Learning in partnership for SEND CPD: a case study

Introducing a personalised CPD programme gave teachers at Wren Academy the chance to provide better support to students with SEND. Liz Murray describes the process of implementing change

Author details

Liz Murray has worked in education for 20 years, as an accredited advanced skills teacher, pastoral and curriculum leader, SENCO and assistant headteacher. She has worked across the mainstream and independent sectors. She is also the founder of...

School information

School: Wren Academy

Location: North Finchley, London

Pupils on roll: 1437

Headteacher: Gavin Smith

Category: all-through academy

Level of SEN: average

In 2015, the introduction of a new SEND Code of Practice emphasised the need for teachers to teach effectively for students with SEND. Meanwhile, researchers at the UCL Institute of Education published ground-breaking guidance on Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants (MITA), with precise recommendations for the better use of TAs.

Taken together, the new Code of Practice and MITA research provided a clearer focus on the quality of teaching and in-class support for pupils with SEND, and collectively they had the potential to instigate change.

But at the same time, budget cuts had made it more difficult for schools to provide regular CPD to teachers, or to retain and fully utilise TAs. Or at least, this was my experience as assistant principal for inclusion and SENCO at Wren Academy.

Wren Academy prioritised high quality CPD and had in place a weekly CPD hour for teachers, which was in addition to timetabled departmental planning and evaluation periods, and regular after-school training sessions. But due to financial constraints, we faced having to reduce the number of hours that TAs were available to support SEND students and had to consider cutting the teachers’ CPD hour.

While completing the final project for my National Award for Special Educational Needs Co-ordination (NASENCO), I identified a gap between the progress of students with SEND and the rest of the cohort. I knew from observations that students with SEND needed greater specialist teacher input, and teachers needed better CPD in SEND.

Principles for change

I knew that discussing my NASENCO project with colleagues at Wren Academy would prompt a significant change to how the school provided for pupils with SEND. The first step was to identify some principles that would guide the academy through a smooth transition. I knew that I needed to promote collaboration, shared vision, collective responsibility and shared ownership (Ekins, 2012), and I opted to use Cowne’s action research model as the basis for collaborative working.

  1. Identify the problem.
  2. Illuminate the problem.
  3. Review and decide on action and success criteria.
  4. Monitor actions.
  5. Evaluate actions.
  6. Review and decide on next steps.

I decided to recruit a working party, or a ‘core change group’ (Cowne et al., 2015), to begin the process of identifying the problem. The intention was that this group encompassed the broadest possible range of perspectives. I knew that, by engaging several other members of staff, we would have greater success in conceiving and implementing a whole-school vision that I would have achieved alone.

From problem to opportunity

To help colleagues to view this as a professional opportunity, I wrote a brief entitled ‘strategic directions for inclusion’. It included the following rationale:

‘Although pupil premium and SEND students make very good progress, it is not as good as other students at Wren Academy. This is an area that we want to tackle. In addition, financial constraints mean that the SEND team will probably have fewer staff to support students and so we need to develop strategies that make our systems and structure more efficient.’

I included a goal, ‘improving the progress of SEND students’, and some areas for development. After publishing this document, I asked for interested volunteers. The working party comprised two pastoral leaders, two curriculum leaders, two main scale classroom teachers, one NQT and three teaching assistants.

We held five meetings over the course of a term. To stimulate discussion, we spent the first 20 minutes of each session using a SWOT analysis to identify our areas for development and critique our current practice. We eventually concluded that, to address the gap in staffing and CPD, teachers could use their allocated, timetabled hour of CPD to work directly with SEND pupils.

While we recognised that this would be a radical change, we also felt that it would be a useful opportunity to offer more meaningful CPD.

Developing the rationale

At the centre of the working party’s recommendation was a shared commitment to improving the attainment of pupils with SEND. But we recognised that teachers’ CPD is crucial to ensuring that students make progress. Sara Bubb’s study of what makes effective staff development found that in schools rated outstanding by Ofsted, ‘staff were motivated to identify and seize opportunities.’

We were guided by the need to be transparent, and to ‘take(s) account of the history, both recent and past, that inform the change taking place’ (Cowne et al., 2015). We took inspiration from Wren Academy’s well established CPD partnerships model, but nevertheless emphasised the change we needed and the reasons for it.

Illuminating the benefits and challenges

To raise awareness of the idea and seek other viewpoints, we conducted questionnaires and group interviews with TAs and teachers designed to explore:

  • what best practice support looks like
  • how support is viewed and its impact on students
  • the training and support required for teachers undertaking a support role
  • how this change might be viewed, to anticipate challenges and to formulate solutions.

I’ve presented the teachers’ and teaching assistants’ responses in the form of table.

Concerns Opportunities Possible incentives
Workload Better skills and knowledge of SEN The ability to choose: SEN, subject, teacher, student
Lack of SEN knowledge Better teaching practice through observing others Emphasis on collaboration
SLT in a support role could create anxiety for staff They might raise their game if colleagues provide support Emphasis on improving teaching practice
Would it really be effective CPD?    
Concern over support role in classroom (not being main authority figure)    
Teaching assistants
Teachers' lack of SEN knowledge Could help teachers to better utilise TAs  
Teacher's temperament might not be suited to a supporting role TAs could help lead training for teachers  
  Could address a perceived inbalance in status  
  Skills for enabling learning  

Effective support and meaningful CPD

The next step was to discuss findings with the SLT and at this meeting we decided on some principles that were integral to benefiting students but also providing staff with a genuine CPD opportunity.

  • Staff must have some agency and choice as to whether they would participate in this project.
  • We must explain the context as clearly as possible.
  • We needed to support the practical learning with some discrete workshops.

Subsequently, the assistant headteacher for teaching and learning and I designed an action plan that would encapsulate these principles. We used a model for leading complex change which includes five areas of change to consider: the vision, the skills, incentive, resources and action plan (Knoster, 1991).

  • We communicated the vision and context of the plan directly to colleagues, emphasising the positives from the interview data and build on the existing CPD framework.
  • We scheduled specific SEN skills training through discrete sessions as part of the ‘learning support partnerships’ pathway. Teachers could opt for ‘learning support partnerships’ as one of two CPD options.
  • We attempted to accommodate preferences relating to support in specific subjects or areas of need.

Our action plan

  1. Communicate vision and the CPD options to staff.
  2. Allow for opt-in time: the core change group informally encourages buy-in.
  3. Meet with the learning support partnerships group, identify their incentives and the gaps in their knowledge. Consult with TAs and organise discrete training.
  4. Use incentives and preferences to design a timetable.
  5. Monitor and evaluate change using the success criteria.

The programme in practice

60 teachers opted into the learning support partnerships programme, and each was given the opportunity to state a preference for working in a particular subject area or a particular area of need, such as dyslexia or autism spectrum disorder.

Taking these preferences into consideration, we then matched them with a student in a weekly lesson. We held an introductory training session and shared recommendations from MITA on effective support and combined this with data from internal student and TA interviews.

After this, we formulated a bespoke programme of workshops to be offered once a term. Some of these sessions were led by myself or external experts but many were led by the teaching assistants.

The topics covered included:

  • supporting autism in the classroom
  • supporting reading and writing
  • supporting numeracy
  • supporting dyslexia
  • supporting students with emotional difficulties.

We included the opportunity for a ‘triage’ at the end of each session for teachers to discuss individual questions about their matched student.

Outcomes and next steps

To evaluate the success of the programme, we used students’ progress data, examples of learning outcomes, and any feedback from students, teachers and TAs. Our GCSE results demonstrated improved progress data after two years running the programme.

At the end of the first year of the CPD programme, our teachers reported feeling more confident in understanding different types of special educational need. It bolstered their confidence in working more directly with SEND students in the classroom and using TAs with other groups of students. They enjoyed the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues in the classroom: some partnerships began team teaching regularly, taking it in turns to work with SEND students in the classroom.

Our TAs found the programme challenging, a useful opportunity to be the experts. They reported being encouraged to participate in higher quality conversations on planning with those teachers who had taken on the support role. They found it useful to explore the MITA research with teachers, and work with different groups of students.

Our students reported that it was helpful to have the support teacher also teaching them in another lesson. They were able to identify some specific outcomes in particular lessons.


Not every school will have a weekly CPD hour, but there are some elements of our programme that could be adapted to suit your context.

  • You should always begin by reviewing how the school’s SEND policy is put into practice.
  • When organising the training, you should encourage your TAs or SEN teachers to become experts, and lead workshops of their own.
  • At least once per term, your teachers should have the opportunity to support a matched student in a lesson.
  • Finally, you should review the roles of teacher and teaching assistant in your classroom and decide how you can improve them.

Context is king, but any refreshing of SEND CPD for teachers will be underpinned by similar aspirations. Namely, that the CPD must be bespoke to the school and focused on meeting the needs of the specific cohort (and adapted accordingly if needs change). It must also motivate staff and be of practical use to them.


Bubb, S., ‘Helping staff develop in schools’, Sage Publications (2010)

Cowne, E., ‘Developing Inclusive Practice: The SENCO’s Role in Managing Change’, David Fulton Publishers (2003)

Cowne, E., Frankl, C., & Gerschel, L., ‘The SENCo Handbook’, Taylor and Francis (2015)

Ekins, A., ‘The changing face of special educational needs’, Routledge (2011)

Knoster, T., ‘Factors in managing complex change’, Material presentation at TASH conference, Washington D.C. (1991)

Last Updated: 
13 Nov 2018