BLOG: Special schools need special people

At the end of April, NASS will be launching its Manifesto for Special Schools which will set out the six key asks for the next government to action during their first 100 days of government to remove barriers to a better SEND system.

In this week’s blog, NASS CEO Claire Dorer talks about how one of these key actions is an urgent workforce strategy and plan for all SEND professionals.


Recently I have written about the need for a strategic review of special schools and have asked how we get the ‘special’ out of special schools to a wider audience. Today, I am going to focus on what makes special schools ‘special’ – the passionate, skilled and experienced people who work in them. When the supply of those people drops, the ability of special schools to deliver excellent services is threatened.

Difficulties in recruiting and retaining staff are not new to special schools. Way back in 2008, NASS ran a project on Succession Management in special schools in response to struggles recruiting head teachers to special school roles. At that point, 50% of vacancies for special school head teacher roles could not be filled at the first attempt. In recent years, we have seen those difficulties extend to a much wider range of roles in special schools in schools – particularly maths teachers – and social care provision.

For residential schools, there are longstanding difficulties in recruiting new staff to roles which are socially and historically undervalued and low paid, and work which is challenging and requires skilled and emotionally intelligent people. A valuable route to employment via Europe was made more difficult with Brexit and the pandemic prompted many people to seek a change of career, in search of a quieter life. This leaves most schools reliant to some extent on agency staff. Agency staff play a vital role but when they account for a significant percentage of your workforce, your service is vulnerable. This was highlighted by the National Safeguarding Panel, who highlighted it as a factor in the abuse of children at homes belonging to the former Hesley Group.

We welcome the work of the The Children's Homes Association (The CHA) in raising the profile of children’s residential care work with their new campaign IN CARE. However, both of our organisations have long campaigned for more from central Government to help address the national structural barriers to addressing the root issues of low pay and low social valuing of care work.

In the past 12 months, we have seen social care and SEND policy publications which suggest that workforce is a core issue. Unfortunately, both ‘Stable Homes’ and the SEND Change Programme are limited in their focus and ambitions. Stable Homes focuses almost exclusively on social workers and the Change Programme has, to date, limited itself to the training of educational psychologists and plans for training for mainstream education staff. Both policies are silent on the state of the specialist workforce, despite its core role in both service provision and the education of other professionals.

This is why the NASS Manifesto calls for a workforce strategy, which covers all special school roles, as a matter of urgency. We have been pleased to add our voice to a wide coalition of organisations, ‘Send in the Specialists’, hosted by the Royal College Of Speech and Language Therapists. They have highlighted the challenges we face in training, recruiting and retaining therapists to work in SEND settings. Within NASS, we have networks of health staff who have made the bold decision to leave the certainty of NHS pay bands and pensions to work within special schools. Their expertise brings a fresh perspective to schools but the transition from health to education is not always an easy one and they often find themselves uncomfortably straddling the health-based worlds of their professional associations and school settings. It’s not a surprise that people willing to do this are hard to find!

So, what would we like to see?

For some roles, there’s no escaping the need for more funding. If we value care work as it should be valued, it will cost more and schools are currently highly constrained in their ability to raise fees to cover costs due to local authority funding deficits. However, it’s not all just about money. Teaching has a well-developed career pathway that we need to see replicated in other roles in social care and therapies. We need to better understand and develop the role of therapists in education as distinct from health and support it accordingly. Training, at all points of a career, helps build skills and knowledge but it is not a panacea for all that currently ails the SEND workforce. The Speech and Language Therapist apprenticeship is a great development but we need to see more upscaling and replicating in other therapies.

In special schools and education more widely, we have typically focused more on how we recruit new staff than on retaining those we already have. Consequently, a lot of our efforts to date have been in crafting the ‘perfect’ advert or holding open days to try to bring candidates to the school door. I think schools are now at the limits in what they can do individually to effect change via these methods – brilliant, creative strategies have not been able to effect the changes needed.

This year, NASS is giving more thought to staff retention and development – how we nurture and keep the staff we already have who are working well in roles. Later this year we will be launching a pilot programme with Supporting Achievement and Inclusion for Life (SAILs) to explore how special schools could use some of the tools and techniques used widely, and successfully, in other industries. Other industries talk of ‘talent management’ – not a phrase that currently trips off the tongue of most education leaders, but one which we may need to get familiar with! We will be thinking about taking a more nuanced and individualised approach to staff management to discover what attracts someone to a role within a special school and what they need to keep going and growing within the role. We will be looking at the role of psychometrics in better understanding the role of personality characteristics in special education. We know special school staff are ‘special’ but we don’t currently know how or what we need to do to keep them special.

We would love not to be doing this alone.

There’s such scope and need for Government to do far more in the SEND workforce arena and our call is to join us, schools and other providers in doing that. The status quo is not a viable option for special schools – we need action now to ensure that we keep special schools special.


The NASS Manifesto will launch at the end of April, setting out key actions for any incoming government to take to remove barriers to a better SEND system.

If you are interested in finding out more about our manifesto or would like to support our work to bring about positive change, please do get in touch –