There is much to be gained by linking special and mainstream schools together for a learning session; this issue of SENCO Week explores the benefits of arranging such a collaboration, such as sharing experience and expertise

As teachers, we are learning all the time. In my work with trainee teachers, I’m always reassuring them that they are ‘a work in progress’ and shouldn’t expect to know everything by the end of the course. In fact, even colleagues with 20 years’ experience have to be prepared to ‘continue their professional development’. In many respects this is what makes teaching such an interesting and rewarding job. One of the best ways of doing this is to learn from each other. This week, we’re encouraging SENCos to link with special/mainstream schools to share experience and expertise.

Support for SENCOs
I’ve recently worked with a co-located special school where two teachers swapped places for a term as part of a graduate trainee programme (see Special Children Oct/Nov issue for a full report). I’m not suggesting that this is always viable for other schools, but it did illustrate the benefits of this sort of exchange. The teacher from the mainstream school overcame her anxiety about ‘knowing what to do’ with children who have significant learning difficulties and physical disabilities. She learned about different ways of communicating, the value of visual reinforcement, P-levels and the extent to which the curriculum can be differentiated. These skills were transferred to her mainstream practice when she returned to her classroom, enabling her to meet children’s individual needs more effectively than ever before.

The teacher from the special school broadened her horizons in respect of the curriculum content and meeting the learning needs of able children. She saw a different range of resources and methods of display; learned about class management where there are 30 children instead of eight often with no other adult in the room. In return, she introduced visual timetables, Makaton and strategies which helped to create a wonderfully inclusive environment.

This sort of arrangement won’t be possible (or deemed desirable) in most schools, but there are ways that ‘cross-pollination’ can be achieved very successfully. If you aren’t already on friendly terms with a nearby special or mainstream school, there are various ‘key moments’ when opportunities may arise to forge links:

  • colleagues undertaking further study
  • INSET that might be shared
  • the arrival in mainstream of a child with significant SEN
  • a part-time mainstream placement for a child or children
  • students involved in a community support or citizenship project
  • a need for specific CPD which a colleague from a sister school could provide
  • introducing supportive technology or software
  • addressing an issue in the school development plan, which a sister school can help with (eg, subject expertise).

Part-time placements
An arrangement whereby children and young people with SEN and/or disabilities attend a mainstream school on a part-time basis can be very effective in introducing a pupil to a bigger, busier setting where she or he will meet with wider cross-section of the population and be able to benefit from a wider range of opportunities. For these placements to work well, careful planning and resourcing are essential, ideally with direct input form the SENCO to support staff (in both schools) as well as the pupil concerned, and other pupils in the class or school. If you are undertaking this sort of arrangement, consider:

  • the choice of class the pupil will join (enthusiastic teacher; welcoming pupils, etc)
  • sitting down with the ‘receiving’ teacher to talk through the issues
  • arranging a visit to the special school, with the class teacher, to see the pupil in lessons there
  • meeting the parents (perhaps a home visit) and talking to the child himself
  • setting up a planning meeting to support the teacher in devising suitable activities (possibly with TA included) and agreeing on objectives
  • the role of an accompanying TA
  • how to ensure on-going communication with the child’s teacher in the special school
  • layout of classroom and any additional equipment/resources needed
  • talking to the class and whole-school (in an assembly) about the forthcoming placement and how pupils can support ; making clear your expectations
  • appointing a buddy or setting up a circle of friends
  • arrangements for play, break-times and lunchtimes
  • transport arrangements
  • monitoring and reviewing.

Drop Everything and Write (DEAW) is an innovative programme introduced in some American schools to improve literacy skills (Texas A&M University, Indiana State University, Southwestern Oklahoma State University, McMurray University, Texas and St Thomas University, Texas).

The pilot project investigated the impact on pupils’ literacy skills where one half-hour lesson per day involved the teacher and pupils only communicating with each another through writing. Children were told that their writing would not be graded in the lessons. The time slot designated for the study was the ‘language arts period’, where pupils undertook a variety of literary activities both individually and in groups. Almost 50 10-year-olds took part in the four month programme and their attainment in reading and writing was tested before and after involvement in the programme and compared to attainment of a similar group of pupils not involved in DEAW.

Key findings were that pupils taking part in the DEAW programme:

  • showed significantly higher gains in vocabulary, comprehension, and spelling compared with their counterparts not involved in the project
  • made significant gains in the quality of their writing in terms of the number of words in a sentence, length of sentence, and syntactical complexity.

(This report reminds me of a time when I taught in a secondary school where we occasionally ran a ‘sponsored silence’ to raise money for charity. All communication had to be by sign, gesture or written word. The pupils loved it!)

This e-bulletin issue was first published in December 2008

About the author: Linda Evans is the author of SENCO Week. She was a teacher/SENCO/adviser/inspector, before joining the publishing world. She now works as a freelance writer, editor and part-time college tutor.