Why is effective professional support and development important?

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Alex Grady discusses the need for appropriate Professional Development programming for teacher retention and optimising learning outcomes for SEND pupils.

Now, more than ever, the importance of a school workforce that is effective and motivated cannot be overestimated; the expectation to ‘close the gaps’ and ‘recover’ from the pandemic, lockdowns and school closures is high, and the burden of achieving that for our children and young people will mainly fall on schools. This is one of the key reasons why professional support and its leadership in schools is crucial.

Professional development (PD) opportunities which are carefully designed, with a strong focus on pupil outcomes, have a significant impact on the achievement of children and young people (Teacher Development Trust: Developing Great Teaching, 2015). This includes children and young people who have special educational needs or disabilities (SEND), for whom the highest quality of teaching is essential to meet their potential, and achieve successful outcomes both in school and in adult life.

To stay on top of this, we need to retain the teachers we have, in addition to recruiting more (over 20% of new teachers leave within their first two years and 33% within five years). The National Foundation for Educational Research (NfER) and the Teacher Development Trust (TDT) published research in 2020 which found that the area with the greatest potential to increase job satisfaction and retention is autonomy over PD goals.

The number of pupils attending special schools is rising (134,176 pupils in state-funded special schools in 2020-21 compared to 105,363 in 2015-16), leading to a shortage of places. In response, the government has announced the creation of an additional 30,000 places as part of a £2.6billion pot for SEND in the 2021 Budget. However, supporting these places will require the recruitment of additional high-quality staff, and ongoing effective PD for all those working in the specialist sector, to support retention and effectiveness.

In mainstream schools, at least 30% of special educational needs coordinators (SENCOs) report that they do not intend to still be in the role in five years’ time (National SENCO Workload Survey, 2018, Bath Spa University and nasen). The role of SENCO is one of only a few statutory roles in schools and requires the completion of the National Award for SENCO (NASENCO) within three years for the vast majority. We need to ensure that all SENCOs are offered effective PD beyond the NASENCO if we are to retain them in the role, as well as ensuring that SEN provision in  schools is as effective as it can be.

One of a SENCO’s key roles is to support the PD of other staff in the area of SEND, and to be able to do this effectively, they need their own ongoing PD and support. This can be achieved with organisations like nasen and Whole School SEND, which both offer support and PD to SENCOs and others, through free membership and other services.

What does effective professional development and support look like?

There is clear evidence on the characteristics of effective PD for teachers. TDT’s Developing Great Teaching (2015) describes the elements that produce profound and lasting change: duration (at least two terms); a rhythm of follow-up, consolidation and support; a shared sense of purpose; alignment of principles; subject knowledge and pedagogy (including alternative pedagogies for pupils with ‘different needs’).

These principles are reflected in the DfE’s Standard for teachers’ professional development (2016) which describes effective PD as a partnership between school leaders, teachers and providers. There should be a focus on improving and evaluating pupil outcomes; programmes should be underpinned by robust evidence and expertise; they should include collaboration and expert challenge; be sustained over time and be prioritised by school leadership.

The reformed Initial Teacher Training Core Content Framework (DfE, 2019) and the Early Career Framework (ECF, DfE, 2019), along with the new National Professional Qualifications (including Leading Teacher Development, DfE, 2020), form a golden thread which will support teachers throughout their career. However, these alone will not meet the need for effective SEND PD for all teachers in mainstream and special schools/ settings. This gap has the potential to be compounded by the move from Teaching School Alliances, many of which were specialists in SEND, to Teaching School Hubs, the vast majority of which are not. There will be a greater responsibility on school leaders to seek out PD for SEND which meets the Standards and the principles in ‘Developing Great Teaching’.

There is a clear role for coaching and/or mentoring in effective PD. TDT (2015) states that ‘facilitators of the most successful programmes act as coaches and/or mentors to participants’, treating participants as ‘peers and co-learners’. This develops an ethos of high challenge and low threat, where professionals can work together to problem-solve around issues and implement changes together; rather than being told what they should do, regardless of context and individual differences. The use of Lesson Study has also been found to be highly effective for pupils with SEND, as described by Norwich and Ylonen (2013) in their work with secondary pupils with Moderate Learning Difficulties.

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has produced useful guidance on implementation, which would be helpful in supporting school leaders who wish to change their approach to PD so that it is in line with the Standards. The EEF’s ‘Special Educational Needs in Mainstream Schools’ summary of recommendations may be used to develop an understanding of what is required for effective provision for pupils with SEND, elements of which could be used in professional support and development.

Is professional development for SEND different?

The characteristics of effective PD apply whatever the subject matter. However, it is worth considering how to ensure that when PD is focused on some of the aspects within, for example, the early-career framework – such as cognitive science – the nuances of how to apply such approaches to individuals with SEN are not lost.

A reminder of the definition of SEN is helpful here; i.e. that a child has a special educational need if special educational provision is required – for instance, a provision that is additional to and different from that which their peers receive (SEND Code of Practice, 2015). By definition, then, we need to consider how such approaches, while meeting the needs of the vast majority, should be adapted to meet individual needs. ‘Developing Great Teaching’ states that PD programmes should put forward ‘alternative pedagogies for pupils with different needs’.

Care is also needed to ensure that, when considering subject- specific pedagogy, pedagogy for SEND is built in; that it cuts across all subject areas, and that all subject-focused PD includes at least an element of SEND. This links logically with an emphasis on understanding ‘how pupils learn’ and ‘adaptive teaching’ throughout the Teacher Development Reforms, both of which require an understanding of individual profiles and needs.

Whole School SEND’s PD Groups

As part of Whole School SEND’s funded work for the DfE’s Schools SEND Workforce Development contract, we have this year implemented PD Groups focused on SEND in each region of England. Led by WSS’s Regional SEND Leaders, the groups bring together school leaders from across primary, secondary and special schools (including Alternative Provision), as well as mainstream schools.

Early reports indicate that participants find the professional discussions in the groups, as ‘peers and co-learners’, stimulating and beneficial, especially in tandem with the professional challenge that SEND leaders can provide. All participants also have regular 1:1 coaching/mentoring sessions with leaders, where they can look at their individual contexts in more depth. We look forward to sharing the outcomes of these professional development groups in 2022, where we plan to publish both the outcomes from individual projects run in schools, and a review of how successful the groups have been as forms of PD.

Track our progress at sendgateway.org.uk, or by following us on Twitter at @nasen_org

Guidelines for school leaders for implementing effective professional development for SEND:

• Familiarise yourself with the principles set out in the Standard for Teachers’ Professional Development (DfE) and Developing Great Teaching (TDT), including the use of coaching/mentoring and/or lesson study

• When engaging external providers of continuing professional development, look for those providers who are able to demonstrate that they meet these principles

• Use the EEF’s implementation guidance along with ‘SEN mainstream schools’ (if relevant) to consider how to implement effective changes to your school’s PD programme

• Ensure that your SENCO is receiving high quality PD beyond the NASENCO, and that they are able to effectively support the development of other staff

• Consider how you can maximise teachers’ autonomy with regard to their PD, in order to increase job satisfaction and retention

• Ensure that SEND is built into all PD, including subject-specific PD

Alex Grady
Author: Alex Grady

Alex Grady
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Alex Grady is Head of Whole School SEND at nasen.
W: nasen.org.uk

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