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Conference Round-up: Special Schools, Specialist and Alternative Provision Conference 2017

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Everyday issues that affect SEND professionals were on a packed agenda at the new format Special Schools, Specialist and Alternative Provision Conference in Birmingham on 9 and 10 March 2017.

From recent developments in neuroscience, to the Rochford Review, and the National Funding Formula for Schools and High Needs – current SEND subjects were covered in detail by leading experts in the field. Over 160 delegates attended the (optional) evening and one day event, to listen to eminent and respected speakers, including Russell Hobby, Will Ord, Dr Rona Tutt OBE, Professor Barry Carpenter OBE, Diane Rochford, Gareth Morewood, and Leslie Cox.

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This annual NAHT-organised conference was attended by school leaders, school business managers, children’s centre leaders and SENCos from all schools – whether academy, special, mainstream, residential, PRU or alternative provision in early years, primary or secondary.

“For people who come along it’s a very helpful reminder that they are not alone. It is confirmation for them that the concerns faced around the country are not dissimilar,” says Paul Williams (pictured left), Chair of the SEND Council at NAHT, a member of the NAHT National Executive and Chair of the conference working group. The central theme this year of ‘Creating Stability in Changing Times’ was a particularly pertinent one says Williams. For most SEND professionals, stability is difficult to achieve when there are unanswered questions around SEND assessment and high needs funding, he acknowledges.

“There are also unknowns and therefore instability around the neurological reasons why children have difficulties. We hope delegates will have left the conference feeling fully-briefed in key areas of concern, energised and better prepared for the future, able to return to school with the knowledge to build on current best practices. ”

Furthering the pedagogy of complex needs

On the evening of Thursday 9 March, early arrivals enjoyed a panel discussion, a networking dinner and an uplifting Russell Hobby speech which celebrated the challenges and rewards of working in the SEND sphere.

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The main conference was kicked off on Friday 10 March by Paul Williams, who introduced Kim Johnson, NAHT National President for 2016/17, and Principal of Bradfields Specialist SEN Academy in Medway Towns. As a highly vocal advocate for equality of opportunity for those with disabilities, Kim spoke passionately about the importance of “leading the way for all” and ensuring that SEND takes its rightful place at forefront of educational business. As well as outlining recent developments in SEND policy and research, he congratulated the wider community of SEND professionals on their dedication and achievements. 

“We are at the heart of raising aspirations for the most vulnerable young people, by furthering the pedagogy of complex needs.” He reminded the packed auditorium that although undoubtedly tough, “this job can be a joy, and we are making a difference. We must talk the profession up and keep raising the profile of SEN”. 

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Next to the stage, keynote speaker Will Ord, a highly regarded educational consultant, explored the benefits of introducing a framework for growth mindsets in schools, encouraging children to think more widely about what they can be good at, developing their resilience and independence.

“Small, quality steps can make a big difference to the way children learn. It’s about working smarter to get results,” says Will. “For school leaders and their teams it’s important to acknowledge the difference between ‘schooling’ and ‘educating’. The former is about ticking boxes and working through the curriculum, the latter is about developing the person, motivating them, engaging them and helping them develop as an individual who is open to learning.”

Will shared his views on the latest research into mindfulness and “the process of being, rather than thinking and doing”, sharing useful ‘take-away’ tips on how to try new ideas, take risks in the classroom, ask for feedback and achieve results.

In another fascinating presentation, Professor Barry Carpenter  OBE outlined the latest thinking on ‘Engaging Learners with Complex Needs; From Neurons to Neighbourhoods’, sharing his extensive knowledge on “child centred, creative and responsive teaching”. His core message was that for a new generation of children with complex needs “a new generation pedagogy” is urgently required. Insights from neuroscience can shape how this this can be put into action, while at the core of SEN teaching there should be a focus on “personalising teaching to meet each individual’s unique needs”.

For Carpenter engagement with the individual is the vital starting point. “Once you offer your engagement you can teach,” he said.

Although recognising the limitations of funding shortages and uncertainty around assessment of SEND students in the system, Barry struck a chord with attendees with heartening messages and encouragement about how vital and powerful the work of SEND professionals can be.

He also referenced The Big Shout – Girls on the Autism Spectrum Conference which took place in central London on 27 January 2017. The outcome of this hugely successful NAHT event was a comprehensive Call for Action, which can be found here. This gives the The National Forum for Neuroscience and Special Education (NFNSE) a framework for taking the issue of girls on the autism spectrum forward, said Barry. 

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Specially commissioned workshops – empowering SEND professionals

Every one of the workshops held during the day was busy, with delegates keen to learn from the experts. At her workshop on the Rochford Review, Diane Rochford (pictured right) was joined by Richard Coneron, STA Policy Advisor from the DfE, and attendees were able to feed back their views on the Rochford recommendations, and hear the latest on the consultation process that will shape future policy in this important area. The purpose of the Review was to advise the Minister of State for Schools on solutions for assessing the abilities of pupils who don't meet the standards required to take the national curriculum tests.

Lesley Cox HMI, Ofsted National Lead for Disability and Special Educational Needs, held an equally popular workshop on ‘How Ofsted evaluates SEND provision in Schools’. In feedback many delegates said this gave them incredibly useful insights into how to be Ofsted-ready. Delegates were able to ask questions and improve their understanding of local area inspections, making evidence available and the common inspection framework.

In other workshops Larraine Cooper shared her far-reaching financial expertise on ‘Securing stability through the introduction of the National Funding Formula for Schools and High Needs’, while Gareth Morewood motivated and encouraged on the theme of ‘The SENCo as a Manager and Leader’. Gareth, who is Director of Curriculum Support (SENCo) and Specialist Leader of Education at Priestnall School, and Research Fellow in Education at University of Manchester, delivered energetic presentations that offered clear strategies and practical techniques for ensuring high quality outcomes for children with SEND. He provided a useful focus on working with families to offer the right kinds of support for the most effective outcomes – all of which attendees found invaluable, according to feedback.

On the legal side, there was a great deal of interest in Judge Jane McConnell’s session: ‘Coming to the Tribunal: Naming a school in an EHC Plan’. With many school leaders facing the prospect of SEND Tribunal cases, delegates welcomed the detailed explanations Judge Jane provided on what judges expect from parents, schools and local authorities at these hearings, and very usefully how to prepare for a Tribunal.  Judge Jane also gave insights into the impact of SEND Reforms on the Tribunal’s work.  

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Dr Rona Tutt closed the conference in her inimitable style, bringing peals of laughter to the auditorium at the end of the day with her eclectic slide presentation, but also taking a serious look at the work of SEND professionals who have chosen to help young people who struggle at school. She looked back at past teaching techniques but also ahead, returning to the conference theme of the need to work towards stability. “With funding issues to address and increasing numbers of children coming through with complex needs such as dual or even more than dual diagnoses, we really need to be prepared, and build effective practices,” she said. Rona explored structural changes that have taken place in SEND, developments in the field of mental health and SEND, the place of girls on the autism spectrum, and the growing number of children being identified with co-existing conditions.

She ended by sharing a poignant quote from cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.”

Read Rona's detailed review of the event in her blog here.


The Special Schools, Specialist and Alternative Provision Conference took place on Thursday 9 and Friday 10 March 2017 at The Birmingham Conference and Events Centre.

We’d like to thank our conference sponsor Axcis, the SEND recruitment specialists, and the silver sponsor B Squared, who helped make the conference possible. An interesting mix of exhibitors including Rhino UK, OnwardsandUpwards.com, Cambridge House publishing, Schoolzine and the children's bowel and bladder charity ERIC UK, were also present at the event, introducing delegates to a variety of products and services specifically designed for the SEND teaching profession.


Diary date: The next Special Schools, Specialist and Alternative Provision Conference will take place on 9 March 2018.
Page Published: 13/03/2017