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Using professional development to equip special schools and support all pupils

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Date published 24 November 2023

Meeting the professional development needs of 160 staff to ensure a high quality of education for pupils is a core part of Phil Leaney’s role as deputy head of Birch Wood School in Leicestershire

Phil’s approach to developing teachers and leaders at the school, which is a community special school, is twofold: through establishing a SEND and Inclusion Hub and through engaging with the National Professional Qualifications (NPQs).

A recent green paper published by the Department for Education stated that whilst most children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) are educated in mainstream state-funded schools, less than half of teachers felt confident about teaching those pupils.

Inspired by this green paper, as well as a recent paper by the Confederation of Schools Trust and Ambition Institute, Phil and his team set up the SEND and Inclusion Hub in January 2023. Birch Wood leads the hub in partnership with Leicestershire and Rutland Teaching School Hub.

The hub is equipping schools and teachers in the area with the tools and strategies they need to ensure that all pupils can fulfil their potential.

“The aim is for all pupils to be properly supported and ambitiously enabled to achieve their personal best and to establish a broader vision of success,” Phil says.

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Amongst the hub’s core values are being ‘ambitious’, emphasising the responsibility of teachers and leaders to continually develop and improve. The hub’s work is also underpinned by the belief that every child is entitled to a teacher with the expertise that enables them to learn well, with this expertise informed by research.

“A lot of the work I do with the hub is centered on the training we're going to provide” says Phil.

Embracing a range of the National Professional Qualifications, delivered by Ambition Institute and the Leicestershire and Rutland Teaching School Hub, has been at the core of his Phil and his team’s approach.

Birch Wood School, which has pupils aged four to 19, has “really leaned into the NPQs,” he says. “The quality of the courses is really good. We've got a range of staff across different roles and subjects, typically middle leaders and up, and the greatest range of development need you could imagine.

“But what the NPQs have enabled us to do is provide a common language for professional development and school improvement, because we're all engaging in similar things.

“Additionally, what’s been nice is the commonality between the NPQs. For example, we’re all engaging in the ‘simple model of memory’ and we're all stumbling across different aspects that we keep revisiting, which has been useful for us because we can draw that back in.”

Phil says the NPQs have led to positive change, in particular, around the sequencing of the curriculum.

“We talk a lot about professional development, but actually, as middle leaders and senior leaders, it’s a question of how we can use what we know about learning at the very starting point of curriculum design to remove those barriers before they happen.”

Whilst much of the development of the SEND and Inclusion Hub has NPQ learnings at the core, Phil and his team have to apply these learnings in different ways when compared with mainstream schools to meet the needs of his pupils.

He says some pupils including those with SEND “need to revisit information more frequently than others to make those strong connections. We might need to really dive into cognitive load and really strip back things for a young person with autism to help them focus."

Ultimately, the aim is to make all teachers equally comfortable and capable of working with all children. The SEND and Inclusion hub can be an important part of this picture. Phil is surprised by just how much interest there’s been in the hub, having been approached by lots of schools looking for help.

“There’s such a level of interest. We’re offering lots of training days and bespoke support for schools. And they might come into Birch Wood to see how we do things. We’ve found that’s a powerful way of engaging mainstream schools, opening the doors on special schools and really targeting that need.”

Click here to find out more about the National Professional Qualifications on our programmes page.

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