Image of How New DfE Guidance on ITT Training is Helping to Unlock the Potential of Pupils with SEND

How New DfE Guidance on ITT Training is Helping to Unlock the Potential of Pupils with SEND

In this blog, Frances Akinde, SEND adviser, inspector and former headteacher in a secondary special school for learners with autism and associated difficulties, provides expert insight into the government’s new initial teacher training (ITT) guidance. 

Last month saw the release of the DfE publication on ITT in special schools and alternative provision. This non-statutory guidance on special schools (including alternative provision, pupil referral units, and mainstream schools with SEN resource units) encourages accredited ITT providers to involve special schools in their ITT partnerships, and is part of the DfE's initiative to create “a world-class teacher development system” .

The guidance expresses the aim to support teachers with high-quality training and development: 

“This is creating a ‘golden thread’ of school professional development that teachers can draw on at every stage of their careers. The overall aim of this golden thread is to support teachers with high-quality training and development and improve outcomes for all children, including those with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) in special and mainstream schools.” 

By producing this guidance, the DfE has acknowledged that school placements in both special and mainstream schools contribute towards the overall programme experience for trainee teachers. 

Approaches to learners with SEND 

The guidance goes on to state that: 

“Where there is a placement in a special school, partnerships should think about the stage of the trainee’s development, and how to contextualise what the trainee has learned – in terms of special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), adaptive teaching, differences within behaviour management, and how this relates to their overall development across their ITT programme.” 

Educators who work in special schools have been calling for this approach for a long time, and many have existing partnerships with ITT providers to facilitate exactly this. 

Teaching in specialist provision requires a lateral rather than linear approach. In contrast, mainstream schools can take more of a homogenous, whole-school approach. While a lateral approach in specialist provision prioritises individualisation, differentiation and collaboration, a linear approach in mainstream schools emphasizes consistency, curriculum alignment and whole-class instruction. 

However, these methods are not mutually exclusive, and teachers often employ a combination of strategies based on the unique needs of their students and the context of their teaching environment. 

As a former special school headteacher, I welcome the guidance. By encouraging school placements in both mainstream and specialist provisions, trainee teachers will be more skilled. Therefore, they will feel more confident to address the diverse needs of their students and contribute positively to inclusive education in mainstream schools. 

Latest SEND statistics 

The latest headline figures around SEND provide the following statistics:

  • just over 1.5 million children in England have special education needs, an increase of 77,000 from 2021
  • 12.6% of our school population receive SEN support (up from 12.2% in 2021)
  • of these who receive SEN support, 4% of pupils have an EHCP plan (up from 3.7% in 2021) 

With increased understanding and awareness, figures will continue to rise. Mainstream schools need to be more inclusive, and teachers need support to feel more confident to meet the needs of their students. This guidance is an important step in ensuring a positive and inclusive environment in which all our learners can thrive.

Quality first teaching 

Special school placements offer valuable insights into inclusive teaching practices. Trainee teachers can observe and participate in specialised approaches for disabled students. This exposure helps trainees develop skills in differentiated instruction, classroom management, and supporting students with diverse needs. To me, this is important. Special schoolteachers know how to differentiate due to the diverse needs of their classes, as they have students with a wide range of cognitive and physical needs that require a very individualised approach. The DfE guidance states that: 

“The focus on quality first teaching that underpins our ITT reforms should prepare Early Career Teachers (ECT) to work in a range of settings, including special schools.” 

They are right to emphasise that quality first teaching (QFT), also referred to as high quality teaching (HQT), is the first step in ensuring that the needs of all children and young people with SEND are met, in any given educational setting. This, therefore, plays a key role in reducing the number of children and young people who may have needed to access SEN interventions and targeted support if QFT, which understood and catered for their needs, had not been in place. 

Adaptable and flexible teaching

Regardless of the argument around differentiation or adaptive teaching (or whatever you prefer to call it), teachers need to be adaptable and flexible in their teaching practices. Working in both special and mainstream schools exposes them to a variety of teaching methods, curriculum adaptations, and behaviour management strategies

This helps them develop the ability to tailor their teaching to meet the needs of individual students and adapt their approaches to different contexts. 

Having the opportunity to observe experienced teachers receiving feedback and engaging in reflective practice, trainees can refine their teaching skills to ensure that their classrooms are truly inclusive, and share this with their whole school to ensure the same across the school. 

Wellbeing of trainee teachers

The guidance states that a trainee teacher cannot complete two placements in special settings, however they can in mainstream schools, citing the need for what they describe as: “a balance of placements.” 

One of the reasons for this seems to be the need to “consider the wellbeing of trainees and ensure trainees are well prepared for all their school placements”

But as effective mentoring is now a core component of ITT from September 2024, as set out in the ITT market review recommendations (page 13), this will support the wellbeing of trainee teachers. 

As the guidance states: 

“Mentors with special school experience can and do add value to the overall training experience” … The collaboration of mentors across special and mainstream schools to embed school expertise and insight into partnerships is encouraged.” 

This begs the question: does this mean that teachers with an interest in special schools will be allocated a mentor from a specialist provision? 

So in conclusion, for me, the DfE could have gone one step further by making this policy compulsory rather than guidance. However, at least this is a strong acknowledgement that most teachers do not know enough about the SEND code of practice, and by putting this guidance in place, it becomes clear that quality first teaching is one of the vital keys to, as the guidance puts it, “unlocking the potential of all pupils, including those with SEND.”