply because it is cheaper than special school placements?

The DfEE replies that more money has been made available to support training for teachers and other projects, and that among several new initiatives two new resources packages are being distributed to LEAs and schools (see box). What is certain is that the situation is patchy at every level, including teacher training. Some LEAs have embraced inclusion with vigour, closing virtually all their special schools, while others have been much more tardy or cautious, depending on your viewpoint.

Schools themselves vary considerably in attitude, resources and in the quantity and quality of support services available to them. "The concept of inclusion is received with various degrees of understanding and commitment across the teaching profession and thus varies in emphasis from school to school", say Garner and Davies. So, for example, the status of the special educational needs coordinator (Senco) differs from school to school. Though it is generally accepted that best practice is for the Senco to be a member of the senior management team and thus wield some authority, this is not always the case.

These matters, of course, are outside the influence of most teachers. But is there anything you can do to help meet the challenge in your own classroom? Garner says the first step is to get to know the school Senco and the special needs policy of the school as regards statements, individual education plans, resources and other support for children with special needs. He also recommends reading the programme of action (there is a summary on the DfEE website) and the code of practice on the identification and assessment of special needs.

The code is being revised. The old five-stage framework will be reduced to three and a more helpful differentiation between "school action" and "school action plus" introduced. The draft consultations end this month, with the final version ready for September 2001. The draft proposals are also available on the DfEE website (see box). "Read the 'school action' section, and reflect on where you as a teacher fit in," recommends Garner. Note that it is being issued with a document by Newcastle University offering good practice guidance. Also try to make sure you are aware of opportunities to keep yourself up to date, whether through in-service training or by, for example, surfing the many excellent websites from specia needs organisations, including that of the National Association for Special Education Needs (Nasen) which publishes several magazines on special needs (see box) and a huge array of publications.

"But don't feel that teaching special needs children necessarily requires specialist knowledge," emphasises Joe Whittaker, senior lecturer in teacher education at the Bolton Institute. "There is a mystique surrounding special needs which makes NQTs think it is very different from teaching other youngsters. What most kids require is good practice that recognises difference and acknowledges that there is a need for a wide repertoire of teaching strategies." Sue Panter, honorary general secretary of Nasen, says: "Differentiation, more support and using different types of approaches will go a long way. But then it becomes more complicated. If a child is failing to learn regardless of different types of approaches, alarm bells should ring. At this point the Senco is your key. He or she should help with identification of children who need something over and above differentiation and should then help you and the child."

A good Senco, for example, will be able to tell you that a child with specific learning difficulties will have real problems copying from the board; that a child with sequencing difficulties will not be able to take in more than one instruction at a time; and explain how some children while they can apparently read and hear perfectly well have trouble understanding what they are reading and hearing, and help you respond to those difficulties.

Don't try to diagnose special needs yourself, advises Garner. "There are so many different learning difficulties, an NQT can drown. It's more important to seek guidance from those who have the knowledge." And most important, says Garner: "Begin with what the child brings to the educational encounter, and build a positive relationship with him or her. If the relationship is not spot on, knowledge will be fallow, particularly in the case of children with emotional and behavioural difficulties".

RESOURCES

Still at the Crosswords: SEN, Teacher Education and the New Millennium, by Philip Garner, Nottingham Trent University and John Dwfor Davies, University of the West of England. For copies, ring 0115 848 3793.

Index for Inclusion: Developing Learning and Participation in Schools. (Distributed to all primary, secondary, special schools and LEAs earlier this year.) Available from CSIE, 1 Redland Close, Elm Lane, Redland, Bristol BS6 6UE. Tel: 0117 923 8450.

CD ROM

Connecting Schools for Inclusion. Designed for use by LEAs as part of a training programme for schools and staff, and launched in September by the DfEE.

Further details from DfEE, tel: 0870 0012345, or seewebsite. BOOKS

Introducing Special Educational Needs by Philip Garner and John Dwyfor Davies. A Course Companion for NQTs and Students Teachers is scheduled to be published in July 2001 by David Fulton.Special Needs and the Beginning Teacher Edited by Peter Benton and Tim O'Brien. Published by Continuum. The second edition of The Special Education Handbook, a ready reference with useful addresses, written by Michael Farrell was published this August by David Fulton.

OTHER SOURCES

National Association for Special Educational Needs Nasen House, 45 Amber Business Village, Amber Close, Amington, Tamworth, B77 4RP. Tel: 01827 311500. Website: www.nasen.org.uk TES: www.tes.co.uk. Click on Education Links to find special needs organisations. DfEE:www.dfee.gov.uk, or contact the DfEE Publications Centre on 0845 602 2260.

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