It's good to talk

18th January 2008 at 00:00

Forget form-filling and listen to what other teachers have to say about pupil needs, urges Paul Blum.

Why does special needs education involve itself in so much displacement activity? Vital energy and valuable time that could be spent improving communication with mainstream teachers is given to producing vast paper or electronic trails of multiple pupil targets that are seldom used properly.

The Special Educational Needs Code of Practice advocates a unified approach to identifying and accommodating all pupils' special requirements. Those who don't respond to differentiation in the classroom might need additional or different provision. This might be extra teaching materials or different methods, and are recorded and monitored using an Individual Education Plan (IEP).

The plan is meant to offer help to teachers about the best ways of supporting the individual's difficulty. It outlines a personal programme with agreed targets for the pupil. The plan is monitored by the classroom teachers, with the help of the special needs co-ordinator (Senco).

As a secondary Senco and now a deputy headteacher, I think these plans are only an effective tool at primary school level, where one class teacher works with 30 pupils for most of the day. This enables the learning support department to work closely with one professional, to determine a sensible plan for a pupil. But at secondary school, most pupils have at least 10 subject teachers in different classrooms - each with their own teaching style and personality. It is difficult for a learning support department to create a coherent educational plan with so many people in so many places.

So how can a learning support department in a secondary find practical ways of communicating real skills and knowledge to the mainstream subject teachers?

- Talk to teachers about the needs of the pupil. Snatched, informal communication of a minute here and there is worth more than almost all the form-filling in my view. Quick bits of advice are invaluable, like which pupils could sit next to each other - one helping the other with reading or writing - or which pupils respond well to one-to-one followed by lots of praise.

- The Senco can make a big difference to what subject staff do in the classroom by training groups of teachers on "user-friendly" techniques. In our school, we have a speech and language project called Listen Ear to show teachers how best to communicate with pupils who have learning difficulties. This includes how to give explicit instructions that are simple and repetitive and act as a cueing device to get the pupils' attention, and also the best Qamp;A sessions - questions that require eitheror answers are likely to get a better response.

- Training needs to be carried out when a teacher is new to the school. But departments need refreshing on a regular basis. Being taught how to work with pupils with learning difficulties is an ongoing process.

- There is a place for good written advice and targets. Consider replacing IEPs with group advice sheets. If you are going to use a plan to describe strategies for reading intervention or speechlanguage problems, identify groups of pupils with the same types of difficulty in one class. This helps teachers focus on the real teaching issues.

Paul Blum is deputy headteacher at Islington Green School in London.

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