Inclusion of SEN students requires lots of involvement from teaching assistants. Enid Alston introduces a new training course designed to help

Growing numbers of students with a variety of different specific and general learning needs are being included in mainstream education. At the same time, the use of learning support and teaching assistants in schools has placed them at the sharp end of involvement in the education of students experiencing difficulties in accessing the curriculum. These assistants are often required to work with learners who have special educational needs, either individually or in small groups, and are used to help interpret the class material and ensure students stay focused during teaching sessions.

The reality in schools
The problem with this approach is that the students experiencing difficulties are those whose requirements are best met by specially and highly trained professionals. In practice, however, they are increasingly left to the care of those with no qualifications at all. There is consensus among teachers that their own training for special needs and specific learning difficulties is inadequate; however, they are trained in the theory of teaching and have experienced several months of guided and supported teaching practice.

Those employed as LSAs or TAs have the lowest status in schools. They are not well paid and despite their intimate knowledge of many of the students often have no voice in the system and the way it deals with them. Here you have the situation where the neediest students are often under the care of the least trained and experienced people within the education system. This is the antithesis of the situation laid out in the ECM agenda and Removing Barriers to Achievement: The Government’s Strategy for SEN (2004) _doc/5970/removing%20barriers.pdf

Finding a solution
Ever since becoming an SEN coordinator in a special needs secondary school, this problem has been a major concern of mine. There are now GNVQ courses for LSAs at levels 2 and 3, as well as the award of higher level teaching assistant status. However, none of these provides a background in the theory and practice of SEN which is arguably what professionals need most or all.

I therefore spent two years setting up a course through South Thames College in the London borough of Wandsworth which provides training in specific learning difficulties and special educational needs. The course ran for the first time in September 2006 and was set up specifically to offer those enrolled:

  • a qualification to raise status and prospects (OCN level 2 diploma)
  • theoretical knowledge about a range of specific learning difficulties that would enable recognition and understanding of students’ needs and promote autonomous interventions
  • practical experience enabling knowledge and skills to be acted on
  • affordable training (the cost is approximately £150, plus admin fee)
  • a short timeframe (10 x three-hour sessions during one term)
  • local access to avoid long and costly travel.

Course sessions and contents Sessions emphasised the importance of understanding the foundations of specific learning difficulties and learning support. The main focus was necessarily dyslexia, however, other syndromes and their relationship to learning difficulties were also covered. Particular attention was paid to the interrelationship of different syndromes which are sometimes found in a variety of combinations in individuals (the concept of neuro-diversity).

A further important aspect of the course was to look at the emotional barriers to learning that are experienced by students such as low self-esteem and self-confidence and the behavioural sequelae that accompany these self-perceptions. These emotional perceptions can be some of the most damaging aspects of a specific learning difficulty to students’ security and progress in formal education.

The course was assessed through the presentation of a reflective diary and portfolio of work which included the submission of seven written and diagrammatic-type assignments. The course contents covered:

  • specific learning difficulties and learning support
  • the historical development of the understanding of dyslexia/specific learning difficulties within schools, and the current laws that structure the learning environment
  • the impact of solution-focused brief therapy on working with children with specific learning difficulties and an introduction to academic and non-academic solutions
  • specific learning difficulties and their impact on spelling and maths
  • interacting with other professionals and understanding assessment reports of specific learning difficulties.

The future
Comments from the first group of students included: ‘I feel that your course might be a very important moment in my life and help me decide what I want to do further with my life’ and ‘Every bit of information has fulfilled the course aims listed in the handbook and much more!’

Aims and anticipated outcomes
As outlined in the student handbook the course aims were to provide participants with the ability to:

  • guide learning within the classroom setting and in an individual context
  • set appropriate goals and guide work towards them
  • identify barriers to learning 
  • have a voice in education
  • deal confidently with professionals in other disciplines
  • present case information with self-assurance
  • critically assess materials for guided learning
  • make and adapt resources to meet the needs of an individual
  • monitor and record progress.

Further information
Dyslexia and Specific Learning Difficulties Awareness: A Foundation Course for Support Professionals is due to run again in September 2007 at South Thames College, London It is also offered on demand.

Dr Enid Alston is a chartered psychologist, lecturer in dyslexia studies and advanced practitioner at South Thames College of Further Education.

First published in Learning for Life, April 2007