Make special needs training a priority

4th January 2008 at 00:00

It is heartening at one level to hear of a group of Assembly Members declaring that all children who are experiencing difficulty with reading at the age of six years should be assessed to see if they are dyslexic.

As far back as 1971, Maurice Chazan and Alice Laing at Swansea University advocated early intervention to help children we now refer to as having emotional and behavioural difficulties. Early intervention of course is the key to helping any child whatever the difficulty may be. If it can take place earlier than at six years of age then better still.

The perennial problem with the whole special education field has been underfunding. So many times I've heard politicians at different levels insisting that SEN would receive adequate funding and would not be marginalised. Workers in the field, of course, can testify to the contrary. Is this another case of political posturing?

Sometimes, sadly, money that has been earmarked for SEN has been diverted to other projects within schools. Increasingly too, as a cost-cutting exercise, I see learning support assistants being used to work with SEN children when appropriately qualified teachers should be employed.

Providing extra funding for more teachers to acquire the necessary skills or providing teacher-training opportunities to many of the excellent LSAs who do a valiant job under difficult circumstances would be steps in the right direction. But a far more fundamental rethink is what's really required.

When I undertook a course several years ago on specific learning difficulties, the SEN adviser responsible agreed with me that the course content should form a part of initial teacher-training. It seemed absurd that teachers had to wait until they had years of experience before being taught something so fundamental. Inadequate initial teacher-training contributes consistently to the failure of schools to identify children with difficulties early enough and for effective remediation to take place.

If initial teacher trainees, especially at primary level, were given a thorough grounding in special needs, including dyslexia, then so many would be avoided. New teachers would be far better equipped to call in expert help.

The cry from some powerful "experts" is to reduce the amount of time spent on teacher-training. This is the opposite of what needs to happen and will obviously reduce the amount of appropriate course content even further.

How ridiculous that our educational system blindly contributes to the gross underachievement of so many young people. Intelligent and talented children, who have difficulty with literacy, become frustrated and develop low self-esteem. Some seek to hide their lack of attainment through unacceptable behaviour and get excluded.

We fail to provide these young people with an opportunity to make valuable contributions to the society of tomorrow.

Rhydwyn Ifan is a supply teacher with more than 30 years' teaching experience in England and Wales.

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