Pauline Holbrook, national inclusion coordinator for the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, talks to SENCO Update about the nature and role of specialist SEN schools and gives advice on how to make the most of the expertise within them and the services they provide

How many special schools have specialist status? There are currently 131 special schools with specialist status in England and Wales. Seventy of these have opted to concentrate on SEN itself, whereas the others focus on a particular dimension of the curriculum. SEN is the newest specialism and only came into being two years ago when the first 12 trailblazer schools were awarded this status. Any special school meeting the DCSF criteria can apply for specialist status and there are now also four high-performing mainstream schools that have taken on SEN as a second specialism. These are Madeley High School in Crewe, the Lakelands School and Sports College in Shropshire, Thomas Hardye School in Dorset and the Kings School in Devon.

What do special schools with an SEN specialism specialise in?

There are four possible areas within the SEN code of practice and a school chooses one of these as its main focus, depending usually on the specific needs of their students and of those in the immediate locality. This can be cognition and learning, communication and interaction, behavioural emotional and social development, or physical and sensory needs. In all these areas, special schools with specialist status can be a valuable resource for teachers in mainstream schools.

How can special schools with specialist status support colleagues in mainstream schools?

As a school applies for specialist status it must provide a three-year development plan outlining the impact it will have on its immediate community. The school nominates five partner schools and three additional community organisations whose own capacity to meet the needs of their youngsters or members will be enhanced as a result of the school attaining specialist status. All partner schools of a school that chooses the SEN specialism must be mainstream and at least one must be a secondary school. Special schools choosing the curriculum route can also have other special schools as their partners. During these initial negotiations, local needs are established and the best ways of supporting mainstream provision, decided upon. This could be through training, provision of equipment and other resources, or advice relating to curricular or technical matters. Often, local authority contracts are also given to SEN schools with a proven capacity to perform outreach work. This will enable the specialist school to provide support to a wider number of local schools.

Have you come across any recent examples of good practice that illustrate the capacity of specialist SEN schools to support mainstream provision?

There are many many examples of this and each school will work in slightly different ways. One school that specialises in sensory and physical disabilities, for instance, offers a coordinated package of support for its partner schools enabling SENCOs and other members of staff to access advice, resources and training. Much of this training is based around enhancing teachers’ capacity to problem solve when a new student with physical or sensory needs comes into their school. In subjects such as PE, science or technology equipment may need adapting or updating – so a loan service is provided to deal with immediate issues. For some teachers, training in moving and handling is needed whereas others might need advice on how to operate specialist equipment. Another school, for students with visual and hearing impairments, offers free hearing tests to youngsters in partner schools; whereas a school specialising in emotional behavioural issues has devised a transition plan whereby SENCOs in primary and secondary mainstream schools come together to map out individual action plans surrounding the likely issues certain students will face when they move into Year 7.

Who within mainstream schools do outreach professionals at specialist SEN schools tend to work with?

This will depend entirely on the situation, the needs of those involved and the capacity of the special school itself, to deliver. It could be that training is delivered to the SENCO who then passes the knowledge on to their own staff. Alternatively, a certain member of staff might need direct support to overcome a specific challenge. For instance, one of the SEN specialist schools has introduced a buddy system whereby incoming teachers and teaching assistants who will be supporting the learning of children with special needs within mainstream schools get the opportunity to shadow their equivalent within the special school in order to pick up direct tips and observe experienced SEN professionals in action. The mainstream teacher then stays in phone and email dialogue with their buddy throughout the first year, who remains as a first port of call should any additional advice be required.

How can schools make the most of the support offered by SEN specialist schools?

Building relationships between staff is essential so that plans can be regularly updated based on information as new children arrive or their needs change. Be aware of the type of provision offered and the networks of outside professionals that can be accessed, via the specialist school and the forums available locally through which good practice can be shared and contacts made. Also, be prepared to provide evidence as to the impact your collaboration with specialist outreach services is having on your school’s capacity to meet the needs of individuals. Specialist schools have to give evidence of the impact of specialist status through their self -evaluation form. The evidence from the SEF is one element of the redesignation process which schools are required to go through every three years. Schools affiliated to the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust can also benefit from regional and national events which bring together special schools and mainstream schools with the aim of sharing effective practice.

Pauline Holbrook is national inclusion coordinator for the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust. In facilitating the special school network – a network which supports all affiliated special schools – she works with practitioners in all sectors of education, throughout the country.