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Teachers with no special needs training are being 'thrown in at the deep end'

Untrained teachers are being expected to cope with pupils with special education needs. How can the system better prepare them?

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Image: Element5 Digital on Unsplash

When working as a special educational needs (SEN) teacher, you expect to manage challenging situations and provide support to pupils with highly complex needs. Part of the challenge is to make sure the classroom doesn’t become overwhelming or stressful, for pupils or for staff – which is why it’s a job for highly trained and confident teachers who can create a comfortable environment for all.

Unfortunately, this is not always the reality. Instead, some teachers report being thrown in at the deep end without the necessary training or support to do justice by their pupils.

In September 2021, Unison surveyed members in both SEN and mainstream nurseries and schools. Over half of the teachers said they felt unsafe when going about their jobs and four out of five staff members reported having been assaulted in some way and left with major injuries.

They rushed through the presentation on health and safety and there were no practical demonstrations or advice with managing behavioural issues

Josh Hanks

One teacher assistant from a special needs school in Braintree, Essex told researchers: “I had no training at all in dealing with violent behaviour or any other training before the incident.”

Josh Hanks, 25, spent some time at a special needs youth club in the summer holidays. He found the work rewarding, so he decided in September to take agency work in a special needs school to further his skills in supporting people with complex needs and to gain some experience in a classroom environment.

“I understand that the importance of safeguarding children should be top priority,” he said, “but I also believe the safety of teachers should be just as important.

“They rushed through the presentation on health and safety and there were no practical demonstrations or advice with managing behavioural issues.”

The trainees were told that behavioural escalations were “rare” and “not to be worried about” as they do not happen often.

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However, on Hanks’ first day he was “scratched, bitten and kicked” with no prior training on how to deescalate the situation and support the pupil while keeping himself safe.

He witnessed other staff experience similar incidents and, in one case, a teacher assistant was “knocked unconscious” – landing her in A&E.

Hanks also claimed that his senior colleagues seemed to laugh off his injuries and did not take them seriously. As a result of this, he felt unsafe, his mental health deteriorated and he felt extremely undervalued, leading him to leave the school after just one month.

Hanks believes these issues could have been avoided if staff had received some good quality training on behaviour management, as well as having a better vetting system during recruitment.

He did not feel like he was right for the role, in retrospect, and claimed that the agency that he was signed with was not entirely honest about the tasks he would be responsible for carrying out.

For Amelia Newley, a recently qualified primary school SEN teacher, the difference in support was vast depending on her employment status. She felt that she “had no support” when working as agency staff but once working at a school permanently she found her support dramatically increased.

Newley went from being “thrown in the deep end” to getting more one-to-one time with senior members of staff, learning about manual handling – this includes moving pupils from one place to another such as from a bed to a wheelchair – and receiving more training in personal care, with staff sometimes required to wash or dress individuals due to mobility issues.

Newley believes that agencies should be doing more to help new teachers settle in, for example having a representative to report back to at the agency or to go to for advice, or an online forum to seek out and ask questions with teachers who have been in the career longer.

One special educational needs coordinator (SENCO) from Somerset – who asked to remain anonymous – helps teachers who are responsible for disabled pupils. They said that there needs to be “good quality bespoke training courses for special needs and mainstream teachers that do not come with a cost”, and it should be given to every school rather than the case-by-case funding system that currently operates.

They also suggested that at the beginning of the academic year, new teachers should be offered a “two-week in-depth training course” learning about the complex needs of the children at that school and the best ways to support them.

They also said that having check-ins with older teachers acting as a mentor for the new teacher where possible would allow them that space to express themselves and come up with permanent solutions to the issues they may be experiencing.

There are loads of courses available. But it’s down to whether or not the school can afford them

Anonymous teacher

The teacher also suggested an opportunity for new staff to shadow teaching assistants for the first few weeks and ticking off a document with practical things they have learned while shadowing, such as the best ways to calm each child down in the class when they get upset or which personal care needs they have.

Unfortunately, it does all come down to funding. “There are loads of courses available,” the teacher said, “but it’s down to whether or not the school can afford to give teachers the time off to go and do them.” 

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) and the Department for Education have partnered up to create a project that involves peer-to-peer evaluation of special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) provision in schools. This project is going to be rolled out in over 500 special needs and mainstream schools.

They have created a book that will help guide teachers in evaluating their send provision in their school and to measure how effective it is as well as planning bespoke strategies for the individuals with complex needs.

The full outcome of this project will not be known until the springtime of 2024 when the results will be reported on the EEF website, but it is a positive step in the right direction.

It will offer teachers a chance to talk about the day-to-day issues they are facing creating an opportunity for an open discussion on what needs to change.

Alison Foyle is a member of The Big Issue’s Breakthrough programme.

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