Supply Teachers, Special Education and Professional Needs

Supply Teachers, Special Education and Professional Needs


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A different way of being: supply teaching in special schools is an independent MA study, developed from previous modular studies in special needs and completed in 2002. The motivation for the work came from first entering the field of special education, in 1997, as a supply teacher after a long career in mainstream teaching. Significant gaps in knowledge and understanding, both of the culture within these schools, the spectrum of complex needs and lack of skills required to work effectively led to a growing need to be more informed. The title of the work reflects the observations and concerns about the nature of supply teaching in special education, an area previously unresearched. This small scale study is mainly qualitative in approach and the topic is investigated from the perspectives of the supply teachers and support staff, data being collated through conversational interviews, a questionnaire to Heads of schools, and participatory observations logged in the researcher’s diary.

Author: Stella Cattini-Muller 

Publication Date: 2005

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A different way of being: supply teaching in special schools1 is an independent MA study, developed from previous modular studies in special needs and completed in 2002. The motivation for the work came from first entering the field of special education, in 1997, as a supply teacher after a long career in mainstream teaching. Significant gaps in knowledge and understanding, both of the culture within these schools, the spectrum of complex needs and lack of skills required to work effectively led to a growing need to be more informed. The title of the work reflects the observations and concerns about the nature of supply teaching in special education, an area previously unresearched. This small scale study is mainly qualitative in approach and the topic is investigated from the perspectives of the supply teachers and support staff, data being collated through conversational interviews, a questionnaire to Heads of schools, and participatory observations logged in the researcher’s diary.


Who are the supply teachers?, the Mirandanet/Select research (2005),2 developed from a partnership project with one of the main supply teaching agencies, Select Education, in response to government initiatives to improve the quality and status of this shadow workforce and to build up a supportive community of supply teachers. The extensive research was structured to identify the main characteristics of supply teachers, their professional needs and concerns and to throw light on the wide ranging experiences they have to offer. The methods are mainly quantitative with evidence drawn from the Select Education database analysis, a survey of supply teachers and assistants, and from two face to face focus discussion groups.


The aim of this paper is to look at the focus of enquiry, examine, in turn, the main themes which emerge from the findings of the MA study and highlight relevant links to the results of the Mirandanet research3 in order to identify commonality of concern (for example, behaviour management) and to isolate areas of specifically different need, (such as skills for non-verbal communication) the intention being to inform further action and to contribute to constructive initiatives for improved practice, better working relationships and conditions for all supply teachers.


Focus of research

Method One of the Mirandanet research widens the field of enquiry to extend to all the supply teachers on the Select Education agency database and allows for a large scale dissemination of information which gives important statistical indications about the general characteristics of the current supply teaching force, their ages, nationality, experience, expertise, work interests and preferences.


The Mirandanet data analysis reveals that only a very small percentage of teachers wish to work in special schools and, from the survey, that working with special educational needs was high on the list of professional development required. In contrast, the focus of this MA qualitative micro-study is narrowed down to this specific section of the supply teaching ‘community’ who do work in special schools and units.



The main research questions for the MA study ask:


  • What are the main observations, concerns and training needs of supply teachers in special schools?


  • How can the findings of this study be of future use in informing practice?


These questions correlate closely with those of the Mirandanet quantitative database analysis and survey of supply teachers and assistants which sought to determine:


  • Who are the supply teachers?
  • What matters most to supply teachers?
  • What professional development is required?


The focus groups provide an arena for sharing experiences and needs with others and balance the statistical evidence with some qualitative results. As well as being the researcher of the MA study, I have subsequently been involved in the Mirandanet research as a member of the focus group, as a member of an on-line community of supply teachers, as a participant in an e-moderating course and as an on-line forum discussion facilitator. This opportunity has linked this work in a number of ways to the Mirandanet research, giving insight into the process of developing a supportive network and the potential for exchange of skills and knowledge.



Themes emerging from the MA data


The seven main themes in the MA study (discussed in the following sections) emerge as a ‘reflective dialogue’ between the two groups, teachers and LSAs, substantiated by comments from Heads. Some direct conversational quotations are also used here since they serve best to ground these ideas in the every day life experiences of those in the workplace. There are six areas of concern examined here, pinpointing direct parallels in training and need to the Mirandanet survey and focus group findings, and grouping issues which are more specialised. These are behaviour management, health and safety, teamwork, medical issues, communication skills and curriculum access. The seventh, that of training needs, is threaded throughout and will be summarised later to link specifically with Mirandanet’s survey requirements for professional development.



Skills and training needed for behaviour management

This area of concern evoked the most reactions and comments by far and parallels the needs of the focus groups in Who are the supply teachers? In fact, the very first forum to be run on the Select Education online message boards as an extension of this research was a discussion about behaviour management skills and it received a record number of views, consolidating a pressing need for ongoing professional development and training.


Teachers in special education often find themselves facing up to the many challenges of complex behavioural and emotional difficulties. The responses were mainly positive in that, in the face of adversity, the majority attempt to meet that challenge by being prepared to ask questions and develop their own approaches, but admit that they lack appropriate training to deal with extremes of behaviour and tend to rely heavily upon their support staff who often know the pupils better.


Teacher D 2002: It’s hard to find ways to be with challenging behaviour, difficult to plan…it’s like taking the emotional temperature of the class and finding ways to deliver what is on the agenda for the day.


LSA M 2002: It’s about reading behaviour signals, and acting upon them, it’s how our kids communicate. When their stability is threatened they go haywire. I know how to clam them down, I’m used to it…it’s not a failure on the supply teacher’s part.


Many of the suggestions proffered by the study group apply to supply teachers in general and match at least four of the list of challenges expressed by the Mirandanet focus group (p.17) and the survey findings (p.18). Classroom management techniques and behaviour strategies have high priority in mainstream classes where numbers are greater and support less available.


Training needs arising from the MA data are as follows:


class behaviour management

classroom organisation, routines, continuity, stability

support from management

access to behaviour policies

methods of restraint

intervention strategies







Concerns about health and safety

Insecurity regarding health and safety, and related legal issues impacts on all groups, Mirandanet (p.17) These concerns overlap with medical matters and with extremes of behaviour. The focus on health and safety issues features strongly in the MA study and here are just three of many examples:


Teacher G 2002: At the end of a day in EBD I didn’t worry so much about what I’d taught but I wouldn’t compromise safety. Restraint is a big concern – it’s a grey area


Teacher D 2002: The difference in special education is that safety and security of the children is paramount


LSA L 2002: If there’s a dangerous situation we must react – anything that’s a safety issue I have no problem about informing


Some of the training needs also apply to other areas of concern:


access to health& safety policies

information about legal status with regard to above

first aid training

information about medical problems manual handling

methods of restraint



The importance of interpersonal relationships and teamwork

This issue arose as a particular concern in special education and would apply also to those in mainstream who have statemented children with one to one support staff. Sometimes there can be as many as five extra adults in a special school classroom, as well as other agencies like speech therapists and physios. Some of the study group were unused to teamwork and felt threatened. Others felt supported and learnt from the LSAs. Teamwork also requires training and discussion, exchanging of skills, drawing on the strengths of team members, optimising use of their time and working together to achieve common aims. Good communication and interpersonal skills are needed. This presents an area for continuing professional development and supportive interaction and links to Mirandanet survey needs (p.16) and areas of concern (p.18).


Teacher I 2002: I felt like I was on the spot at first but the assistants were very supportive. I relied heavily upon them for help and guidance.


LSA L 2002: Sometimes they’re more nervous of us, not being used to other people in the classroom.


Further training needs include:


classroom management

training in teamwork/organising support staff

interpersonal/communication skills

The need to be more informed about medical issues

Those entering a special school for the first time felt ‘unprepared’ for the task, unaware of the complexity of needs and unsure of their role as the teacher, sometimes shocked, feeling de-skilled and unable too, at first, to see beyond the disability:


SMC diary 1999

Teacher: What’s wrong with A?

LSA: Oh, he’s fine, look he’s smiling at you!

Teacher: No, I mean what’s wrong with him?

LSA: I think he wants a biscuit talk to him, he’s listening to you!

Medical needs are paramount in special education so LSAs are alert to these and generally do inform. It is less likely that a teacher going into a mainstream classroom at the last minute will get to know these details, and this is a concern frequently encountered (Mirandanet p.17). Induction and Initial Teacher Training were suggested here as a means of raising awareness.

Teacher A 2002: When I start a new day the physical and medical needs take priority over the educational and social…it’s important for me to know of anything potentially dangerous or life-threatening.


Some general and more specific needs include:


induction and Initial Teacher Training

health & safety

hygiene, first aid

practical training in safe use of complex equipment

(ex. hoists, standing frames etc.)

information about particularities of conditions and syndromes

teamwork/working with other agencies, such as OTs, therapists, physios etc.


Skills and training needed for non-verbal communication

Teachers in special education felt they had to learn new skills and adopt a different way of communicating. Adult responses are often part of organised systems already in place with well discussed strategies for meeting individualised targets. Working with systems in place to provide continuity applies to all teachers. Specialised training in systems of non-verbal communication and the use of ICT links to the needs teachers surveyed by Mirandanet (p.16, 1&2) who would like to extend their skills to work with SN, both in mainstream or special schools.


This interchange between a teacher and her LSA exemplifies the need for basic informational and training needs:



SMC diary 2001

Teacher: (to child pointing to his choice of snack) Good, B., you’d like some crisps? Here you are!

LSA: No, don’t give them to him until he looks at you and signs PLEASE. That’s one of his targets.


Staff and Heads suggested the need for:


induction days/practical training

training in non-verbal communication skills

ICT training in software for communication symbols etc.,

computer aids, whiteboards

training in assessment/target setting

Accessing the curriculum for special needs

The need for induction into work with special educational needs comes second in the priority in the Mirandanet survey of professional development (p16). The MA study reveals a number of concerns and is therefore discussed here in more detail.

Questions like “When does the teaching begin?” and “What do I teach and how do I teach?” reflect the professional challenges presented by this work. The uncertainty of addressing the issue of curriculum delivery emerges as an insecurity, particularly for short term teachers. Working within an environment where medical, physical, social, emotional and psychological needs are as important a consideration for the pupil’s development and learning as are educational processes requires a willingness to step aside from the expectations and conventions of mainstream teaching and to adopt different and creative ways of working with a complexity of needs.


Entering a new field with little or no prior knowledge of the historical and developmental changes in policy and curriculum which have impacted on special education is a common experience. These considerations are explored throughout the study through references to related literature sources.4 Older teachers who had experienced the struggle in the development and implementation of the NC were more able to draw parallels and make comparisons, awareness and understanding coming mainly through practice and experience. Those new to this work, or from overseas felt unprepared to deliver a curriculum and attempted to find ways in through their own resourcefulness and willingness to learn from others.

Opinions about the value of applying the curriculum differed greatly, as did preconceptions and awareness of needs. To illustrate this, I quote in full here a comment from Teacher A, an experienced mainstream teacher who through her experience as a cover teacher in special education changed her career and eventually became a specialist in the field:

Teacher A 2002: My attitude has definitely changed through my experiences as a supply, especially with regard to entitlement for all children to have an education. My first assumption, in a PMLD school, was that there was no way I could educate those kids in spite of my experience. That preconception has been challenged over and over again and turned around. Not only do I believe educational right to be very important, I also see that the National Curriculum, which I criticised so much has evolved a process which addresses the needs of these children and can, in some way, be monitored and recorded, and it’s a different way.


Teachers, LSAs and Heads expressed the importance and value of Initial Teacher Training and induction provision as a means of challenging assumptions, removing barriers, and raising awareness of the broad spectrum of educational needs across the system as a whole. These are the main training needs for this area of concern:


induction days/practical training

introduction to SN policies

school policies on SN

SN curriculum access

accessing the language of SN, abbreviations etc.

accessing ICT skills for planning and assessment


Skills and training

All the issues emerging from the MA data present some need for initial or further professional training and many links have already been mentioned. Teaching experiences differed greatly in both groups. The MA study found some supply teachers entering special schools with no prior experience, some with previous experience who, as returners had found the educational aspect more structured and therefore felt deskilled, others with more mainstream experience who found they had to adapt to a different way of working. All expressed a need for some form of training or informational preparation.


LSA L 2002: I think supply teachers going into special schools for the first time definitely need training and support – even a day in a school to get over the initial shock and worry of doing something so different.


Teacher F 2002: There should be some compulsory hands on training and further help later when you’ve found out what your needs are and where there are gaps in knowledge.

As is evident from the Mirandanet research, responsibility for bridging the gaps in knowledge and training rests mainly upon the supply teaching agencies who are responding to government initiatives. About half of the interviewees were aware of useful material and information on agency websites and training days offered, however, only one interviewee had attended a one day course. A major factor which emerges from both sets of research is the loss of pay incurred if supply teachers give up their time for training (Mirandanet p.18). This lack of contact with others in the same field isolates the supply teachers and results in ‘lack of mutually supportive interaction with colleagues'(Mirandanet p.18). Indeed, some interviewees stressed that the interaction in the sessions had been the first opportunity to voice opinions and needs, and this also applies to the focus groups who discovered that through discussion together they had common concerns and faced similar challenges.


Identifying professional development needs: links to MirandaNet findings


The six most important areas for professional development identified in the Mirandanet survey equally apply to the needs of the special school study group and therefore, I have cross-linked and summarised these here:


  • Training to use the specialised types of ICT software for non-verbal communication signs and symbols would be specific, as would the use of switches and operational gadgets but learning ICT skills for lesson planning, whiteboard training, record keeping and assessment would apply to all groups.


  • Experiencing, first hand, the wider spectrum of educational needs by visiting a range of special schools and units would help raise teacher awareness of the complexity of needs and individualised target setting, for example, in mainstream classrooms and would apply to both groups and would prepare those who wish to focus on this area of work.


  • Classroom management applies to both groups and includes training in organisational skills, teamwork and behaviour. Training in organising staff and resources in a multi-sensory classroom, for example, would be specific.


  • Information packs, booklets, videos of good practice, introduction to curricula, policies and systems of working is a professional requirement which applies to both newcomers in the UK and applies to all groups. A specific need would be an information booklet about the differences in special education and supportive suggestions on what to expect and look out for.


  • General information and training for new supply teachers applies to both groups, with specific induction and curriculum access for those working in special education.


  • Finally, and very important for all groups, even more so in special education is the need to foster good working relationships between teachers and support staff. The MA study has throughout revealed their pivotal role and addressed the many responsibilities they assume in ensuring safety and maintaining continuity. Training to be a successful teaching assistant applies to all fields of education. It may need to be a two way process, involving teachers too, as part of a more interactive approach to teamwork and more effective deployment of skills.


Some conclusions


The experiential, qualitative aspects of the MA research and the Mirandanet focus discussions give voice to the general needs of this important group of educators identified by the Mirandanet database analysis, who by the nature of their employment, find themselves on the margins of provision and continuing professional development. Both sets of findings also highlight concerns and training needs which apply to all teachers as well as identifying certain areas of teaching, that of the challenge of working with pupils with special needs included in mainstream and also in special education which require further consideration. Through all these processes it is clear that the experiences and challenges of supply teachers show a willingness to extend their skills and knowledge and the diversity of their backgrounds adds richness and creative potential. We are already experiencing the development of seminars and forums based on the areas of professional need and concern. This gives scope for extending interactions between teachers, support staff and managers and building a specific knowledge base to serve these hitherto neglected groups.


Further suggestion/ideas:


Can the MA study findings be of further use in informing practice?


In addition to addressing the training needs identified throughout the paper, and the suggestions outlined by the seminar/workshop organisers some further ideas for action evolving from the MA study findings might include:


  • forum discussion/seminar dealing with the difficult issue of negotiating the tensions between curriculum delivery and medical need in special education


  • developing a knowledge base -literature review:

Apart from than these two recent research studies, there is little other specific published literature to be found on supply teaching The Government document, ‘Supply Teachers: Meeting the Challenge’ (2000), places some of the responsibility for improving quality in the hands of the providers, the agencies, and Barlin &Hallgarten’s chapter in Victims of Change to Agents of Change (2000) entitled ‘Supply teachers: Symptoms of the Problem or Part of the Solution? advocates more professional training and status for supply teachers.

For the MA study a lateral, contextual approach was taken and a broad literature review sets the research topic in its historical context and gives insight into the changing nature of the special school, policies, curriculum development and the philosophy and implications for inclusion, all of which impact on teacher professionalism and time, the increase in demand for supply teachers and the changes in provision. Throughout the study issues discussed are underpinned by references to educational theory, practical and research literature.


In the section ‘Future directions for research’ (p.19) of the Mirandanet document the lack of specific literature about supply teaching is recognised and the potential usefulness of a literature review noted. Parts of the collection of written sources referenced in this study may be of value in contributing to developing a wider knowledge base.


  • information booklet for supply teachers in special schools:

design a skeleton leaflet/plan to outline information for supply teachers in special schools with a view to creating an information booklet – some areas to be considered:


what to expect in different types of school, attention to medical issues, outline of certain medical syndromes, safety, routines, structure of day, feeding routines, use of equipment, priorities, policies, manual handling, restraint, teamwork, multi-disciplinary teams, jargon, abbreviations, frequently asked questions etc.


research relevant policies and summarise points, legal issues, right etc.


include background info’ on curriculum/Entitlement for All


consult different types of school for additional advice on what should be included (eg. EBD, MLD, SLD/PMLD, PHD, special units etc.)


collect samples of behaviour policies etc.


collect samples of lesson plans, IEPs, specialised programmes etc.


seek permission to include photographic images


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References & Contacts

1 Stella Cattini- Muller, 2002. A different way of being: supply teaching in special schools. Published study.

2 Christina Preston, Margaret Danby, 2005. Who are the supply teachers? Research into the characteristics of supply teachers and their professional needs. MirandaNet/Select Education

3 Throughout this paper the Select/Mirandanet research will referred to as Mirandanet and the MA research study as MA study. Page numbers quoted refer to the Mirandanet research booklet.

4 Literature sources are discussed in further suggestions at the end of the document.

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