Do something special

18th February 2005 at 00:00
You'll have fewer pupils, but their demands will be far greater. Sara Bubb says you could consider a career in special schools

Fed up with marking nine sets of 30 books every week? Fancied teaching a class of six with the help of two or three other adults? Sounds like a dream come true, and it is for teachers who move from mainstream to special schools.

There are 13,580 qualified teachers in special schools, but compared with 197,700 in primary and 211,100 in secondary you might think it would be hard to get into, but at 1.8 per cent the vacancy rate is much higher in special schools than primary (0.5 per cent) or secondary (0.9 per cent).

Given the inclusion agenda, is moving into special schools a recipe for redundancy? Certainly 83 maintained special schools have closed since 1997 bringing the total to 1,088, though nine non-maintained ones have opened.

Jon Sharpe, headteacher at Brent Knoll school in the London borough of Lewisham, believes "there will always be a role for special schools although the nature of some of their work may change.

"Outreach work and support for mainstream schools will increase. Special schools have a key role to play in removing the barriers to achievement," he says.

Nor is moving from mainstream to special a one-way street: teachers do go back into mainstream and are usually much richer for the experience.

Surely people need a special qualification? Well, yes and no. Jan Stogden, head of the Michael Tippett school in the London borough of Lambeth, did a diploma for teachers of the mentally handicapped in 1973. However, there has not been an initial training course for special education for many years. The last cohort of students doing the B.Ed (Hons) specialising in severe learning difficulties finished in 1990, according to Dr Vivian Hinchcliffe, who ran the course at the West London Institute.

Mr Sharpe speaks for most special school heads in saying: "What we're looking for are highly skilled, enthusiastic and energetic teachers who relish the challenge of working with pupils with complex and demanding needs. Qualifications count for far less than transferable high-quality teaching skills and the ability to develop effective relationships with pupils."

Having said that, teachers are now required to hold a relevant mandatory qualification to teach a class of pupils with hearing, visual or multi-sensory impairment, but most schools will happily appoint someone without one as long as they are willing to follow an in-service training programme.

Dr Hinchcliffe, now head of Rectory Paddock school in the London borough of Bromley, believes that school-driven professional development is ideal for teaching children with very special needs. In fact, there is so much learning on the job - so much peer observation and discussion because of the number of support staff and other professionals around - that many people don't realise how much they know and how skilled they are.

What sort of person do you need to be to work in a special school? Lynn Loader from Glyne Gap school in Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex, believes that a good sense of humour and tolerance are essential qualities. But Jason Todd, an advanced skills teacher at St Giles special school in the London borough of Croydon, has a word of warning: "Simply having experience of working with young people with special needs doesn't necessarily engender the right attitudes. A saintly do-gooding philosophy is not helpful."

On the other hand, a teacher who applied for a job at Michael Tippett used words such as "retarded" and "mongoloid". She wasn't offered the job.

Gaynor Eames taught for five years in mainstream before making the move to Brent Knoll. "I think you need to develop your skills in delivering the curriculum effectively in a mainstream setting before developing your skills further with pupils with SEN. Some people make the move earlier - even NQTs," she says.

Odette Small, who has worked as an English teacher in mainstream schools in Newham and Jamaica, is spending her last term of induction at Michael Tippett school, and feels well supported. She has found a passion for teaching a class of six key stage 3 students, with three assistants. Sounds like heaven - it's not.

Don't go to a special school for an easy life. You'll be trying to teach students with the most challenging needs, the least predictable behaviour, who make the slowest progress. You always have to be on the ball, it's impossible to coast. Emotionally, it's tough working with children who have degenerative illnesses, and coping with death.

James Allen from Watergate school in the London borough of Lewisham, loves taking students to the London Youth Games but confesses to missing "having a team that can win".

Jason Todd finds staff meetings a bit quiet. "I miss those boisterous but good-natured arguments we had in a comprehensive," he says.

But all in all, most teachers love the chance to really be child-centred.

Mr Allen enjoys the flexibility, which often comes from the lack of Department for Education and Skills guidance about how initiatives like the literacy hour should be implemented in special schools.

Lori, a poster on the special educational needs part of the TES website staffroom says: "Being in special schools is fantastic; there is a real sense of community and a caring from the staff. Everyone is there because they love the job. The children are fantastic and each one is an individual and so very different. The steps the children make are small but magical."

Planning is tough. Even with small classes, history teacher Mr Todd has students on track to get A* at GCSE, and others who can't read. He finds this challenge extraordinarily creative and loves thinking of dynamic ways to get hard to reach children learning and relishes problems such as how to teach the Reformation to a child who is profoundly deaf and blind? He also enjoys having time to change behaviour rather than just trying to manage it.

The chances of becoming an advanced skills teacher are three times higher in special schools, and 3.72 per cent of teachers in special schools are ASTs compared with only 1.2 per cent in mainstream.

Mr Todd thinks this is because "in a special school, if you want to fly, you can".

Jon Sharpe thinks that special schools are developing their support for mainstream schools, which gives individuals plenty of evidence for the AST standards. "Special schools are deeply committed to continued professional development and heads see the training and development of ASTs as key in retaining and rewarding the very best teachers," he says.

But advanced skills teacher James Allen says: "Special ed teaching isn't easier or harder - it's just different. It's teaching - and wherever you do it, it's bloody hard!"

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