High quality teaching is the cornerstone of a school’s SEN provision. The SEN Code of Practice outlines the responsibility class teachers have for the progress of individual pupils with SEN. The impact of covid has had a disproportionate impact on children with identified SEN; with access to support significantly stretched in education and in health and social care. Therefore, the quality of teaching for pupils with SEN, and their outcomes, should be a central to the professional development and training opportunities for all teaching and support staff. More than ever teachers need a sound knowledge of how different pupils learn. Teachers need to know their pupils well and to be trusted to make decisions around curriculum content and adaptations. They need a range of tried and tested strategies at their fingertips from which they can choose, to ensure every pupil is able to access the learning. Making this happen in schools takes time and persistence, in some cases, cultures need to shift.
Many schools have teaching and learning policies which refer to meeting the needs of all, but often these policies do not include the detail about how teachers can do this. A level of assumption is made about teachers’ knowledge and skills in SEN, when in fact teachers vary hugely in the level of useful input, they have had in their initial teacher training or whilst in post. According to DFE statistics in 2021, numbers of children with EHCPs and at SEN Support have increased. Over my career I have seen an increase in the complexity of need in mainstream schools both in terms of learning needs and social and emotional needs. It is important that teachers understand how SEN pupils experience the curriculum because this needs to be reflected in how they approach planning. Experienced SENCOs have expertise in identifying and modelling high quality inclusive teaching, but the minutiae of systems and admin often leave SENCo with less capacity to do this important work. SENCOs vary in their opportunity to influence teaching and learning in schools – figures from the SENCO national survey report that only 50% of all SENCos are part of the SLT. SENCos know that when teachers plan for SEN learners in an integrative way, any generic or targeted strategies they use will make the lesson more accessible to everyone. Whole school training around adapting and scaffolding learning is more important than ever.
Research-based practise is firmly on the agenda in schools and teachers are becoming much more aware of how neuroscience can influence the way we think about teaching. It seems that teaching children with identified SEN is too often an add on; something to do for certain groups but not always a whole school focus. SENCos know that the best teachers can turn their hand to any class and that mindset is important – reflective teachers are open to developing their practice.
‘To a great extent, good teaching for pupils with SEND, is good teaching for all’. EEF Special Education in Mainstream Schools 2020. Anything we do for learners with SEN will benefit other learners.
How can we help teachers think more inclusively about their lesson planning without adding to workload? How can we help teachers adapt the content of their curriculum to suit the pupils in front of them? What do teachers need to know about their pupils to plan effectively? How can we use the knowledge heavy curriculum plans while allowing a degree of flexibility?
Shared lesson slides have their place, supporting department or phase consistency and reducing individual workload. However, pupils vary in their prior learning experience so it’s not always effective to plan too far ahead when you don’t yet know what individual pupils know or can do. Many struggling learners start lessons at a big disadvantage because they have huge gaps in their subject or general knowledge. This could be because they have not grasped previous learning, but lack of prior experience may also be a big factor. Many pupils haven’t had opportunities to engage in the types of cultural activities or life experiences that teachers may take for granted. When working with early career teachers, I have found that this is something that many teachers may not have considered in depth and are surprised to hear about pupils’ lack of opportunities for wider learning. Many children cannot pick up on shared references and ‘insider knowledge’ in a curriculum context. SENCos can share background knowledge of pupils to help staff gain an insight into pupils’ worlds. Prior learning is the foundation of new learning and poor retention is a clear sign that the foundations are shaky. ‘One size fits all’ doesn’t work for vulnerable learners.
Children with special needs have greater need for high quality inclusive teaching. What might be getting in the way of this?
- Teachers not having a detailed understanding of a child’s needs.
- Teachers lacking a range of tools/strategies they can use to support and scaffold learning.
- Pressure of getting through a content heavy curriculum.
- Lack of resources/time.
- Ineffective use of TAs by teachers.
- Lack of TA support and feedback.
- Pressures on managing behaviour getting in the way.
- Misunderstanding of the role of the SEN team leading to reliance on support from SEN staff.
- Staff turnover leads to staff not accessing SEN CPD.
- SENCos may not have appropriate influence if not part of SLT.
How can teachers be supported to understand the starting points of pupils?
A useful way to think about inclusive teaching is to start at the point of the lesson plan and explore the learning journeys and scaffolds needed for different pupils or groups. Most teachers have some knowledge of individual special needs and are aware of the need to adapt their teaching and provide support but often this happens as a bolt o rather than embedded in the planning.
One of the ways to help teachers visualise their planning is through a visual metaphor, for example, a house. The house has foundations, bricks and mortar and is constructed and decorated. After the house is built, there are finishing jobs such as skirting boards - this is called snagging! The constructed house represents the learning.
· The house (learning) has foundations, and these may need to be taught specifically before new content can be added. Foundations might be contextual knowledge, recapping previous knowledge or key skills needed for new content.
· Teaching the vocabulary prior to introducing new content is helpful for all pupils but especially pupils with literacy, language, or comprehension difficulties. The vocabulary represents the bricks.
· The introduction of new content in the form of explanation, resources or demonstration represents construction.
· Tasks such as guided practise, pair work, scaffolded activities are designed to make the content stick. This is the mortar.
· Once new content has been delivered, we want pupils to use it in different ways to consolidate their learning. This is the décor part of building the house: applying the knowledge in different formats and contexts.
Finally, making time to go back and reteach or practise key content embeds to new learning. This is the snagging.
Without foundations the house will be shaky. This metaphor is a helpful framework for teachers to think about when planning with SEN pupils in mind.
How can we champion inclusive teaching? What will make a difference?
- Don’t set limits on where a pupil may get to, but start where they are at and build from there.
- If a pupil is making progress, they don’t need to be exposed to everything on the curriculum plan - if the content is not appropriate for them. The curriculum plan should be elastic and expand to match their progress.
- Share ideas for different scaffolds across subjects and invest in subject specific props such as manipulatives, models, everyday items, artefacts, to enable pupil to see, touch and engage with the subject.
- Pre-teach key vocabulary and don’t get bogged down with everyone having to recall every word. Get pupils using the words in conversation and revisit over a sequence of lessons.
- Instead of ‘teaching to the top’, start with accessible content so everyone can learn and engage, without feeling overwhelmed, and then build up complexity from there - some pupils can work with a more complex task and materials if ready, and others can consolidate key skills and knowledge with support.
-Talk to the TAs. They observe pupils across school and often know what works, and more importantly, what doesn’t.
-Inclusive culture is all. Welcome everyone and support colleagues to develop confidence in being able to cater for a range of need. Be robust in pushing back against the system if a pupil is not thriving despite the inclusive culture - mainstream isn’t the best environment for everyone and schools need to be persistent to do what is morally right for children and families.
-Teachers and support staff need ongoing CPD and opportunities to observe colleagues using great strategies. Teaching is a complex business, and its important to remain open-minded and reflective.
For lots more ideas try my book ‘Inclusive Teaching in a Nutshell: A Visual Guide for Busy Teachers’ published by Routledge in July 2021.
It’s written by a teacher, for teachers. Its jargon free and full of easy to digest ideas – backed up with visual summaries for when you need to dip in and get a strategy ready for the next lesson!