Professionals and sea breezes

Sea breeze and Sencos, a heady cocktail

Sea breeze and Sencos, a heady cocktail

I don’t recall ever having visited Bognor Regis before, and  a couple of evenings ago I enjoyed an evening stroll along the seaside promenade at Felpham beach, taking in the salty air and listening to the gentle rush of the sea against the shingle strand. This was an opportunity for relaxation before what I knew would be a busy day of teaching, and listening to presentations by a range of colleagues at the annual University of Chichester conference for special educational needs co-ordinators.

I must confess to having mixed feelings about the role so ably fulfilled by special educational needs co-ordinators, usually referred to as Sencos. They undoubtedly provide a most professionals service, developing expertise, offering advice and assisting teachers to understand the needs of children who are experiencing difficulties with learning. Their enthusiasm and dedication is seldom in question as was evidenced in the university conference centre at this well organised and attended event. The attentive audience upon which I gazed whilst giving my morning presentation provided ample evidence of their interest and eager anticipation of picking up information that might assist them in their challenging role. This level of attention was in evidence throughout all the day’s sessions, with participants taking copious notes and asking the kinds of questions that demonstrate a commitment to harvest information for use in their schools. These are indeed consummate professionals with a hunger for knowledge and a determination to improve the lot of the children with special educational needs.

My questioning of the role of the Senco, comes not from their obvious levels of commitment and devotion to their pupils, but rather in the worries I have that this may detract from the enthusiasm of their teacher colleagues. Is there a danger that teachers working in schools with highly skilled Sencos may abdicate some of their responsibility for children with special educational needs, and assume that these will be addressed by a named professional? Is it possible that the role in some way diminishes the need for others to develop the skills that these designated colleages so ably demonstrate?

Talking to Sencos throughout the day in Bognor I gained the impression that the situation in schools is variable. One lady told me about how she is given opportunities to regularly update her colleagues through professional development events. She explained how she already has two training sessions timetabled at school to disseminate some of the ideas and developments picked up during this conference. She declared that the majority of the staff in her school saw her as a supportive source of information who enabled them to develop new professional skills, knowledge and understanding and help them to apply these in the classroom. However, another young and effervescent Senco told me a different tale. In her school it would appear that as soon as there is a problem with a child who is struggling with learning, it is seen as an issue to be dealt with by her alone. She is expected to come up with a solution and apply this so that teaching may resume as usual. Would she, I wondered, have a chance to share today’s sessions in school? Sadly, she declared that if this were to happen it would be the first time ever.

I am sure that these contrasting approaches can be found in schools throughout the country. I am certainly not advocating that we dispense with the role of the Senco in order that all teachers take responsibility for every child in their class.  I suspect that in many instances this simply wouldn’t happen. I am convinced that having someone I school who has both the professional knowledge and positive attitudes that I witnessed amongst the SENCOs in Bognor is a force for good. However, I do wish that more thought was given to how these excellent teachers are supported and enabled to develop the skills of their colleagues. In some situations they appear to plough a lonely furrow, bearing a weight of responsibility with limited recognition of the important skills that they have acquired or the most effective ways in which these can be deployed.

My visit to Bognor and the chance I was given to speak to, and listen and learn from these excellent teachers, was a most rewarding experience. As is always the case when teachers are gathered together, there were high levels of creativity and originality in evidence throughout the day. On the long journey home, involving four trains, I had plenty of time to reflect on the commitment I had recorded amongst these colleagues. Surely the next step towards the development of inclusive schools must be to fire all teachers with this level of professional enthusiasm for teaching learners who are currently struggling in our schools.


Sharing experience across cultures

English and Indian teachers taking an opportunity to learn from each other

English and Indian teachers taking an opportunity to learn from each other

For ten days we have visitors to the university in Northampton from India. A group that includes students from our MA programme in Bangalore are with us for a series of workshops, seminars, school visits, and of course some social activities. For some this is their first time away from their homeland, whilst for others travel has become a regular part of their lives.

As hosts there is a natural anxiety that the arrangements made are comfortable to our guests whilst they visit a country which is in so many ways different from their own. Whilst matters of climate and costs are something over which we have no control, we have endeavoured to ensure that those associated with diet and social expectations are accommodated. We are aware that as visitors our Indian colleagues will be as keen not to transgress in matters of etiquette as we are as their hosts. The secret of success is to make them feel welcome and easy in our somewhat staid English company.

Yesterday as part of the programme arranged for our visitors we had a fairly informal meeting with a group of teachers, each of them a manager of special needs provision within  a Northamptonshire mainstream school. These dedicated professionals carry a weight of responsibility for matters of assessment, planning and co-ordination of the learning of children with a diverse range of needs and abilities. In addition they provide advice to their teacher colleagues, many of whom may not have either the experience or in some instances commitment to children who may be perceived as “difficult” to teach. These English colleagues had given up their afternoon to join in a dialogue with teachers from India who have a similar focus on the needs of children, though working in a very different cultural and educational system.

My good colleague Mary managed the discussion with her usual professionalism and flair and before long these teachers were exchanging ideas and experiences. Mary’s dextrous identification of issues of common interest meant that the conversation flowed and before long everyone had the confidence to express their ideas and opinions. Teachers everywhere enjoy talking about their own experiences of working with children. Often they focus upon the challenges they face, but before long this invariably leads to an exchange of possible solutions through a comparison of approaches and strategies. In next to no time the common ground between colleagues was established and from the periphery of the discourse, I could observe much nodding and the occasional smile of approval.

The two groups of teachers, coming from different backgrounds and experiences soon realised that they had much in common. In their classrooms they experience similar attitudes, understanding and challenges. Furthermore they have at times come to similar conclusions about how these may best be addressed. Certainly there are significant differences between the contexts in which they work – I suspect that none of our English colleagues have managed classes of sixty or more pupils, as some of our Indian friends certainly have, and similarly Indian teachers were surprised by the level of expectation with regards to the monitoring and financial accountability for provision for children with special educational needs expected of their English counterparts. But far more than these differences was the common ground that these professionals shared.

A showing of materials and sharing of ideas provided food for thought and I am quite sure will have some influence on the future actions taken by these colleagues. This was a valuable experience for all. Time well spent and an opportunity for professional reflection that was clearly appreciated by the participants. In the hands of professionals such as these the security of the education for pupils who have often been overlooked or marginalised is most certainly assured. It was a pleasure for me to be able to learn from both English and Indian teachers at this event.

Perhaps a personal learning passport designed by an English teacher will be further developed in a school in Bangalore.

Perhaps a personal learning passport designed by an English teacher will be further developed in a school in Bangalore.