We were nervous. It was May 2017 and our students were about to take their English GCSE. The eight wonderful young people in front of us all faced significant special educational needs and disability (SEND) barriers, and just two years ago we had doubted that they would even be entered for these exams. At the time, we didn’t want to set them up for failure – but nor did we want to underestimate their potential. So we made a decision to try something new.
Our work up to that point had suggested that we had made the right decision. These hard-working pupils had been the first to go through a new approach to teaching in the school based on a partnership model involving the pair of us: a teacher and a speech and language therapist (Salt).
Early indications were that it had been a massive success. But the exams would tell us for sure if the scheme had achieved the result we’d hoped for.
Fast-forward to August, and the best news arrived: all had passed their GCSE, three at the government’s standard pass of a 4. So what exactly was the root of their success? A little bit of action research was a major part of the puzzle.
Stage 1: The plan
Our inner-London academy has a wide range of students, and with its emphasis on inclusion for all, as well as the limited availability of specialist provision in our borough, a high number of pupils have SEND (including those with education, health and care plans). But we are in a very fortunate position in that the academy buys in a full-time Salt (Natacha) from the NHS.
As noted by MP John Bercow in his Bercow: ten years on review of speech and language services, “In school, the sheer amount of language can be overwhelming, especially if teaching staff are unclear on how best to support language in the classroom.”
This was certainly the case for some of our students. So to overcome these issues, we set out to see whether “partnership teaching” between the Salt and a teacher (Charlotte, who teaches English) could benefit the students who needed support most. The teacher and the Salt would share planning and delivery, but also develop each other’s knowledge and skills. The result, we hoped, would be holistic practitioners delivering a more cost-effective and wider-reaching approach than other models.
The secondary Salt team in the borough of Camden, London, already had a strong approach and ethos about partnership teaching for shorter-term projects with mainstream cohorts, and we were keen to build on that. We knew that the students’ language and communication skills were significantly below the level expected for their age, but also that they had previously responded positively to Salt intervention.
We felt that it was important for them to access the curriculum, so withdrawing them to receive an intervention at this point did not seem appropriate. Indeed, the students expressed a wish to remain in their lessons.
By using this model, the students could develop their skills and access a curriculum that met their needs.
Stage 2: The set-up
Putting the plan into action began with the selection of a group of eight students who presented with significant SEND across all four categories of need. They would not have coped with the pace and content of a typical GCSE class – they needed something different; something tailor-made.
We had the full support of the head of English and SEND coordinator, who recognised the need for this group to experience the English curriculum in an adapted way.
Inclusion was something that we were careful to address – these pupils would be taught separately, but we saw the small-group approach as a doorway to inclusion.
When we did year-group activities, such as directing and acting scenes from Lord of the Flies (face paint essential), our students took part. When we had a year-group introduction to poetry, they were certainly part of the activities.
For the rest of the time, we carefully planned out a weekly lesson structure, to which we stuck carefully, to provide stability and certainty to the students and to make our team-teaching easier. Then, in weekly planning meetings, we devised a “personalised”, highly differentiated curriculum for the group – with a heavy focus on oracy.
A typical lesson began with a visual schedule running through each skill the student was required to demonstrate throughout the lesson, such as listening, thinking, writing and speaking. For a poetry lesson, we would begin with a Salt task aimed at developing a specific area of language; for example, parts of speech or higher-level language (inference and prediction), often related to the content of the lesson.
Next, we would jointly lead a section on the key vocabulary, beginning with students self-rating their understanding of the words before we launched into teaching. When covering each word, we used “word maps” – ensuring not only that the students had a firm grounding in the definitions of the key words and phrases, but also knowledge of the sound structure of the word, word type, similar words, and how to use the word in a sentence.
Up next was class reading and annotation, including information about context, led by both teacher and Salt. This was followed by independent thinking time for the students to generate and ask questions they had about the story, structure or content of the poem (this was led by the teacher). We would usually finish with an “exit pass” activity in which students had to summarise one aspect of their learning before leaving.
Planning and delivering the lessons in this way meant that, regardless of who was leading each activity, the partner always knew what was being covered and why.
The common thread running through the set-up and initial development of the partnership was the trust we placed in each other’s professional expertise. We didn’t always agree.
Sometimes, Charlotte thought a Salt task was too simplistic. Sometimes, Natacha thought a task was overcomplicated or used language that was inaccessible. This could easily have led to disagreement or grumblings of “Why doesn’t she get it?” behind each other’s backs. But we were committed to listening to each other and to trying things out.
That didn’t mean we ignored the problems we perceived; rather, instead of assuming the other person was ignorant, we assumed that the ignorance was our own.
We’d explain why we thought it was too hard or too easy, and the other would explain their own rationale. This would usually result in some kind of compromise, such as, “What if we took this matching resource and we followed it up with the same process, but using Lord of the Flies quotations?” or, “Let’s make this task more visual and simplify the language.”
Stage 3: Assessing the outcome
We embarked on this project with a clear goal: to provide the students in the class with the skills required to access and engage with the world around them to the best of their abilities. Each of the students passed their English GCSEs, but, perhaps more importantly, they were much more able to successfully and eloquently engage with their “more able” peers, showing a marked improvement compared with their younger selves.
There’s no denying it: having two highly qualified professionals with one class is costly. But the specific expertise of the Salt combined with in-depth English pedagogy was the cornerstone of the approach and the curriculum we developed through joint planning and delivery. The benefits extended beyond this class alone, too. The approach was adopted for the following two cohorts and will be continued this year.
This year, the second cohort of students passed with great results, showing progress that perhaps wouldn’t have been possible without this strategy. Furthermore, the strategies that were developed and piloted were adopted across the English department and have also permeated throughout the school; for example, in vocabulary teaching and memory strategies.
Not only that, but the initiative paved the way for the development of a whole-school oracy and literacy strategy, led by a member of the senior leadership team, which has effectively raised standards in these areas this past academic year.
We completely understand that budgets are a constraint, but there’s a moral imperative to spend money on our most vulnerable students. In most cases, this sort of class will have several students with EHCPs so there is funding available for projects such as these.
There is a question that needs answering in mainstream schools: can we find the time to input life skills and values, just as specialist provision would? Our answer is a resolute yes. In fact, we feel this was the single most significant impact that we noted. The students left school equipped to have discussions, to have opinions on issues broader than just Golding or Shakespeare or Dickens. They left ready to be citizens of the world, with the spoken and written communication needed for their future education and employment.
We would urge anyone to replicate and improve on approaches such as these.
Charlotte Junker is an English teacher. Natacha Capener is a specialist speech and language therapist
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