Specialist teachers should be woven into the DNA of your school, not tacked on as a patch, says Jules Daulby

It always strikes when I visit special schools how few interventions outside of the classroom they have.

You may, as a mainstream leader be thinking “well, that’s obvious, the specialisms permeate through the school because, you know, the clue is in the name”.

I’d agree, but let’s think about that for a second. Where are the experts? Sure, the class teacher and attached teaching assistants are experienced, but interlaced through the school are specialists, educational psychologists, speech and language and occupational therapists. Often peripatetic, teachers still know these experts well, see them in and out of lessons and include them as part of staff meetings. Often such support is in the classroom alongside teaching staff, which is key to universal strategies being embedded in every classroom.

They just need phonics, pure and simple

For a child with dyslexia or a literacy difficulty in mainstream schools this should be the same and it used to be for children with dyslexia in many mainstream schools. As an NQT in 1997, I often had an advisory specialist teacher in my classroom, taking children out for short periods of time or informing me about the children with dyslexia I taught and what strategies worked best. But get this, the service was free – provided by the local authority. It seems as alien a concept now as university students receiving a free education.

Specialist teachers are now either a traded service through the local authority, bought in by schools privately or you may even have a full time one who was trained using funding from the Department for Education following the Rose Report of 2009. If you have a specialist teacher and I recommend it, how might you get more bang for your buck?

Here are three questions to ask about your specialist teachers:

  1. Do specialist teachers work with classroom staff?

Building capacity in schools is vital; these specialists should be supporting both children and staff. Advice for universal strategies in the classroom should be part of their remit.

  1. Do any of your staff watch the specialist teacher work?

This is free CPD and will allow permanent members of staff – both teachers and TAs – to learn and transfer into their own teaching. Working alongside specialist teachers is luxury but well worth the investment.

  1. Is support in small groups or 1:1?

One-on-one is the Rolls-Royce service for children with dyslexia. For those who are most severe, including a discrepancy between their literacy skills and oral language, it’s probably the only way to help them. They don’t need self-esteem classes, or inference/comprehension lessons, they just need phonics, pure and simple. But 1:1 is expensive.

Small group work is efficient and can make a difference, but beware of groupings. The most toxic and inefficient group combines a highly articulate child with poor reading and writing skills, alongside a child who has poor understanding and expression of oral language with seemingly functional decoding and writing. This combination is doomed to fail, and unlikely to have any positive impact at all. You’ll be wasting everyone’s time and money and the children would be better in the classroom with their peers.

Finally, where should these specialist teachers fit into your whole-school strategy? Here’s a skeleton plan:

  1. Universal strategies for your classroom, based on knowing the child and an understanding of how to remove and improve barriers.

  2. A targeted response outside the classroom, should it be needed. But this must be precise, time-bound and monitored for progress. If results aren’t showing, put them back in the classroom or consult a specialist. Time in class is too important to waste.

  3. Weaved into your approach, your specialist should be assessing, advising and implementing strategies both in the classroom and in interventions. Don’t forget to review: you want to know what works and why. You need this person to be having an impact across the school, upskilling your teaching staff and closing the gap for children with literacy difficulties. It’s a big job, but you pay them well.