Everyone’s a teacher of SEND

Karen Wespieser, Director of Operations at the Driver Youth Trust, talks about a change in the way we understand SEND discussions

A small Twitter debate erupted following the 2018 researchED National Conference when someone pointed out: ‘110 workshops – SEND mentioned twice, dyslexia once and a session about reversing therapeutic-based practice. In a profession where 14 per cent of our students have SEND…’ But does professional development need to be explicitly about special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) in order to improve the teaching of this group of young people?

The latest data from the government’s annual survey of newly qualified teachers (NQTs) found that assessing the progress of SEND pupils was one of only three areas where fewer than 50% of NQTs gave a rating of 7–10 out of 10.1 The proportion of NQTs who reported that their initial teacher training (ITT) had prepared them well to teach SEND pupils wasn’t much higher: just over half (53%) felt prepared (ibid.). Whilst improving ITT is clearly an important issue that needs addressing, it isn’t one for researchED. However, if initial teacher education isn’t equipping the school workforce with this information, then surely professional development events like researchED could?

Yet, as with many SEND-related discussions, maybe this is actually an issue of labels. Whilst there may not be many workshops labelled SEND at researchED events, there are often plenty that addressed key ideas of how best to teach SEND students in the mainstream classroom.

Defining the label of SEND and then applying it to children and young people is a complex issue and can be arbitrary. In 2010 the number of pupils identified with SEND in the UK was five times the EU average. This led Ofsted to review how children were being identified and supported in schools. They concluded that ‘as many as half of all pupils identified for School Action [support] would not be identified as having special educational needs if schools focused on improving teaching and learning for all’.2

The Children and Families Act (2014), the catalyst for the largest reforms in decades, mandated a new system of identification. The Act describes someone as having a SEND when ‘they have a learning difficulty or disability which calls for special educational provision to be made for them’ (Section 20). It then defines ‘special educational provision’ as ‘provision that is additional to or different from that which would normally be provided for children or young people of the same age in a mainstream education setting’ (Section 21).

Such a definition is problematic, however, because what ‘learning difficulty’ and ‘additional’ or ‘different’ provision mean is open to subjective interpretation. As a result of these changes to the definition, the number of children and young people identified as having a SEND declined from over 1.5 million in 2010 to around 1.2 million in 2016.3 The figure has been rising again since 2017 and latest data shows it at nearly 1.3 million, or 14.6% of pupils.4

It is interesting to note, however, that while the proportion of children and young people identified as having a SEND declined between 2010 and 2016, the number of children who have an education, health and care plan (EHCP) remained consistent at 2.8%. As the figures began to increase in 2017, the proportion with EHCPs also rose and currently stands at 2.9%.

What is often missed in discussions about SEND is that the vast majority of children and young people with SEND will be in a mainstream school. Data from the Department for Education5 shows that of the 1,178,2356 SEND learners in state-funded compulsory education, 56% (650,455) are in state-funded primary schools and 34% (399,800) are in state-funded secondary schools. Far fewer of these learners are educated in special schools (only 10% – 114,755) or in pupil referral units (1% – 13,315), although the incidence of SEND in these settings is substantially higher.

Whilst many papers and commentators focus on children and young people who have EHCPs or attend special schools, the vast majority of SEND children and young people receive their education in a mainstream school. Therefore, all teachers need to ensure their professional development includes how best to teach this cohort.

For this reason, using a specific label to identify where SEND professional development is taking place is a potential distraction. It risks an ‘us and them’ mentality and, despite the statistics above, faced with a choice, many teachers may still not recognise a gap in their knowledge. But does this matter?

Good teaching is essential for all pupils, and all teachers are teachers of SEND. We therefore need to find a balance; whilst the NQT data above highlights a need for more specialist training on various learning difficulties to develop teaching skills further, we also need to ensure all CPD builds in inclusive elements and refers to children with SEND so it is not ‘bolted on’.

Some of the best evidence we currently have has grown from educational psychologists and neuroscientists whose research was first picked up by teachers working with young people with special educational needs. For example, Professor John Sweller’s research on cognitive load theory or Professor Allan Paivio’s work on dual coding – both stalwarts of researchED presentations, and both, I would argue, provide useful tools in teaching children with SEND.

So whilst I would not necessarily argue that there needs to be more SEND-focused sessions, I do believe that there could be more emphasis on SEND in the questions that are asked of the research and practice that is shared.

For example, School Minister Nick Gibb’s researchED speech7 at the 2018 national conference included celebratory remarks about early literacy and the 87% who reach the expected standard in the Year 1 phonics screening check. He did not mention the worrying discrepancies between regions and local authorities where a child with an EHCP in Inner London is 50% more likely to reach the expected standard in the phonics screening check compared to a child in the North West, East or West Midlands.8

If we are all teachers of SEND, we may not need our own conferences or conference stream, but we do all need to be asking these questions.

Recommendations for further reading

Sweller J., Ayres P. and Kalyuga, S. (2011) Cognitive load theory. Berlin: Springer-Verlag.

Paivio, A. (1986) Mental representations: a dual coding approach. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Weinstein, Y., Sumeracki, M. and Caviglioli, O. (2018) Understanding how we learn: a visual guide. London: Routledge.


1. Ginnis, S., Pestell, G., Mason, E. and Knibbs, S. (2018) Newly qualified teachers: annual survey 2017. Department for Education. London: The Stationery Office.

2. Ofsted (2010) The special educational needs and disability review. Manchester: Ofsted.

3. Department for Education (2016) Special educational needs in England: January 2016. London: The Stationery Office.

4. Department for Education (2018) Special educational needs in England: January 2018. London: The Stationery Office.

5. Ibid.

6. This is a smaller number than the total number of SEND pupils as it excludes nursery and independent school pupils.

7. Gibb, N. (2018) ‘School standards minister at researchED’ [Speech], researchED National Conference 2018. Harris Secondary Academy, St Johns Wood, London. 8th September.

8. Selfridge, R. (2018) Effective specialist support and ringfenced funding is needed to support those who struggle to learn to read. London: Driver Youth Trust.