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A special talent

Can you be satisfied with the small steps that pupils with learning difficulties make? Lisa Hutchins reports on the personal qualities needed to work in the most challenging sector.

The job spec reads as follows: a team player with a sense of humour, good self-awareness and the ability to do without spectacular exam results or sporting successes. Formal qualifications are far less important than the personal qualities you can bring to the school.

If this description appeals, then a move from mainstream to a special school should be your next step. You'd be welcome, as recruitment is an even bigger issue here than it is in other sectors. But it may seem like too big a step. How do you go about finding out more, discovering what qualifications you need, or deciding if the move is right?

Nick Burnett is headteacher at Addington school in Woodley, near Wokingham in Berkshire, with 204 pupils aged between two and 19 who have moderate, severe and profound learning disabilities. As well as developing its own in-service training for teachers, Addington runs a training and assessment centre for learning support assistants and is working on sharing its expertise with mainstream schools.

Mr Burnett has plenty of advice for teachers thinking of moving into special education: "We very much, perhaps through necessity, believe that it is the right sort of person that makes a difference and that, if you are a good teacher, you are able to be a good teacher in any setting."

Mr Burnett looks for people who are highly emotionally intelligent and have good empathy skills. "They need to know themselves really well, because it can be very challenging working in this area," he says. "The better you know yourself, the better you can control your feelings and understand how you might feel.

"The other key attribute, looking back on my career because I trained as a mainstream teacher and transferred, is being able to get satisfaction out of very small steps. Some people like to see good exam or sports results, we don't get that. But you know you have put a lot of work into getting a little bit of progress and you need to find that rewarding."

A good sense of humour is essential, as is being a team player. You need to be happy to always share your classroom with other adults, especially learning support assistants.

Training is a complex issue. To obtain qualified teacher status (QTS), you must demonstrate sufficient awareness of special needs for a mainstream school. But Mr Burnett, involved with teaching special educational needs (SEN) at Brighton University for more than six years, feels that this element of training is being sacrificed to other curriculum demands:

"Generally, it will be a few weeks, a session a week, not very concerted or very detailed," he says.

As well as running training for his own staff plus an national vocational qualification (NVQ) training and assessment centre for support staff, his school is sharing its expertise with others. "No one now does initial teacher training in special education, which creates an interesting dilemma," he says. "We have some staff who did such training many years ago, but that pool is thinning fast. The majority of our staff are mainstream, and we have trained them.

"It is not easy to access specialist training, and we are more and more developing our own model, which is being taken on by our experienced staff.

We have had to polish our training skills through necessity, but it does have potential benefits."

Teachers working with pupils with a sensory impairment need a qualification in visual, hearing or multi-sensory impairments. Courses are offered by a few colleges and universities around the country, including the Institute of Education in London and the University of Birmingham. This might include distance learning and involves teaching practice.

But for the teacher considering other kinds of special education, the decision to take additional postgraduate qualifications may well follow a spell gaining experience in the field.

Courses examine specific conditions such as autism, dyslexia, learning or speech and language difficulties, or work on a topic such as inclusion, or on dealing with challenging behaviour.

If you apply to a special school, you may be asked to teach a class as part of the selection process. Addington used to reject this option on the grounds that it was too much to expect of applicants. But now it is seen as a crucial test of whether a prospective teacher can cope in what can be a very testing environment.

"They may not be spot-on with their teaching," says Mr Burnett, " but it gives us a good feel of how they react to the youngsters. It is about how they relate to them and to the adults in the classroom. That's crucial at this stage. We can give them the support and the training to get the level of the lessons right."

Addington has a newly qualified teacher for the first time this year, and another for next year. But, ideally, a teacher moving into special education will have at least a couple of years' post-qualification experience in mainstream to give them a feel for the normal pace of child development. Then they have an index against which to measure the abilities of their special needs pupils as well as a detailed grounding in the national curriculum.

Younger staff are welcome applicants, as an ageing pool of people with special needs experience is another issue the sector is facing.

Those who are hesitant about making the move could find a spell of voluntary work helpful. Special schools are constantly on the look out for volunteers to assist with activities, from swimming to field trips. Another area is supply teaching, where there will be learning support assistants on hand to help candidates.

For those in the know, teaching in a special school should not be underestimated: it is hard work; many pupils are challenging; and progress is in small steps, not giant leaps. But for the right person the rewards are great.

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