Meet the latest challenge for every special needs teacher

27th November 2009 at 00:00
Premature children among those with complex needs who require more refined teaching methods

Schools need to develop fresh teaching methods to cater for a "new breed" of tens of thousands of pupils with new and "complex" learning difficulties, a Government adviser warned this week.

Increasing numbers of children are surviving very premature births, are disabled by substance and alcohol abuse during pregnancy, or have rare chromosomal disorders.

They are among a huge number of children with needs that the majority of schools do not yet know how to meet, according to Professor Barry Carpenter, associate director at the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT).

"There is an ever-increasing group of children with complex needs who do not fit the current range of learning environments, curriculum models, or teaching and learning approaches, and who are challenging our most skilled teachers," Professor Carpenter said.

But he added "help is at hand" through a new Government-funded #163;550,000 research project that he is heading. The project began last month and involves working with 12 special schools, 60 children and their teachers, parents and carers to develop teaching methods that can then be adopted by other schools across the country.

Complex learning difficulties have yet to be given a formal definition but include the growing number of pupils whose needs cross two traditional special educational needs (SEN) areas and require more sophisticated pedagogy to meet their potential.

Professor Carpenter gave the example of pupils who might need to be taught visually because they are autistic, but who also have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). He said the behaviour management strategies schools use for ADHD could conflict with the visual teaching.

Professor Carpenter said very premature babies would have been born before some of the normal "wiring" in their brain had developed, which meant teachers had to adapt their methods. "Their patterns of learning may be different to those we have previously known in children with learning difficulties," he said.

The two-year project, which was awarded to the SSAT after an open competition, will see 10 specialist advisers, including psychologists, working with the 12 schools.

The approaches they develop will be passed on to another 50 schools next autumn to test whether the methods are transferable.

Ed Balls, Schools Secretary, said: "It is important that we continue to support schools working with children with the most complex needs, and that we have sufficient staff using the most effective teaching strategies."

Professor Carpenter, who sits on the Prime Minister's Standing Commission on Carers, said: "We are in uncharted waters but we are looking at transforming the learning opportunities of these children."

For details about regional workships on complex needs contact


Pupils with complex learning difficulties include:

- Some of the estimated 1 per cent of UK children born with foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, caused by drinking during pregnancy.

- An estimated 60,000 pupils in England who have an autistic spectrum disorder and a mental health problem.

- A "significant" number of the 23,000 pupils already defined as having "severe" learning difficulties.

- Around 9,000 pupils defined as having "profound and multiple" learning difficulties.

- Children born before 26 weeks of pregnancy. Research says that 80 per cent of them now survive, but that more than half will have severe and complex disabilities.

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