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Training for special needs remains 'threadbare'

Almost half the teachers of children with severe learning difficulties have no specialist knowledge or training, while the number of teachers training to work with the deaf has halved over the past seven years, according to a new report.

The study by the Special Educational Needs Training Consortium (SENTEC) paints a picture of a threadbare and fragmented system for training teachers in all aspects of identifying and dealing with special needs - a system that has been overtaken by the requirements of the 1993 legislation and the Code of Practice on special educational needs.

Student teachers wishing to specialise in, for example, deafness or severe learning difficulties, used to take an extra year after their post-graduate certificate in education course. Since 1984 they have had to go back to take the course after some years' teaching practice. Fewer teachers are electing to go back as other interests and commitments intervene and schools are often reluctant to release their best teachers for a year.

Teachers are also finding it increasingly difficult to get funding to do the course. In 1989, 153 teachers qualified as specialists in the deaf; this year just 83 have done so. The total percentage of Grants for Education Support and Training) money spent on severe learning difficulties fell from 18 per cent in 1993-94 to 10 per cent in 1994-95. Spending on dyslexia and emotional and behavioural difficulties, however, rose significantly. The report suggests that these proportional shifts in spending raise serious doubts about the mechanisms for deciding priorities.

The report also points to difficulties in covering basic special needs training in all initial teacher training courses, mainly due to lack of time. Therefore many newly qualified teachers taking up their first posts are unfamiliar with their responsibilities under the code of practice and ignorant about the nature of the various special needs they are bound to encounter. Yet, according to the report, interest among trainee teachers themselves remains high and special needs courses are oversubscribed where they do exist.

Under the code of practice, every school has to appoint a special educational needs co-ordinator, but there is no nationally agreed standard of knowledge or skill these teachers should meet, nor any agreed form of training. The absence of specialist knowledge is particularly acute in primary schools, says SENTEC's honorary secretary, Malcolm Garner, although it is generally acknowledged that the earlier difficulties are identified, the better the prognosis for the child. "It's certainly the case that there are many special needs co-ordinators out there who know nothing about special needs," he said.

The report calls for a new national body to oversee and monitor training in special needs. This should then establish the knowledge and skill teachers would require across the vast range of types and degree of special need. Funding should be "more coherent" and training money targeted where it is needed most, with LEAs and schools submitting bids for it.

Professional Development to Meet Special Educational Needs is available at Pounds 4 from Malcolm Garner at SENTEC, Flash Ley Resource Centre, Hawksmoor Road , Stafford ST17 9DR

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