The Big Lottery Fund National Well-being Evaluation found a number of factors key in improving wellbeing including better academic achievement – this suggests that learning interventions must be considered for learners with low levels of well-being in special schools.
Teachers from mainstream schools are often shocked when I say that some of the recent education secretaries, loathed by much of the teaching profession, are quite popular in special schools, having done a great service to SEN teaching. In my school we are delighted to be free from being shackled to the national curriculum, which stipulated that we must teach skills and subjects that were irrelevant to most of our learners, at the expense of addressing what really mattered to them.
Now we are free to use individualised study plans that allow learners to progress in skills and activities that are relevant to them. Imray and Hinchcliffe (2012) argue that people with profound learning difficulties are unlikely to achieve anything at school unless a distinct, relevant style of teaching is used.
Special schools, if they are serious about the mental health of their learners, must ensure that they are working on relevant areas of learning and giving learners the chance to achieve success in skills that matter to them.
Education professionals in special schools have complained that the national curriculum does not meet the needs of their learners. Barber and Goldbart (1998) report that the teaching of National Curriculum subjects to children with severe and profound learning difficulties is of little use. As such we have had the frustration of trying to shoe horn what we know the learners really need into a one-size-does-not-fit-all curriculum. We know for instance that learners with severe or learning difficulties require longer to move along developmental pathways than their mainstream peers, they have different learning styles and may also have neurodevelopmental barriers in regard to some areas of development. This means that learners should have individualised teaching in a flexible curriculum directed by individual need. The focus of this curriculum must be on functional skills to prepare them for their next stage of life whilst maintaining breadth, and progression.
This recommendation has been taken on by Equals, the national organisation seeking to provide the best possible resources for learners with special needs. Under Peter Imray, who has questioned whether the national curriculum is fit for the purpose of providing children with serious learning difficulties with the best possible education, they have started focussing on areas of learning.
This is the approach that our school has taken with learners now working on learning intentions across 6 areas of learning – My Communication, My Body, My World, My Creativity, My Thinking, My Independence.
When setting targets in these areas, aimed to support learners in their primary areas of need and interest, I have found useful the Preparing For Adulthood Outcomes across the age ranges for children and young people with SEND guidelines.
If you think you have tried everything with a young person and they still struggle to engage – perhaps it’s time for drastic measures, have a revolution in the curriculum! And don’t worry about OfSted, they want to see progress, if your learner isn’t making any now then it can’t get any worse!