SEN – An education for life beyond school

Working in the field of special needs is a calling

It was my first PGCE placement, a large comprehensive school in a coastal town. The time had come to meet the class for the first time. A date with destiny, well actually a date with the bottom set year 8 geography class. One that would begin my journey into education for those who didn’t quite fit into the mainstream schooling model. I walked in worksheets in hand to find one student was staring at the ceiling vent. Why? “I can hear rats up there, loads of ‘em.”

His TA, the first I had encountered in my placement was encouraging him back to the desk, but to no avail, he didn’t move all lessons. My limited experience with additional needs led to the assumption that this must be an act, some cunning plan to avoid the demands of plate tectonics, an attempt to undermine the authority of the teacher. If it was an act he never once broke character.

As the weeks progressed I got to know the children as individuals and the strategies that would work to engage them. This came with a caveat, for any classroom management strategy to work you must build up a rapport based on trust and mutual respect. Many children just want to know they are liked and valued. Discovering this and building relationships with the group was the most fun I had on any of my placements, it was the time I felt most connected to the students and felt I had made the most difference. In general, the top reasons people become teachers is to work with children, to make a difference, and for the variety it brings. Having fun is in a respectable sixth according to ATL ->

If teaching is a vocation then working in the field of special needs is a calling. That may sound clichéd, but I truly believe that teachers, especially teachers of SEN, must be passionate and willing to strive with the odds stacked against both them and their students. Whether you work in a PRU, special school or inclusion unit, with children diagnosed with ASD, ADHD, PMLD, SLD, or EBD you will be bombarded with a range of acronyms. PECS, EHCPs IEPs etc. Everything is labelled and neatly allocated. On paper that is. In reality, these serve as an aside to the unique young person you have chosen to dedicate your time to. You have taken responsibility for ensuring they have the best education you can provide them with. This will not be an easy task. Assessment data doesn’t fit, teaching strategies taught during initial training will be ineffective, the curriculum must be adapted at every point, no resources downloaded from the internet will be particularly useful, and so on.

It is essential that we have the highest and most aspirational expectations of the children we are responsible for educating. Many children will have had a negative experience of education, failed placements, bullying, being labelled. The very school environment can be a hostile place for those who process the world in a different way. More than the label it can be the lack of confidence in the child’s ability to develop and learn new skills that can be most damaging for their future prospects, and therefore their future wellbeing. It may be months before you see the extent of the progress the child is capable of, but when that moment comes, and it will, the rewards of choosing a career teaching SEN become palpable.

Whether you teach in a specialist provision or supporting children within a mainstream school you need to ensure learning is functional, encourages participation and provides the skills we all need as the basis for our learning and development through life. Working with some of the most vulnerable children in the country we must ensure that we teach self-awareness, identity and decision making. We need our children to leave the school system confident, with high self-esteem and as independent as possible.

There is a common myth that the education of children diagnosed with neurological or physical disorders should not include academic skills. That their education should focus purely on life skills. I don’t agree with the simplicity of that statement. That notion suggests that academic skills are irrelevant and hold no value, that the child will never need to apply these. It devalues those skills and will limit the future prospects of that child. I have seen the impact a successful placement can have on the life of a child. How they can leave as confident young adults having achieved so much. They would not be leaving with the capacity to learn more if we had not provided the opportunity to experience all elements of education. We should not deny our students the opportunity to experience a curriculum that encompasses all aspects of learning. As a teacher it is our role to make the teaching of these academic skills as relevant, motivating and engaging as possible. We must identify the child’s unique abilities and adapt the curriculum to ensure it fits and works for the child, through sensory input, interaction, communication systems or exploring their communities. Literacy and maths may not be the top priority or even delivered as a discrete subject but it is vital they are included.

Every child is entitled to a broad and balanced curriculum. When we choose to work in SEN we must ensure that is also relevant and accessible. With the child and the highest of expectations at the centre. An education for life beyond school.

Joe is Assistant Headteacher of a residential special school for autism and communication difficulties in Kent. He tweets at @jw_teach and blogs about SEN, technology and leadership at

The article originally appeared in the February edition of UKEdMagazine,which is freely available on Issuu

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The Editorial Account of UKEdChat, managed by editor-in-chief Colin Hill, with support from Martin Burrett from the UKEd Magazine. Pedagogy, Resources, Community.

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