There are ongoing debates as to what extent the education system in England is structured to deliver the best possible provision for children and young people (CYP) with special educational needs and disability (SEND). A central theme in this debate is the extent to which initial teacher training (ITT) prepares teachers to embed a graduated approach to the needs of CYP with SEND, in their classroom practice.

Following the Carter Review, the government has committed itself to re-examining the content of ITT in relation to SEND, in part because of the considerable diversity in the way that ITT has developed over the last ten years.

SEND campaigners, including parents, highlight the lack of consistent opportunities available to trainee teachers to develop their practice in this area. Indeed, DYT has been at the forefront of this debate since publishing the Fish in the Tree Report in 2013. Broadly the report found that just 52 per cent of trainees surveyed received any training on dyslexia and yet 84 per cent thought it was important to do so.

School leaders often decry the extent to which ITT prepares new teachers for the challenges in the classroom. It is undoubtedly true that regardless of the quality of ITT, trainees spend relatively little time learning their craft before they begin practicing; much less so than other professionals in nursing, law or psychology.

Let’s be clear there are a number of training providers out there, some of which, including DYT, has received government funds to deliver CPD. In addition, the internet provides a substantial body of content for teachers to acquire new knowledge and skills in this area. We are not short of content by any means.

However regardless of the availability of these opportunities, there are greater fundamental issues that are consistently missing from this narrative, such as:

  • There needs to be a very clear progression pathway that explains how a trainee teacher can go from little or no knowledge of teaching and learning to an exceptional educator; capable of meeting the needs of all pupils in their classroom. Most other professions have competency frameworks which set out the expected practice standards for each stage in one’s career and most importantly of all, how to go about acquiring relevant knowledge and skills. This is not so for teachers and certainly not in the area of SEND.
  • The purpose of teacher training, whether that is initial or ongoing, should not be to address the needs of pupils. This might sound contradictory, but teacher training needs to enable teachers to problem solve on behalf of their pupils, by drawing on an extensive toolkit of research, resources, techniques and colleagues.
  • Training needs to be iterative and relational. Time is needed to revise and try out new approaches and techniques and reflect on the extent they are useful to specific contexts or individuals. Teachers need the opportunity to apply their knowledge and skills by working alongside real pupils and their parents for a sustained period.
  • Reflection and further questioning needs to be facilitated by a teacher or other professional, who has a deeper level of understanding of those approaches and contexts, in order to advance professional development. Blended learning techniques are not new, nor is professional supervision, but neither practice seems to be prevalent in teaching.
  • Above all else training must be practically orientated and skills based. There is no point in teachers knowing multiple definitions of dyslexia, the process of acquiring an autism diagnosis or the mechanics of speech and language. They need to be equipped to notice the needs of SEND pupils and adjust their practice accordingly.

What should ITT do?

So what should ITT do in order to prepare teacher trainees to provide the best possible education for SEND pupils? It is not practical to ensure each and every one leaves their training with the knowledge and skills that may take years of practise to acquire. Rather ITT providers should lay the foundations for teachers to practice in-line with their responsibilities, setting out professional expectations and to instil an inclusive professional culture. A change in attitudes cannot be taught or bought, but attitudes to SEND can change when there is tangible evidence that demonstrates success, for pupils and their families, especially when teachers themselves are equipped and engaged in a process to deliver just that.

The teachers’ standards, attempt to provide a benchmark for responsibilities, professional expectations and arguably represent a cultural artefact of the teaching profession. It is unfortunate they too seemed to be missing from the teacher training narrative.

What do we need to do?

  • Create a common pathway of teacher professional development for classroom practitioners to address core competencies in required to embed a graduated approach.
  • Highlight routes for established teachers to enhance their expertise, particularly for those in more specialist roles and settings, to provide a cohort of leaders with the ability, self-efficacy and status to guide the profession.
  • Work on changing attitudes by raising aspirations for SEND pupils and highlighting professional expectations on leaders and classroom teachers in equal measure.