A year after receiving DfE funding Nasen has launched ‘Focus on’, its free online CPD for teachers and practitioners working in mainstream schools in England. Mick Archer spoke to Alison Wilcox, Nasen’s Education Development Officer, about the projectFor many parents of children with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND) delivery of their child’s support plan is a major concern. Having fought to have their son or daughter’s SEND recognised, and the additional provision specified, the implementation inexplicably founders. The reasons can be many, but one that surfaces time after time is that the staff within the child’s educational setting lack the knowledge and expertise to make it happen. It’s not a lack of will; it’s that they’re just not prepared for what might follow.
It’s a concern repeatedly highlighted in the evaluation reports of the SEND Pathfinder Programme, usually under the heading ‘workforce development’. As one report puts it:
Throughout the course of the SEN and Disability Pathfinder Evaluation, workforce development has consistently been identified as a key priority, but also one of the most challenging aspects of change management required to deliver the reforms.
Ensuring that staff from across SEN, social care, health and wider agencies have the appropriate skills and knowledge to deliver the SEND reforms is no easy task, it says:
It requires a range of activities, policies and programmes, tailored to all key stakeholders involved.
Of course ‘workforce development’ is more than training, as this and previous reports emphasise. It requires a ‘significant cultural change’ involving joint working, person-centred approaches, and outcome-led provision. But with workforce development strategies in place in most areas, the focus is now on implementation, and in particular how to facilitate workforce development in schools. Schools will play a key role in delivery, the report argues, but ensuring they engage effectively ‘will require considerable workforce development efforts’.
A whole-school approach
It’s a view Alison Wilcox, Nasen’s Education Development Officer, shares. Earlier this year we met at the Education Show at Birmingham’s NEC and I asked her about the progress being made with ‘Focus on SEND Training’ – Nasen’s project aimed at bridging this gap. ‘Focus on’ is a free online programme of continuing professional development (CPD). At the time of our meeting it was at the functional testing stage and will be formally launched this week at Nasen Live, taking place at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds.
Wilcox, who joined Nasen in November 2014, has spent much of the last 18 months working on the project. After 14 years as a primary teacher she moved to work for Birmingham City Council (BCC) as a specialist teacher in their pupil and school support service before joining Nasen. While with BCC she supported special educational needs co-ordinators (SENCOs) strategically in schools but also individual youngsters with learning and cognitive difficulties.
Prior to the Children and Families Bill and the introduction of new Code of Practice in September 2014 Nasen’s main focus was supporting SENCOs in mainstream schools. With the introduction of the new Code this changed. Not only did the Children and Families Bill bring together provision for children and young adults from 0-25 it also scrapped the previous school-based categories of School Action and School Action Plus. It replaced these with a ‘whole school’ approach to SEN that emphasised the responsibility and accountability of all teachers in mainstream schools in England ‘for the progress and development of the pupils in their class’, even where they access support from teaching assistants or specialist staff.
In response to these changes Nasen applied for a Department for Education (DfE) voluntary and community sector (VCS) grant to ‘Support teachers to provide high quality teaching as the first response to identifying and meeting the needs of children and young people with SEN support’. In March 2015 it was awarded almost £460,000, part of a £5.9 million package of grants given to SEND organisations. The funding in place the challenge was to come up with an offering that drew on existing research into effective CPD while recognising the time constraints teachers and practitioners face in an increasingly demanding school environment. ‘Focus on’ was the result.
Intended for all mainstream settings across England, ‘Focus on’ consists of approximately nine hours of free online CPD available 24 hours a day. There are six modules, the first five of which have knowledge-based content, practical activities for the learner to work through in his or her setting and guidance for reflection in order to support the practitioner in consolidating learning. These cover High Quality Practice, Participation and Engagement, Identifying Needs, Outcomes, and Meeting Needs. The final module draws inspiration from the action research process and enables learners to use what they have learnt, in context, in order to identify ways of improving their practice.
Wilcox describes ‘Focus on’ as a first step‘ for teachers and practitioners to re-examine the key principles of the Code of Practice, to understand it better, but also to develop reflective practice habits.’ The challenge she says was not to try to impart all of the knowledge that there is around SEND but to embed a process.
What we are trying to do with “Focus on” is not make specialists in SEN at all; it is much more about attacking that high quality teaching. So we are thinking about the universal classroom provision level. What does high quality teaching look like for our children and young peoples with SEND and how is that different? And how do we start to branch out and become a bit more evidence based as a profession?
In embedding this process the project team has taken its lead from the Code of Practice.
What we’ve done is link the conceptual framework of the ‘Focus on’ SEND training to Assess, Plan, Do, Review, or the graduated approach within the Code of Practice. The Code describes this as ‘a four-part cycle through which earlier decisions and actions are revisited, refined and revised with a growing understanding of the pupil’s needs and of what supports the pupil in making good progress and securing good outcomes.
‘Focus on’ also draws on sounds principles, identified by research, of what constitutes good CPD.
- That it is prolonged. The most effective CPD lasts for at least two terms, with most lasting for more than a year.
- That it includes a ‘rhythm’ of follow-up, consolidation and support activities.
- That it is designed for participants’ needs – ensuring the ‘buy-in’ through making the content relevant to the participants’ day-to-day experiences of, and aspirations for, their pupils.
- That it includes activities to reinforce messages in the training and test ideas from different perspectives through collaboration.
While Wilcox describes the experiential and collaborative aspects of the programme as important, it’s the reflective aspect she sees as key.
What we are really saying is whilst nobody holds all the knowledge around SEND it’s a bit about having that professional curiosity and will to keep developing and growing so that as practitioners you keep on learning. It’s lifelong learning, so it’s about building learning communities in schools that include the staff.
Thirty-five years after the 1981 Education Act I couldn’t help but ask why she thinks workforce development remains such a challenge. She cites several factors including the volume and pace of change in education, which she describes as ‘non-stop’; the fact that the system is built on accountability and the workload that inevitably generates; and changes reflected in the cohorts of children arriving in schools, thanks in large part to earlier identification.
She also cites the reduction in the number of places available in specialist provision; the welcome increases in the life expectancy of children with complex needs; and, of course, the expanding knowledge base of how teachers can best support children with SEND.
We need to be able to balance the responsibilities of teachers to meet those needs with their right to ongoing, good, professional development that equips them to deal with those challenges. I don’t think that will ever stop.
Professional growth, she says, is about teachers being able to talk to each other and to bounce ideas around.
They need to have that time for peer discussion. So it’s about being able to build structures in schools that support that model of moving teachers on, because that school-to-school support, that looking at CPD across multi-academy trusts, across teaching school alliances, drawing on specialisms from special school colleagues, it all needs a process to sit within.
Thanks to the DfE funding ‘Focus on’ has been able to draw on the collective expertise of a wide range of specialist writers as well as representatives from different sectors and parents’ groups. As Wilcox explains the end product is not just a suite of materials to read but an interactive course, which required technical expertise to develop as well.
While individual teachers and practitioners can enrol themselves on the course the ideal model is for the school’s SENCO to enrol teachers based on what they think each teacher’s development needs are. The SENCO then has overview of coverage across the course, which helps inform their performance management. It also means the SENCO can see the reflective pieces that teachers submit to their learning logs, something Wilcox describes as ‘an extra tier of opportunity’ should they want or need to intervene to offer further support.
Initially Nasen hopes that ‘Focus on’ will lead to some form of CPD certification but says eventually it might contribute to some broader accreditation.
Moving forward Nasen is keen to build on ‘Focus on’ and have further training, particularly when we get to evaluate what people have found from this in terms of what they would like their next steps to look like. We would be keen when we build on that to consider accreditation for teachers and practitioners.
Meanwhile she sounds a positive note for our overseas readers:
It’s written for an English market because it is funded by the DfE but that doesn’t mean it’s not useful for practitioners across the board. Obviously it is written against our legislation but the key principles within our legislation are the key principles that you find across the piece, in terms of engagement, participation and so on. So yes, it is accessible. But we are also keen to be looking at reaching teaching colleagues further afield.