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Quality first teaching for pupils with SEN – putting SEN pupils first

Some interventions do really work. Time limited interventions such as literacy programmes, therapeutic mentoring, Numicon, study skills, when taught well, can close gaps, strengthen relationships and build confidence. SEN teams in schools put a lot of energy into making sure these interventions run smoothly and that as many pupils as possible benefit from targeted support. These make up the SENCo’s provision map and take up a lot of time and energy to plan and deliver.

Pupils spend most of their day in the classroom. It’s in these interactions, day in and day out where hopefully, most learning takes place. We talk about quality first teaching as being the first intervention for pupils with SEN. This can be where the magic happens, where pupils have good relationships with their teachers because their needs are well understood and catered for. If this quality first teaching works well, the benefits don’t stop at learning outcomes. Pupils in classes where teachers are skilled in inclusive approaches, will feel valued and have a strong sense of belonging in school. Pupils in classes where teachers are not able to teach in an inclusive way, feel out of their depth, disengaged, and left out. They may appear to be unmotivated and feel the teacher doesn’t really understand them. They may rely on TA support or seek out the safety of the SEN department during lessons. In these schools SENCos may feel they are working very hard for the children but frustrated they can’t shift the classroom culture enough.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

The processes governing SEN in the UK are a minefield for both parents and schools, and we are in a resource poor and bureaucratic system which puts huge pressures on schools. No school wants to do a bad job with their vulnerable pupils. But, I am concerned that SEN pupils are often overlooked in whole school teaching approaches and that when SENCos are not included in discussions around curriculum, pupils with SEN miss out on fair access to the kind of teaching they need.

Teaching and learning policies generally include aspirational statements about meeting the needs of all pupils, but they often lack the detail or specificity about how pupils with SEN should be taught and what the expectations of teachers are in relation to adapting content or providing supportive resources and scaffolds. Of course, pupils with SEN are not a homogenous group and their needs vary hugely, however, by the very nature of being on the SEN register, it is assumed teachers need to do something different to or additional in their lessons. If there isn’t a whole school approach to SEN, we are relying on the skill of individual teachers or subject leaders to think creatively about the needs of their SEN pupils. This is one of the most common concerns I find when I visit schools to talk to SENCos. They can point out pockets of really good practice in their schools, but nearly all SENCos would like to see more flexibility and adaptation in the teaching of pupils with SEN in the classroom. SENCOs feel they offer advice and guidance but what they really want is an open discussion about the curriculum and for teachers to initiate conversations about how to create more inclusive experiences for the pupils.

What gets in the way of inclusive teaching?

Knowledge, experience and skills of teachers varies.

Workload of teachers forces them to prioritize.

Detailed understanding of specific needs.

Pressure to focus on content delivery.

Misunderstanding about the role of the SEN team i.e. SEN team does all the interventions and support.

SEN not a priority whole school focus.

Lack of CPD time available for SENCo to input.

We hear about approaches such as ‘teach to the top’. This is a real bug bear of mine as I think this is misunderstood by many teachers. Pitching the lesson to the ‘top’ ability level is what sometimes happens - with teachers then trying to support those that are struggling. I can guarantee that a percentage of pupils will switch off from the start and either mask their discomfort by acting out or withdraw into passive compliance and miss out on real understanding. I appreciate that the pressure to push pupils to achieve results is part of the accountability measures we use to judge schools, but why is it that this appears to manifest in approaches involving challenging higher achieving pupils or conversely teaching to the middle of the class.

Pupils with SEN need better teaching because, by and large, they find independent learning harder than their peers. Why are the needs of SEN pupils often thought about after a lesson scheme has been prepared - i.e. what differentiation is needed - rather than planning with SEN pupils in mind from the start? SEN learners struggle with home learning, they struggle with pace and they often need literacy and numeracy support. Pupils without identified SEN are much more likely to be able to learn by reading, independent practice and peer discussion. Why can’t we flip our priorities and plan for the pupils with SEN first? Are teachers stuck in thinking about the needs of the ‘majority’ over the needs of the few? Even when the ‘few’ may be 20% of the school population?


The outcomes for pupils with SEN are now firmly back on the agenda in schools and I really hope this means a fresh look at curriculum planning. The role of the SENCo in influencing the quality of teaching is key. If SENCos are part of SLT, they are in the mix and can pose the questions about teaching and learning approaches firmly putting SEN pupils high on the list of whole school priorities. Teachers need to have access to high quality training and information, but the structure of classes, timetabling of teachers and SEN provision all play a part in ensuring that workload is managed and that high needs pupils are appropriately supported, so that teachers can do their job in the classroom.

‘To a great extent, good teaching for pupils with SEND, is good teaching for all’. EEF Special Education in Mainstream Schools 2020.

SEN pupils are a barometer in schools. I strongly believe that the teaching and learning experience SEN pupils receive is a measure of how good teaching is for everyone. I am optimistic. Once we start really thinking about how to hook struggling learners, we evaluate the foundation knowledge needed to make progress and this not only improves the structure of lesson schemes, it also and makes the route through the curriculum more logical with the flexibility teachers need to hit the sweet spot for different cohorts and individual pupils.

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