Clued up on special needs

10th September 2004 at 01:00
Headteachers are being offered a new course on inclusion in mainstream schools. Martin Whittaker reports

Headteachers are coming under increasing pressure to make their schools more inclusive. Ministers are currently considering revised national standards which place much greater emphasis on the role of heads in making their schools suitable for children with special needs.

Personal qualities include being committed to "inclusion and the ability and right of all to be the best they can be", say the proposed new standards, expected to be published soon.

The Government's new agenda for children with special educational needs, launched by Education Secretary Charles Clarke in February, sets out a list of proposals to educate more children with SEN in mainstream schools.

It says all teachers should expect to teach SEN children and all schools should play their part in educating youngsters from their local community, whatever their background or ability.

"Effective inclusion relies on more than specialist skills and resources," says the strategy Removing Barriers to Achievement. "It requires a positive attitude towards children who have difficulties in school, a greater responsiveness to individual needs and critically, a willingness among all staff to play their part."

The National College for School Leadership is bringing in a new SEN module to its headteacher induction programme to develop new heads' skills and knowledge in these areas.

But how will school leaders rise to the challenge? According to the educational charity Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education (CSIE), schools and LEAs still have a long way to go - though some, like Manchester, are now actively promoting inclusion with a new kitemark which it wants all its schools to achieve within three years. The Manchester scheme, which has been praised by the Department for Education and Skills, aims to make inclusion as important as attainment, and is expected to be copied by other authorities.

"There is a phenomenal difference in the interpretation of an identical law (the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001) by different education authorities, and indeed different schools, as to who they will tolerate, who they will allow in," said CSIE's founder Mark Vaughan.

"It's the same law, but there's a fundamentally different approach by local authorities. One indicator is special school populations."

A new postgraduate course in the Midlands is now helping heads, deputies and middle management to meet the inclusion agenda.

Managing Inclusion and Special Education is the first course of its kind in the country. It has been described as groundbreaking by the Office for Standards in Education.

It has been devised and is delivered by Birmingham university and Worcestershire education authority.

Course leader Dr Steve Rayner, of the university's school of education, said the course has succeeded in forging a new partnership in school improvement between higher education and a local authority.

"It seems sensible to me that we work with LEAs," he said. "Across the West Midlands, and presumably across the country, Ofsted has been visiting LEAs and inclusion has been at the top of the agenda."

The one-year course is delivered in evening sessions by university and local authority staff who work in inclusive and special education.

It consists of two key areas - a knowledge and understanding of inclusion and SEN, and development of skills and expertise in the leadership and management of inclusive and special education.

Participants also research and develop an aspect of school improvement that encourages inclusion. They get extra support from Worcestershire's educational psychologist, who acts as a mentor.

In common with many other education authorities, Worcestershire has been reviewing SEN provision in response to falling rolls in its special schools and increased parental requests for mainstream education. The county currently has 12 special schools supporting 1,176 pupils with SEN statements. Pupils with special needs in Worcestershire are almost twice as likely to be in a special school than in most other parts of England.

Geoff King, the county's deputy head of services for schools, said the authority joined forces with Birmingham university to develop the course after recognising the need for professional development in inclusion among school leaders.

"We felt that unless we got to the senior managers in the school, we don't have any hope of getting inclusion more widespread than just in pockets.

"Heads and senior staff are the people who will bring culture change in schools. A lot of teachers and special educational needs co-ordinators were very much on board. We wanted to say OK, we are managing change, but it has to come from the top."

So far the authority has paid to put more than 60 heads and senior managers through the course.

Rose Hill is an all-age beacon special school in Worcester which caters for a wide range of physical disabilities, and serves as a base for specialist advisory teachers to provide outreach support for pupils with physical disabilities in mainstream schools.

Its head, Frank Steel, was among the first to take the course. "I wanted to find out a little bit more about the views and theories surrounding inclusion," he said.

"It was an opportunity to investigate my views on inclusion and to test those out against the prevailing climate.

"Instead of thinking; I must read that article, I must follow up that particular lead, you are actually focused on doing something to support the work on the course. It gave us time to look at inclusion.

"It also gave us an opportunity to look at current thinking."

The course led him to research how his staff felt about their skills.

"People were talking about the changing role of special schools, but nobody had asked staff what they felt and how prepared they were to take on the challenge."

Mary Amphlett, deputy principal at Blessed Edward Oldcorne Catholic high school in Worcester, has also taken the course. She said: "I thought it was absolutely excellent. You have policies and procedures, but it made you go back and re-look at those and then tweak them."

The CSIE in Bristol also does a wide range of work to help support inclusion in schools. One of its key documents is the Index for Inclusion, a set of materials designed to help schools break down barriers to learning.

The DfES paid for this to go to every school in England and Wales. In May, the CSIE produced an early-years version and it wants all special-school placements phased out by 2020.

"Fifteen years is more than enough time," said its founder Mark Vaughan. "A lot of headteachers don't know about good practice in neighbouring towns, let alone other parts of the country. Exchange of information is vital." latest TESExtra for special needs looks at Down Syndrome, hearing impairment and family learning. Visit

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