SEN and action research

Written by: HTU | Published:

It takes a special kind of insight to meet some pupils’ unique and complex needs. Sarah Fleming reports on one school that has boosted their expertise through action research.

Children with SEN require a special approach – obvious maybe, but the subtle complexities of each child’s needs are often far from it, which means those practitioners working with them in dedicated schools may need to think a little bit more outside the proverbial box than their mainstream counterparts.

For Danecourt School in Kent, pictured, this has meant using teacher-led enquiry to drive a constant flow of changes and improvements to cater for the full range of learning difficulties of its 150 pupils. All full-time pupils at Danecourt have a statement of SEN with learning difficulties that cannot be met by resources within a mainstream school and its teacher-led enquiry approach last year helped the school towards an outstanding Ofsted report.

An enquiring, learning community

Danecourt’s interest in school-led research began in 2005 when they engaged with representatives from the Teacher Learning Academy. Eight years later and the school is still using the principles of action research to implement class-based learning activities to meet the very specific needs of its pupils.

The standard bearer for Danecourt’s “research enquiring/learning community supporting educational development” ethos is deputy headteacher, Deanne Daburn. 

She explained: “It’s about using a combination of the desire from teachers (and)their interests and strengths to really make a difference to pupils’ lives. All our research is born out of specific pupil needs.”

Ms Daburn’s personal interest in research has had a strong impact on the culture of the school. Positively encouraging staff to run research projects and then share the findings with others, she has created an open learning environment where staff are continuously looking for new teaching methods, all designed around particular pupil needs.

Both Ms Daburn and headteacher John Somers encourage staff to do their own enquiries, which form part of their performance management and appraisal. They aim to have every member of the teaching staff doing a class-based research project within a two to three-year cycle, and although a few have been reluctant to engage with the idea, for many it has had a significant effect on their professional development.

Research projects over the years have included “Implementation of phonics activities to challenge the more able pupils in class” and “Increased knowledge and understanding of the importance of sensory development in order to effectively deliver a sensory play and communication course”. 

One member of staff implemented a “Drawing and Talking” therapeutic programme for a small number of pupils which had a huge impact on pupils’ self-esteem, enabling one pupil to access some mainstream education. An initial project on “Yoga for the Special Child” developed into a “movement programme” in the school to support pupils’ core strengths and motor development. 

Danecourt is now part of an eight-school sub-group of the Medway Teaching Schools Alliance looking at what, as an alliance, they can add to and how they can benefit from collaborative research. Ms Daburn’s contribution was to look back and summarise all the research completed at Danecourt and apply for the NFER Research Mark – so the quality of that research could be recognised.

Empowering staff, enabling pupils

With a new cohort of pupils every year, each with their own unique requirements, it is important that the teaching staff at Danecourt can expand their knowledge of a growing range of special needs. Indeed, the CPD focus has helped get new recruits, who have moved over from mainstream education, trained up quickly. 

Ms Daburn continued: “John and I trust our staff to keep the focus on the needs of the pupils, rather than national agendas dictating what we do, and this means empowering our teachers.

 “We tailor the national curriculum on a daily basis to suit the needs of the pupils. What’s the point in teaching some children about the Tudors when they find it difficult to remember what they did yesterday? We need to explore, through research, what is best for our pupils and pitch the curriculum to their level.”

Ms Daburn recognises that the school is stronger in some areas than others, and as its research engagement has developed over the past eight years, Danecourt has been able to embed more enquiry into everyday practice. Having its own outreach and training centre, Rainbow Court, has given the school a route to share knowledge with other teachers and parents. 

Ms Daburn added: “At our school, completing a research project has not been an end point, but the beginning of teachers wanting to do more research. We want to be one of the first schools to get the NFER Research Mark so we can help and inspire others.”

  • Sarah Fleming is media and communications executive with the NFER.

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