The one in five revolution

24th September 2004 at 01:00
Attitudes to special needs have come a long way in 40 years. No one knows that better than Jean Salt (right). Susannah Kirkman meets the new president of Nasen.

For the first time in her life, Jean Salt will be taking a holiday during term time this year. The new president-elect of the National Association for Special Educational Needs (Nasen) is retiring after almost 40 years in teaching.

Salt has seen enormous changes during her career. When she trained as a primary teacher, there were no B Ed courses, so she studied for a three-year teaching certificate. Her first class held 45 eight-year-olds.

"Looking back, there were several children with significant special needs, but there were no extra resources - you just had to get on with it," she says.

There was no maternity leave either, and she had to leave her job when she was six months pregnant with her first child. "You weren't expected to return after the birth," she says. "It was frowned-upon to work if you had a young child."

Undaunted, when her younger son was 18 months-old, Salt took up home tutoring. Her first pupil was school phobic and, as a result, she began to develop an interest in special needs. On her return to a school job, she became a secondary remedial support teacher, studying for a part-time B Ed.

At that time, there was no opportunity to focus on special needs in a B Ed and she relied heavily on the professional back-up and training offered by the National Association for Remedial Education (Nare), a forerunner of Nasen.

"The association was such a support, particularly when we were implementing the Warnock Report," Salt says. "The idea that one in five pupils had special needs was revolutionary.

"Like Nasen, Nare was based on branches, which means you have the chance to talk to other local teachers and ask, 'How are you managing this in your school?'"

The Warnock Report in 1978 and inclusion both brought dramatic changes to Hardenhuish school in Chippenham, where she has been head of special needs and then Senco for the past 20 years. "When I arrived, pupils with moderate learning difficulties were taught in a separate unit on the same campus," she explains. "One of my tasks was to integrate them and to introduce statementing."

Another effect of Warnock was that conditions such as dyslexia, which had been ignored, were now recognised. Hardenhuish set up a special centre for pupils with statements for severe dyslexia.

Salt regards this as one of the most rewarding aspects of her career. "You see 11-year-olds coming in with reading ages of seven, and low self-esteem, but they learn to feel good about themselves," she says.

"Some will leave with a C grade at English GCSE and three As at A-level.

Originally, dyslexic children took no public exams, but now they all go on to college and one former pupil has become a doctor."

She believes that autism is the new dyslexia for mainstream schools.

"People are comfortable with obvious disabilities such as visual or physical impairment, but there is a lot of work to be done in educating schools about hidden disabilities such as Asperger's syndrome."

For inclusion to work properly, the resources and support must be adequate, she believes. But one of her main presidential themes is that special needs practitioners can make a difference and that the Government must continue to listen to them. She points to Nasen's involvement in revising the national curriculum and the development of P-levels (assessments for pupils below level 1) and classroom differentiation. As well as advising the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority on Sats, Nasen members are working with the Association for Science Education on a CD-Rom for pupils with special needs.

Another of Salt's aims is to widen the involvement of parents and pupils in education. "Nasen is looking at what it can offer parents who are members," she says. "Communication has improved; in the old days, families used to receive a letter telling them that their child was being sent to a special school, but some parents are still not confident about coming into school and feel that they must battle to get what their child needs."

When parents get involved at school, it can make a huge difference, as a volunteer reading project has shown at Hardenhuish. A daily reading programme using parents has produced reading gains of 18 months to two years for many dyslexic students.

As far as pupils are concerned, Salt would like to see them becoming involved in annual reviews, something she is already encouraging at Redland primary school in Chippenham, Gloucestershire where she is special needs governor.

Finally, she is keen to promote the sharing of good practice among teachers. "We no longer have the closed classroom door, when no-one came in unless there was a riot going on, but we need to be more confident about sharing our expertise on a national level."

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