The Impact of Classroom Practice on Secondary School Children with Statements of Special Educational Needs
Chapter 1: Introduction
When I started my teaching career as a Music teacher 25 years ago I very soon realised that some pupils found it harder to learn than others and that in order to support them to learn the same things as their peers, I had to adapt my teaching to enable them to make sense of concepts others found easy. Skills that most children picked up easily had to be broken down into smaller tasks and practised more before they were able to achieve mastery. Soon I found this aspect of my work more interesting than teaching class music lessons. I wanted to understand why certain children found it difficult to learn and make progress, and develop skills to support them. I persuaded my head teacher to allow me to work part of my time in what was then called the remedial department providing additional Maths and English lessons to children who were withdrawn from other areas of the curriculum. This experience influenced my decision, many years later, to work full-time in special needs education.
Since then developments in education have brought us the National Curriculum (DES, 1988); the SEN Code of Practice (DfE, 1994) and Revised Code of Practice (DfES, 2001); the SEN Disability Discrimination Act, 2001 and any number of National Strategies (DCSF, 2008a, 2008b) to support teachers to identify pupils who have more difficulties than most in acquiring concepts and skills, and to use appropriate teaching strategies and approaches to meet the needs of these pupils. There is an explicit expectation that even pupils with profound and severe learning difficulties will achieve and make progress, albeit at a slower rate which might encompass
lateral rather than linear development (DCSF, 2008b). There is also an expectation that all teachers will develop strategies and approaches that enable them to teach all the pupils in their classrooms, as set out in the Inclusion Statement contained in the Revised National Curriculum (DfEE, 1999).
Despite this we are still grappling with how to provide appropriate educational opportunities for our more challenged children, particularly if we are to educate them alongside their peers in mainstream schools. One ‘solution’ has been to move away from the model of one teacher to one class, with teaching assistants employed in many schools to support pupils, particularly those with statements of special educational needs. My own experience as a special needs teacher who became a SENCO in 2001 led me to question how effectively teaching assistants can work when they are allocated to support specific pupils with statements of special needs, and additionally to consider the extent to which their support enables the inclusion of pupils with statements in the mainstream classroom.
A number of issues began to concern me. At a senior leadership level there did not appear to be a commitment to changing anything structurally within the school to support the use of this new group of professionals. I think this was partly because there was no tradition of using teaching assistants within the school other than to cover a few hours support a week as specified on individual children’s statements, provided externally by the Education Support Service (ESS). When the head teacher decided to buy out of this service to employ our own staff (both teaching assistants and specialist teachers) to reflect changes in the way the Local Authority funded statements, newly appointed teaching assistants were employed to work within the special needs department. Although information from the assistant head for inclusion, my line manager, suggested that part of the reason for buying out of the ESS was to enable more flexible working patterns and to allow us to ensure quality of staff, no thought appeared to have been given as to how teaching assistants might most effectively be deployed, nor to whether particular training was needed for teachers to ensure they could use the support effectively.
In my conversations and work with subject colleagues across the school it became evident to me that the allocation of an additional adult to a classroom is not necessarily beneficial in itself. This was confirmed when meeting with teaching assistants. An increase in the number of children with statements of SEN in the school seemed to be causing many teachers concern, as they struggled with how to differentiate the curriculum to meet the needs of pupils with a high level of difficulty, while continuing to strive for high academic standards with the majority of pupils. Although generally welcoming the addition of teaching assistants to support pupils with statements of SEN, many expressed the concern that they were not sure of the teaching assistant’s role. Teaching assistants similarly complained that teachers did not communicate effectively with them, and that quite often they were not sure of what they were able to do within the classroom. Teaching assistants also commented that some teachers left it up to them to work with the pupil who they were supporting, and did not adapt their teaching or teaching materials to account for that pupil’s difficulties. This meant that they were being left to adapt and differentiate work ‘on the spot’ without prior planning.
As SENCO I began to feel that part of the problem might be connected to the way that we deployed teaching assistants to work with specific pupils. Although this meant that teaching assistants got to know their key pupils very well, it also meant that they had to support them in a number of different curriculum areas – sometimes all curriculum areas – and also to work with a number of different teachers with whom they were not able to communicate and plan in advance. I also became interested in looking at the ways in which teaching assistants actually worked in class, and finding out whether they were able to contribute to teaching that could facilitate pupils with statements of SEN access to the curriculum.
This interest was connected to questions of pedagogy. I had always believed that it was possible to differentiate the curriculum sufficiently to enable all pupils to learn and progress. The Revised National Curriculum makes it clear in its inclusion statement that all teachers are expected to adapt their teaching to meet the needs of pupils with special educational needs and learning difficulties and disabilities. Nevertheless many of the teachers with whom I spoke regularly were worried that they could not do this. For them the gap between the ability of the majority and those with significant difficulties was seen as being too great to bridge. I became concerned to find out whether indeed these children need a distinctive SEN pedagogy, or whether the teaching approaches used by the best teachers simply need to be applied more rigorously and consistently – whether what Lewis and Norwich call a continuum of teaching approaches and strategies could be effective (Lewis and Norwich, 2000, 2001, 2005, 2007).
This suggested I needed to consider two particular areas of practice. Firstly, do pupils with learning difficulties need distinct educational provision – including distinctive pedagogic strategies and maybe different curriculum objectives? Secondly, is the use of teaching assistants in class an effective means of supporting these pupils’ learning? The second question relates to the first question and, by implication, the pedagogic model adopted by the teacher. For example, if distinct pedagogic strategies are needed can these be provided by teaching assistants; if simply more intensive teaching is needed how can teaching assistants contribute to this?
It seemed to me that in order to look at this effectively a number of issues concerned with pedagogy and teaching had to be considered. How specialised does teaching need to be? Can differences between learners according to particular special educational needs be identified and systematically linked with learners’ needs for differential teaching? What are the key criteria for identifying pedagogically useful learner groups? Do pupils need distinct kinds of teaching to learn the same content as others without learning difficulties?
With regard to teaching assistants it seemed important to look at whether teaching assistants can increase pupils’ inclusion by enabling increased access to the curriculum and if so how this can be achieved (by adopting distinct kinds of teaching approaches; by increasing the intensity of teaching; by freeing up teacher time to enable teachers to increase the intensity of their teaching?) This would include considering whether teaching assistants might actually restrict pupils’ independence and social opportunities, and possibly prevent teachers from engaging with pupils with special educational needs.
I saw that these issues as being connected. If teaching assistants were able to work effectively with teachers, having an understanding of a range of teaching strategies and approaches, then there might be a possibility that the sort of high density teaching that might be needed for many pupils with special educational needs and disabilities could become a reality. I decided to try to find out how effectively teaching assistants in class support teachers to provide appropriate teaching strategies and approaches that enable pupils with statements of special educational needs to access the curriculum, learn and make progress