Training to make a difference



Margaret Mulholland explains how teacher training can support recruitment and retention of school staff

If you were asked to recommend teaching to a friend, what would you say?

I know what I’d say: teaching is a rewarding profession and teaching pupils with identified SEN who struggle with learning brings additional, deeper reward. At the heart of our job is the ability to celebrate pupil difference and take pride in our vocation to bring out the best in our pupils.

Last year, I was fortunate to work with education leaders from Apple. They talked about why people join the company and why so few want to leave. Their mantra was: “We come here to do our life’s work”. This is a marvellous sentiment, suggesting lifelong commitment to making a difference; it made me feel good just hearing it and is exactly how I think all good teachers feel about what they do.

Yet today we have a shortage of teachers, particularly acute in special settings and in mainstream schools with high populations of pupils with SEN and disabilities. Real-terms cuts to school funding add to teacher retention challenges.  The very real perception of workload pressure remains a barrier to recruitment and retention, and training costs are a challenge now that primary teacher training bursaries are no longer available. On top of this, those who want to teach in a special setting regularly report mixed messages about career progression.


The Department for Education (DfE) is attempting to address teacher shortages. The “skills test” which had proved to be a barrier for many new applicants has been discarded. And there is a new advertising campaign to drive recruitment. Debate on social media has highlighted the need to include the benefits of teachers working with pupils with SEN and disabilities in its media messaging.

To support the specific difficulties in attracting teachers to the SEN sector, it is a shame the DfE recruitment and retention strategy failed to look in any detail at the unique professional reward of providing for learners whose profiles are complex across health, behaviour or cognition challenges.

In these settings, workload hurdles are less about marking and preparation and more about the relational and emotional challenges, and the highly personalised nature of all interactions with children and families. This needs addressing explicitly by the DfE when reviewing the recruitment and retention strategy.

We should always train to teach all children, rather than learn to teach in a particular context. Pupils don’t come with a pre-defined mainstream or special label. However, information for those passionate about working with vulnerable learners and interested in applying to training programmes that champion disability and difference needs to be clearer. Further, opportunities offered by schools and universities should be more consistent, rather than determined by luck or locality.

Teacher training needs even greater focus on classroom diversity. We need to train teachers for the breadth of atypical pupils, not just for “average” children; we need training to teach individuals.

This will strengthen our profession as well as our provision, and requires further development of the initial teacher training curriculum. Currently, some courses do offer modules focused on SEN and disabilities. Whilst this is helpful, a more powerful approach would be to permeate SEN across the whole programme rather than as a separate “option”, reflecting the academic, social and emotional diversity in our pupil cohorts.

There is validity to the argument that more money in education, more flexible pathways into teacher training, and a heightened focus on the most vulnerable will help teacher recruitment. In addition, I would stress that what is most needed is a change in the current framework of accountability to incentivise inclusivity of schools.

Inclusive training

In the past, England has had teacher training pathways that prepared teachers for working in a special school. I can see how this can plug a recruitment gap and act as an effective short-term fix, but it is not a strategic response to strengthening the profession.

My difficulty with this approach is that it encouraged discriminatory behaviour, creating a perception that teachers who trained in special education were somehow unable to teach a class of 30.

In 2020, nine out of ten children with SEN and disabilities are in mainstream schools. I’d prefer not to distort the understanding of what good teacher education is: learning to teach all children, not just learning to teach in a particular setting, or “special” children. I look forward to the development of the impending National Professional Qualifications that will develop specialist knowledge and pedagogy of inclusivity.

We should also do more to encourage those who have worked as teaching assistants in special settings to extend their training to become qualified teachers. Many will have had one-to-one experiences, getting to know pupils who have the most complex academic, health, and social profiles. They learn about the child and their family, and know how important holistic understanding can be to meeting the academic needs of the child who finds learning so difficult.

A new direction

We should absolutely celebrate the benefits of learning to teach the most vulnerable pupils in our classrooms and I wager we will see teacher recruitment improve. However, a radical shift in approach will need to happen: we will have to let go of the one-size-fits-all approach to teaching, and we will have to stop the excessive measuring of one child against the other. We should be shouting from the rooftops why teaching in a special school or working in a school with a high proportion of pupils with SEN and disabilities is a career maker, not a career breaker.

About the author

Margaret Mulholland is SEND and Inclusion Specialist at The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL). She writes a monthly research column for Tes with a focus on inclusion and initial teacher training.



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