Supply teaching: The SEND challenge

Written by: Garry Freeman | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

​SecEd’s supply teaching series continues. Garry Freeman offers advice on how supply teachers should manage the unique challenges they face with inclusion and the teaching of SEN children

Once upon a time there was a supply teacher. He went to three different schools in four days – in different towns and cities.

All were good schools on so many levels, each with students who had a wide range of SEN either in mixed-ability settings or grouped by ability.

In each school, he was greeted by the cover-coordinator and given a list of the classes he would be covering for that day, together with the obligatory basic information on the whereabouts of the staffroom, toilets and so on.

What he noticed was that in none of the schools was he given any information at all about the people he would be mostly working with – the students themselves. None of the students. Not even the neediest.

So what could and should you expect from a school as a supply teacher?

Preparation for your role in school, whether for just a day or a medium to longer term supply cover, needs to include a comprehensive list of things – not just where the staffroom is or what you could do at break/lunch time. This is particularly and acutely so in the case of the most needy, and possibly also the most disadvantaged young people with whom you will be working.

What we also need to remember of course is the issue of time: many supply colleagues will arrive at school in good time to read the materials they are given and to begin to grasp the wider issues around the school as well as any individual students.

For various reasons, however, some colleagues will not be able to do this and so you, as a supply teacher, will need if at all possible to find some time during the day to acquire some preparatory understanding of your classes.

If time really is short, try to make yourself known to leaders/key staff in the department(s) in which you are working. From a teaching and learning perspective, they are undoubtedly the experts on the students you will be taking.

If you are in a longer term supply post, take every opportunity to develop your understanding and knowledge of your students. You could see this as a personal development opportunity to gain a more detailed and practical understanding of particular kinds of SEND.

So what is it reasonable to expect?

  • A clear list of your classes, the rooms they will be in, and a map of the school.
  • Clear unambiguous information for each lesson about the staff you could call on if you have any in-lesson queries or issues. Remember that the most common of these will probably be to find resources and materials.
  • Names and possibly photos and the location of key staff from your perspective as a supply teacher: cover coordinator/HR officer, heads of relevant departments, the SENCO, any behaviour support staff, heads of key stages, for example.
  • Clear information on how to ask for help or support if the need arises and the options for whom to ask.
  • At least a summary of any code of conduct and details of any reasonable adjustments the school makes to meet the needs of its SEND students.
  • Clear information on the various needs of your students.

This last point can be the deal-breaker for so many supply colleagues and schools – where information is lacking or of poor quality it can be the cause of anxiety, stress and worry not only for colleagues on supply but also for the students themselves. In worst cases, it can be the direct cause of “fight or flight” reactions from the very students who need our support the most.

So, what is the “clear information” we need and what form could it reasonable take?

SEND information in schools

Every school will have its own version of a “register” of those students who have SEND. The best schools will have registers which contain information not only on the relevant SEND of each individual but also on strategies to use with that young person in the classroom.

Many schools will now include photos of the young people with the most complex needs as part of the bespoke information pack they can offer supply colleagues. Look for information packs which can tell you:

  • What works for certain students: for example, in terms of teaching and learning approaches, style of communication, language and presentation of work. Does a particular student have a time-out pass or is there a support mechanism available to them during lessons?
  • What doesn’t work for them in these areas.
  • Will there be any additional adult support available in any of your classes and is this “whole-class” support or more targeted on specific individuals?
  • Generic advice and guidance on a wide range of SEND and what these can mean in respect of a young person’s learning and communication.

In particular, look for – and ask for if it does not appear to be made available – at least a summary of provision and outcomes for any of your students who have a Statement of SEN or an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP). These are legal documents and, once agreed at a young person’s annual review, should be made available in a useful, purposeful format for everyone who teaches or works with the young person in question. It is, after all, their EHCP.

Additional adult support in your class

In terms of additional adult support, let’s always remember that where a lesson is covered by a supply teacher, the additional adult (teaching assistant/learning support assistant/volunteer) can be the difference between a really successful, positive experience for everyone, and a lesson where things go wrong, leaving teacher and students with negative emotions.

On most occasions, as a regular supporting member of staff, the additional adult will have background knowledge and experience of the SEND students (on other students too for that matter) which can be invaluable to the supply teacher.

Deploy them wisely in your classroom: ask them for tips about individual and groups of students, find out what’s worked for the class and anything they may have struggled with recently.

SEND documents which can help

Look for the latest copy of the school’s SEN Information Report (the SIR), whether online or as a hard copy. Of course, if you have time before beginning a placement, the SEN Information Report and the school’s SEND Policy are documents which you can find and become acquainted with.

Of these two documents, the SEN Information Report is by far the most important and the most pertinent when it comes to working in a classroom with young people who have SEND. Almost all settings have an SEND Policy but there is no obligation to have one.

The SEN Information Report, however, is a mandatory requirement under section 6.79 of the 2015 SEND Code of Practice. It should contain detailed information on the range of SEND issues at the school, how they are identified and provided for, and how school staff are trained to meet SEND needs.

The school’s SIR is a working document: it should be telling the story of provision at the school, it should take student and parent/carer voice into account. Its format, how it is written and how far it is reader-friendly, should tell you a great deal about the school and how the community values its SEND learners. All teachers are teachers of SEND and the SIR must reflect this.

My advice is to always, wherever and whenever possible, check out the Information Report because it will give you a flavour of how the school addresses and provides for the increasingly complex issue of special needs and disability as a community of learners. It can and should also guide what your approach should be when working with learners who have SEND.

Remember also to check out the fuller versions of policies on behaviour or conduct and how the school meets the needs of disadvantaged students as well as how they are closing the gap for various groups.

In summary

When working as a supply teacher in a school, there are those things that the school should be doing to support you in your role.

Equally, there are things you can do to help your own understanding and experience of working with young people who have a range of potentially complex needs.

Identify as soon as possible those key staff in a school and, where you aren’t sure of something, ask – ask students as well as staff. It’s a way of building relationships no matter how short a period of time you may need them.

Supply work can be immensely satisfying and rewarding: let’s work together and with our students to make it just that for everyone.

Oh, and that supply teacher was me!

  • Garry Freeman is director of inclusion and SENCO at Guiseley School in Leeds. Find him @GS_gfreeman. You can read Garry’s previous SEND and inclusion best practice articles for SecEd via


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