A number of reports published over the last decade have found that, despite modest increases in funding, students with Special Educational Needs (SEN) in schools are not learning as productively as they can. In this article we outline the primary reasons for this, and provide information and resources to allow teachers and educators to upskill to better cater for students with diverse needs.
The fundamental reasons behind SEN students not being adequately catered for can be grouped under the following categories:
Under-resourcing in crucial areas which permit SEN students to be adequately catered for, such as provision of quiet areas and SEN-trained teaching assistants
A lack of teacher training and information about how to best work with and mentor such students
The difficulties in applying those techniques beneficial to SEN students in large and diverse classrooms.
To understand where we currently are, it is useful to look at the history of how schools have approached the teaching and social needs of SEN students up to this point. Schools specifically designed to manage the needs of SEN students have been around for over a century in the UK, albeit with mixed results. In 1978, The Warnock Report was published influencing the 1981 Education Act. Baroness Warnock’s report was a comprehensive review of such schools, concluding that they should be kept for students with complex educational and developmental needs and that “mainstream” schools meet the needs of all other students. The 1981 Education Act then integrated a large portion of students with SEN into mainstream schools with no extra school funding or teacher training. Baroness Warnock described the change as “far worse from 1988 onwards” for the affected students. In the 1997 Green Paper entitled Excellence For All Children Meeting Special Educational Needs, the government shifted their approach again, promoting “inclusive education” as championed by a UN statement on SEN in 1994.
This brings us on to the practicalities of accommodating the needs of SEN students who are included in large and diverse mainstream classrooms. Inclusivity is crucially different to integration, but it requires specific strategies to include students with SEN in the national curriculum and provide them with appropriate educational goals and support. Whilst, with training, this can be straightforward to plan and manage in a one-to-one homeschooling environment, or with small class sizes, in large classrooms, such integration without adequate strategies and support often means that teachers are forced to merely mix neurotypical and SEN students together, in the hope solutions will present themselves on their own. Inevitably, teachers resort to a form of instruction targeted at the median student’s level and learning preferences, leaving a significant proportion of the class under-supported or under-stimulated.
In the face of these complications it is incumbent on the knowledge and skills of the teacher to understand and manage the classroom in the best interests of all students, however there is a training-gap faced by many teachers when it comes to such skills. In many cases, educators in fact already possess some of the necessary skills and tactics to teach SEN students, but aren’t aware that these same ones apply. Training specifically for students with SEN generally encompasses the following principles, and can be seen as useful categories to define one’s thinking around professional development in this area:
Valuing students’ differences. These include creating a safe environment for students to communicate comfortably, and having high expectations for all children that are appropriate for each child.
Accessible curriculum. To do this, teachers must consider how students will engage with the subject matter and adapt their teaching accordingly. Use of digital technology and multi-sensory learning should be carefully considered based on the individual’s needs: what may be engaging for one student may be overwhelming for another. Adapting a plan of learning for a large and diverse classroom requires careful planning and adaptive behaviour based on real-time feedback. Such skills can be practised.
Didactic strategies. These are what mainstream teachers and tutors generally feel is beyond them. They involve maintaining a student’s attention, giving encouragement and rewards, being flexible with teaching and behaviour, having clear routines and instructions, and allowing thinking time. These are all taught in classic teacher training. What is not expressed is that SEN students are just further on a spectrum requiring the same strategies. For example, SEN students might need more thinking time, more encouragement, different rewards, and more reminders about rules and processes. For a classroom teacher, implementing different strategies for different students within the same classroom naturally presents considerable challenges; private tutors on the other hand, can adapt their entire approach to best suit the needs of their student, taking the time to figure out what works and what doesn’t.
Naturally, aside from the benefits in working with SEN students directly, such teacher training should highlight how these learned skills can be just as useful for any student they may come across, since the ability to adapt standards and practices to best suit individual students is a universally applicable quality for an educator to possess.
Unfortunately, Continued Professional Development (CPD) courses for teachers within school often favour generic behaviour management and subject-specific training, overlooking SEN, and failing to acknowledge that skills promoted in SEN training are in fact applicable to all students.
For teachers and tutors looking to upskill in SEN training, there are a variety of free seminars offered by respected institutions, which are listed below:
Matilda Pecover is an SEN specialist and a teacher of Mathematics and Psychology. She holds a Masters in Education from the University of Glasgow, specialising in Educational Policy and Modern Educational Thinking, a Postgraduate Diploma in Maths Education from UCL, a Graduate Diploma in Law from City University, and a BA from the University of Oxford in Psychology, Philosophy and Linguistics.