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27 Jul 2023

How to move from mainstream teaching to Special Educational Needs

A teacher's perspective

In this article, I'll be talking about my experiences and how, in my late 30s, I took the leap out of the private sector and retrained as a teacher, before moving into a Special Educational Needs setting. I'll also be providing you with my tips and advice as well as some great Pinterest finds that you might like.


Early in 2011, after spending 10 years working as a motion graphics artist and animator for a small media production company, I felt that I needed a new challenge in life. After speaking with some teacher friends, I started doing some research into teacher training. Having not achieved the required C or above grade at either GCSE English or Maths in my teens, I knew I had to not only retake both exams but also get myself a degree to even attempt Initial Teacher Training (ITT)! So, I started my long and perilous journey towards teaching, filled with what felt like many-a-potential pitfall along the way! From organising and being accepted for finance, finding a degree course, getting accepted on said degree course, as well as starting courses in and passing GCSE English and Maths, the whole cunning plan could fall apart if any one thing didn't work out. And then there were the English and Maths skills tests, separate from the GCSEs!



If you are on your journey into teaching you will need to consider the mental health of both yourself and your students.

Fast-forward to September 2013 and having completed a 1-year top-up degree in Animation Production, pulled out a B and a C grade for GCSE English and Maths, passed the skills tests and got through the interview process, I finally started a full-time PGCE in Design Technology. When I began this process, I thought that primary was the phase for me. But after speaking with various teacher training experts, attending Get into Teaching events and generally wading through the plethora of advice and information, it seemed like secondary might give me more options. During my PGCE, I had the opportunity to work in an SEND school in South East London. These were some of the most enjoyable days throughout the entire course and really opened my eyes to an area of teaching that I previously knew nothing about.

After completing my teacher training and landing my first teaching position, I went on to pass my NQT year (now the ECT, or Early Career Teacher) in an all-boys, secondary comprehensive, as a Teacher of Design Technology and GCSE Media Studies. I'll be honest, while training, I didn't really feel that secondary was quite for me, but I worked my socks off and got through the year in a tough school. During this year I came across a role for a Creative Media Teacher at an SEND school. My family and I had recently moved out of London, into East Sussex and the advertised job was not far away. The criteria even asked for skills I had gained when working with the media production company a couple of years before, so it seemed perfect! I applied for the role, made a visit to see the school and got an interview! Now, aside from the two-day PGCE experience and some research I'd done, I knew very little about the reality of working in an SEND school. I prepped my lesson and observation plan meticulously, just as I'd been trained! I arrived on the day and met with the Headteacher, before making our way to the KS3 class that I would be teaching. Three girls, all with varying needs ranging from autism to behavioural challenges awaited!

Within about 2 minutes, my well-thought-out, masterfully planned lesson went right out the window, as one student immediately asked me if they could listen to music. When the answer was not an instant "absolutely, fine with me", she stormed out of the room, never to return... By never to return, I mean to my lesson, the student didn't run away! So, with one student out and another absent that day, I started my one-to-one session with a student who was less than impressed to do anything computer or media-related. The remainder of the lesson went well though and with support, the student completed the tasks I'd set.


Following the lesson was the interview! Now, interviews aren't always the most fun things to do and being relatively new to teaching anyway, coupled with having very little practical experience of working with special needs students, I was really anxious to get in and out to the safety of my car! But, as the interview developed, it became clear that I actually had a tonne of relevant skills. Not just from my pre-teaching design background, but from having my own children and working in mainstream (albeit for just a year). With this as a confidence booster, I was able to relax a bit and the conversation became much more chatty, allowing for myself and the interviewing Headteacher to start throwing ideas about how we could develop the role and the whole thing became very exciting. With the interview over, the feeling of wanting the job turned into a need to get this job! The next couple of weeks seemed to drag on forever, as the school seemed to be taking their time on making a decision… Good sign or bad? I thought. Finally, one Friday afternoon, as I drove along the M25 on my way home from another long school week, a call came through. The hands-free kicked in and I got the news that I was being offered the job. To say I was pleased was an understatement! The sense of relief that I'd be leaving a role that I felt wasn't right for me and starting a completely new role, where I had flexibility to develop the media and computing curriculum was incredible!

So, that's a brief summary of my route into SEND, and I found the transition from mainstream really refreshing! It definitely takes a different and very open mindset, but the rewards of working with kids and young adults in a special needs setting really is special!


If SEND is an area that you've thought about moving into, I can highly recommend it! In a similar manner to mainstream, I found visiting a school before an interview, (or even sending the application) is a great first step. It not only shows you're keen, but you get a bit of a heads-up on what the school is like. It's also a cunning way of standing out if you do apply for a role! And, really importantly, even if you feel that you may not have enough experience, still look into it. Apart from the two days during my PGCE, I had none, but showed I was really interested and then very enthusiastic at the interview. Bottom line… SEND schools need staff, so give it a go!



PSHE, British Values, SLT, P4C, VfS, Protected Characteristics, Personal Development, SRE... the list of specialist vocabulary in education is vast and if you're new to the classroom it can be very easy to be overwhelmed. Let us help you cross Protected Characteristics off that list!

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So, let's break it down ... 

  • Research Special Educational Needs (SEN) and understand the challenges and rewards of teaching in this setting.<
  • Reflect on your motivation and passion for working with children and young adults with special needs.
  • Check if you meet the required qualifications for becoming a teacher and obtain any necessary qualifications.
  • Explore Initial Teacher Training (ITT) programs that focus on SEN and inclusion.
  • Attend "Get into Teaching" events to learn more about teacher training and opportunities in SEN.
  • Consider whether you prefer teaching in primary or secondary education based on your comfort and skills.
  • Gain practical experience by working or volunteering in an SEN school during your teacher training.
  • Tailor your application for an SEN teaching role, emphasising relevant experiences and genuine interest.
  • Visit SEN schools to get a sense of the environment and demonstrate your interest during the application process.
  • Be confident in your transferable skills, show enthusiasm, and be open-minded during interviews, emphasising your passion for working with special needs students.


After working as a teacher at Secondary level, Chris moved into SEN, teaching Creative Media Production and Computing before joining VotesforSchools in 2021. He has a background in the Media industry where he worked as a motion graphics designer and animator.


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