My name is Aoife and I am a newly qualified teacher in West London. I work with children and young people with special educational needs and I am passionate about ensuring that they have the same range of opportunities as their non-disabled peers both inside and outside of the classroom. I firmly believe that access to a high quality education is a basic human right.
While I’ve been working in SEND since 2015, across many Special Needs Schools in London, I have only just finished my teacher training. It involved completing two placements in different mainstream primary schools and it was during one of those that I experienced attitudes and behaviours towards disabled pupils that I found deeply troubling. The combination of discriminatory attitudes and problematic language was truly shocking. It was compounded by a complete lack of awareness of how such exclusionary behaviour impacted students with disabilities.
The school had a five-year-old boy in one class with very complex autism. A mainstream setting was very challenging for him but, as his parents were struggling to come to terms with his autism diagnoses, they wanted him to remain at the school. However, it soon became glaringly obvious that no one in the school had the necessary expertise or experience to support him. As a result, he was excluded in a separate room from his classmates with just an iPad for much of the day.
I found watching this child being failed on a daily basis deeply frustrating and upsetting. I was desperate to help in any way I could and drew on my experience of working in special needs settings to offer advice. It was incredibly disheartening to find that my help and advice were not always welcome. How could anything change for this child when teachers rejected assistance?
Sadly, I have come to realise that my experience was part of a much bigger problem. I have spoken to many colleagues who have previously worked in mainstream schools and found that all of them have stories that illustrate the ignorance around special educational needs in those settings. The thought that there are thousands of children like the boy I worked with across the country who are being denied a decent education is very distressing to me.
It has become clear to me that something needs to change. However, I don’t believe that targeting individual schools and teachers is the way to make that happen. It merely addresses the problem on a surface level when we really need to get to the root of it. When I spoke to a teacher at the mainstream school where I worked on placement, it became apparent that she had received ‘zero training’ on SEND during her three-year teacher training practice. This left her feeling ill-equipped to deal with the rising levels of disabled students in mainstream settings.
I believe that people chose to teach because they are passionate about making a difference in the lives of children and young people. However, it is clear that some are being failed by their training and, as a result, are failing the special needs pupils they want to support.
Training in special educational needs cannot be an optional part of teacher training. It must be mandatory. Teaching Standard 5.4 states that teachers should:
- have a clear understanding of the needs of all pupils, including those with special educational needs; those of high ability; those with English as an additional language; those with disabilities; and be able to use and evaluate distinctive teaching approaches to engage and support them.
In order to have a true understanding of special needs, I believe that all teachers should have to do a placement in a special needs school. At my current specialist school we get trainee nurses every year as they will inevitably encounter special needs in their practice. I'm unsure why this requirement doesn't extend to teachers who will also encounter children with disabilities in whatever setting they work. Instead, as well as teachers in mainstream settings being ill-equipped to support disabled children, teachers with no experience or training in SEND can work in special needs schools. I think we urgently need to redress the balance.
This is why I am working with the Cultural Inclusion Manifesto to campaign for change. I want to give a voice to those children who are being failed, their families and the teachers who are desperately trying to support them.