Are Special Schools Fit for Purpose?

For some, this is a daft question. Of course, they are fit for purpose! Of course, we need them! This is the place for young people with severe and complex needs; this is where they are provided with specialist equipment and specialist teachers that you might never find in mainstream. In special schools, these young people feel they belong, they are included. If you take the time to watch them, chatting away to their peers, an adult or alone, you will see how happy they are. How safe!

But are they fit for purpose?

In a sense, yes. For those students with severe cognitive impairment, who will not progress beyond P Scales throughout the duration of their time in education, I would say, yes. If these same students with severe cognitive difficulty are also violent, non verbal, require specialist IT equipment to communicate, then once again, yes.

However, as with any organisation or group, special schools possess a rainbow of students. There are those who began their journey with little language, poor social skills and progress that did not go past P Scales but with great teaching or maturity or their own thirst to improve, they have broken through those barriers. There are those, who with time, perform as well or even better than their peers without SEND. There are those, who with time, have come to show that they are capable of accessing the same subjects and curricula as the latter students. So the question is clear:

For these learners, is it necessary for them to go to special schools?

The answer is simple, absolutely not. Special schools are only fit for purpose if they are able to provide the curriculum which allows their students to progress to their best self. If the students, who perform as well as their non SEND peers are in a system that is stuck on P Scales, it is possible that such school are not adequately meeting the need of their students.

Yet, even in this case, there are those who would argue that regardless of the academic possibilities of the child, the young person’s  ability to participate socially takes precedence. And it is in special schools that the social skills of SEND learners are often fostered and brought to the fore.  This is the place where they are given copious opportunities to interact and communicate with others without judgment or too much fear. And so, they would argue, that even though special schools might not challenge these learners academically, at least socially that child would be able to interact with the world.

Special schools, as with all schools, should be able to meet the needs of a learner both socially and academically. In both areas, it should allow the learner to progress and achieve to the best of their ability. If it not able to cater to these areas, then it is not functioning as it should. I admit that for some special schools, with a high number of both able and less able students, it is an extremely challenging situation.  How do they effectively provide a curriculum that caters to those on P Scales and those on national curriculum levels, especially if they are mixed across classes and key stages?

In a situation like this, I think schools should create two streams of pupils within the school, one for those who are able and one for those who are less able. Doing this would mean that subjects like Maths, English and Science at the very least, are taught at the appropriate level to challenge all learners. It would also mean that teachers would not have to struggle to teach students at P Scales and at Level / Stage 3 or above in the same lesson. This of course, might be an unrealistic suggestion as special schools often struggle to recruit staff and so may not have the manpower or monetary resources to make this type of streaming possible.

Could there be another way?

I suspect, there might be an even more difficult solution. In cases where special schools have come to realise that there are students who with time, are performing far above what their schools provide, parents should be contacted and alternative arrangements made. This could be by linking the student to a main stream school to pursue interests to a higher level or it could be by transitioning the learner to a mainstream school with a SEN Unit. The impact of funding on special schools if this is to be done could be vast, in some cases catastrophic if many students fit this category. However, isn’t it a part of any educational establishment’s duty of care to ensure that their students are able to be their best?

But luckily…

…the winds are changing in special education and the government’s changes now mean that more students with SEND are able to attend mainstream schools. In this way, those students who with time can perform as well as their non SEND peers, have the opportunity to experience a vaster range of subjects. They have greater opportunity to discover their innate talents and gifts, the areas for which they have a flair. It is possible that in these environments, these students can see that the sky is the limit but they just have to take their own time to get there. I believe that mainstream schools are also awakening to the reality that for these students, it is important to balance the social and the academic for these students. Therefore, more emphasis is being placed on both the social and the academic to ensure that these students are given the opportunity to develop independence and resilience.

So, are special schools fit for purpose?

Of course they are! But only if the curriculum is right.






Teaching Jekyll Junior


A Teacher’s Reflection on a post by @GwynneMiriam

It is so self satisfying to believe that he is having meltdowns at home because we [teachers] give him something better at school. It deifies us, allows us to have the stage that we are so often swept off of by celebrity politicians. Suddenly, we can shine and claim to the world that we have the healing stuff. But the illusion must stop! When faced with children who are radically different at home and school, children who are violent and aggressive depending on which environment they are in, no one should be seeking glorification. Instead, we should be seeking to understand why. We should be seeking to help!

It is true, teachers are not social workers. We are not therapists! We can not fix every conceivable human issue by the wave of a hand and the mumble of a few words. We are there to teach, to instruct, to lead our young people into a new horizon of academic excellence. Yet, this journey is not in isolation. While leading our young into new realities and visions of a better self, we will interact with myriad other agencies. Therefore, it is wise that we work with these agencies effectively and efficiently because it is the only way we can help in the development of the best possible human beings. This will never be the case, if we educate them to an A* yet never help them to see the value in treating their families and friends well.

So, who is Jekyll? He is the charming young man who turns up neat and ready to learn each day. In class, he works ardently never wavering in his attention or goal. His answers are on point and it’s a pleasure to have him in the room. And you wouldn’t have guessed that his parents had had to drag him kicking and screaming to the car in order to get him in to school. You wouldn’t have dreamt that the night before, his parents had to restrain him so that he didn’t hurt them or possibly himself.

As a teacher, working alongside Jekyll Junior, we have no experience of the rage or the meltdowns. We have no experience of the violence that mars the face of the angel; we never see when they fall. So it’s easy to ignore the parents’ pleas for help or surmise that the trouble must be with them. However, we must consider the possibility that if Hyde exists and if he continues to rail unchecked, there might be a time when he is no longer confined to home but becomes the everyday reality. An everyday reality not just in school but into the future.

So, how do we help little Mr Hyde? I think the first step is to have an integrated approach to supporting the parent. This could be done by having a meeting with the teacher/school representative (SENCO), parents or carers and a family support worker. I believe that the parent should have a safe space to share their reality and their concerns. Parents should understand that it’s not about patronising them or judging them but enabling them to better support their child in these times. It is possible that having a Parent Support Group where confidentiality is emphasised could help to alleviate parents’ concerns about being viewed negatively. Within this setting, strategies should be suggested, acted on and reviewed. Where parents feel uncomfortable with a group setting, a more individualised approach could be taken.

In schools, we are encouraged to use social stories and comic strip conversations to help children to understand how to respond in social situations or to process their feelings within situations. Parents must also be equipped with these strategies or have access to individuals to help in the creation of these to support their children. Parents need to understand more than just medicating their children. They need proven strategies that will help them to reduce the levels of anxieties in their homes.

When students are violent in school, staff members are trained in using methods to deescalate and where necessary restrain a child. When this is used, the dignity of the child is kept to the forefront and so it is done in as positive a way as possible. Have we considered what happens when a parent who isn’t trained suddenly have to restrain their child? The mental and physical agony that both parent and child might experience is perhaps unfathomable. Therefore, it is clear that parents of violent children should be taught to use specific methods to restrain and maintain safety whilst also prizing their child’s dignity and self respect. When restraint methods are used correctly, there is no doubt that the aftermath is less fraught with emotions and bitterness. This is necessary if positive and healthy family relationships are going to be maintained. This should be the outcome that we seek.

Support Workers /School Representatives (SENCOs) should also be encouraged to visit the homes of these students so that they too can be witnesses of these behaviours. It is important here to stress that  a coherent and corroborated view of the child should be made. It wasn’t long ago that a parent lied about a child’s state of health, had the child operated on and tried to stunt their growth because of their lust for money. So, it’s important for these agencies to gain a fully rounded view of the child. If enough trust is build with these bodies and the parents, it is possible that that parent will be less defensive about letting these agencies into their homes. This could lead to more opportunities for outside agencies and the school representatives to witness the behaviour of the child through videos or home visits.

Recently, there has been a lot of talk about the mental health of young people. CAMHS (Children and Adolescent Mental Health Service) appears to be under a lot of pressure, with waiting lists that seem to be a mile long. These services are extremely important in providing support for parents and helping them to cope with children who display challenging behaviour. In these cases, time is of the essence. If help isn’t given quickly enough, then the challenging behaviour could become a part of the routine and then by the time they get seen it might very well be too late. It is therefore crucial that parents are made aware of these services and provided with details of how to access them.

So yes, it’s been lovely teaching Jekyll Junior. However, it is important to remember that if Hyde is left unchecked, he might just be the future. This should not be left to chance.



Three things that happen when your autistic child is different at home and at school

Jekyll and Hyde are exactly the words that I used to describe a pupil of mine this week. This is such a powerful article, raising a really important issue. Thank you.



I am going through a very difficult time with my son. This morning he was carried to his taxi by my husband and myself kicking and screaming. He was stressed, his sister terrified and I was anxious and worried.
I haven’t called the school and asked if he is ok because I know what they will say.
He is not like that in school

Reports from school don’t marry with the child at home at all. In school he conforms, is settled and appears happy. At home he can be violent, unpredictable and highly distressed. This creates some problems for school, home and professionals. The great divide between home and school is a huge challenge and I am not alone in struggling with this.

When my autistic child is different in school it makes parents feel they are to blame.

When the common denominator for the challenging behaviour…

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CHAMPS and the Compliance Classroom

I really enjoyed reading this. Thanks for following my post. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for your writing! Powerful!

Ryan Boren

My stomach dropped when I saw CHAMPS at our elementary school. “Eyes front, knees front, closed mouth” leapt off the wall and rose from memory. I was in school in the 70s and 80s. Some teachers were really into table readiness and proper student posture, and some principals thought a paddle made them persuasive. Compliance was the soul of their pedagogy. Those are not fond memories. I was an undiagnosed autistic in a culture without the vocabulary to understand me or help me understand myself. But I understood authoritarians well enough. They are a straightforward grok.

I handled the thoughtless compliance better than many of my peers. I could disappear into myself and hide in almost still silence. The tugging of my hair betrayed my perpetual anxiety and my yearning to scratch my scalp. In the head beneath the scalp I wanted to scratch and the hair I wanted to…

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A Hope and A Future


My baby brother is 16. He is autistic and yes, there is a future for him. It took some time for my mum and I to see the signs but when he was diagnosed, it all became clear. Through it all, we have never once thought that this limits him. Instead, we believe that given time, he will be better than he was before.

Working in special education doesn’t mean that we are teaching students who are underachieving. It means that we are teaching students who might need more processing time. Therefore, as teachers and leaders within SEN, it is important that our expectations remain high, that classwork remains personalised and challenging.

I understand perfectly that some students with Aspergers or ASD might be non verbal. For these students, progress might mean being able to use PECs (Pupil Exchange Communication System) effectively to communicate their wants or needs. However, regardless of need, we must find a way to push them one step further in their journey.

At the heart of this journey is the knowledge of who these young people are. What are their likes / dislikes? What do they repeatedly talk about? At the sound of which word, do they begin stimming with excitement? These are the signifiers. They are a sign of their motivators and something that we should take to heart. Who would have thought that my little brother’s fascination with Thomas the Tank Engine or our repeated journeys on DLR trains would ever be more than that? For many years, it seemed a game, an amusement. To this day, his lists of presents are usually started with another request for a Hornby Train to add to his collection. When he was old enough and thoughtful enough to answer what he wanted to be, his answers would be simple and quick: train driver! So many of my students today have the same answer. Regardless of skill, many of them are so fascinated with the tracks and how they can make this a profession. Yet, so often teachers can dismiss the dream because they seem to come from some place of automaticity rather than careful thought.

When the time came for my brother to start to apply for sixth form, he didn’t quibble or dance about. He knew instinctively that he wanted to study BTEC Engineering because he would get to work on trains. My elation and pride was undeniable not only because he knew what he wanted but because in one way or another, he had been getting ready for this his whole life. When we went with him to tour a possible Sixth Form, he was naming the equipments he saw and telling my mum about their uses. He could easily reference old DT classes and his experience of the equipments. It was in this moment that the last two gifts he requested also made sense. He had wanted Snap Circuits so that he could experiment with creating light and sound in his room. No game, no experience seemed a coincidence and once again, I felt the magic in High Functioning Autism; that almost evolutionary quality of focus that can bring about extraordinary things.

Consequently, my belief once again that every Autistic student should be challenged was reinforced. Although there are many students who might not be able to complete the 5 or 8 GCSEs that are so prized, it is incumbent on how as educators to ensure that students are able to access as wide and as broad a curriculum that is possible. If they are passionate about ICT and Computing, give them the avenue to prepare for this. Even if they are not as strong in Maths and or English, these subjects must be priority as it prepares for a life beyond school and so the level at which this is taught must be appropriate and with sufficient challenge. Beyond this, having access to quality vocational teaching from KS3 must be a priority for all schools because if these students are given the opportunity to produce their Magnum Opus, their potential will be unleashed! They will fly!

I had a conversation with a colleague recently about our Autistic Learners. We agreed that if we said “they can’t, then they won’t”. Therefore, we must make sure that we identify how our learners need to improve and then provide the scaffolding and the steps to get them there. By doing this, we’ll be able to see our learners grow and find the hope and the future that is waiting for them.

Marking in Perspective: Selective, Formative, Effective, Reflective

Loved this! Marking is about formative comments NOT grades! Cheers to moving kids on and closing gaps!



Marking in Perspective: Selective, Formative, Effective, Reflective

Context and Motivation

I’m feeling relieved, smug and virtuous because I’ve just marked some books. It feels good because a) it was overdue and, hence, was having that ‘albatross’ effect; b) for a change I am looking forward to going into my class tomorrow without feeling guilty and most importantly c) because I feel like I’ve renewed a connection with my students’ learning in a way that is hard to do any other way; I’ve done something worthwhile which always feels good.

To be absolutely clear, I am a Dylan Wiliam devotee; you won’t catch me doing marking slavishly because someone tells me I should or because it looks good; I only do marking if I think I need to – and this only if I think it will make a difference. I expect my staff to have the same attitude. I’m convinced…

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Mastery is Key


Recently, I have begun to ponder what a Mastery Curriculum means for SEND learners. On this, Mary Myatt is clear. A mastery curriculum is about “fewer things in greater depth”. When teaching SEND students, this idea is completing freeing. Firstly, because it means that students can have the extra processing time that is often needed for them to be able to fully grasp a concept.

No longer should schools be rushing through topics; instead, educators now have the opportunity to embed and deepen the knowledge and skills of our learners. There is also extended opportunity for those working at a higher level than their peers to begin to use and apply the learnt skill in new contexts. I have no doubt that this is empowering for all learners.

It is therefore crucial for SEND schools to shape their curriculum in a way which has Mastery at its core. In English, this might mean that students are taught topics in a chronological order alongside the explicit teaching of grammar and punctuation. By doing this, learners will have the opportunity to place texts in their contexts and also make links across time. If the learning of new ideas are always interweaved with former learning, the likelihood that these ideas will be remembered and used is inevitably increased.

It is often said that ‘repetition is the mother of learning’. Within a SEND context where students sometimes have difficulty in remembering ideas or concepts, this method would surely be a godsend as they now have multiple opportunities throughout a yearly scheme to utilise and build on former knowledge and skills.

Students with Aspergers often take language literally and of course, sometimes simple statements can be very confusing because of this. Recently, my class has been learning about rounding numbers. One particular student who has shown proficiency at this became stumped when I asked him to circle a number which rounds to 50. Previously, another student became confused when a question asked him to look above and the above section was on the previous page. Despite being a very bright student, they can be stumped by this.

By having a Mastery Curriculum, teachers will have a greater opportunity to expose students to a greater range of terms or statements that are used within the topic area. Exams or tests may consequently become less of a puzzle and these students will have a greater opportunity to demonstrate the skills that they possess.

The potential for improvement in teaching and learning can not be denied. Due to the fact that more time would be allocated to key topics, teachers will be able to present the material in multiple ways. Therefore, presenting topics in a concrete and a sensory rich way before moving on to pictorial and paper based representations is even more possible. This allows learners to have multiple entry points into a topic and provides greater opportunity for learning to be embedded. It’s clear to see that mastery works for students and for teachers.

I am therefore convinced that a Mastery Curriculum possesses innumerable benefits. I am hoping that the value of this is recognised and capitalised on so that all students are able to demonstrate their potential.

The Power in the PIVATS


I am an English Teacher by trade. I’ve been ploughing the field of the English Education system for quite some time and so, I’ve seen the fads come. I’ve seen them go. So when I first saw PIVATS 4, I was sceptical.

The conversion didn’t take long! I soon recognised that for the world of SEND, it provided a systematic overview of the way that we as teachers can plan and assist our students in achieving the milestones and skills which are so often taken for granted. Regardless of age or ability, there was something there for most learners. There was a step to be attained; a goal to be achieved.

Yet, there are elements which infuriated me! How can a student, whose writing is lively and entertaining and filled with myriad devices be relegated to a stage 2 just because their spelling needs work or their handwriting needs a bit more shaping? You see, with PIVATS, students would have to attain all 5 Performance Indicators for a stage before they are allowed to move to another stage. In the areas that pertain to handwriting and spelling this bothered me profoundly! Yes, I know these things are important. They make the journey of life that much more easier to travel. However, we are alive in one of the greatest centuries ever known to man! We live in a Time where software underlines our typing in red when we get it wrong. So surely, these elements, though important, should never hold students back or give a blighted impression of their intelligence when witnessed in a data field?

Although it still irks, I have moved on from things that I can not change. The serenity prayer of life has helped me to recognise something about this new post- levels world that we live in. Previously, when I worked with a KS3 Assessment Group, I felt that the removal of levels was just another avenue for schools to pretend innovation and recreate the levels from the past. However, as time has past, I have come to realise that there is a life beyond levels. Ironically, PIVATS is central to this.

I started off by giving my students a baseline Maths assessment that would expose their strengths and weaknesses across the Maths Curriculum. Then I developed a colour coded spreadsheet that would clearly highlight where students’ strengths and weaknesses are. Once I did this, I was able to clearly able to see the gaps in knowledge of my students and therefore provide a more personalised curriculum that helped my students to close these gaps. Beyond this, I began to see the potential for me as a classroom teacher. I would be able to use this to identify areas which I might need to approach differently when teaching or areas that required further research before recapping these elements with my students. As an English Teacher, teaching the Maths Curriculum, I have never felt more empowered in my practice.

So yes, there is power in the PIVATS and it does not rest in the name of a stage. It rests in the fact that when used properly, it can truly make way for progress. If used correctly, this can be an assessment tool which helps to show what our students do and do not know and provide a blue print of where we can take each and every one of them. Of course, some may argue that PIVATS are limited. They only go up to what is roughly a Year 4 Equivalent. For some SEND settings this is sufficient. Where it is not, SEND schools and centres must be bolshie and innovative enough to create a comparative year 5 and above equivalent so that no potential is wasted; no potential untapped!



SENDT: Autumn Awakening


It’s been a while since I’ve written about my journey. Yet, I think of my students almost everyday. I think of what makes them sad; I think of what makes them happy; I think of what I can do each day to assure their progress.

I listen to the news, always with an ear for them. I’m always trying to find out something new that I can share and enthuse them with. In class, I tell them “we’re a team” and after saying this, Mr Cheeky announces: “No, we’re not a team. We’re a family!”

In them, I see the circle of life. The better I am with them, the more strategies I use, the more I learn, the more I am able to guide and grow my own little man into the person I want him to be. There are so many fruits to this symbiotic relationship of teacher and pupil, tutor and tutee.

Regardless of politics, boohoos and tears, they are the highlight of my teaching career. Their commitment to progress, their undeniable resilience in the face of endless anxiety gives me courage. Their very presence forces me to reach beyond myself and encounter new and exciting ways of teaching; being at peace; experiencing joy!