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Why the role of specialist teachers needs an overhaul

Headteachers are pouring their souls into ensuring that their schools provide an effective and accessible curriculum for all their pupils. Yet for some, particularly pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), catch up in subjects such as literacy is often a journey rather than a destination.  

Schools are in desperate need of additional staff, expertise and the time to put them to good use to improve outcomes for pupils with literacy difficulties. 

In 2009, the Rose Review recommended a range of measures to help schools do just that and end the significant disparity in outcomes. The government of the day pledged £10 million to pay for the training of 4,000 specialist teachers.

However, our new Hide and Seek report shows that from the £6.6 million that has actually been spent, very little has materialised in support of headteachers and their pupils.

SEND support failure

The role of specialist teachers is poorly understood by schools – and undervalued as a consequence. Just 4 per cent of the 700 specialists we surveyed said they worked in mainstream schools and, of those that do, most (91 per cent) work solely on a one-to-one basis or carry out assessments.

Three-quarters of schools report no access to a specialist teacher and our analysis of Local Authority Local Offers revealed that 30 per cent lacked any mention of specialists, too.

Specialist teacher qualifications are overly complicated and opaque. There is confusion as to what they are actually trained to do, and we uncovered murky practices whereby children undergo assessments by specialists who are either underqualified or have failed to keep their knowledge up to date.

Nearly a third of survey respondents reported having had no subsequent professional development. 

Specialist teachers: a new solution

So what needs to happen? Our research clearly points to money wasted but also concludes with recommendations that could actually save money in the future.

The first priority is for training providers and accrediting bodies to get their house in order. They need to clearly define the role of specialists, create a single qualification route and ensure specialists are suitably registered with a single entity. Most importantly, we need to advocate for specialists to support frontline teaching colleagues, share good practice and contribute to wider efforts for improvement.

Given the climate of critical political and professional issues, such as Covid-19 and Brexit, the government should draw on existing resources to help schools now. But the widespread deployment of specialists has not even started to materialise either in policy priorities or schools.

I struggle to think of any real benefit to the system. It is staggering that specialists have been left out of the strategy to improve literacy, such as through the national catch-up programme and English Hubs.

So far the policy to fund the training of specialists has failed. Rose’s intentions were the right ones and they hold true a decade on. Now is the time for government to recall its prior commitments and take action to ensure that specialist professionals, of all types, are recruited and trained in adequate numbers.

Since it has delayed its own SEND review, the government has plenty of time to rectify the past vain attempt to get this right.

Chris Rossiter

Chief Executive, DYT

Chris originally trained as an applied psychologist and has worked across the private, public and charitable sector for over 15 years. Has has particular expertise in special educational needs and disability, and organisational psychology. He is a primary Chair of Governors, Trustee of the Astrea Academy Trust, member of the literacy sub-committee of the Hastings Opportunity Area and Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

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