Special educational need CPD must be prioritised, says Karen Wespieser.

The OECD’s latest data on teacher working conditions and learning environments includes a figure that sticks out like a sore thumb: just 6 per cent of teachers in England report “a high level of need for professional development in teaching students with special needs”. This is the lowest proportion of teachers of any participating OECD country.

Does it mean our teachers are great at special educational needs and disability (SEND) provision?

Probably not. The OECD figure contradicts all the other data that has been collected on this topic. Research from the Department for Education (DfE) consistently shows that “teaching pupils with SEND” and “assessing pupils with SEND” are among the areas that newly qualified teachers each year feel least confident about. A DfE snap poll of teachers last year revealed that 25 per cent say there is no appropriate training in place for teachers in supporting this pupil cohort.

To see if some sort of SEND revolution has taken place that only the OECD has identified, TeacherTapp this week asked its nationally representative sample of teachers to rate their confidence in teaching learners with an identified special educational need.

These results are less surprising. Sixty-five per cent reported feeling confident and in the past year 62 per cent have participated in continuing professional development (CPD) that included improving support of learners with an identified SEND.

As ever with statistics, the devil is in the detail. While teachers overall seem confident, some more so than others, with teachers in primary schools far more confident than teachers in secondaries. This may be because in recent years the latter have had a relatively stable proportion of pupils with SEND (between 12.3 and 12.4 per cent) in contrast to primary schools, which have experienced year on year increases since 2016. Unfortunately, secondary teachers are also less likely to have participated in any SEND-related professional development.

Unsurprisingly, new teachers (less than five years’ experience) are least confident, although they are most likely to have had CPD. The question therefore becomes, is the CPD provision good enough?

We need a systematic approach to SEND

One hypothesis about the OECD data is that teachers in England did not respond that they wanted more CPD because the quality is too often too low. Research by University College London suggests that 79 per cent of special educational need CPD is delivered within school by the special educational needs coordinator (SENCO), but too many indicators point to this being inadequate and to SENCOs not having the time or the training to take this on.

An evaluation in 2017 by the University of Plymouth into the impact and effectiveness of the SENCO qualification reveals that four in ten teachers believe their SENCO does not model effective practice of teaching pupils with special educational needs to colleagues. Meanwhile, a survey of the workload of SENCOs, commissioned by the National Education Union and the National Association for Special Educational Needs (Nasen), found that 74 per cent of SENCOs say they do not have enough time to ensure that pupils on SEN support are able to access the provision that they need. If the SENCO workforce does not have enough time to support their pupils, it seems likely that it will be a challenge to find additional time to support their colleagues.

In a system where CPD is often an afterthought, SEND professional development is bottom of the pile. The new initial teacher training review group says SEND is not part of its terms of reference. The Early Career Framework currently puts the responsibility for SEND back on the SENCO, but we know that they don’t have the time.

Something will have to give because we can’t keep expecting more while putting in less. Special educational need CPD must be prioritised. We need a systematic approach to SEND from initial teacher training through to professional development. Only then will we begin to see great SEND provision across the country.