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Building a stronger curriculum for special schools

The effects of teacher training and education have been subject of significant debate in the special education sphere. This, along with the new education inspection framework, formed the agenda for a roundtable discussion on 27 September with 14 special school headteachers and CEOs led by Nick Whittaker, HMI specialist adviser for SEND.

The new education inspection framework (EIF) has been “unequivocally clear” about the importance of schools being inclusive and effectively assessing the quality of special needs education, Whittaker stressed. This requirement stemmed from Ofsted’s previous five-year strategy to help current leaders understand their future strategy – the mission of improvement.

The three main priorities in the framework are:
– Intelligence: adhering to valid and reliable constructs with the best possible outcomes for children’s achievement.
– Responsibility: taking the time to explain work coherently, noting the high stakes, especially when it comes to decision-making about exclusion and offloading.
– Focus: devoting adequate time to working on the areas where most improvements are needed; using the often-limited resources well.

The school leaders considered how well the curriculum reflects students’ fluency and automaticity, which Whittaker said is: “…an important notion which exemplifies why what children and young people have learned is reflected.” He focused on the overall effectiveness of this framework: “It’s about acknowledging the impact of curriculum and understanding what pupils can do as a result of what they’ve been taught – how well can they reflect that? How does it build into longer-term outcomes and help their future?”

He explained that Ofsted inspectors will now be analysing how curriculum has been seen, taught and exposed, in order to achieve high-quality education. Curriculum, as the new framework puts it, starts with intent – what it should be achieving. The HMI advisor acknowledged the earlier misconception that led to whole-curriculum thinking: how it was chosen, sequenced and built into aims and objectives.

Delegates discussed how some families had been telling them that they are losing confidence in mainstream educational provision; delegates agreed that that is where the importance of special schools comes in.

In order to enable school leaders to successfully follow this mission of improvement, Whittaker highlighted the two-level approach inspectors will be using from now on:
– Top-level view: initial conversations with senior leaders about curriculum as a whole, ambitions, and aspirational outcomes; simultaneously exploring that curriculum with subject disciplines.
– Deep-dive (inspecting quality of education): direct communication with particular children/pupils.

This approach can be further broken down into a series of activities for modifying curriculum within subjects: a conversation with a curriculum leader, visit to lessons, working with pupils, discussion with teachers, and finally, circling back to a conversation with the leader. Whittaker noted that this series reveals “a richness of evidence of learning seen in specialist settings.”

His takeaway for school leaders was “curriculum has got to be building towards something.” The group considered the notion of intent rooted in leaders’ ambition, the challenge to set out what one’s intentions are, and the ability to demonstrate levels of ambition individually and collectively. However, they recognised that what remains most important is that differences may arise in what these ideas mean and what they will look like in schools in different contexts.

He also stated that, when considering safeguarding, a clearly embedded culture is needed to help and protect these children. The elements of “identify, help and manage” become crucial in effective training and application. Whittaker has noticed the emergence of two groups of particularly vulnerable pupils: children who seem “more capable of keeping themselves safe” – particularly girls with autism; also, children and young people constantly dependent on adults for daily care.

One delegate summarised the tough place that special needs education finds itself in, saying: “You can’t train teachers for special schools” — mentally and emotionally, at least. While full support for special needs pupils should admittedly be more highly considered in mainstream education, leaders are carried by wishful thinking and pressured by the impossible: lack of training for teachers, resources and time. Nonetheless, Whittaker encourages leaders to maintain a strong voice to prepare and encourage future teachers for inclusive education despite its inevitable challenges.

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