Carol Frankl describes how the concept of the Learning Walk has been adapted for accredited SENCO training and the positive effect this has had on trainees’ perception of their work

Current training for the SENCO role is mostly based on the Teacher Training Agency (TTA) SENCO standards which are now almost 10 years old and in the process of being rewritten. It is timely then to develop mandatory SENCO training around the new standards. This article will explore how the concept of a Learning Walk has been used and adapted in accredited SENCO training to both inspire SENCOs and enable schools to make provision that is sustainable and effective.

Models of SENCO training

Traditional SENCO training modules offered through SENJIT at the Institute of Education in London and the Faculty of Education at Cambridge University are built around the 1998 standards. These courses consist of two modules focusing on the role of the SENCO in teaching and learning followed by the role of the SENCO in leading and managing change. Each module consists of between 30 and 40 hours’ teaching through workshop, discussion, direct input and assignment tutoring. The sessions have been run over six to seven whole days, spread evenly over a term. This has been seen as a successful model which students value because, as the only SENCO in each school, the course gives colleagues across all sectors of education the opportunity to build relationships and share practice that extends far beyond the life of the course. As a long-time tutor on these courses, I find a significant percentage of evaluations show that although students learn a great deal from our sessions together, they are somewhat frustrated at the difficulty they encounter in having their voices heard back at school. It can be difficult to pass on new learning and implement new ideas and this is a contributory factor in significant numbers changing jobs within 18 months of finishing the course. The Learning Walk is an attempt to marry up students’ enthusiasm to implement new knowledge with the opportunity to initiate sustainable development in school.

What are Learning Walks?

Learning Walks are a very structured method of gathering evidence of progress against a clearly defined issue, and planning ways forward. They are traditionally used to gather evidence about the quality of learning and teaching, but for the purposes of SENCO training it has been adapted. The process used is much the same as the ‘plan, do, review’ cycle used in many areas of school development. What sets the Learning Walk apart is its collaborative nature. Learning Walks are carried out by a team of people who together define or refine the issue, design the best way to gather evidence, constantly refine the tools used and collectively use the evidence gathered to identify areas for development. The team members are carefully chosen to reflect the needs of the project and can consist of representatives of all the stakeholders involved. Members may be drawn from teachers, support staff, pupils, parents and governors as well as senior leaders including the SENCO of course! By agreeing the parameters of the project together and collectively deciding the activities that will be undertaken during the walk ensures the views of all stakeholders are represented. Evidence is usually gathered from short, focused lesson observations, interviews and a shared understanding of policies, procedures and practices underpinning the area of enquiry. So how can this model of Learning Walks be adapted successfully to enable SENCOs in training to evaluate and plan SEN provision effectively?

Adapting Learning Walk principles to leading and managing SEN provision

As part of accredited training, the Learning Walk has become a central feature of the leading and managing change module. Preparation for the Walk and conducting the Walk itself take up three of the days allocated for the course. Direct teaching is therefore pared down to the essential sessions to underpin theoretical aspects of the course such as theories of leading and managing change, SEN policy development, time management and the role of the SENCO. Evaluation and review is built in at the end of the programme. Before students begin the course, they are asked to consider the following questions:

  • What is my experience and what do I value in SEN/inclusion?
  • What is my sphere of influence?
  • What does my school do well?
  • What do I do well?
  • What could my school do better and why?
  • What could I do better and why?

These questions help students identify an area of focus for the Walk. Students share their thinking early on in the course and by identifying similar areas of interest, learning walk teams are formed. An ideal number for each team is four as over the two days allocated to school visits, each team visits each school for half a day. Once the teams are formed, they work together to support and challenge each other using an adaptation of John MacBeath’s (1999) school self-evaluation indicators:

  • context
  • inclusion
  • relationships
  • vision and mission
  • time and resources
  • outside resources
  • SEN systems

Having decided on the focus area through the pre-course questions and further discussion with ‘team mates’, students choose no more than three indicators that fit best with their chosen area and work with their team to devise a learning walk schedule unique to their school. Each indicator is supported by a number of statements to help students refine the construction of their Learning Walk.

Examples of statements to support indicators Vision and mission

  • We are explicit about inclusion.
  • Our values are shared by staff and children.
  • We value wider contexts outside school.

Time and resources

  • Good match of skills to needs.
  • Deployment meets the needs of pupils.
  • Interventions are carefully matched to pupils’ needs.
  • Organisation of SEN is conducive to all pupils learning effectively.
  • Good quality resources are available.

MacBeath developed the indicators with schools to ensure they are both robust and useable. They are devised by teasing out the characteristics of ‘good’ schools. Evidence was not only gleaned from external sources such as Ofsted, but perhaps more importantly the characteristics that schools themselves identified as effective practice and so valued. All stakeholders were asked what they considered to be the indicators of a good school in rank order. The indicators from all groups were then amalgamated into a matrix consisting of clusters that interlink and overlap, demonstrating the dynamic, changing nature of schools. The indicators in the centre are classroom based and those on the outside are the other influences on SEN planning and practice in schools. Typical issues identified over the last 18 months include:

  • effective management and deployment of teaching assistants
  • involving pupils in the SEN process
  • engaging class/subject teachers in ownership of SEN and inclusion (IEPs and GEPs)
  • the use of provision management
  • reviewing the effectiveness of IEPs in learning.

Activities that are devised for the Walk are designed to gather information about the chosen issue and may include very short focused lesson observations lasting no longer than 15 minutes, interviews with relevant groups of staff, pupils, governors and sometimes parents, and scrutiny of policies and procedures. Following the preparation sessions which are part of the course, students create a Learning Walk booklet that is given to each member of their team prior to the Walk taking place. The booklet is the tool team members use to gather evidence in a consistent way throughout the Walk as it details the activities and interview questions and leaves plenty of room for comments to be recorded. All the booklets are returned to the host school at the end of the half day Walk. Interviews are usually done in groups the questions having been agreed beforehand by the team and given out prior to the meeting. This ensures that those being interviewed have had a chance to think about their responses and feel at ease with the whole process. This training model of the Learning Walk has been adapted from the NCSL model which describes Learning Walks that are undertaken by staff within a school which, in the context of SEN, could be run by the SENCO. The team constructed for SENCO training consists of SENCOs from different schools which enables the host school to benefit from fresh ideas as well as guided and informed discussion among individuals with similar concerns and responsibilities. Indeed, after the courses have finished, many SENCOs report that they continue to meet with their ‘team mates’ for support and development.

Protocols for the Learning Walk

It is vital that everyone involved in the Walk within the school is adequately prepared for the activity and understands what their contribution will be and how it fits into the jigsaw of evidence gathered. This involves the ‘host’ student gaining the support and agreement of the senior leadership team and collaborating with the staff and pupils on the format of meetings, how they will be carried out and what will happen to the information gathered. Perhaps most importantly, the purpose of the Learning Walk needs to be made clear. During the half day assigned to each Walk it is important to build in short periods of reflection for colleagues to share their thoughts and perceptions and at the end of the session, timetable a minimum of 30 minutes for all of the evidence to be shared and discussed. It is out of this activity that students are able to reframe their perceptions and step out of entrenched views and practices and see the possibilities for change.

Impact on practice

Most participants agree that the process of the Learning Walk has had a profound influence on the way they perceive their job, moving their thinking from a very operational hands-on approach, giving them an opportunity to begin a very strategic piece of work in a structured and supported way. One of the biggest benefits reported was having colleagues from other schools contribute to their problem solving. All agreed that the opportunity to visit three other schools and have an in-depth look at SEN practice gave participants many new ideas and in some cases made them realise how effective their own provision actually is. The assignments have shown that planned change has been achieved, although the time elapsed since the courses have finished is too short to measure effectiveness. In one secondary school, deployment of TAs has been reorganised from individual ‘velcroed’ support to supporting pupils within one subject area. Early feedback has shown that SEN pupils learning is improving as TAs become more confident in their subject knowledge and pupils feel a growing sense of independence in their learning. In another first school, the use of TA support to pupils during carpet time was observed and on the basis of the Learning Walk findings, support was renegotiated to contribute more effectively to pupils learning. In both cases, students reported that the fresh views of SENCOs from other schools coupled with their own school staff being given the opportunity to consider and discuss the chosen issue in an unhurried and structured way contributed significantly to devising sustainable options to which staff could be fully committed. Although still in its infancy, it is clear that the impact of using Learning Walks as a research method on SENCO training courses provides inspiration for SENCOs and enables school staff to feel they are truly engaged in meaningful development of SEN practices.

References

MacBeath (J) 1999 Schools Must Speak For Themselves: The Case for School Self-Evaluation. London: Routledge NCSL (2005) Getting Started with Networked Learning Walks

Carol Frankl is the managing director of the Southover Partnership and is involved a range of training initiatives to support education professionals. She has extensive experience in the area of SENCO training.