What the resource is
This Teachers TV programme looks at the working relationship between a mainstream primary school, St. John's near Bath, with a nearby special school, Fosse Way, which caters for children with complex, severe and profound learning difficulties, and autism spectrum disorders. The programme looks in detail at the agreement between the two schools, and at the work of some of the Teaching Assistants who swap schools during the week to share their expertise.
The programme includes clips of the teaching assistants in the classroom and outside at lunchtime. These don't give a detailed account of their work, but certainly provide a snapshot of the opportunities presented by the inter-school agreement. Interviews with key staff from both schools are also included.
The aims of the resource
The programme seeks to explore how a mainstream primary school and a local special school can work effectively together. Drawing on interviews with the headteacher, SENCO and class teacher at the mainstream primary school, the headteacher at the special school and the Teaching Assistants from both schools the programme portrays some ways schools can work together in sharing their expertise.
Key findings or focus
The partnership depicted is set within the policy context of ‘Removing Barriers to Achievement', (DfES 2004) which recommend that local authorities look at the expertise in special schools and unlock it to form part of their services. Within the programme there is a need to distinguish between rhetoric of mainstream and special school partnership and the practice depicted and described by some of the interviewees.
Whilst the heads talk about an exchange of ideas rather than just a physical exchange of teachers or pupils, a dominant focus is upon Mike, a teaching assistant from the special school, whose role is described as going in to help twice a week with a child with ADHD. Though much emphasis is placed within the programme on the expertise that the special school can offer, this LSA's contribution is described in terms of being the only male role model and starting gardening projects and going on picnics at lunchtime to develop social skills. Whilst these are not without value neither contribution seems to be deeply rooted in specialist knowledge.
Mike's observations are interesting when he emphasises the importance of talking to the children, finding out what it is they want, where they want to go, how they would like to get there and what their issues are. Unfortunately a connotation of the portrayal in the programme is that capturing pupils' views is a specialised activity. Within a policy context that is now focusing on personalised learning this knowledge of the pupil's wants, needs and aspirations is increasingly an expectation of all teachers. It would have been be more useful for viewers to see how Mike elicits the views of certain pupils who for a variety of reasons may find it difficult to convey these.
We also hear from Alison, a Teaching Assistant at St. John's who takes Mike's place at the special school, for two mornings. Her opening comments refer to the differences in group size and composition in mainstream and special school environments. As she comments, though each member of the group has SEN within a group of 9 it is actually possible to deal with them. The key difference she therefore articulates within the programme is not about the ‘specialness‘ of special schools in terms of the expertise available or particular teaching approaches but about group size. This links to wider debates about the existence or not of a distinct SEN pedagogy (eg Davis and Florian 2004, Thomas and Loxley 2001).
The commentary describes how Alison's ability to identify certain types of SEN has improved. Her own comment is "Because you can't actually see that there is a special need with them you sort of think, I was thinking ‘hang on, what's wrong with this one?'" Ultimately if the exchange arrangement is to offer any real benefit we would want the LSA to be identifying how special school colleagues enable pupils to learn. The candid view that the LSA offers in her comment suggests that a medical model is still dominating her thinking.
There is some exchange of knowledge between the two establishments.
One of the LSAs comments: ‘Then we talk about what we're doing with that specific child, so it's kind of spreading the knowledge base across as big and wide a group as we can.' The significance is that this is related to the individual pupil. It is only towards the close of the programme that acknowledgement is given through the comments of Fran Newport, author of the South West Regional Partnership document Outreach from Special Schools, to a wider capacity building role for the special school in terms of working with the mainstream school's management team and provision across the school.
Whilst the programme sets out to give us an insight into the way in which using the Teaching Assistants' expertise allows a broadening of knowledge for the whole two staffs what is actually presented in the footage of practice and the many of the views expressed is a model that largely involves importing putative specialist knowledge into a school with little evidence of development beyond an individual pupil support focus. This may be a necessary transitory point in the early development of the partnership, the problem is that the tone of the programme implies that this is evolved good practice.
The SENCO at St. John's makes the point that all staff are happy to take on ideas from anybody, like Mike, or other outside agencies, because they want the best for the pupil. The partner ship arrangement has the potential to bring benefits for both schools and these can be illustrated by the concluding remarks of the headteachers. David Gregory, head at Fosse Way comments: ‘Special schools are often quite small, and there's a risk of the whole environment becoming extremely stale. By your staff going out, working with mainstream schools, it creates excitement and challenge which wouldn't otherwise be there. They bring back ideas that we wouldn't otherwise have, and they bring back an energy, cos it's an energising experience, that wouldn't otherwise be in the school'.
Carolyn Banfield, head at St. John's concludes: ‘It's a creative way of making the best of a small pot of money and the services that are available. It's being creative. Our creativity alongside their creativity provides us with a much better service for our pupils.
The aspirations of both Head teachers in these closing remarks are laudable, but is questionable whether any of the snapshots in the programme provide convincing evidence that this is the current reality.
The quality, authority and credibility of the resource
Whilst not providing an in-depth look at the work of the Teaching Assistants, the programme allows us to see enough of their work to catch the flavour and successes. Unfortuantely it leaves unquestioned a range of wider issues. From the practitioners involved there is a strong sense of commitment to the partnership, which is clearly projected throughout. Rather than the more usual partnership between mainstream and special schools, where pupils are included into a mainstream setting for short periods, here the viewer is given a clear snapshot of the exchange of Teaching Assistants.
The programme leaves unquestioned a whole range of assumptions and beliefs. The first and most significant is the unquestioned belief of the specialist nature of what goes on in special schools. Thomas and Loxley have been particularly critical of this belief and the deskilling effect it has on mainstream colleagues. Davis and Florian (2004) have suggested through their DfES commissioned research report that there is little evidence to suggest that teaching approaches and strategies for pupils with SEN are not sufficiently differentiated from those which are used to teach all children to justify being classified as a distinctive SEN pedagogy. Whilst they undoubtedly have skills that others could benefit from acquiring, much of what the two special school LSAs featured in the programme do is not highly specialised. The essential difference may be that they are in an environment where, because the sorts of activities they engage in with pupils are prioritised, they have both the need and opportunity to hone their skills in these areas. Taking this perspective it would be entirely appropriate for the special school LSAs to model with a mainstream LSA present how they would, for example, run the social skills/anger management group. This sort of approach builds capacity which arguably should be the aim of this partnership. Unfortunately we do not see this sort of approach in the programme.
The emphasis on diagnosis and labelling reflected in a number of comments from interviewees and the programme's commentary is also unquestioned. Just one example is the comment that the school has four children with statements and many more with "as yet undiagnosed needs."
The assumption is that diagnosis is necessary to effectively teach and will prescribe appropriate teaching strategies to enable learning. This links to wider, complex debates (eg Norwich, 1999) about helpful and unhelpful labels in the field of SEN as well as a consideration of the extent to which an emphasis on diagnosis and labelling is compatible with the social model of disability that underpins a philosophy of inclusion.
The programme places little emphasis on how teachers in the mainstream school acquire new skills through this project. It largely centres in the examples presented on the work of teaching assistants and their development.
The implications for ITE tutors/mentors
This is a worthwhile programme for all students, but needs to be used with caution as it contains a number of messages that need to be mediated through discussion in tutor groups or reflective exercises.
It is possible to adopt a positive stance which sees the practice portrayed as a necessary early stage in development of a partnership between a special and a mainstream school. The rhetoric within the programmes commentary and the comments of some of the interviewees can be viewed as aspirational and some way ahead of the practice actually depicted and described. The argument would be that working at whole school level and with the senior leadership team is where practice should aspire to be but forming relationships and establishing credibility through focusing on individual pupils initially lays the foundations for this.
A more negative perspective is that elements of practice presented perpetuate the belief that the effective teaching of pupils with special educational needs requires high levels of specialist knowledge. The reality is that very little of what the visiting Learning Support Assistants do in the mainstream school is beyond the capacity of either mainstream teachers or Learning Support Assistants. It will be important to look with trainees critically at the programme and identify elements of practice that are genuinely specialist and those that are simply difficult to do in mainstream school because of different priorities, different staff-pupil ratios and resource issues.
Arguably much of what is presented in the programme is not highly specialised or reliant on having received specialist training yet it is inadvertently elevated to this status simply by the model being operated. Tutors and trainees should pay heed to and debate Thomas and Loxley's (2001) view that "Unfortunately, special education has been so successful at continually devising more glossy and more elaborate forms of assessment and pedagogy that teachers have begun to lose confidence in their own ability to assess and teach all the children in their charge. Children who are difficult to teach have become by default special children. Teachers have really begun to believe that they are not skilled enough to deal with ‘special' children - children who are finding their work at school difficult."
(Thomas and Loxley, 2001: 26)
Used from a critical perspective it could have particular relevance for the students taking a SEN specialism. Teaching Assistants studying on work based courses would also find this particularly helpful. It could also find a very valuable place in school based Inset by encouraging more liaison between local mainstream and special schools.
The relevance to ITE students
The programme demonstrates how the vision for special schools expressed in Removing Barriers to Achievement is being interpreted by the two schools featured. It is an example rather than exemplary and students should approach it from a critical perspective.
Students who have a placement in a Special school could usefully compare this with their own perspective on the question of ‘what's special about a special school?' In other words, identifying what is it that a special school can offer either as a placement for pupils or in its outreach that is significantly different to what a mainstream school offers? The reality maybe that little of what the Teaching Assistants bring in to the mainstream in this programme is genuinely specialist, they are simply activities that are difficult to do in mainstream school because of different priorities, different staff-pupil ratios and resource issues.
Every Child Matters has defined a role for teachers in working as a contributor to a collaborative partnership working within and beyond the school (Cheminais 2006). The programme therefore has value for all ITE students in picking up on the generic skills of teamwork, collaboration and sharing of ideas outside the usual team of people.
Simon Ellis and Debbie Bowers
Cheminais, R (2006) Every Child Matters: A Practical Guide for Teachers. London: David Fulton
Davis, P and Florian, L (2004) Teaching Strategies and Approaches for Pupils with Special Educational Needs: A Scoping Study (DfES Research Report RR516) Nottingham: DfES
DfES (2004) Removing Barriers to Achievment. Nottingham: DfES
Norwich, B (1999) ‘The connotation of special education labels for professionals in the field' British Journal of Special Education Vol 26 No 4 pp 179 -183
Thomas, G and Loxley, A (2001) Deconstructing Special Education and Constructing Inclusion. Buckingham: Open University press