Adjusting the swing of the pendulum

14th April 1995 at 01:00
Training for special needs has become fragmented and poorly supervised, with the mechanisms of funding at the heart of the problem. Carolyn O'Grady reports.

The Code of Practice is generally considered one of the most successful recent initiatives in special needs education. But there is growing evidence that if more attention is not given to training to help teachers implement it, its effects will be limited. Causing particular concern are the mechanisms for funding training and the lack of quality assurance. According to Professor Peter Mittler of Manchester University Faculty of Education:"The Code of Practice will not work if it is not matched by a similar initiative in training." The additional training needs of the special needs co-ordinators, following the clarification of their role in the Code of Practice, were clearly of vital importance, he says. But initial training - "the foundation of everything" - and the induction of newly qualified teachers were also crucial.

Many class teachers, aware that stage 1 of the Code charges them with the task of identifying a child's special needs and with taking initial steps to meet those needs, feel they do not know enough to identify the wide range of disabilities and learning difficulties they may meet in the estimated 20 per of children with special needs.

There is a huge training task. But the mechanisms of funding, lack of monitoring and other factors are making the job increasingly difficult and also appear to be contributing to a teacher supply crisis in specialist minorities areas.

These are the concerns that led representatives from special needs associations, voluntary bodies and others to form the Special Educational Needs Training Consortium (Sentec) in 1993 to ensure the development and continuance of quality training in special education.

Last month the consortium set up a working party, convened by Professor Mittler and funded by the Department for Education, to look at the issues including the role of initial training in equipping mainstream teachers with the skills to deal with pupils with SEN; the effectiveness of LEAs' use of GEST 4 monies and the monitoring and evaluating of SEN courses. It will also investigate whether a framework of skills covering all teachers of SEN pupils would be feasible and, if so, useful.

Mechanisms of funding will be central to the debate. Local authorities, schools and training providers are reporting that money for courses is becoming much harder to find. The contribution demanded from LEAs to match GEST funding has been increased to 40 per cent, while LEAs have been left with less money from which to find this contribution.

"The sums available make it impossible for schools to second a staff member for advanced courses even on a part-time basis", Professor Mittler says in Psychology and Education for Special Needs: Recent Developments and Future Directions, edited by Ingrid Lunt, Brahm Norwich and Ved Varma (to be published this autumn). "In addition to the cost of fees, schools still have to find the replacement costs of teachers absent from school on training courses even for one day."

In consequence, training has to be done more cheaply, in ways which spread out the cost and don't demand supply cover. The result is that supervised practical training is rare and courses are fragmenting. In addition, since the disappearance of HMI's role in monitoring the quality of training, little is being done about quality assurance. It appears that some courses may be demanding very different requirements for a similar or identical qualification.

Klaus Wedell, professor of educational psychology at the Institute of Education in London and founding chair of Sentec, says: "One of the real problems is that a lot of training is now taken in successive modules. People are getting a module here and there, as and when they can afford the time and find the money, and it is now sometimes difficult to know whether a person really has a recognised qualification to help pupils with particular forms of special educational need."

Flexible training is well and good but the pendulum has swung too far that way, he argues. "What is now needed is emphasis on recognised training for a designated function."

Statemented children in particular must be assured of the right professional help, he says. "The whole purpose of special needs provision, especially in relation to statemented children, is that they should receive a higher level of professional expertise, if statementing is going to mean anything."

Professor Wedell would like to see "an immediate start to the formulation of criteria for evaluating posts to find out to what extent they need to provide professional expertise over and above what is usually provided". This, he acknowledges, brings many questions: What is a designated post? Who sets the criteria and who ensures that standards are kept up? "Evaluating special education is already a huge problem for OFSTED," he says.

Another issue is the crisis in minority specialist areas, especially severe learning difficulties and visual and hearing impairment. Surveys suggest that "nothing like enough appropriately qualified teachers are available in the area of severe learning difficulties and that there were also shortages of teachers for the visually and hearing impaired," Professor Mittler says.

The problem arises from a combination of factors including the fact that GEST funding for training in certain minority specialist areas is no longer ring-fenced and the decision in 1985 to phase out specialist courses undertaken immediately after initial training.

HMI reports show that in 1986 more than 200 new teachers from 11 four-year, full-time BEd courses qualified to work with pupils with severe learning difficulties. By 1991 only 35 new entrants qualified by an in-service route (specialised BEds having been abandoned) and it is estimated that only 15 teachers will gain a specialist qualification in this field in 1994.

Similarly, only 101 teachers obtained a specialist qualification in the education of hearing impaired children in 1992 compared to the estimated target of between 140 and 160 who are needed.

There are also concerns about specific areas of special need such as emotional and behavioural difficulties, which is causing anxiety, particularly at stage 1. Sue Panter, general secretary of the Association of Workers for Children with Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties (AWCEBD) and convener of the professional development sub-committee of the National Association for Special Educational Needs (NASEN), says: "The issue of what is an emotional and behavioural difficulty is a real thorn. There are tests to identify reading difficulties, but it's not the same with EBD. Teachers don't know if a child has difficulties or is just naughty. Moreover, there is the problem of defining need. When you recognise a child has emotional and behavioural difficulties what do you do about it?

"It is an enormous issue which directly touches upon issues of tolerance within a school and on political questions within the school and community, " she says, referring to the rise in exclusions in many areas.

Ms Panter also points to the need for training for teachers working in pupil referral units and for support staff. Few courses have been available on EBD, but as in many areas of need, special needs organisations are stepping in to fill the gaps in provision. The AWCEBD has developed an accredited distance learning course for all those involved with children and young people who have emotional and behavioural difficulties.

Many courses exist - often tailored to the needs and circumstances of schools and teachers. But what is missing, after the reduction or even abandonment of advisory services for SEN pupils in many areas, is co-ordination. In some authorities training is well organised and targeted, in others it appears to be ad hoc and chaotic. Even when there are staff to take on the task, the organisation of training strategy is a struggle.

Maria Landy, Devon's senior adviser for special educational needs says putting together a cohesive training strategy is not easy: "A hard part has been getting the information to teachers about development opportunities. Another is finding the funds. As GEST funding is only proffered on an annual basis, it is hard to plan courses that last longer. Some courses, such as those for teachers of the visually and hearing impaired, run over two years and we have to chance funding."

To establish a staff development strategy for special needs she has worked with a variety of providers including advisory and support staff, local higher education establishments, other universities including Birmingham, Swansea and the Open University and NASEN. The initial focus has been on training special needs co-ordinators in mainstream primary schools but other priorities in 199596 are the management of SEN; autismAsperger's and language disorders; maths and SEN; specific learning difficulties; speech and language difficulties and early years and special needs. Minority specialist areas are also covered. Three teachers will start training in teaching the visually impaired (a distance learning course) and several will either be completing or starting distance training on teaching the hearing impaired at Swansea and Birmingham universities respectively. Most of the courses are funded by the LEA helped by GEST money. Classroom assistants now follow a modular programme recognised and certificated by Devon.

Often the approach is innovative, for example, seeking ideas for maths and special needs. The LEA advertised for maths teachers interested in working with SEN pupils. The chosen 16 worked with a maths adviser on a 30-hour course. From these Devon hopes a group will contribute to teaching in a modular programme across the county, targeting about 60 teachers.

Voluntary organisations, universities and other organisations continue to step into the gap left by LEA cut-backs, tailoring courses to meet the needs and difficult circumstances of schools and individual teachers. NASEN, for example, is expanding its range of courses at local and national level. Eight one-day courses on the Code of Practice will be held in June and another series of courses is focusing on handwriting and spelling.

The Centre for the Study of Special Education, which opened at Westminster College in Oxford this month, intends working closely with schools to make training as accessible as possible. The centre is offering school-based courses, which often include a supervised practical component on a wide variety of subjects. There are also school-based BPhil (Ed) programmes in special needs aimed at teachers supporting statemented pupils in the mainstream or in special units as well as in special schools. A range of courses for other professionals and support assistants is also on offer.

Other universities including Manchester, Birmingham, the London Institute of Education and the Open University also have very large programmes. The Special Educational Needs Joint Initiative for Training (SENJIT), based at the Institute of Education, emerged from the breakup of ILEA to cope with special needs staff development in London boroughs. It offers a wide range of locally based in-service training courses as well as courses at the Institute.

Areas of need targeted in training vary from location to location For example, Nick Peacey, the co-ordinator of SENJIT, emphasises bilingualism and special needs and professional support for heads of special schools for pupils with moderate learning difficulties. He says:"The push for inclusion is leaving gaps in the schools which are being filled with children with other difficulties. " Other areas targeted by the training providers often reflect changes in knowledge of disability or learning difficulties. Autism is a case in point. Until relatively recently it was only recognised in its extreme form, but it is now more often seen as a continuum of need. It is at present among the most commonly provided courses for classroom teachers, co-ordinators or other professionals. Speech and language impairment and specific learning difficulties are others.

ICAN, a national charity for children with special needs, which is now focusing mainly on spoken speech and language, has opened the first centre in the UK concentrating on courses for teachers on social communication skills, behavioural problems, autism, how to identify and deal with speech and language difficulties and related topics. Courses at the Surrey-based centre aim to give teachers skills for immediate use in the classroom. They offer a range of strategies and use music, play and other methods to improve memory and social skills.

The Dyslexia Institute is also aiming to offer "a menu of time effectivecost effective courses" aimed at special needs co-ordinators, classroom teachers and special needs assistants in mainstream classes by the end of this year or early next to add to its post graduate diplomas courses accredited by Kingston University.

It is evident that organisations, universities and others with an interest in special needs are willing to provide courses and support teachers both in mainstream and special schools. But unless a better system for monitoring and evaluating and funding such courses is set up their efforts cannot be wholly effective.

Sentec would welcome the views in writing of teachers and other professionals on training for working with pupils with special needs. Please write to: Dr Malcolm Garner, secretary of SENTEC, Flash Ley Resource Centre, Hawksmoor Road, Stafford ST17 9DR On June 9 Sentec is organising a conference for parents, governors, LEAs, teachers and headteachers and trainers on teacher training for special needs. The conference, to be opened by Eric Forth, Minister of State for Education is described as a national consultation conference. Information from The Institute of Education, 20 Bedford Way, London WC1H 0AL Addresses lICAN, Barbican City Gate, 2-3 Dufferin Street, London EC1 8NA lThe Centre for the Study of Special Education, Westminster College, Oxford OX2 9AT lThe Dyslexia Institute, 133 Gresham Road, Staines, Middlesex TW18 2AJ lNASEN, York House, Exhall Grange, Wheelwright Lane, Coventry CV7 9HP lAWCEBD, 20 Carlton Street, Kettering, Northamptonshire NN16 8EB

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today