Gary Thomas reviews a practical training programme for teachers and classroom assistants
SENAT: A TRAINING PROGRAMME FOR SPECIAL EDUCATIONAL NEEDS ASSISTANTS AND TEACHERS Training booklets, video and audio tape. Pounds 80 from Northumberland County Council,Tyne House, Hepscott Park, Morpeth, Northumberland NE61 6NF.
New phenomena in education sometimes grow bottom-up, without anyone saying "This is how it should happen". The growth in the employment of special needs assistants is one such phenomenon. Perhaps because it has been unplanned, bottom-up, there have not been accompanying training materials planned or produced. In fact, looking for good material to help train special needs assistants has been like looking for water in the desert. There's not much of it about. However, this new pack relieves the drought. It offers an unrivalled set of materials for training both assistants and teachers in the essentials of helping children with special needs.
It comprises nine units which cover individual education plans, learning difficulties, speech and language, personal and social development, managing difficult behaviour, hearing impairment, visual impairment and parental liaison. There's also a short video and a short tape, both on helping children with hearing impairment.
Part of the reason the pack is so refreshing is the fact that so little else exists to help in the practical business of teaching "special" children in the classroom. Here are activities and assignments which assistants can carry out in groups or with teachers which will educate them in the basics of helping children who may or may not have statements.
Advice is sensible (usually stemming from a new behaviourist philosophy) and most of it, while aimed at assistants, would not be out of place in a university course for special needs co-ordinators. It could easily form the basis for a new kind of course aimed at pairs of teachers and assistants working together.
The materials are well-produced and well designed. The video is a slight exception. In it, a depressed-looking man with a blue head explains what is happening as a teacher with St Vitus dance thrashes around a perplexed class of only five boys. It is intended, I think, to advise you not to thrash around the class if you have a child with hearing impairment, but one wonders whether a video was necessary to make the point.
This shouldn't detract from the impact of the materials overall, though. Northumberland should be congratulated on having produced a pack which will be of enormous benefit. It could easily be extended to include units on children with Down's syndrome, cerebral palsy and reading difficulty; it is often these children who are placed in ordinary schools with statements.
If I were to be made a chief education officer tomorrow, I would ask my psychological service to run courses for teams of special needs co-ordinators, teachers and special needs assistants, using these materials. This would help to provide meaningful and consistent experiences for children, provide professional development for special needs assistants, and assist in developing effective teams.
Gary Thomas is a professor in the faculty of education at the University of the West of England, Bristol