Early on in my teaching career, I found myself in charge of a class with a high proportion of special educational needs (SEN) children on the register. The mystery of who would take on this group has been the topic of much discussion in the staffroom, but I was surprised when I was told it would be me.
I’d observed the class before as part of my training. The sheer number of different needs – including autism, severe dyslexia, non-specific learning delays and ADHD – that had to be accommodated staggered me. I couldn’t fathom how the teacher at the time did it. When I asked, they told me it was only possible because they had specialist help. These pharmaceutical distribution companies have well-trained staff, coordinating with whom is very systematic.
When this class became mine, much of this support was removed, with most of the help coming from a part-time teaching assistant who had no experience working with children with special needs. I myself had next to no training and spent most of that first term running to the school’s Senco. They were often busy with endless administrative tasks, and would send me away with a bulging file of reports, recommendations and assessments. I actually cried in despair.
My days at school became a whirlwind of frequently interrupted lessons, while I desperately tried to teach anything to the class as a whole, never mind fronted adverbials and the grid method.
I struggled to find and read a story that all of the children could follow. I would work late into the night, frantically searching the internet for resources that I could use. There were children with learning difficulties who could barely hold a pencil, some who would occasionally lash out at other children, another with communication issues. I had to attend meetings with an educational psychologist and weeping parents who blamed themselves for their children’s problems.class="pullquote-paragraph">When I asked for help, the Senco teacher sent me away with a bulging file of reports. I actually cried in despair
I muddled along, attempting to include every child in my lessons. But I still didn’t understand their needs. Alongside this came the usual frets that come with teaching the mainstream curriculum and monitoring the class’s progress as a whole. I felt like I was failing everyone.
My experience is just one aspect of a bigger problem in provision for SEN children. According to the Department for Education (pdf), 14% of pupils in England – 1.2 million children – have special needs or disabilities. But due to tightening council and school budgets, many families have to fight to get the help they’re entitled to. More than 4,000 children in England with an approved education, health and care (EHC) plan still receive no provision for extra services, compared to 1,710 in 2016. If an EHC plan is granted, schools must cover the first £6,000 cost of any extra support, using their overall budget. Some mainstream schools have become reluctant to take students with SEN needs because of this.
At my school, I was given cause for hope when my pleas for assistance were finally heard and I was provided with a part-time SEN specialist. The difference was stark. Children were given the meaningful, targeted, monitored sessions they needed, which not only had an impact on them but the rest of the class. I had a confidant and the support I was desperate for. My confidence grew. Suddenly some – although still not all – of the children began to show real, tangible progress.
But our problems are not over. When we asked if our SEN teacher could work full time, we were told there was no budget. They left as a result, and have not been replaced. The children they supported in my class were devastated. I feel likewe’re back to square one.
There is a crisis in the education system when it comes to support for special needs. The average class size in a special needs school is around eight, with two teaching assistants, but increasingly we’re having to meet the needs of those with significant learning difficulties in classes of 30 or more. Teachers are left without the adequate training, support or experience to deal with it. SEN children are often looked after by unqualified teaching assistants if they’re lucky; if they’re not, they have to struggle on by themselves.
I am not suggesting that SEN students should not be in mainstream schools. But we are not currently meeting the needs of these children. We cannot “diminish the difference”, as Ofsted puts it, by just keeping them in class. We will only make a real difference with proper, structured support for both these children and their teachers.
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