Special-school recruitment: the crisis no one is talking about

Recruitment for special schools is way tougher than in the mainstream, but there are steps that the government and schools can take, says Marc Rowland.

If you have just joined a special school, alternative provision (AP) setting or pupil referral unit (PRU), you are more likely to have a temporary teacher (or no teacher at all) compared with your peers in mainstream education.

This is a chronic problem that should not surprise ministers, the Department for Education (DfE) or its executive agencies. But little action has been taken. Professional associations and the media are quieter that Rachel Carson’s environmental science book Silent Spring in highlighting the challenge.

It is more difficult for special school leaders to recruit and retain the high-quality, bright, talented teachers that vulnerable pupils need the most. Yet the importance of routine, relationships and rigour cannot be overstated; the impact of recruitment and retention difficulties on special school pupils can be profound. Special educational needs does not equate to low ability; many pupils can achieve high grades, but they won’t get there without great teachers to guide them towards a university or college place.

Despite having the highest proportion of vacancies of any phase, there is no special education element to the DfE’s Get into Teaching campaign. The most memorable recruitment campaign to date has to be the No one forgets a good teacher adverts fronted by Tony Blair, but they entirely failed to mention that pupils in alternative provision don’t forget a good teacher either.

The government could do much more to help; schools minister Nick Gibb could, for example, highlight the excellent things going on in our special schools, PRUs and AP schools. Many times I have toyed with walking around our city centres wearing a sandwich board saying: “SPECIAL EDUCATIONAL NEEDS DOES NOT EQUAL LOW ABILITY’.

Teach First could lead the way in supporting vulnerable pupils

There is a gaping need for a fully funded, two-year teaching assistant-to-teacher programme similar to the Premier Pathways route, to overcome the financial barriers faced by many who come into the profession later in their lives. A firm commitment to a better entitlement to post-qualification training and support is also needed.

Teach First’s only foray into special education to date (to the best of my knowledge) has been a handful of graduates working in PRUs, although many AP settings and special schools have high proportions of disadvantaged pupils. As a hugely influential and well supported organisation, Teach First could lead the way in supporting our most vulnerable pupils.

Rather than wait for government or third-sector organisations to deliver solutions, some special schools could also do better at collaboration with the mainstream sector. I suspect that the diversity of needs in mainstream provision will become increasingly complex in the coming years, and the need for partnership working and expertise to inform high-quality teaching for all is not going to go away. Both the current and previous government have made a significant commitment to challenging educational disadvantage over the past seven years. But our most vulnerable young children not accessing the very best teachers is a different form of disadvantage. Less easy to measure, perhaps, but nonetheless important.

Pragmatically, if we fail to develop young people who can live and work independently, then there are significant costs to the state. The dependency that is created is virtually irreversible once these young people leave school and the educational statement ceases.

Staff are the most important and most valuable resource in special schools. They need to be of the highest possible quality to give vulnerable pupils the best opportunity of a rich and fulfilling independent life. They should be both participants in and contributors to their local communities.

Just 6 per cent of people between the ages of 16 and 64 with learning difficulties are in paid employment.

If we don’t tackle this issue, too many of our most vulnerable young people will be left only looking on at the opportunities available to others, like a modern day Lady of Shalott.


Marc Rowland is director of policy and research at the National Education Trust

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  1. I am the Director of a Teaching School Alliance in Worcestershire based in a special school. We offer a School Direct Primary/SEN route into teaching working with the University of Birmingham. Now in its third year we have had 100% success rate with all our students getting jobs (most on first interview). They spend one term in a mainstream primary and two terms in a special school. Each year we have tried to increase numbers (there is a huge demand) but each year we have been knocked back by the allocation of student numbers – we have to be part of the primary allocation because there is no specific SEN allocation. We would love to be able to offer a pure SEN route accessible for both primary and secondary students but this is not possible (Secondary have to have a subject and SEN is not a subject!) We are seeing more and more vulnerable children with complex needs (21st century children) in both mainstream and specialist provision and yet we are still training our teachers to teach 20th century children. We have got to find a different way of educating the teachers of the future!