Special schools bear brunt of recruitment crisis

One school has nearly two in five teaching posts staffed by agency staff or teaching assistants

One school has nearly two in five teaching posts staffed by agency staff or teaching assistants

13 Jan 2023, 5:00

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Special schools and alternative provision (AP) are bearing the brunt of the recruitment crisis with nearly three times more teaching posts filled by temporary workers, analysis reveals.

An investigation by Schools Week reveals the full scale of the specialist sector’s challenge to attract staff, leaving schools for the most vulnerable children regularly having to use unqualified teachers.

One school has nearly two in five teaching posts staffed by agency staff or teaching assistants.

Special school leaders are now calling for initial teacher training bursaries and recruitment campaigns specific to the sector.

Paul van Walwyk, director for schools at The Eden Academy Trust – which runs seven special schools – said the sector was not “valued in the same way” as subjects with shortages, where bursaries of up to £27,000 are handed out.

“We know maths, chemistry and physics are really important,” he said. “But so is giving children the education that keeps them out of the care system and gives them independence.”

An analysis of latest Department for Education workforce figures, from November 2021, shows that for every 1,000 teacher posts in special schools, 13 were filled by a temporary staff member (1.3 per cent).

This compares with five in 1,000 (0.5 per cent) across all state-funded schools.

Meanwhile the rate of teacher vacancies was also twice as high in special schools and AP.

Six in every 1,000 teacher posts within the specialist sector were vacant, compared with three in every 1,000 posts across state schools.

‘It’s not sustainable’

Nearly 25 per cent of teaching posts at Eden (38 per cent in one school) are filled by agency staff or higher-level teaching assistants (TAs) under teacher supervision.

Van Walwyk said: “It is very challenging, but it’s massively rewarding. But people who haven’t worked in special schools don’t want to work there because they haven’t experienced that.”

While all of the schools are rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’, Van Walwyk says the current staffing model isn’t sustainable.

“We’re in a bit of a crisis, but [the real concern] is when will that really start affecting school performance,” he said.

“And I worry the goodwill will run out – we can’t keep asking support staff to just do a bit more.”

As a result of “significant recruitment challenges”, the Parallel Learning Trust last year paid about £16,000 for four TAs to gain qualified teacher status.

Schools train up TAs to be teachers

“We had to home grow our own because we couldn’t find them elsewhere,” said Mark Jordan, its chief executive.

But the number of vacancies grows. Sixteen vacancies for teaching staff are filled temporarily – a fifth of overall teacher posts across the trust, and an increase of three from last January.

The New Bridge Group, which runs six special schools in Greater Manchester, has 11 teacher vacancies – 1.4 per cent of its teaching roles – temporarily filled by supply staff.

The trust is looking for an ICT teacher at Spring Brook Academy, a school that serves pupils with social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) difficulties.

“You’ve got the challenge of finding an ICT teacher, with the added layer of one that can cope with SEMH teenagers,” said Suzanne Smith, the trust’s HR manager. “It’s that extra layer of expertise and calibre that you’re looking for within an SEN setting.”

The rate of teacher posts filled by temporary staff in the specialist sector has remained stubbornly high since 2018-19, when it was also 1.3 per cent.

But it has fallen at all state schools in that period, from 0.7 to 0.5 per cent last year.

‘We’re reliant on very low-paid people’

The sector is also struggling to attract other staff. It has double the number of leader vacancies (0.6 pert cent) compared with all state schools (0.3).

Paul Silvester, head of the Newman Special School in Rotherham, south Yorkshire, said the data did not capture issues with recruiting support staff, which the specialist sector relied on.

DfE figures show 52 per cent of the total workforce within special schools and AP are teaching assistants, compared with 28 per cent of the total state school workforce.

Annamarie Hassall

In November, Newman school had a vacancy rate of 10 per cent across its support roles.

“We’re reliant on very low-paid people,” Silvester said. “I’m actually puzzled as to why those who do apply do, because what we’re offering is so little, but it comes from a genuine desire to help.”

The picture is similar in an academy trust that did not want to be named because it believed the figures could alarm parents who would “rightly be extremely worried”.

Currently 27 per cent of its TA posts are vacant, compared with 5 per cent of teaching posts. While it has also supported TAs to become qualified teachers, the chief executive said this “just moves the vacancy”.

As a result of general shortages, Annemarie Hassall, chief executive of the National Association for Special Educational Needs (nasen), said she had heard of schools “resorting to strategies such as having classes in on a rotational basis”.

What are the solutions?

Van Walwyk suggested specialist teacher training courses should come attached with bursaries similar to secondary subjects identified as having shortfalls.

“If we got the same weighting as maths and physics, we’d have the staff.”

Simon Knight

Meanwhile, Hassall suggested government recruitment drives should give more prominence to specialist teaching.

“In [the DfE’s] recruitment campaigns, there’s no focus or spotlight on those with learning difference,” she said. “Yet that could be such a huge motivator for those coming into the profession.”

Simon Knight, joint head of the Frank Wise special school in Oxfordshire, echoed that the government needed a “coherent strategy” to address vacancies.

“A failure to do so would be an abdication of its responsibility to ensure that children with SEND have access to high-quality teachers skilled in meeting their developmental requirements,” he said.

The DfE said it had set out an “ambitious programme of improvement to the special educational needs system” in its SEND review, with its consultation due early this year. Proposals include a new qualification for teachers training as SENCos.

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