MARIE SMITH is a special educational needs and disability consultant. She supports children and families, and early years and teaching professionals, across the West Midlands.
‘I’ve loved all my past teaching roles and I’m passionate about child development and working with children with special educational needs (SEN). I decided to become a consultant because I was missing the ability to be really involved with families and children and use my specialist skills.
‘I’m currently working on a mix of projects. I’m doing consultancy work in nursery and Reception schools for individual children with special needs. I run a home-teach session each week. I’ve written training packages on autism and child development of children with SEN for a training company. And I’ve started delivering training for a teaching school on autism, SEN and the autism code of practice.
‘In the past I’ve also worked for local authorities; for example, providing Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCO) cover for a school when it was recruiting.
‘The work in the nursery and Reception school is typical of what I do. A setting will often invite me in because they have a child with complex needs who maybe hasn’t settled well. They wanted to know how to better support them.
‘I do an initial observation and make suggestions. I can also help set up support systems. This is something I really enjoy, as in my old roles I could offer advice, but because I had a massive caseload, I was rarely able to stay on site and help put strategies in place. At the nursery I’ve helped them set up their timeline, work system, and modelled working with the child, such as what language and activities to use. I usually return after a fortnight to see how things are getting on. I do three or four sessions with a child, but it depends on their needs.
‘I also help nurseries and Receptions prepare to receive a child with SEN. Good-quality transitions are of great importance. Unfortunately, because sometimes the media portrays children with autism as having massive difficulties, settings can be nervous about an autistic child. Similarly, the paperwork can be intimidating. One challenge in my job is to reassure everybody and help prepare.
‘Home-teach sessions are something I was not expecting to do as a consultant. A few parents contacted me directly because they were concerned about their child’s development. They’d had initial conversations with a SENCO and were looking for more information. Often in these cases, I explain how the SEN code of practice works over the phone, what they should expect, and we leave it at that. But some families asked me to meet them.
‘Some of those requests have turned into weekly one-to-one tutoring. I meet the child, do an assessment and set a timescale for our work together. Three months is a typical length for such projects. After visits, to homes or settings, I write up my findings and email back my observations and strategies.
‘I often deliver training at evenings and weekends. “Twilight” sessions at the end of a working day are common – 3.45-5pm for a school or 6.30-7.30pm at a nursery. You have to be flexible in this role.
‘When I’m not out and about, I work at home managing my diary, marketing my business and keeping up with the latest developments in the sector. I do this by reading books, following relevant people on social media and attending training courses and conferences, such as the Autism West Midlands conference.
‘This job requires independent working, good-quality observation skills, and the ability to fit into new teams quickly. You must also be good at relationship-building. Often people think you can fix the problem simply. But it doesn’t work that way. As a consultant you have to convince people to trust what you’re suggesting and work with you. That’s a bit of a leap of faith.’
1998-2001: Class and SEN teacher, Walsall Millfield Primary School, West Midlands
2001-2004: Class teacher and SENCO, Walsall Holy Trinity Primary School
2004-2011: Lead and autism-responsibility teacher, Walsall
Early Years local authority SEN team
2011-2013: Teacher in charge of Primary Autism Base, Dudley Gig Mill Primary School
2013-2015: Assistant head teacher: inclusion,
Birmingham Wylde Green
2015-present: Independent autism/SEND consultant
Post-Graduate Certificate in Autism (children), University ofBirmingham, 2012
PGCE (Primary), University of Wolverhampton, 1998
BSc in Psychology and Social Studies, Aston University, 2007
There are no specific qualifications available for SEND or autism consultants. You will need to have SEND qualifications and plenty of experience. However, a ‘professional consulting skills in early years’ qualification is available from National Early Years Trainers and Consultants (NEyTCO), as well as other consultancy-level training.
• National Autistic Society, www.autism.org.uk
• Ambitious About Autism, www.ambitiousaboutautism.org.uk/training-and-consultancy