During the oral evidence session of the Education and Skills Select Committee of Inquiry into SEN held on 14 November 2005, the issue of special educational needs focused training appeared to be a matter of significant concern to committee members.1 Dr Roberta Blackman-Woods (committee member and labour MP, City of Durham) asked representatives of the DfES a number of pointed questions about government policy on the matter.
Firstly, she wanted to know ‘why teacher training and improving it had such a low priority’ (Q142) for the DfES. In response, Ian Coates (divisional manager, Special Educational Needs and Disability Division, DfES) indicated that SEN training ‘is an increasingly high priority’, and that current work on the revision of teacher standards being undertaken by the Teacher Development Agency (TDA) would provide an opportunity to further improve training provision. He also pointed out that materials and guidance on SEN were available to teachers, but acknowledged that ‘there is more to be done’.
Secondly, Dr Blackman-Woods expressed concern about training within initial teacher training programmes, and, referring to policy outlined in Removing Barriers to Achievement, noted that it merely stated that ‘there should be a development by the TDA of optional specialist SEN modules, so that there is no guarantee whatsoever that all teachers who are training are going to take’ those modules (Q143). In response, Mr Coates again referred to work by the TDA on revising teacher standards, indicating that this might lead to SEN having ‘far more teeth’ within initial teacher training in the future.
Finally, Dr Blackman-Woods indicated that committee members were ‘shocked to find out that there is not a specialised graduate diploma’ available for practising teachers (Q143), given the emphasis on mainstreaming [inclusion] in government policy. She also wanted to know more about ‘how teachers get the space to take on board the continual professional development (CPD), how they are encouraged to do that, who measures, who records whether they do it or not do it and what are the penalties for not doing it?’ Presumably, her reference here was to the important issue of generic SEN training rather than to ‘ring fenced’ mandatory training (eg for teachers of hearing or visually impaired pupils), and to the important issue of an entitlement to specialist continuing professional development for classroom and subject teachers, to teachers with a particular interest in SEN, and of course, SENCOs. In asking this important question, Dr Blackman-Woods was highlighting the lack of coherence and detail in policy planning and implementation that seems to have been a feature of inclusion as a political imperative during the past decade.
In a brief response, Andrew McCully (delivery director for the School Standards Group, DfES) referred to the ‘new professionalism’, featured in DfES policy documents (eg the Five Year Strategy for Children and Learners), which identifies the importance of CPD for teachers, and the linking of it to performance measures used in schools. Following this response, due to time restraints, the oral evidence session ended. This was unfortunate, as an opportunity was missed to reflect on the meaning of new professionalism for SENCOs.
SENCOs and new professionalism Baroness Mary Warnock told the SEN Inquiry, during its first oral evidence session (31 October 2005, response to Q39), that the role of SENCO as teacher was under threat, as schools in different parts of the country were employing teaching assistants to do the job.(2) This casts a shadow on the concept of new professionalism, and recent correspondence between the DfES and members of the SENCO-Forum e-discussion group would seem to confirm that official government policy on the status of SENCOs is that, as long as headteachers and governing bodies have regard to the Code of Practice, it is not illegal for them to appoint teaching assistants or other support staff as SENCOs.(3) This advice would seem to be entirely inconsistent with both the principles and specific guidance outlined in the code itself, and is surely a matter that the SEN Inquiry will want to seek clarification on.4
This clarification is also essential if the TDA review of teachers, standards is to produce anything other than a fudged response to the needs of SENCOs, aspiring SENCOs, the schools they work in and the pupils whose needs they strive to meet.
1. References to the SEN Inquiry are based on the uncorrected transcript of the meeting held on 14 November 2005. Detailed information about the Inquiry can be accessed at: www.parliament.uk.
2. See ‘SEN Inquiry hears evidence’, SENCO Update 71, December 2005/January 2006, p2).
3. This discussion can be accessed via the SENCO-Forum archive (publicly accessible). For further information about the forum go to: http://lists.becta.org.uk/mailman/listinfo/senco-forum.
4. During November and December 2005 the Education and Skills Select Committee focused its attention on the white paper Higher Standards, Better Schools for All. Oral evidence sessions resumed in January 2006 and may yet provide an opportunity for discussion of this important issue.