Special skills


    The impact of recent government initiatives to improve SEN teaching

    Education for pupils with SEN and disabilities has increasingly become an issue for mainstream schools, not only here but internationally. This has been driven by the twin concerns of children’s rights to be in mainstream schools with typically developing peers, and the quality of education in special schools. However, the “solution”, be it mainstreaming or inclusive education, is only a positive step if children’s rights to a good education are adequately addressed by effective education. This raises funding and structural/organisational issues but also, fundamentally, the question of teaching. We know that teachers often feel inadequate in meeting the needs of pupils with SEN. In order to change this, a policy priority must be to skill up teachers and others in the workforce, including teaching assistants (TAs).

    Developing SEN skills

    From 2008-11, the Department for Children, Schools and Families (now the Department for Education: DfE) funded several projects designed to develop teacher workforce skills.

    The two main developments were the SEN and Disabilities Training Toolkit, developed by the Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA) for students in initial teacher training, and the Inclusion Development Programme (IDP) developed by the National Strategies for teachers in practice. Each comprised the development of materials and had a planned national dissemination strategy with phased implementation. The TDA Toolkit was made available to providers of primary undergraduate courses in initial teacher training (ITT) in higher education institutions (HEIs) in Phase 1 (2008-09), followed by materials in 2009-10 for providers of secondary undergraduate courses and for providers of the PGCE primary/secondary in 2010-11. Phase 1 of the IDP (2008-09) comprised two sets of continuing professional development (CPD) materials focusing on speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) and on dyslexia respectively. Materials for supporting pupils on the autistic spectrum (AS) (2009-10) and with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties (BESD) (2010-11) then followed and were disseminated in Phases 2 and 3.

    There were further initiatives within the programme designed ultimately to improve the achievement and wellbeing of pupils with SEN, including the Stammering Information Programme, extended placements for trainee teachers in special schools or specialist provision in mainstream schools, and the funding of experienced teachers to undertake a mandatory qualification for specialist teachers of pupils with sensory impairment. In addition, the Government introduced regulations to require SENCOs to be qualified teachers and to undertake mandatory training. The TDA developed a national framework for this training, approved training providers to offer it and funded SENCOs new to the role to undertake the training from 2009; evaluation of these initiatives has been arranged separately by the TDA.

    Together, these initiatives add up to an innovative and challenging programme of work which represents a comprehensive attempt to enhance the knowledge, skills and confidence of the teacher workforce nationally, through both initial teacher training and CPD. The strategy of developing the IDP as both an SEN and a school improvement issue had the potential to avoid its marginalisation as being “only” about pupils with SEN, to bring school leaders into the initiative and also to embed SEN as central to whole school development.

    Our evaluation

    Our group, based at the Centre for Educational Development, Appraisal and Research (CEDAR), was commissioned by the Government to evaluate the impact of its investment in these and other initiatives. This was a large-scale, complex and multi-faceted project and so we undertook a combined methods approach designed to gather complementary evidence from different sources and by different methods. The overall evaluation findings are based on analysis of data from a total of 429 interviews, 8321 respondents to surveys, plus data on 3617 teachers attending IDP training.

    Initial teacher training

    The Training Toolkit on SEN and Disabilities
    ITT tutors incorporated material from the Toolkit into their teaching materials for SEN and found it a very valuable and flexible resource. Over nine out of ten found it “effective” or “very effective” in enhancing a range of trainees’ knowledge, skills and understanding around SEN. Interestingly, trainees rated the teaching on SEN they had received as significantly more effective and felt more prepared to teach pupils with SEN if their course had incorporated the Toolkit; this suggests the practical relevance of the materials.

    Extended placements in specialist settings
    Extended placements in special schools and specialist settings were highly popular and valued by trainees, tutors and schools: nine out of ten trainees that had undertaken a placement rated this “effective” or “very effective” in each of the three years. However, the placement also had a wider impact: trainees who had undertaken a placement were more likely to consider a career in a special school or mainstream school with a specialist unit or resource base. They also rated the teaching of SEN on their course more highly and felt better prepared to teach pupils with SEN than those who had not had a placement.

    Cluster groups
    Cluster groups, set up to support tutors, were highly valued by tutors as a means of supporting the development of SEN across the sector.

    The Inclusion Development Programme

    We explored not only the IDP materials themselves but also the impact of the delivery method.

    National leadership and support
    The tiered support at national, regional and local level was a key factor in the successful roll out of the IDP. The National Strategies’ leading of the IDP dissemination was effective in supporting the alignment of SEN and school improvement work at local authority (LA) level and added “clout” to the initiative in terms of engaging schools. In a project of this scale, not all goes to plan but these issues were dealt with. Teething problems with the early versions of the dyslexia and SLCN materials were addressed and “refreshed” versions were launched in early 2011. The AS materials were particularly well regarded.

    Role of the SEN regional hubs
    The hub IDP strand meetings were a strength of the national dissemination model. Key benefits were the impetus they gave to the initiative, the opportunity to focus on the IDP, for LA leads to meet with others from outside their own LA, to share resources and ideas, to share experiences and ways of disseminating the materials to schools, and to provide a forum for educational professionals to learn from each other.

    Role of IDP lead in each LA
    Each LA having a lead person responsible for the delivery of the IDP facilitated dissemination. Different models of dissemination were used and found effective in local circumstances. Furthermore, LAs learned from their dissemination approaches as the roll out proceeded. However, the degree of alignment between SEN/inclusion and school improvement varied at strategic planning level and in operational delivery to schools; this important aim was not fully realised.

    There were many indications of impact. Awareness of and engagement with the IDP increased over the project and by November 2010 six out of ten teachers nationally were aware of the IDP: 66 per cent of primary and 49 per cent of secondary teachers. In addition, three quarters of SENCOs had attended LA training on the IDP. Between 70 per cent of teachers (dyslexia) and 84 per cent (AS) judged the training effective. The IDP training was also judged effective by 90 per cent or more SENCOs. They reported that the IDP CPD had promoted discussion of pupils’ teaching and learning needs (96 per cent SENCOs), improved teachers’ knowledge (94 per cent), improved teachers’ empathy with pupils having barriers to learning (90 per cent), and benefited the learning of targeted pupils (89 per cent). Furthermore, nine out of ten SENCOs reported that IDP training had led to improvements in pupils’ learning.

    Between two thirds and three quarters of teachers judged that the IDP materials had improved their knowledge, understanding and confidence to teach pupils with dyslexia, SLCN, AS and BESD, and newly qualified teachers were more confident to support pupils with SEND if they had received IDP training.

    The majority of LA leads had devised strategies to sustain and develop the gains made by the IDP.

    Mandatory qualification funding scheme

    This scheme was designed to address a shortage of specialist teachers of pupils with sensory impairment and the problems of an aging demographic, indicating greater shortages in the future. It provided for 188 places at ten courses training specialist teachers of hearing impaired, visually impaired or multisensory impaired pupils. The scheme was successful in attracting “new blood” and maintaining standards of entry; without the scheme, two thirds of the students would not have trained. It ran efficiently and was very positively rated by students: 98 per cent judged their course “effective” or “very effective”.

    Stammering Information Programme (SIP)

    The Michael Palin Centre successfully developed a DVD and materials to raise awareness of stammering among the teaching workforce. 97 per cent of speech and language therapists (SLTs) who had used the DVD considered that the SIP had changed teachers’ understanding of children who stammer. Almost all the teachers (98 per cent) and SLTs (97 per cent) rated the SIP well presented, readily accessible, informative about children who stammer and relevant to classroom practice. Furthermore, independent international experts were unanimous in endorsing its value.


    99 per cent of schools have a SENCO who is a qualified teacher. These work in 98 per cent of primary schools but in only 87 to 94 per cent of secondary schools (seven per cent of secondary teachers reported “no”, while seven per cent said “don’t know”). This is a concern. The SENCO is a member of the senior management team in 76 per cent of primary schools but only 29 per cent of secondary schools: another concern. The SENCO is a key role and, to be effective, surely must be a member of the senior leadership team, and certainly a qualified teacher.

    Implications for policy

    Our evaluation has important implications for policy which were picked up in the DfE’s recent SEN Green Paper.

    Increasing support for all ITT trainees
    Our evidence shows that the TDA Toolkit on SEN is an effective resource to support the initial training of teachers. It can be, and is being, embedded within providers’ programmes, but the Toolkit must be maintained and reviewed/revised periodically as necessary to ensure it is kept up to date. Cluster meetings of tutors were an important support and need to continue.

    Increasing trainee teachers’ awareness of special schools
    It may seem odd, even retrograde given a policy promoting inclusion, to place trainees in special schools, but this was a great success. It enabled trainees to see effective, skilled practice with pupils with high levels of SEN.

    Our evidence supports the Green Paper proposal to fund placements in special school settings for trainee teachers. We also argued that this should also be available for placements in specialist settings within mainstream schools to reflect the range of provision available.

    Increasing continuing professional development for teachers
    Our evidence supports the Green Paper proposal for continued availability of the materials for pupils with dyslexia, SLCN, BESD, and those on the AS. Teachers welcomed and benefitted from these resources. The Green Paper proposed to commission online training materials for teachers about profound, multiple learning disabilities, severe learning disabilities, and complex learning difficulties and disabilities. We recommended that these be piloted and that the Stammering Information Programme continue to be made available, and that an online version should be considered.

    Our evidence also indicated the importance of effective dissemination; without this, high quality resources cannot be used effectively. We recommended continuing the successful strategy used for the IDP dissemination, including national, regional and local leadership and coordination. However, in the absence of organisations such as the National Strategies, schools and LAs will need to construct local systems to meet their own circumstances, needs and priorities.

    SEND leadership and networks
    We also showed the importance of SEN being regarded as central to a school’s development. The Green Paper proposals regarding a network of teaching schools, appropriate coverage of SEN issues in the National Professional Qualification for Headship, and the development of national and local leaders of education are all appropriate developments in tune with our findings.

    Our research also shows the importance of effective systems to support training and CPD. Networks and leadership within SEN are crucial to create self-supporting partnerships between schools, meeting local needs by voluntary collegial engagement.

    However, our research has shown that not all SENCOs are qualified teachers, and are often not members of the senior leadership team, especially in secondary schools. Action has been taken to address the former issue and also to require all newly appointed SENCOs to undertake nationally approved training for SEN coordination. These requirements should help to raise the expertise and status of SENCOs and, as a consequence, make it more likely that they are actively engaged in schools at a senior level. Our evidence also shows that head teachers value highly their TAs’ knowledge of SEN. The Green Paper proposal for a fund to support further training in SEN will build upon this.

    Pupil attainment
    Improving teacher training (initial and CPD) is a prerequisite to improving pupil outcomes, both their attainment and wellbeing. Our evidence did not include direct measurement of pupil outcomes; for this we relied on data from the National Strategies. However, evidence indicates that the DfE initiatives were having a positive effect and so supports the investment in the Green Paper proposals.


    This multi-faceted government initiative is possibly unique. It provided a comprehensive programme of support to improve the attitudes, knowledge, skills, confidence and behaviour of teachers with the aim of improving outcomes for pupils with SEN. There are, of course, other factors including appropriate curricula and facilities, parental confidence and support, but teachers are fundamental to improving pupil outcomes. Our research provides extensive evidence that the initiative was successful.

    The Green Paper sets out the Government’s direction of travel. It presents a comprehensive statement of intended policy developments together with specific proposals. As the Green Paper notes, the life chances of children and young people in England who are identified as having SEN or are disabled are disproportionately poor. The importance of effective initial teacher training and CPD are fundamental to the delivery of optimal education to improve the attainment and wellbeing of pupils with SEN. Our research not only provides substantial evidence to support these proposals it also indicates how they might best be implemented.

    Further information

    Professor Geoff Lindsay is Director of the Centre for Educational Development, Appraisal and Research (CEDAR), University of Warwick:


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