Special schools face tougher leadership problems than their mainstream counterparts because of a drastic shortage of special-needs training among the new generation of teachers, government-backed experts have warned.
A gradual erosion of much SEN training for new teachers means that there are few qualified staff to take over from special school leaders, according to the National College for School Leadership.
Lack of expertise puts extra pressure on the schools, where recruitment is traditionally more difficult. The NCSL said it also means that there is effectively no route straight into special schools for newly qualified teachers.
Deputy and assistant headteachers in special schools are also "noticeably" older than their colleagues in mainstream schools, and likely to retire at the same time as their headteachers, the study states.
This means training people for the top job will get harder, with school leaders unable to work with their immediate colleagues.
Need for development of talent
The NCSL report calls for special school staff to act now to develop a "long-term pipeline of leadership talent" and consider working more with other schools - including mainstream primaries and secondaries.
Ofsted has also said new teachers are not being properly trained to meet the needs of children with learning difficulties and disabilities. Inspectors have found courses do not devote enough time to SEN and instead pass responsibility to schools.
Between 2004 and 2007, special school vacancy rates were much higher than in primaries or secondaries, but they are now similar.
The NCSL research suggests many vacancies are being filled internally and staff in special schools are much more likely to be recruited from the local area.
Special-school headteachers are of a similar age to their mainstream colleagues, with 65 per cent aged over 50. But 55 per cent of deputy and assistant heads are aged over 50 compared with 46 per cent in secondary schools and 39 per cent in primaries.
The report predicts that, in future, special-school heads will have to recruit more often because the next generation of headteachers will be older, and says the "increasing shortfall" in SEN training will continue.
Many specialists achieved their qualifications through routes no longer available.
"Anecdotal evidence suggests that the number of staff in special schools enrolling on SEN courses has declined over the past five to 10 years and that staff who are applying to work in special schools for pupils with severe learning difficulties and profound and multiple learning difficulties are rarely qualified for that specialism," the report says.
The researchers said that special-school headteachers thought mainstream teachers could be effective SEN managers.
Lynn Greenwold, chair of the Professional Association of Teachers of Students with Specific Learning Difficulties, said she had been lobbying the Government about the need for more SEN coverage in initial teacher training for many years. "We are finding in a lot of areas that specialist knowledge held for generations is disappearing and not being replaced," she said.
Skills gone missing
Concerns about SEN skills have been raised repeatedly over the past decade.
A 2005 report by the then education and skills select committee said teachers were "struggling" with training and accused the Government of ignoring the issue.
MPs called for an urgent change to initial teacher training and continuing professional development.
A recent Audit Commission report found that teachers felt ill-equipped to meet the wide range of needs in today's classrooms.
The Training and Development Agency for Schools has developed SEN modules for trainees, but there are concerns many do not have time to take them during busy PGCE courses.