Falling through the cracks
We asked one of our trainee specialist teachers to talk to us about why she has left full time teaching after just two years and what her experience was of teaching Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) learners. It makes compelling reading as to why it is so vital that we ensure all teachers have better training on supporting these learners and why we need to develop a route for practising teachers to develop their skills to master level. Similar to those that want to go into leadership and different from Special Educational Needs Co-coordinator (SENCo) training, which is more general in nature and often involves additional leadership responsibilities and administration.
I write this blog as an ‘ex-teacher’. I was in the profession for two years before feeling so emotionally drained that I decided not to commit my life to the obscenely long hours and overpowering bureaucracy. These are just a few of the reasons I did not want to continue as a classroom teacher. This blog, however, focuses on my personal experience of SEND in mainstream education which unsurprisingly is yet another reason why I left the profession. I was trained through Teach First, a ‘fast track’ teacher training programme whereby graduates are given six weeks training and are then more or less thrown into a classroom full-time, learning to teach on the job whilst completing a PGCE.
In my first year of teaching I had a wide range of SEND pupils in my class. In one classroom, I had three children with autism, two with severe social, emotional and behavioural difficulties and several with Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLD). On top of that I had a deaf child and one with severe learning difficulties, which included ADHD, autism and global learning delay. At least a third of my class had some kind of additional learning need.
The SENCo in my school had other roles such as deputy head, so her time was limited, and the training I received was sparse. I was trained very broadly to understand what autism, ADHD, attachment theory and dyslexia were, but had no in-depth training on the complexities of these specific learning needs and how to tackle these needs in the classroom.
The best training I received was from a hearing-communication specialist for the deaf child in my class, who did provide some in-depth knowledge that specifically related to that child. She highlighted to me the sounds that the child found difficult to hear and taught me how to adapt the classroom and my teaching style in accordance with this. However, I needed to do a lot of reading in my own time to support this child further.
I was told that reforms to SEND policy stated that full responsibility was with the class teacher. So what was I supposed to do to ensure each of these children made progress? I spent tireless hours researching the best ways to teach children with autism, ADHD, global learning delay and dyslexia on top of the time that I spent preparing lessons for the whole class. Lessons that I also differentiated for lower attaining, and gifted and talented pupils. How in the world was I, a trainee teacher with next to no experience, expected to make sure that each child was making outstanding progress, whilst also making sure that 75 per cent of children were meeting ‘age related expectations’? I’m telling you now it was nigh on impossible. And that wasn’t because I was an inadequate or lazy teacher; I dedicated my life to those children but with a lack of support and training, coupled with my own inexperience, there was no way I could do it. And feeling like I was letting the children down was awful.
My second year of teaching was ‘easier’ in comparison, but this was just luck of the draw as my class just happened to have fewer children with SEND. It became apparent to me that children with the most severe learning needs were getting a little more support. This was through Wave 2 and 3 interventions. However, it didn’t seem like anything was being done for the children in the class with SpLD, such as dyslexia. Usually these children weren’t those who were extremely disruptive in class and therefore they seemed to be forgotten about.
I didn’t blame the SENCo for this, as I knew the number of children with severe learning needs in the school was high and the pressure on senior staff immense. Nevertheless, this still meant that there were a lot of children in the school who, in my eyes, were being failed.
I was fortunate enough to have quite a lot of background knowledge of dyslexia. I am dyslexic myself and given my wide reading on the topic, I felt that I was able to provide inclusive quality first teaching at Wave 1. However, there are a lot of teachers who, through no fault of their own, would not have been able to provide this. In addition, there were many children who needed much more specialist support at Wave 2 and 3, whose needs went far beyond the knowledge I had.
As an example, I could provide additional resources for those who struggled reading from the board, but I could not provide specialist support for those whose writing couldn’t communicate their thoughts, or those who could understand numbers but could not see or read them. These are the children who are currently being failed the most in the mainstream education system. These children need specialist support just like any other child with SEND.
I am now completing the OCR level 5 Diploma in ‘Teaching Learners with Specific Learning Difficulties’, sponsored by the Driver Youth Trust. This includes dyslexia and my ambition is to become a specialist dyslexia teacher. In the future I hope to be able to train my teaching colleagues to provide the necessary support at Wave 1 and provide learners with more severe specific needs with intervention at Wave 2 and 3.
I believe that if we want to put an end to failing these children, there needs to be an effective body for specialist teachers, just as there are for speech and language therapists and educational psychologists. Too many children are silently falling behind as a result of dyslexia, just as the deaf child in my class would have done without specialist support. We need to create a system where the equivalent specialist who helped me with that deaf child can come into any class and make sure that falling behind due to dyslexia becomes a thing of the past.