SEND for Help!

What can we do about the SEN & SEND teacher shortage?

As we leave behind what’s already being called the second ‘winter of discontent’, the coming spring offers little prospect of a thaw in relations between the government and the teaching unions. Of course, the dispute isn’t just about money and teachers’ loss of around 23% of real terms pay (and support workers loss of 27%) since 2010. Equally important is its huge detrimental impact on recruitment and retention – and nowhere is the damage greater than in the SEN and SEND teaching sector.

It’s not just the money

A piece in The Guardian last December highlighted a survey showing that almost all England’s state schools are finding it difficult or impossible to support children with special educational needs properly. In fact, only 6 out of 922 Special Educational Needs and Disabilities schools said they didn’t have a problem providing enough SEN/SEND teachers and teaching assistants. And, of course, the fewer SEN and SEND staff you have, the more pressure there is on the people you do have – and there you have the retention problem, which is only an indirect consequence of poor pay. Because teaching assistants can earn more working at the local supermarket, schools say ‘crucial support workers are leaving in droves’.

Demand is growing fast

In England, almost 1.5 million pupils need SEND support. And according to a article in February last year by Rowan Eggar, nearly half a million children across the UK have Educational Health Care Plans (EHCP). That was a year ago – and that represents a 480% increase since 2016. 

So what’s the answer?

Well, as we’re sure almost every education professional would agree, an overall pay increase would be a great start, hopefully followed by much-improved recruitment and retention of SEN and SEND teachers and teaching assistants. However, there are other root causes of the chronic shortage. One of which needs to be addressed most urgently: the UK’s complete lack of specialist SEND teacher training – it’s not even part of the PGCE or BA qualifications! One survey reported in the Times Educational Supplement in 2019 showed that teachers’ lack of training in SEND and managing student behaviour was in the top two reasons for leaving. 

So, perhaps the UK should be looking to emulate the success of South Africa and Hungary – two world leaders in special needs teacher training.  We need to lobby the government, local authorities, and educational think-tanks. Not just for the improved pay and conditions that will attract and keep more SEN and SEND teachers, but also for the development of specialist SEND training programmes at all levels.

Apprenticeships, placements and more…

As well as including SEND course elements in post-graduate (or indeed undergraduate) studies, Rowan Eggar (among other experts) also advocates the creation of an apprenticeship route into SEN/SEND teacher/teaching assistant careers. Another extremely helpful and pragmatic suggestion is the inclusion of teacher training for all teachers of SEND placements. These would give teachers of all categories and disciplines vital experience of working with SEN/SEND pupils that would benefit their work whether they’re in the mainstream or a specialist environment. Finally – and perhaps the simplest, common-sense solution – is the idea of enlisting the talents and experience of the SEN/SEND teachers and teaching assistants we do have as mentors. 

It is, at least, encouraging to find that there are potential solutions out there – and that they appear sensible, pragmatic, and achievable without necessarily requiring a vast investment.