It’s not often that I am asked my opinion about anything much. This does not mean that am I not entirely free with my opinions with anyone who cares to listen, but there you are. So it was with utter surprise that I received an email inviting me to a meeting at the Department for Education to discuss SEND and Inclusion in relation to Initial Teacher Training. I don’t feel like an expert by any means; I’m not in a position of leadership in a school. I don’t even have my own class at the moment. But I do work with a lot of teachers, I have worked in a number of schools over the years and I most definitely have a vested interest.
Unfortunately for me I can’t go to the meeting – I seem to have been to London rather a lot lately – so I thought I would share my ideas here, for what they are worth. If you have any you would like to add, please put them in the comments.
- What are the essentials that training teachers need to know or have experienced by the end of their training?
Looking at it from the point of view of both a teacher and a parent, I think that trainee teachers need to be told about the sort of special educational needs and disabilities they are likely to come across over their careers. They need to know what the most common learning needs are and what the diagnoses mean. The information given needs to be up-to-date and they need to be given time to consider the damage labels cause, in the limitations they put on children through the lowering of adult expectations.
Students and new teachers need to be given time to think about the social model of disability, that is, that a person is disabled not so much by who they are as by the society (or school) that surrounds them, and the concept of removing barriers.
I often wonder to myself whether the behaviour of children and how we adults feel about it isn’t one of the most difficult things to analyse dispassionately. Believe it or not, it is only relatively recently that I have come across tools to do exactly this. How do you help an included child to stay in class? How do you help a young teacher, who may have very limited experience with children and young people, other than the time when they were little themselves, to find their way?
When working with children with SEND, teachers need to understand that they will be working with a whole load of other people, and they need to know how to go about doing this. Do they know what their responsibilities are towards TAs, for instance? Do they know how the working relationship is supposed to work? Have they had training on how to deploy other adults in the classroom? Are we fitting them out with an understanding of how to communicate, and how to find systems that will work and not overwhelm them with complexity?
Do new teachers know anything at all about the other agencies they may be working with, especially when they have a child with an EHCP? Can we prepare them by teaching them who does what and where they work? Teachers need to know that other professionals do not possess magic wands, so they need to know about the kind of advice they are likely to get and from who – and where to go for it when they need it.
It seems to me that class teachers need to understand their legal responsibilities as far as the Code of Practice is concerned. What must they do? How much do they need to understand? Before they start teaching vulnerable children, they need to have practiced setting meaningful, SMART targets. They need to know how to organise targets for the children in their class – how to make completing the paperwork meaningful rather than for the sake of it. They need to know what the four categories of SEND are – and what inclusion actually is in terms of rights, rather than the warm glow it gives you to be able to say what a welcoming person you are.
There have been times in my mothering life when sending my Sam to school has been particularly painful. There have been teachers, those with more experience of life – and school – who have been happy to open their doors, but, sadly, there have also been those who have not. There have been times when the relationship between home and school has been characterised by conflict and misunderstanding. This isn’t great for anyone, and new teachers need training on how to handle those times when it’s not easy, how to listen and understand that parental engagement with their child doesn’t always look like you think it might.
Teachers need to understand the journey that is child development – it shouldn’t be until they have their own children that they start to understand the various points that children may or may not have reached by the time they get to their class. They need to feel it, rather than know it, that a child being born at the end of August does not mean that they have SEN of some form or another. At the very least they need to know about early language, cognitive and physical development.
It doesn’t need to be massively detailed. So much inflexible thinking happens when we think we know it all. Teachers – young and old – need to know that there is always something new to be learned; that all children have it within themselves to surprise. What they do need to feel is that they have enough of a foundation of knowledge to make a start with confidence.
- How can this best be provided?
I think that the issue of teacher training is a particularly tricky one. When I trained, back in the long-distant past it was a B.Ed. or a PGCE. You followed the course for the allotted time and off you went. Now there seems to be a bajillion ‘routes into teaching’, and many of them are school-based on-the-job jobs. Leaving whether or not I think this is a good idea to one side, I think that however the training of a teacher is managed, SEND must be high on the list of priorities.
Teachers, and here I don’t just mean baby ones but all of us, need to get out of the schools we work/train in and go and visit as many settings as we possibly can. We need to see nurseries, and talk to the staff there about how they work. We need to visit primaries and secondaries, colleges even. We need to consider the points at which the children we teach leave us and always always work towards it. We need to know where those children have come from.
Mainstream teachers need to spend time in great special schools – they need to visit places that have a vision for children and young people with SEND that isn’t about a life of adult day care, that works towards giving them the dignity of working as an adult, having relationships as an adult, living as an adult.
When I was a young teacher, I couldn’t find a permanent post, and so I spend over a year on supply. I taught in a range of different schools and across the primary age ranges. I taught children on those days when you get a phone call first thing in the morning and make polite conversation with a head teacher while you are still in your pyjamas to those times when you are in for weeks and months at a time. I couldn’t have asked for a better training. During that year and a half I learned not only what to teach, but how.
And, as the years pass, we need to give our teachers continuing professional development and this needs to include SEND. The law has changed – how many teachers actually know what this means for them? If they work for an LA which has tried to keep things as close as possible to the old way of doing things, how are they to know? The idea that SEND is an area for specialists, for special schools or SENCOs needs to be challenged. Teaching children with SEND is for everyone.
Maybe the training for teachers needs to be longer. Maybe we need to give them more time to get to grips with what is a complex and demanding job. An academic year isn’t very long.