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Specialist expertise can help all learners with SEND thrive

Two findings from Ofsted’s most recent professional development review stood out as particularly noteworthy in the realm of special educational needs and disabilities (SEND): first, that specialist settings struggle to offer high quality training opportunities; second, that mainstream teachers want more training in teaching pupils with SEND.

Teachers in specialist schools do amazing work, managing some of the most complex challenges on a day-to-day basis. So how can we best harness existing knowledge and expertise and share it across colleagues who are not only in the specialist sector, but also in mainstream schools?

National frameworks like the ITTECF are an important foundation for teachers across all settings to learn how to deliver universal, high-quality teaching. Following recent changes to the framework, they are even more focused than ever on developing teachers’ capacity to adapt to meet the needs of learners with SEND.

The challenge for professional development providers is how to build on that strong foundation and identify the specialist knowledge teachers require to support learners with the most complex needs.

We have had the privilege of working with some brilliant specialist settings like the Shaw Education Trust, and we share these thoughts in the spirit of committing to a genuine partnership with the specialist sector – one that is continually adapting to the multiplicity of settings and the individuals within them.

As we engage with our specialist partners, there are two pitfalls we seek to avoid falling into.

Undervaluing expertise

The first of these is that we risk the specialist sector feeling like they are being ‘done to’. Many of those who are disabled, experience disability or who have worked in vulnerable communities will often use this phrase to describe their experience.

It can be described as telling people with disabilities prescriptively what to do and how to do it, without integrating the expertise of professionals within that community or recognising the voice of experts by experience.

We need to be acutely aware of this risk. In our context, it undervalues the rich bounty of knowledge and practice in the specialist sector and it can close the doors to deep collaboration. We need to work with colleagues in the specialist sector to ensure they know and feel we are working together: ‘done with’, not ‘done to’.

Failing to learn

The second risk is failing to leverage the opportunity to mobilise knowledge for all children with SEND. As a national provider we work with a rich array of settings, but there is still a risk our work with specialist settings stays only within that arena.

Specialist schools have lots to teach their mainstream colleagues. To ignore the rich learnings that can be drawn from their excellent practice would be to underserve children with SEND in mainstream.

Lessons for the sector

So what have we learned about developing high quality professional development for those working with children with SEND?

Recognise different types of expertise 

Through focussed, deep dialogue over time, rooted in mutual respect, we were able to tentatively identify how our relative expertise and ways of working fit together.

Build a unified knowledge base

 By integrating what we know from research with insights and best practice from specialist educators, while building synergy with national frameworks, we are able to work towards the goal of building a unified knowledge base over time.

Keep learning

We must recognise that with something so complex, the search for definitive answers is an unobtainable endeavour. Instead, we need to work as humble thought partners with the specialist sector; only by focusing on continuous improvement we will be able to mobilise the very best knowledge and practice for children with SEND.

Our early steps on the partnership journey have taught us so much – through these rich and dynamic interactions, we have had just as much to learn from colleagues in specialist settings as we hoped they would from us. We hope these conversations will only continue to grow.

There is a huge opportunity to improve the quality of education for children with SEND and to better support the teachers serving them. Working with the specialist sector to shape, identify and integrate their expertise into bespoke professional development is the best way to develop the knowledge and practice that will support the needs of our most complex learners in all settings.

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