By Sally KcKeown
Policy Exchange logoLast week a senior secondary teacher told me that his school has no pupils with dyslexia. This may be true. However, given that estimates from dyslexia organisations show that 1 child in 10 has dyslexic tendencies, it is unlikely.

So I was particularly interested in a new report from research organisation Policy Exchange – supported by NASEN, the national body for special needs – which reinforces the view that many teachers have limited awareness of special needs and are not able to cater effectively for young people who need specialist support.

Teacher Expertise for Special Educational Needs. Filling in the Gaps, by Ralph Hartley, claims that children with special needs are seriously underperforming:

  • For pupils aged 11 in 2008, 84.6 per cent with no SEN achieved the expected level (according to the National Curriculum) in English and Maths. Only 33.7 per cent of pupils with SEN achieved this.
  • Children with SEN are twice as likely to be persistently absent from school.
  • Children with SEN are 8 times as likely to be excluded from school.

This is against a backdrop of considerable investment which is unlikely to continue. Children with special needs represent 20.5 per cent of all children in our schools and received £5.1 billion last year in additional expenditure

Key findings

NASEN’s survey of 45 special schools, covering a wide range of impairment showed that:

  • 73 per cent found it hard or very hard to recruit staff with the requisite skills whereas only 5 per cent found it easy. On average, only 52 per cent of school staff had a qualification in SEN and just 30 per cent had a qualification which was relevant to the particular needs of the children they were teaching. On average, per school, only a third of teaching support staff had a qualification in SEN.
  • Many universities and training institutions offer as little as one afternoon dedicated to SEN in the entire duration of an initial teacher training course.
  • Many respondents felt that expertise now lay in schools and not in external institutions so continual professional development was vital. However, some respondents felt there was insufficient time and money for continuing professional development (CPD).
  • Teachers need easy access within their school to "advanced" knowledge.

Key recommendations

  • Since all teachers will teach children with SEN at some time in their career, they will need a certain basic understanding of SEN so that they can identify and deal with problems in a productive manner. Basic training in SEN would also mean that all teachers could deal more effectively with high incidence special needs.
  • The requirements of Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) should include a section dedicated to SEN alone; a requirement to understand theories of child development; basic knowledge of all major areas of impairment; knowledge regarding the identification of special needs within these broad categories of impairment; and the ability to adapt the curriculum in their subject areas in relation to the key areas of impairment.
  • Training school status should be offered to all outstanding special schools and/or specialist special schools. Special schools with training school status should be enabled to seek accredited status for the provision of specialist qualifications in their field.

Anyone who has worked in the field of special needs will recognise that these issues are not new. The report points out that: “Many in the sector subscribe to the view that the situation amounts to 'groundhog day', with the government perpetually recognising the need for action, without ever taking it.” It remains to be seen whether Filling in the Gaps triggers positive action or just more rhetoric.

Teacher Expertise for Special Educational Needs: Filling in the Gaps was published by Policy Exchange on July 20, 2010. It can be downloaded free of charge here.

Sally McKeownSally McKeown is a freelance writer and is an expert in special needs and inclusion