Listening to our current special school leaders I am in genuine awe of their drive to offer the best provision they can in the most disadvantageous of circumstances. These colleagues, and their staff teams, care desperately for the young people who attend their provisions. They care so much that they keep going when all seems stacked against them. They do so because they know that if they do not the last safety net for many SEND pupils and their families will have perished.
However, special school leaders are faced with a Sisyphean challenge – many keep pushing their metaphorical boulder of relentless pressure and stress up the mountain side in the hope someone in a position of power will eventually have the foresight to recognise that the special school system is approaching breaking point and at least find a wedge to prise under the rock to give them some respite; others reach a point where they decide the travails of constantly pushing against the odds needs to cease for the well-being of themselves, or their families, and tender their resignation; and some, tragically, reach a point where the toll of their endeavours seriously damages their physical and/or emotional health.
Many of the pressures that special school leaders face will be comparable to those faced by mainstream school leaders – particularly those leading establishments that pride themselves on their inclusive approaches. However, the range and complexity of challenges special school leaders currently face are, in my view, unprecedented and some of these are cited below:
The teacher retention crisis
Special school teachers and leaders are leaving their roles for a host of reasons. Those approaching retirement are departing earlier than they planned because they want to safeguard their health and well-being. Some staff are leaving more swiftly than might be expected because the retention crisis has created an abundance of promotion opportunities. Others are opting to teach in different settings, or to leave teaching all together, exhausted by the unsustainable demands placed upon them.
The teaching assistant exodus
Special School Teaching Assistants are relinquishing their posts in significant numbers to take advantage of increased hybrid or term time working opportunities offered by non-school employers. This is often combined with better rates of pay. Special school leaders just cannot match this fiscal offer with their existing budgets.
The recruitment crisis
The diminishing number of applicants for posts in special schools is now at crisis level. Many special schools are having major difficulties filling teacher and teaching assistant vacancies. They are having to advertise numerous times even to get someone to interview. When they do get a candidate they are often not the quality of applicant that would have applied pre-pandemic. This faces leaders with the proverbial “Hobson’s choice” – appoint someone who is of a lesser standard than they desire or not appoint leaving a vacancy to remain unfilled.
Budgets stretched beyond their limits
Special schools are finding their budgets overwhelmed by future justifiable pay rises that in schools with low pupil-to-staff ratios can be debilitating. There is also significant uncertainty around “high needs” funding which is already under considerable pressure and seems to have dangerously limited capacity to support special schools with their rapidly rising wage bills.
As the funding gets ever more perilous many special school leaders are caught between impossible conflicting demands from MATs or Local Authorities to cut costs; from parents/carers who do not want the provision for their child and/or school to be further diminished; from their staff colleagues who often feel they are already operating at full stretch; and from their own professional judgement that further cuts will leave schools unable to fulfil educational, legal, medical, and/or health and safety duties.
The consequences of the above pressures are inevitably damaging on a special school's development. How do you build and maintain the momentum for school improvement when the composition of your staff team is changing on a yearly, termly, and sometimes weekly basis?
How do you retain your best staff when the special school you lead lacks the fiscal clout to pay staff the rates of remuneration they can get in other sectors and occupations?
How do you attract prospective employees to your school when the pool of potential applicants has diminished to a trickle and sometimes a drought?
How do you fill short term gaps in your staffing team when supply agencies do not have enough personnel to respond to your desperate need?
How do you lead a school with sufficient focus on strategic leadership when day-to-day operational demands mean that special school leaders are increasingly having to be classroom based to ensure their school can stay open?
How do you ensure continuity in subject leadership in some special school settings where teaching staff turnover is unrelenting?
How do you avoid skills dilution when you know that you are having to appoint personnel who, in some instances, you would probably not even have interviewed in pre-Covid days?
How do you meet the conflicting fiscal demands of those who hold the purse strings and those who desire the best for their son/daughter?
These are the dilemmas that too many special school leaders are having to constantly face through no fault of their own. Nor is this the limit of the difficulties. Our special school leaders are also confronted with the following:
Responding to the post-Covid issues that impact on their schools and communities following a once in a century global pandemic.
The challenge of securing external support from agencies like Child and Adolescent Mental Health where thresholds have risen and waiting lists lengthened to often unacceptable levels.
The crisis in social services where there has been a 40% rise in the number of social workers quitting their post in children’s services between 2016 and 2022. With the best will in the world one does not need to be Albert Einstein to recognise that such levels of turnover will impact adversely on the service provided to children, their families, and their schools.
The 2014 SEND code of practice was strong on rhetoric and abject in addressing the resourcing implications needed to make the aspirations a reality. Suffice it to say the fear of many practitioners is that the same error will be repeated with the 2023 revision. How do you enhance early diagnosis when Child and Adolescent Mental Health services are overwhelmed? How do you evolve effective multi-agency working with children’s social service teams when they are understaffed, overworked, and their teams are all too often in constant flux? How, as a special school leader, do you recruit and retain a high-quality workforce when the current context in which you lead is so disadvantageous? If the answer is to exhort front line staff to do ever more with insufficient funding, staffing, and external specialist support that is, quite frankly, morally unacceptable.
Local Authority SEND Service teams, in many instances, are in crisis due to efficiency savings, perhaps more aptly referred to as cuts. This means schools do not receive the quality of support from them that was available a decade ago.
It is hard to imagine things being more challenging.
Alas, one must also add the Ofsted factor. In such a demanding context one would hope for an independent inspectorate whose leadership is robust enough to speak “truth to power” on the difficulties our special school sector faces. Instead Ofsted’s leaders opt to impose an inspection framework decidedly ill-suited for judging many special schools.
This notion that one framework is sufficient to inspect schools ranging from a grammar school in the leafy suburbs to a small primary special school for learners with profound and multiple learning difficulties serving an area of social deprivation is, in my view, a nonsense. In the former the subject will be led by a TLR postholder, invariably a specialist in the subject they lead, with a team of subject staff to share the workload, and, in most instances, some allocated non-teaching time to monitor the quality of provision that is offered.
In a small special school subject leaders may be leading more than one subject, leading subjects they are not specialists in, will in many instances not have a TLR, and will be in a school that lacks the resourcing and/or economies of scale to allocate sufficient monitoring time.
There is, for me, an offensive laziness in an inspectorate that declines to produce an inspectorial framework that has relevance and is cognisant to the special school sector.
As a head if I walked into a classroom and saw a lesson where the teacher adopted such an approach in their teaching with scant regard to the need of different learners I would be unimpressed. Why would I be anything other than similarly uninspired by an inspectorate unwilling to devise an inspection framework that shows due regard to the unique demands of our nation’s special schools?
In closing, if I had a chance to speak with any of our nation’s educational policymakers I would initially give them three simple messages.
The first is that “exhorting those in our special schools to meet ever increasing demands whilst disregarding the plethora of constraints they currently face is unacceptably callous”.
If I were permitted a second comment, I would state “it is also downright foolish as those faced with fulfilling the impossible will ultimately leave the special school sector in provision damaging numbers”.
Then if given a third input I would say “adjust your expectations, adopt a less oppressive modus operandi, and start to provide appropriate levels of resourcing or we will all too soon have a special school sector that is understaffed, undervalued, and unable to meet the special educational needs within their community.”
The reality is, in my view, that stark.