At The Key, we’re always keen to hear from our members about the highs and lows of their day-to-day role. To kick off the new year, we caught up with Dr Penny Barratt, executive headteacher of The Bridge School and The Bridge Integrated Learning Space in London, which cater for pupils with severe learning difficulties and autism. You can catch Penny at our upcoming Special School Summit on 26 January.
How did you start your career in special education?
I started out as a PE teacher, and segued into teaching sport to children with disabilities and learning difficulties. I realised then that this is where my passion lay and so I went off to America and completed a degree in working with children with special educational needs (SEN). When I came back to the UK I specifically looked for jobs in the special sector.
Why did you decide to stay in special education?
You can be so creative and inventive in special education. All teachers have the opportunity to make a difference to young peoples’ lives, but this is especially pronounced when working with children with special needs because each child’s needs can be so complex. I found myself being more inventive in my teaching methods and I felt more challenged. It’s not as prescriptive as mainstream education.
What do you wish everyone knew about working in special education?
How rewarding it is helping children and young people with SEN to meet their full potential. It is challenging, without a doubt, and we’re working with less resource than ever before. But the bigger the challenge, the bigger the reward when you overcome it. You can learn so much from work in the special sector, not just about working with children with special needs, but also about best practice working with all children.
What has been the most rewarding moment of your career to date?
We had a group of students with extremely complex needs and challenging behaviours that we weren’t equipped to provide for. We realised that unless we came up with another solution, this group of students was likely to go into residential provision, which we and their families didn’t think would be beneficial for them. So with a lot of time and effort, we created a new provision that specifically addressed the needs of this group and they were able to stay at our school and progress.
What are the unique challenges facing special schools?
The biggest issue, for me, is that special schools and SEN are so often overlooked. The vast majority of debates, policies and legislative changes are centered on the mainstream audience, with special education being addressed as an afterthought, if at all.
Years of experience have made us pretty good at adapting mainstream structures and policies to suit our needs, but it can definitely make you feel lonely and isolated. It is tough and creates additional work for an already overworked staff, and at the end of the day, you never know for certain whether your adaptations will be accepted by the higher powers. As in all good schools, the children’s needs come first, and we make our changes accordingly.
What changes do you think would most impact the future of special education?
There needs to be more recognition of achievement in the special sector, not just academically but holistically as well. The role of special education is as much about helping young people learn life skills, as it is about spelling or times tables.
If you could change one thing about the education landscape, what would it be?
I’d like to see special needs considered in discussions about education from the point of policy, not after the fact. There should be more value placed on the work of special schools. There are more pupils entering the school system with special needs than ever before, and those needs are getting more complex. The role of special education is changing and it’s becoming more and more important. We have so much to offer the sector – let our issues be at the heart of the education debates too!