If you are a mainstream teacher, when was the last time you visited a special school? When was the last time you talked to a special-school teacher? Do you even know where your local special school is?
You would hope most teachers would have at least some contact with specialist provision in their local area, but the reality is that not enough is being done to ensure this happens, while the pressures of the job of teaching can make such contact logistically difficult.
Yet, if we are to truly have an inclusive system in which all students get the best education possible, then getting over these hurdles will be key. Collaboration between the specialist and mainstream sectors is the way to improve and strengthen support for pupils with SEND in whichever type of school they are taught.
The simplest way for this to happen would be to have reviews of SEND provision carried out by the specialist school in the mainstream schools, and vice versa. As part of this process, parents should also be involved. In doing this, you would be bringing together different perspectives as to what may work best. This would support the ongoing exchange of knowledge that is so vital when looking to improve SEND practice.
Currently, outreach provision is too often characterised by the “Houston, we have a problem” approach to early intervention, with things reaching crisis point before support is sought. This is rarely in the interests of the child, nor indeed the staff.
Instead, we need to move to a point where outreach is seen as a proactive relationship with those who hold SEND expertise, one that ensures a little-and-often approach to securing improvement within the school rather than the crisis-led search for expertise beyond the school.
In addition to this regular review process, we should make better use of the skillset within specialist provision. One way to do this would be for multi-academy trusts or school partnerships to buy in the time of special-school staff. These staff members would have defined allocations of time to work with the other schools within the partnership. One of the duties of these staff members would be co-teaching with mainstream colleagues. This would begin to ensure outreach-based professional development was embedded in the classroom, shaping practice within the context in which it is to be delivered.
There are, no doubt, many other ways of facilitating these partnerships, both formal and informal, and we should explore as many as we can.
However you approach the development of partnership, the focus should be on long-term improvement if we are to ensure that every child gets access to the educational opportunities they require. Taking a step towards developing communities of schools that collectively support a community of children, and the active sharing of the knowledge that exists in both the mainstream and specialist sectors, would, I think, be one of our best hopes of ensuring that this ambition was realised.
Simon Knight is special-school leader and a national SEND leader at Whole School SEND