Trained to crack the special code

28th June 1996 at 01:00
Peter Mittler on the support that every school's special needs co-ordinator deserves

Every school should by now have its SENCO or special needs coordinator . It should also, according to the special needs code of practice, have a detailed SEN policy which covers arrangements for in-service training.

The Teacher Training Agency has identified the training of SENCOs as one of its eight priorities. So what do SENCOs need by way of knowledge, understanding, skills and attitudes? What training and support is available for them and what are their chances of receiving it?

From the National Union of Teachers' survey of more than 2,000 SENCOs, carried out by Ann Lewis and her colleagues, we know that, in addition to all their other duties, SENCOs are themselves providing a great deal of school-based training and that their colleagues value this. Another role not mentioned by the code of practice is that of ensuring that newly-qualified and student teachers are introduced to the school's SEN policy and practice.

Education authorities have also given SENCOs a great deal of training on the code of practice; they have generally rated this as "adequate". A report from the Office for Standards in Education on the implementation of the code, based on visits to 62 schools, highlighted the need for more focused training for SENCOs.

Once information about the code has been disseminated, SENCOs need training in specific aspects of their work - assessment, individual education plans, liaising with parents, external agencies and so on.

Neither the OFSTED report nor the NUT survey provide information on the training that SENCOs themselves actually receive in readiness for their many roles and responsibilities - its length, content, mode, whether it is assessed or can be accredited towards an award-bearing qualification. Indeed, OFSTED reports suggest that SENCOs are so busy training and supporting others that little or no time is left for their own professional development.

The Special Educational Needs Training Consortium (SENTC) received Government funding to prepare a report* on the implications of the code for teacher training. The report is the culmination of two years of discussion by practitioners, voluntary and professional organisations and teacher trainers. It outlines the skills new teachers need to be able to identify and meet special needs in their classroom. It also sets out how these can be acquired in initial training and strengthened through the induction process.

It also provides guidelines on the understanding, knowledge and skills required by all serving teachers in all sectors in the light of their new responsibilities under the code.

Finally, it addresses the staff development needs of all teachers with designated responsibilities for pupils with special needs. Specialist groups have identified competencies for SENCOs, members of learning support services, as well as staff working with pupils with specific needs related to autism, emotional and behavioural difficulties, hearing impairment, moderate and severe learning difficulties, multi-sensory impairment, and so on.

The full report lists some 30 competencies needed by SENCOs. They fall into three categories: * Context: knowledge of the code of practice; factors inside and outside the school which affect the development of pupils; criteria for evaluating learning.

* Curriculum design, access and delivery: knowledge, understanding and skills concerned with identification, assessment, recording, individual educational planning, access to the national curriculum, range of teaching strategies, supporting and advising colleagues, literacy, numeracy, study skills.

* Managing professional responsibilities: developing school and service plans and policies for SEN; working with parents, other teachers and professionals; advisory and consultancy skills; preventive and intervention strategies; promoting staff development.

The SENTC report contains suggestions for staff development for all teachers in the light of the code. Education authorities, schools and governing bodies have a responsibility to ensure that SENCOs are given time for training and better management support than they have received so far in carrying out their responsibilities.

The Teacher Training Agency and the Department for Education and Employment in their turn should ensure that SENCOs receive the training and support which matches the vital importance of their tasks and responsibilities.

Professor Peter Mittler is based at the University of Manchester and is chair of theSENTC working party on professional development to meet special educational needs. *Copies of the full SENTC report Professional development to meet special educational needs are available from Dr Malcolm Garner, Flash Ley Resource Centre, Hawksmoor Road, Stafford ST17 9DR. Cost Pounds 4, including p p, payable in advance. Cheques should be made payable to SENTC.

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