A "desperate" shortage of trained special educational needs (SEN) teachers is leading to vulnerable pupils underperforming in school, according to new research.
The SEN system is failing to support children because too many staff lack a basic understanding of learning difficulties, a report by the think-tank Policy Exchange has concluded.
The survey of special schools says that just 5 per cent found it easy to recruit teachers with the right training. Almost three-quarters of schools said they found it hard or very hard.
On average, just 39 per cent of teachers and support staff had any qualification in SEN, according to the survey. Only 30 per cent had a qualification directly relevant to the needs of the children they were teaching.
The report calls for the return of specialist initial training for SEN teachers, which was scrapped in the 1980s. It also recommends more coverage of SEN in PGCE and BEd courses, and more training for staff in mainstream schools.
Its author Ralph Hartley said money should be given to all teachers for continual professional development (CPD), and a larger amount to those in special schools and their support staff.
He is also calling for special schools to have training school status - which would allow them to train new teachers. This is banned as teachers have to complete at least part of their training in a mainstream school.
Almost twice as many special school teachers are aged over 50 compared to mainstream colleagues. And heads told Policy Exchange researchers that local authorities and the Government do not give them funds needed to train existing staff for the future.
Brian Lamb, chairman of the Special Educational Consortium, and Toby Salt, deputy chief executive of the National College, were asked by the previous government to investigate problems in the SEN system, with both recommending an overhaul of the training provided to teachers.
Sarah Teather, minister for children and families, is leading another review into SEN and has said she will use the findings of the Lamb and Salt reviews.
The Policy Exchange survey of 45 schools - including both special and mainstream schools - was conducted with the help of the National Association for Special Educational Needs (Nasen).
Nasen chief executive Lorraine Petersen said: "Every teacher is a teacher of SEN, we must invest in training for all to equip them with more expertise. Many don't have the tools they need and are just trying to survive.
"We should bring back specialist training routes, otherwise in five years' time we won't have any trained staff in special schools."
Around 1.6 million children have special educational needs in the UK, with 62 per cent of the 222,000 children with statements attending mainstream school.
Karen Rogers, head of Lampard Community School, a special school in Barnstaple, North Devon, said SEN training for all teachers should be reviewed.
"The pupils we were working with 10 years ago are in mainstream schools now. Our children have much more complex difficulties and they need really experienced staff," Mrs Rogers said.
"It's difficult for teachers in mainstream schools to get experience in special schools. We need to do more to link the two."
'It is ridiculous': TA seeks rule change for chance to specialise
Under current rules, it is not possible for trainee teachers to specialise only in special educational needs (SEN). Instead, all aspiring teachers must spend at least some of their initial training working in a mainstream school.
Toni Shapland, a teaching assistant at Lampard Community School, a special school in Barnstaple, north Devon, is calling for the rules to be changed.
With a degree in early childhood studies, Miss Shapland wants to train for qualified teacher status while retaining her job. But she cannot currently do her training unless she works in a mainstream school - which would mean giving up her post.
"This seems ridiculous; special schools are so different, so I can't see why I have to train in such a general way," she said.